Food Photography Notes: Plate to Pixel

I recently read Helene Dujardin’s book Plate to Pixel. I read it from cover to cover. It’s a food photographer’s bible. Helene is one of the most famous food photographers I know of, and I admire her work so much. It was her work that stood out to me time and time again, and made me think “I want to create beautiful images, just like her.”

While it was originally published about 7 years ago, before the boom of Instagram, super-HD phone cameras etc., it still holds a lot of value and relevance. There are three main takeaways that sum up this book:

1. Photograph with intent

Although it might not seem like it, there is an extreme level of thoughtfulness and preparation that goes into each final image. A piping hot bowl of soup with a wedge of thick crusty bread on the side might look simple enough, but there is so much going on behind the scenes to make it look natural and irresistable. Use all the tools at your disposal (lighting, composition, exposure settings, etc.) to make that happen. Before you start to photograph a dish, you should plan it out at much as possible.

This principle can apply more broadly, too. We should strive to do things with intent. Write a book, paint a picture, relax on the front porch. We are in control of our lives and we choose how to spend our time. It’s a reminder to be present and observant of our surroundings. Notice the small details. Capture that in our work.

2. Don’t make it look too pretty to eat, make me want to dig in

This isn’t a quote from Helene herself, but from one of her mentors. She recalls shooting with the more experienced photographer, who summarized the main goal of food photography quite simply: present food that the viewer will be excited to eat (or cook at home). Make the viewer think “Oh, I want to make that for dinner tonight!”

I think this is invaluable feedback for food photography. If it’s too pretty to eat, or too perfect, it’s less approachable. If your aim is for your readers to be inspired to try your recipe in their own kitchens, they need to feel like they can accomplish the dish without a ton of work or tweezers for plating.

3. Always aim to tell a story

Photography is a visual medium and a super powerful one at that. There are endless possibilities to approach a plated dish of food and so many elements you can adjust to create a mood for a piece. Create darker shadows and sharp contrast between light and dark to suggest curling up with a cozy bowl of hot soup on an overcast/stormy day. Use lots of light to produce an airy, playful atmosphere for a morning spent assembling egg salad sandwiches for an afternoon picnic.

The fact that you can use light in so many different ways to create so many moods is amazing, and it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Colors, textures, props, backgrounds, etc are the tools food photographers use to create a scene and tell a powerful story.

And that brings me to a final (bonus!) takeaway from this book, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately:

Create because you feel compelled to do so. Create from the heart, not for money. Not for fans, not for a following, not for sponsorships. People can see right through that crap. Do things or make things that will fill your creative void and make you satisfied once you’ve completed them.

Also, read Helene’s book! It’s great.

Food Photography Notes: Plate to Pixel