Anatomy of a Food Cover

Food photography can have many incarnations, and food photographers need to adjust their approach for each type.  There are food images for advertising, editorial, point of purchase, cookbooks, packaging, etc.  One type of food image is really several at the same time. I’m referring to the food image that will be used in a magazine cover.

Guide to Takeout

A cover shot needs to have elements of a point of purchase display.  It will (or won’t, as the case may be) sell the magazine.  It also is usually the preview of the feature article.  Generally the feature article will be a story that has some seasonal significance, or is of regional interest, or just timely.  These are considerations necessary to be woven into the cover image as well.  The image is often very strong graphically and must be carefully crafted to accommodate the magazine’s masthead, story leads, and even the bar code that every magazine has.

The magazine’s art director and editor or publisher almost always predetermines the cover image.  Many times a few similar images are put up for consideration for the issue, and layouts are made of each mock cover for committee review before a final one is chosen.  The photographer must consider all of these requirements and respond accordingly.

Because most magazines come out monthly, the speed and acuity that the art director and staff exhibit is amazing; and they must do it over and over again.  A photographer must be sensitive to these pressures and contribute to the energy.

We have been fortunate enough to contribute many Sacramento Magazine <> cover images and appreciate the gentile guidance of Sacramento Magazine’s art director, Debbie Hurst.  She’s always up beat, encouraging, appreciative and creative under often-stressful conditions.  Our assignments for Debbie are always a source of fun and mutual respect.



In this blog, I’m not discussing food photography or even equipment. This is about how and why we make images, and how to help you make them better. Commercial Photography has been, for me, a practical way of earning a living. At its best it is thrilling. At its worst it can be frustrating. It is many times a dance with the client, art director, stylist, and whoever has the opportunity to add to the stew of the final image. One must to be diplomatic and understand that these images have one objective: to attract sales. My initial attraction to photography, however, began many years ago with an obsession with making images for the gratification I derived from the art. For the sake of my sanity I believe it is necessary to return to my roots, and just go out with little more that a camera and “make pictures”.

When I have the rare opportunity, getting away energizes my commercial work and reminds me why I am doing this. Let me say that it isn’t necessary to go far. One should be able to find images anywhere. This time of year I find a particular calling. The rains are less frequent, the sun makes more of an appearance, and the early morning and late afternoon light can caress the land in warmth. In rural Northern California the new grasses cover beer cans and unsightly debris, and wild flowers start to display their colors. These are the signs of rebirth and a spiritual sense of continuum in a sometimes-unstable world.

The real trick is to stop thinking. I recently read an article by Gordon Hutchings “Seeing with the photographic mind”. He eloquently reminded me that many religious rituals are designed to exhaust the mind and body so that our spirituality can present itself. It’s not easy to disconnect from our hectic lives and immerse ourselves into a spirituality that is needed to achieve fine art images. Like going on vacation, sometimes the first three days are spent shedding the thoughts of obligations we’ve left at home. One day you see no images worth photographing; the next day you see them everywhere. So stop thinking. Climb a hill. Explore an old barn. Have yourself a good time.

Cheese Pull

Cheese Pull…
As a food photographer I’ve learned that photographing pizza is a challenge. Unless you’re doing an editorial shot for a magazine, shooting pizza for advertising or packaging is about as tricky as it gets. You’ll need the orchestrated talents of a good food stylist, a product development specialist, and a general assistant, not to mention a fully equipped kitchen/studio complete with pizza oven.

Constructing the pizza requires partially baking the fresh dough-sauce-cheese combination while separately sautéing the perfect pre-sliced toppings. This is necessary to keep all the toppings perky and distinct. The toppings must be pan sautéed individually and just short of cooked. The more toppings, the more juggling. And each type of toppings has it’s own required sautéing time. The partially baked pizza is pulled from the oven. The toppings must be quickly and artfully assembled to the exact customer requirements. Now is when the stylist can really shine with special alchemy and closely guarded secrets. The pizza is ready for the final bake off.

Add to all of this the requirement of a cheese pull and you have organized chaos with a race against time. Understand that all cheese is not alike. To get the cheese to pull in the first place you need to use whole milk fresh mozzarella. Cut the slice first in your baked and assembled pizza. Then reinstall it with small strips of mozzarella in the “vee”. It is used as an elastic binder. Pop the whole pizza into the microwave until the mozzarella is melted. It’s also helpful to use a spatula with tacks to hold on to the slice while it’s being pulled.

Of course the camera, well crafted lighting, and pizza set must all have preset positions prior to the pull attempt. I use the term “attempt” because the chances of getting it right the first time are remote. So have your crew continuing to make the perfect pizza over and over again. Not only are you racing with the pizza construction, but the cheese pull quickly congeals and looks old (like my test shot). These are the basics of pizza cheese pulls. Within the context of all of this technique, don’t lose sight of the aesthetics and principles of good photography. If you’re up for it, you’ll need lots of time, dedication, attention to detail, and a healthy dose of luck. What can’t be perfected in the real world can be aided with skilled use of Photoshop.

Food Photography and Valentines Day

Schwager Studios 2010 Valentines Day Photo for Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory

There are several metaphors that come to mind when I think of Valentines Day and Food Photography.  They may help you remember some important things to strive for.

PASSION… As with all meaningful pursuits you should do this with passion for the craft.  “This is not paint by number art”.

INTIMACY… Effective food images are usually extreme close-ups.  Think of the fork just before it enters your mouth.  Crop, then crop more.

WARMTH… Many food items benefit aesthetically from warmer hues.  Whether done in post production or by using warm light, try to amp up the warmth with certain food such as red meats and sauces or yellow vegetables.  Use good judgment and keep the whites neutral if possible.

SENSUALITY… The culinary arts community says “we eat first with our eyes”.  Through our eyes an effective food image should elicit aromas, tastes, and textures on the palate.  We are complex creatures whose senses often overlap.

SPIRITUALITY… For some time I’ve noticed a duality relative to photography.  The “techie” side of us wants to embrace, equipment, chemistry, tricks, and secret formulas, but there must be the presence of a spiritual connection to the subject.  We are creating a painting with light, shadow, textures, and color.  There is no magic formula nor are there boundaries.

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Rocky Mountain Chocolate FactoryWelcome to Schwager Studios! We are professional photographers specializing in food photography. This is our first blog so hang on tight as we get the hang of it. We will be posting interesting insight on our work, tips and tricks on food photography and samples of our latest work.

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