The benefits of avoiding tricks (most of the time) and creating it all in the camera

Cake Dogsledding (2019) © Christopher Boffoli/ Big Appetites Studio

Cake Dogsledding (2019) © Christopher Boffoli/ Big Appetites Studio

I’ve been intrigued over the years to read stories about all of the weird, surprising materials and ‘tricks of the trade' employed by food stylists in the course of their shoots for food brands. I expect that by now almost everyone has heard of how stylists use things like white glue to stand in for milk in bowls of cereal, or use shoe polish to make grill marks on burgers, etc. While I’m all for using ingenuity to overcome the many technical challenges of food photography, when I began Big Appetites many years ago I made a commitment to only use real food as much as possible. 

My choice of food as a primary subject had to do with a few factors.  First, food offers a tremendous variety so I thought I’d never run out of things to shoot. Food often has really gorgeous texture, color and geometry. It can be a rich subject matter for art as it is deceptively complicated despite how accessible it is cross-culturally. And lastly, if I was going to use Big Appetites to make a statement about North America’s dysfunctional relationship with food (a critique that potentially would include iconic, processed foods) then it would be important to maintain a certain degree of integrity in food sourcing and methods.

As I’ve repeated in a lot of interviews over the years, trying to rely on fresh food can present challenges as there is a disparity between how we think food ought to look – or how we expect it to look – and how it actually appears when photographed up close with high quality macro lenses.  I began this series in the winter of 2002 in New York City and carried it forward after moving across the country to Seattle.  So my rules on freshness meant that I had to always work around whatever foods were in season. For instance, if strawberries were appearing in my work  – and they looked good – then the odds were that I was shooting them in the summer when they are available to me with an acceptable aesthetic.

Strawberry Seed Poachers (2011) © Christopher Boffoli/ Big Appetites Studio

Strawberry Seed Poachers (2011) © Christopher Boffoli/ Big Appetites Studio

My photographs do not rely on extensive digital manipulation either. I do as much as I can practically. Of course, the Big Appetites series is shot digitally. However, I just feel as though there is a quality to practical photography that makes a discernible difference over digital manipulation, in the same way that the original Star Wars trilogy benefited from the use of practical models whereas the later films didn’t. There is value in the innovation that comes from meeting the challenge of rendering things in the real world.

Of course, images are adjusted in post-production for color balance, contrast and with edits to framing. Digital dirt, dust, crumbs, flaws and imperfections on the food will be painted out. And sometimes limbs on the models will be adjusted to suit some action.  However, most of what you see in Big Appetites is the real plastic models and real food on the set. 

That’s not to say I haven’t made exceptions on occasion when technical challenges mix with tight editorial deadlines have left me little choice but to capitulate to fakery. Once such instance was the cover that I shot for the Travel Issue of Lucky Peach magazine back in 2013.

Lucky Peach Issue 7. Spring 2013. “Cereal Rower”

Lucky Peach Issue 7. Spring 2013. “Cereal Rower”

The art director, Walter Green, approached me with a very clearly articulated concept about a character rowing in a bowl of cereal. I cannot recall if we specifically discussed the type of cereal he wanted to see. Lucky Charms may or may not have been requested. So that was definitely in the mix. We also sourced a bunch of other colorful cereals to try, including an out of production Finding Nemo cereal, some of which made it into the final image.

When I did some initial tests I found that though the marshmallows held up well and rendered their color beautifully, the working time with milk was going to be short as the the oat cereal didn’t have enough of a sugar coating and rapidly absorbed milk.

KN2C6232enc1024px.jpg
An early cereal and milk test for the Lucky Peach cover.

An early cereal and milk test for the Lucky Peach cover.

I had heard that commercial food stylists preferred white glue because it milk looked blue on film. I didn’t find this to be the case, though the milk did look flat. So we brought in some white glue (a lot of it) and the results were immediately more pleasing. The glue looked pure white and the cereal stood higher and didn’t absorb much moisture. So even though it went against my longstanding tradition of using only food, the short timeframe and the fact that the glue served the image better meant that I was willing to make a rare exception.

cereal alternate 1024px.jpg

A few different cereals were shot but in the end the art director liked the Lucky Charms best for the cover, though I did also construct an image for the back cover that depicted a tropical island made with a range of different cereals. As always, I was delighted when the magazine approved of the images and there was a lot of great feedback from Lucky Peach’s hardcore fan base.

In conversations with journalists, editors and creative directors – I’ve often addressed the perception that elements of my work are handed digitally. I feel like I’m routinely having to correct the misperception that Photoshop is extensively used as a tool for composition. One case in point is a recent image, pictured at the top of this post, with a man dogsledding across a cake.

This is one of a new series of winter scenes that I’ve undertaken after a couple of my galleries have had a great deal of interest from collectors for snow scenes. For a while I’ve thought about doing something with a dogsled. A cake sourced from a local bakery provided the perfect setting for the simple concept.

The cake was placed on the set with an assortment of scale trees arranged behind it. Initially I shot the cake on a sheet of dark blue seamless paper. But mid-shoot I had the idea to punch up the image with a night sky with an aurora. The star field was simple as I have shot a few images with a star field and so I have a section of black gator board that has been pricked over with a straight pin such that light comes through. That was arranged at the back of the set with a small LED light source behind it.

As this would be a night scene, the lights were dialed way down to balance the amount of light on the cake with the starlight. From there I cut out some green paper which I applied over the front of a small, handheld light source. With a long exposure I waved the light over the set in such a way that the blurred green light would resemble the aurora. This latter aspect was by far the most complicated part of the image as it took many dozens of tries to get an aurora that I was happy with. And one little happy accident was that an ever so subtle bit of my wrist read as a faint hint of pink in a section of the sky, resembling real world light pollution. This isn’t so obvious in the reduced-resolution jpeg above but it is more clear in the large digital original negative.

In summary, there are qualities to creating practical effects that can make for a better image in the end. Providing you have the luxury of time, being forced to be innovative can pay off in untold ways.