Hints and tricks for taking pictures
By Veronika Ederer
It is one thing to plan a cookbook, to be enthusiastic about your product, do research and cook, but the other thing is that a cookbook comes to life with good pictures. Personally, I’m not a fan of cookbooks which feature no pictures, since cooking and eating is very visual, and I want to see what I cook and eat. So when we planned the cookbook, we were positive that there will be pictures, at least with every second recipe. Well — we had so much fun we ended up taking a picture of every recipe.
After writing the first concept for the cookbook and planning the chapters according to the cultural areas, we started with the first recipes and also started our experiment with photography. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to take the pictures in a professional setting, such as a studio would provide, with headlights, with food stylist or a team of helpers around us. Besides, if people buy our cookbook and cook the recipes, their products should look similar to our picture. If you have too many differences between a dish made by a food stylist and the result on your plate, it may be disappointing.
My friend and colleague — a professional decorator — worked many years in a famous chocolate shop in Switzerland as a window decorator. She was familiar on how to make arrangements considering colors, shapes, angles and textures — the perfect person for our food design. She took the lead when we started a photo session, supported by ideas and comments of every one of us. But before we could start taking the pictures, we had to set up a number of plates, bowls, spoons, cloths, natural backgrounds and ethnographic objects for her to choose.
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We set a few rules for our book: The dishes should be decorated according to the cultural area they came from. So no Kachina doll with a Northwest Coast dish, even if it might have looked more stylish. It was my condition to have an ethnographic object in almost every picture — which caused a lot of jokes. We also wanted to arrange some of the ingredients necessary for the dish, which meant I bought more chiles, potatoes or herbs than we used for the recipe. Since I did most of the shopping and cooking on my expenses, there was no food that was wasted. We also wanted the food to be edible after we took the pictures, so we didn’t want to use lacquer to make the food shinier, to use artificial color or arrange the food to be more artistic than for eating. Finally, we wanted to have a new plate, a new bowl and a new background with every single recipe.
First, we combed our kitchen and cellar for dishes, then those of friends and neighbors, and finally, as the last source, we took our rules as an excuse to go shopping. We visited kitchen shops and flea markets, fair trade shops and furniture stores. There we bought cloth, napkins, salad bowls, big spoons, baking dishes and wooden boards. I remember sitting in the train back home after teaching at the university in Tübingen, Germany, having a marble slab in my luggage for an Inuit recipe, thinking about the shrinking space in the kitchen in my two-and-a-half-room apartment in Switzerland. Every once in awhile, I took a walk along the river close to my village and collected sand, stones, bark and wood. I brought home acorns, nuts, berries, flowers, leaves and moss — of course during the right season — it doesn’t make sense to head on out for strawberries in December. And lastly, I included my collection of Native American objects, which had grown with the years, from visits, shopping in the internet or presents I received.
Before meeting the others, I shopped, trying to get enough food for the recipe and the decoration. Since I’m in the fortunate position to have a safe and well-paid job, I only bought organic and mostly regional food. I also looked for the “perfect” onions, corn on the cob or mushrooms. For a Southeast recipe, I needed a fish that we would fill with grapes and oranges, so I asked the vendor in my supermarket for a “pretty” fish — you can imagine his surprise. Well, in spite of having enough money, there were some things I’ll probably never do again, like ordering an organic duck from the butcher of my little village. When I picked up the 3.5 kg duck, I was presented a bill of 175 Swiss Francs ($183.73) – for that kind of money, I hope the duck had a very happy life.
We decided to take the pictures on my 215 square-foot balcony in early afternoons, when the shade of the house allows us to have indirect lighting. Meeting half an hour before we would start, we took the time to arrange the objects and the background, finish decorating the dishes, select the plate, bowl or glass, and then we started. Those who were not taking pictures were busy shielding the table from the ever blowing wind in my village or holding the big parasol of my landlord’s when it started raining. Of course, there was no season where we would not meet — a real disadvantage for my friends since I usually never get cold. On a few occasions, like during a heavy downpour, we would have to take the pictures inside of my living room, with an extra table, curtains and a borrowed headlight. After a session like this, it took me at least two hours to make my apartment habitable again.
During the three and a half years, we became very creative in setting the stage. To give the impression of a rising background, we stuffed pillows underneath the cloth or blanket or ordered someone to hold the blanket. To prevent the green onion rings from sinking in the piñon soup before we were able to take a picture, we put a little glass bowl upside down in the soup and sprinkled the onion on top of it. To fix the upper part of a pumpkin on the side — the pumpkin itself was full of pumpkin soup — we used a toothpick. To keep round objects like potatoes or peppers from rolling from the table, we used little clay balls from my balcony plants. To mold the sand, corn flour or sugar in the background, we used my powder brush, which I’d never used before.
To have a good selection, we took 60 to 140 pictures of every dish, from every angle, close-ups, with less or more decoration. Usually, we started quite plain, slowly adding more and more objects to the recipe. Checking the pictures on my computer, we continued after having enough photos to choose from. After the last recipe of the day, we sat down to enjoy the food, usually three dishes. Obviously, we chose mostly those recipes which we liked — individual preferences given. Only five out of 87 recipes we had to do twice, sometimes because we changed the recipe, another time it was already too dark or no picture in the whole series was good enough to use.
We took our last picture in March, and now the manuscript is at the publisher. Working since August 2016 on the cookbook, I feel like wanting to become a recluse. I threw most of the dried leaves and twigs away, returned all the borrowed dishes, blankets and objects, and I put my powder brush back in my bathroom cabinet where it will “sleep” for the next years. When the book is published in fall, I will burn all the wood and bark in my fire bowl on my balcony for the big celebration. Meanwhile, I may have collected enough recipes for a cookbook sequel — who knows?
4 green onions
1 Tablespoon oil
1.5 cups broth (or water)
1/2 cup piñon nuts, shelled
1/2 cup cream
Cayenne pepper (optional)
Cut the green onions in small slices, leave some of the green slices for decoration. Heat the oil in a pot and stir until the onions are caramelized. Add broth or water and bring to a boil. Add the piñon nuts and continue cooking on high heat for about 30 minutes.
Let the soup cool down and put the soup in a blender. Add salt, pepper and, if you like, cayenne pepper and return to the pot and simmer for another five minutes. Before serving, sprinkle with green onions – but you know, they might sink.
The soup is very tasty, but also quite filling.