May 28, 2022

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Food photographers help us eat with our eyes

9 min read

It is true: We eat with our eyes first. Maybe that is why chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have millions of followers on Instagram (9 million and 8 million, respectively) and why cookbook covers have moved away from wallpaper-style floral patterns to vibrant, eye-catching close-ups of authors with their gustatory creations tempting hungry readers to peek inside.

If you have a Facebook account, you have probably fallen into the role of food photographer a time or two yourself: A birthday cake you made from scratch and are proud of. The steak with magazine-worthy sear marks, straight off the grill. A cocktail made icy cold on a hot summer night with the most delicate beads of condensation forming near the rim of its glass. Chances are good you took a picture, and you posted it to social media.

Locally, some have turned that eye for edible detail into their professional raison d’être. Whether it is recipe creation, diner-specific content, restaurant profiles or Caravaggio-style still lifes of seasonal produce, Capital Region food photographers brighten our Instagram binges with photos good enough to eat.

Interested in upping your food photo game? Read on for tips on taking the best photos of your meals from these talented professionals.

Interviews have been lightly edited for space and clarity.

Food photographer Tom Eberhardt-Smith of Tom Smith Food Media.

Tom Smith Food Media

Tom Eberhardt-Smith

Business: Tom Smith Food Media


Instagram: @tomsmithfood

Shoots with: Canon 5D Mark III

Age: 32

Hometown: New Jersey suburbs of New York City. “At that time the suburb I grew up in was known for being the second-highest concentration of Italian Americans in New Jersey and the seventh-highest in the country,” Eberhardt-Smith said.

Current city: Albany

Background: Food was the “center of the universe,” in a big Italian American family, Eberhardt-Smith said. The influence of family is a major reason why food is a focal point in his life, paired with his father’s penchant for photography and the access to cameras it provided. “By the time I was in high school I was already cooking three-course meals and directing short films,” Eberhardt-Smith said. He moved on to study cinematography in college, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for friends and working part-time as a photographer, developing his passion and skills for food and visual arts independently but in parallel with one another. In 2013, he began a photography project called Diner Porn (safe for work) that brought him to his favorite places in New Jersey and New York to photograph the food, the diner aesthetic and the people who work and eat there. The project spurred his love of food photography and he took a job working for a veteran New York City-based food photographer to learn the basics of the industry and how to create the stunning images he has become known for. After a series of book- and brand-related work, “I realized that my best work was food-related media and I decided to focus only on food photography,” he said.

Why food? “I don’t know if there is one clear reason. There’s certainly a personal element — it’s always been a big part of my life and I connect with food and kitchens emotionally. But there’s also a service or duty aspect to it. One thing a visual artist can do is translate an emotion or narrative into a tangible image. If I can help tell other people’s stories, or take a personal recipe or story and turn it into a universal emotion that others can connect with — that’s something I want to do.”

What is the most challenging part of food photography? “It’s finding a balance between the technical and the emotional. The production part is very scientific and happens in a very clinical studio setting. Shaping the studio lights to create a mood, building the scene to tell a story and styling the food to look appealing are all very technical. But knowing how and when to abandon that technical, left-brained view and open up the creative, right-brained perspective to create that magic — it’s a real challenge. An eight-hour production can be seven hours and 59 minutes of prep and then you have 40 seconds to get the shot before something melts or drips in the wrong way. I need to be able to activate that photographer’s eye on command and often in a high-pressure situation.”

Is there a food or recipe you love or hate to photograph? “The answer is actually the same for both, and it’s food that I want to eat.”

Why do we care about food photos so much? “Photography allows us to see what’s already there but we didn’t notice. If we love photos of our food it’s because we love our food. Why do we love our food is the real question? I think it’s because it’s universal. Everyone eats.”

Food photographer Pattie Garrett of My Saratoga Kitchen Table.

Food photographer Pattie Garrett of My Saratoga Kitchen Table.

Pattie Garrett

Pattie Garrett

Business: My Saratoga Kitchen Table


Instagram: @mysaratogakitchentable

Shoots with: Canon 5D Mark III

Age: 68

Hometown: Voorheesville

Current city: Saratoga Springs

Background: Garrett grew up with a farm stand down the road from her home, which first sparked her love of fresh, seasonal produce. Today, she also has a farm stand just down the road from her home, but as a registered dietitian and nutritionist, she realizes the importance of making produce appealing to the everyday eater. Food photography started for her with fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets, using the content for the recipes on her website, “Now, I am developing my skills in still life, specifically chiaroscuro photography. The dramatic shadows and soft light bring a new dimension to food photography, enhancing the rich colors and unique shapes of each vegetable and fruit,” she said, lending a Renaissance master’s artistic approach to food photography.

Why food? “Simply, fresh fruit and vegetables are beautiful. I often joke that a gorgeous strawberry sitting on a farmers’ stand will call out, ‘Look at me, aren’t I pretty, take my picture.’ And I do.”

What is the most challenging part of food photography? “Light. Always light, no matter the subject. Also, food photography requires some speed before something wilts or dries up. Except for a spray bottle of water, I don’t use or even know the pro’s tricks to keep food looking fresh. One more challenge, I may eat the food before I get a chance to photograph it.”

Is there a food or recipe you love or hate to photograph? “I love tomatoes, especially bathing in the morning sun. I love visiting farms, photographing people harvesting the crops with the added drama of morning fog. Meat can be difficult. Let me just leave it like that.”

Why do we care about food photos so much? “All of us can connect with food. It’s what we have in common even through cultural or regional differences. We all eat. Also, a picture of something delicious is nice to look at, just as a photo of a beautiful landscape.”

Food photographer Nellie Ackerman-Vellano of Feed Me 518 and Bon Vivant Photographe.

Food photographer Nellie Ackerman-Vellano of Feed Me 518 and Bon Vivant Photographe.

Nellie Ackerman-Vellano

Nellie Ackerman-Vellano

Business: Feed Me 518 and Bon Vivant Photographe


Instagram: @feedme518

Shoots with: Sony a7R III

Age: Unavailable.

Hometown: Born in Seoul, South Korea; moved to Hamilton Hill in Schenectady in high school

Current city: Clifton Park

Background: A love of dining out sparked Ackerman-Vellano’s interest in food photography. “I’m fascinated by the way food looks. It’s art. It’s a creation that a chef envisions and the plate is the canvas and the food is the paint. I see what the chef sees when first creating their dish, and I use my camera to help others see it the way they created it,” she said. She started taking photos to post on social media in 2010, and by 2015 restaurants were asking her to come take photos for their own social media pages. In 2017 she started Instagram and Facebook pages for her business, Feed Me 518.

What is the most challenging part of food photography? “Photographing food isn’t easy. … While you can tell a model to tilt their head or look this way, once food is plated, you now have to work with the food. You have to figure out the perfect lighting, and angles, the background all within minutes or the dish will start to coagulate or melt, or the sauce will run or the meat will bleed. You have to understand how food ‘moves’ in three, five, 10 minutes just sitting there on a plate while you photograph it.”

Is there a food or recipe you love or hate to photograph? “I love shooting unique gastronomic dishes that make you gasp when it’s placed before you. I’m not talking about the venue, I’m talking about the dish. I just shot the most creative eggs Benedict at a diner, not a four-star restaurant, and I loved it. One that I hate shooting? Entire orange entrees.”

Why do we care about food photos so much? “I think the demand has increased for professional food photography because restaurants are seeing the value in how excellent food photos are just as much a part of their marketing as buying ads in magazines or on the internet. Food can be visually stimulating. I think people care more about the experience with food than just about the beauty of the food. When a beautiful photo of food is shared online or in a magazine, people connect with that food experience through the photo. Food is fun, it’s positive and it makes people happy. Food is not about politics or religion, it’s about people. With all the negativity on social media, photos of food break that up for us. We don’t have to pick a side or agree with a belief. We just have to share an experience.”

Food photographer Jessica Sheridan of Mangio, Mangiamo.

Food photographer Jessica Sheridan of Mangio, Mangiamo.

Jessica Sheridan

Jessica Sheridan

Business: Mangio, Mangiamo


Instagram: @mangiomangiamo

Shoots with: Canon 6D Mark II

Age: 32

Hometown: Watervliet

Current city: Watervliet

Background: Sheridan attended Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island for hotel management and food and beverage. She worked in the hospitality industry for years, but the stress of the job and the whammy of the COVID-19 pandemic caused Sheridan to pause and take a step back to decide what course to chart for her career. She knew she wanted to remain in the food industry, but in a different capacity. “I taught myself the photography and editing basics and found many local businesses looking for help with their food marketing and content,” Sheridan said.

Why food? “Food is my passion and has been for as long as I can remember. I hope that when I photograph food, it’s evident that there is a love for and understanding of the subject. It’s more than just the snap of a picture.”

What food do you like photographing best? “I love shooting cakes and desserts, since they stay ‘photo-worthy’ longer and there are a variety of different shots you can get from them. I did a shoot with milkshakes the other day that was very stressful!”

Why do we care about food photos so much? “I think that people eat with their eyes first. It’s like when the waiter walks by with an amazing plate of food and you want to know what it was. Especially this last year, food businesses have had to pivot in the ways in which they reach customers. Food photography has been one of the ways to help restaurants and brands stand out on social media, helping increase sales.”

Tips for better food photographs:

From Jessica Sheridan: “Find good natural light, it can make or break a photo. Pan out a little farther than you typically would, since Instagram crops photos slightly. Think about what angle the particular food you’re shooting would look best in. For example, a sandwich or burger might look best straight-on, not overhead.”

From Tom Eberhardt-Smith: “Look at the shadows. Study them. Which direction are they going? How soft are they? How dark are they? How you manipulate the shadows determines the mood of the photo.”

From Pattie Garrett: “Take lots of shots, every day. Take classes. Find people with similar interests and learn from each other. Make sure you have good light, try reflecting light with a white board or aluminum foil if need be. Think about composition and angle of shot. Keep practicing. As a former photography teacher said, ‘Walk five steps from your door and take a picture.’ In other words, practice.”

From Nellie Ackerman-Vellano: “If you’re just sharing food pics on social media and want to show your friends what you’re eating, don’t be afraid to use a flash so you can see the food. Many people share food pics, but the images are very dark and you can’t see what they are sharing.”

Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. Visit her website or follow her on Instagram @DeannaNFox

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