The Making of a Cookbook # 4 - Photography

Jamie Geller
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food photo shoot

So as I sit here and twiddle my fingers trying to guess what I should write about, what you want to know, what may be of interest, Tali was kind enough to post a question (you go Tali!  both for the Q and your gorgeous Kachol v' Lavan Cheesecakes!).

Question From Tali:
I’d love to hear more about the photo shoots…
Do they take place in your home?
Over how many days?
Do you have everything pre-cooked?
Are hot dishes photographed hot?
Is it your job to have extra ingredients around for styling?
Also, why is this the most expensive part — doesn’t the publisher pay for that?

Answer from Me:
Ok I am going to take this one by one and try as best I can to explain the cookbook picture process.

Do [the photo shoots] take place in your home?

Mine do not.  But EVERY cookbook is different.  There are authors who take their own pictures in which case the shoots most likely take place in their kitchens.  There are authors who are inherently great food stylists and only need a photographer.  In which case the shoots could take place in their homes to save the cost of renting a studio.  Or they bring everything to the photographer's studio which usually although not always includes a test kitchen.  Thirdly there is an option to hire both a photographer and stylist if that's not where your strengths lie.  In which case it usually takes place in a studio.  The last 3 photographers I worked with all had home studios which is a new trend I am seeing that helps them pass along cost savings to smaller clients.  There is a lot of flexibility here and it all depends on your strengths as a photographer and stylist, the photographer and/or team you choose to work with and your budget.

Over how many days?

With my first book Quick & Kosher Recipes From The Bride Who Knew Nothing (published in 2007 but went into production 2005) we shot 5 recipes a day.  But those really were the days, when time was a luxury, when budgets were higher and the economy was in a totally different place.  With my 2nd book Quick & Kosher Meals in Minutes (published and produced in 2010) we shot 10 recipes a day.  Which is what we do with the magazine. It's just come to be expected that the daily production output has had to double and you know what - it's not even overly stressful.  It's a schedule you have to be mindful of all day and you have to keep things moving but our shoots rarely exceeded 8-9 hours and really makes you wonder what we were all doing with our "free time" on the first book shoot.  The daily production is really important because photographers and food stylists and the like have a day rate -- so the goal is to squish as much as humanly possible into a 10 hour day - which is an expected norm for a production day.  So 10 shots/recipes a day times 200 images in a book equals 20 shoot days or about 3 weeks.  Most books have far fewer images so production can take anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks (or even more or less) based on how many photos you have.  And when I say 10 shots a day that implies 10 completely different recipes/set-ups.  If you are doing step-by-step photography you can easily squeeze in loads more picts per day.  I recently heard of a fundraiser cookbook that turned out 5 times as may recipes per day.  What they did was hire an incredibly skilled photographer and while his/her day rate was high -- committees of women were on hand to cook all day and about every 5 to 10 minutes there was another dish for the photog to snap.  So if you are lucky to have a skilled free support team like that then you can really max out a great photographer's day rate.

Do you have everything pre-cooked?

Absolutely do not pre-cook entire recipes, with the exception of those that can be prepared in advance without compromising their appeal.  You can have building blocks prepared but most dishes should be fresh to photograph best.  It's just like when you're cooking, somethings look good even a day or two later and others are picture perfect really at the moment of doneness and remain so for only a short period of time.  Same rules apply for photography.  My books use very very very few if any tricks.  All the food is edible, and freshly made for the photo shoot.  Sometimes we will use oil or glycerine to give something some extra shine but that's about it.  We use tweezers to move a single grain of rice at a time, Q tips to wipe up smudges, brushes to create smudges and drips, torches to perfectly brown and then our hands just about all over everything.  We will work on tugging, pulling and positioning a piece of skin perfectly over a piece of chicken for a minute or two so it's just right.  Although many times Hashem is with us and it comes out perfect as is and we just throw down a nice textile and snap.  So really more often than not I would say we enjoy 80% of the food you see pictured.  I try really hard to create easy appealing dishes, things that can be recreated at home both in looks and taste so I don't mess with any gravity defying unnatural positions for my ingredients.

Are hot dishes photographed hot?

Sometimes they are although it's not really necessary.  It's really just a function of wanting to work as quickly as possible both because of schedule and because the dish often looks great so we want to grab it before it flops, congeals, deflates, dries out etc...

Is it your job to have extra ingredients around for styling?

It is the job of the food stylist to have extra ingredients on hand - so if that food stylist is you, then YES!  As a rule always have extra!  You will need it.  And because time is precious whether it's a budget thing or a deadline thing you want to get it right the first time.

Also, why is this the most expensive part — doesn’t the publisher pay for that?

The most expensive part of any cookbook is the photo shoot.  As to whether the publisher pays for it -- every scenario you can think of under the sun exists.  While generally the publisher does pay you have to agree on the number and caliber of images.  That is the biggest sticking point.  That is why the production value in photography ranges so drastically from book to book as do the number of pictures.  All determined by how much the publisher decides to invest in that aspect of the book.

So did I answer well?

Once we start photography in the next few months I will try to take some behind the scenes picts for you.  Until then I edit.

Any other Qs out there for me?