Ensuring Food Quality
When you cook a meal, you want to use quality ingredients to get the best flavors possible, right? When photographing food, you want to make sure that you follow the same principle, while ensuring that the way each ingredient looks is just as important as its flavor. It's simple, really—find only the most beautiful food to photograph.
Using Fresh Ingredients
The key to achieving a high-quality look for the food in your photographs is to use the freshest ingredients possible. Food doesn't last forever, and its beauty usually dissipates before it spoils or loses flavor. Herbs and veggies sitting in a refrigerator have a very limited lifespan, so make sure you plan your photographs in advance and buy your food the day of or the day before it's photographed.
To ensure that the quality of my food is up to par, I shop only at certain grocery stores and markets. I know that some locations will have, for example, a really great selection of seafood, so I go to one of those stores when I'm shopping for that ingredient. I also like to go to the local farmers market to buy seasonal produce and fruit, and sometimes I'll conceive the look of a dish based on the freshest ingredients I can find while I'm shopping.
I also prefer to use fresh food rather than canned food, especially when it comes to vegetables (I will, from time to time, use frozen vegetables, as they hold their shape and color well after being cooked). The guideline I use is that if I can buy it fresh (in the produce section of the grocery store), then I buy it fresh and stay away from anything in a can. This also gives me a lot more control over the shape, color, size, and texture of the food. I make exceptions to this, of course, such as when I want to use something like canned mandarin oranges or water chestnuts. The bottom line is that if the food looks good enough to photograph, whether it's fresh or comes out of the can/bag/jar, then go ahead and use it.
When purchasing the ingredients for your dish, you need to be extremely selective. Choosing the very best-looking ingredients (also referred to as the "hero" food) is essential to a great-looking dish. It's also a good idea to buy more than you need (you can always eat the leftovers!). Having more than one of each item gives you options for the look of the ingredient, and it's also insurance in case anything goes wrong with your first pick.
I think every department at my local grocery store knows by now that I'm a food photographer. Each time I buy an item that needs to be packaged (like seafood or sliced deli meat), I specifically tell them that the food is going to be photographed. When I recently purchased some shrimp that was going to be the "star" of a photo, I asked for only the shrimp with the most beautifully intact tails. I also spent what felt like ten minutes searching through peppers to look for the perfect one (Figure 4.3), and I've shopped at more than one store in one trip because the mint selection at the first was old-looking and too crumply for a photograph. Never compromise the look of an ingredient if you don't have to.
Figure 4.3 I spent several minutes in the produce section of the grocery store searching for this chili pepper.
With all of your handpicked ingredients in your basket, you'll also want to be careful when they are being bagged or boxed at the checkout. If you want to be über-gentle, bring a separate box for the items to prevent things squishing together in grocery bags. Or you can do what I do and go through the self-checkout line. I still use bags, but I'm careful with what goes where so nothing gets damaged.