Have you ever wondered how professional food photographers and stylists take photos with food that looks so real, so delicious that you could reach right in, lift it from the page and take a bite?
For professionals, it takes years of training and practice in the arts of photography and food styling.
Corey and Emily Critser own Lanewood Studio on Cummings Highway. The couple met while studying at Savannah School of Art and Design and, following graduation, pursued careers in the film and photo industry in Los Angeles. Looking to relocate, they spent 100 days in a Subaru named "Apollo," traveling the country looking for the ideal city in which to open their own studio. They found their niche in Chattanooga and left Tinseltown behind.
"What we noticed were companies needing marketing photos," Emily says. "They were hiring photographers from Atlanta and Nashville and Knoxville, and we just saw a big market here in Chattanooga for that."
Lanewood Studio got its start in the dining room of the Critser's North Chattanooga home. It didn't take long for their business to take off, and in 2016, they relocated to the Small Business Development Center. Three years later, the couple realized a dream, purchasing an old restaurant in the shadow of Lookout Mountain and converted it into a premier studio with all the accouterments needed to entertain clients on one side and a professional photography studio on the other.
When the Critsers opened their business, they were unaware of any other photography studios doing strictly commercial photography the way they do — no weddings, babies, families photos in which many studios specialize.
Lanewood Studio has clients around the country, many of whom are located in the Chattanooga area. And not just food companies. Their client list includes Kenco, a locally based warehousing service company; Lineage Logistics, a global freezer logistics company based in Michigan; Lodge Cast Iron in South Pittsburgh; Diageo, one of the world's largest producers of spirits and beers; and TVA. But food photography tops the chart of favorite photoshoots.
Food styling takes a mixed bag of trickery and talent which, in Emily's case, can be found in a Craftsman tool cart with drawers filled with tricks of the trade. She opens the drawers to reveal a cornucopia of familiar objects, from long-tong tweezers, dowels and skewers to glue dots and fishing line for cutting cakes.
"It gives a clean cut. Knives can be so messy," she says.
Clothespins, known in the film industry trade as C47s, are at the ready for every shoot. Emily uses them for spacing, clipping things together or used as a wedge. "I can think of a million ways to use them," she says. Then she gets back to work, carefully searing grill marks on hot dogs with an electric heating coil typically used for lighting charcoal. It's a technique she learned while working on a photo for a local client representing a mustard company.
"Food styling is so much fun," she says. "You know, I love going into Walmart and just shopping aimlessly."
Food stylists have been known to use non-edible products, such as glue dripping down a hamburger to look like melted cheese or substituting mashed potatoes for ice cream. "They can look a little fake," Emily says, adding that she takes a purist approach to food styling. "I have a lot of weird things that I like to use though."
Things like pharmacy-grade vegetable glycerin in a spray bottle she can spray on a glass or drink bottle to resemble condensation. And she always keeps a food scraper — the kind used in fine-dining restaurants to neatly remove crumbs from the tablecloth — to quickly remove food crumbs from the set. "It's easier to do this than Photoshop them out," she quips. "I highly suggest getting one — 12 bucks on Amazon. Or you can just use the edge of a business card. But don't use your hands."
Knolling is a technique often used by food stylists that involve evenly spacing objects to create a symmetrical pattern. In the case of photographing hot dogs, clothespins were too long, making more distance than needed for the hot dogs. A tube of ChapStick was found to be the perfect space maker.
These are all things that food bloggers and other food stylists can employ when taking food photographs at home. But what about when you're dining out and want to post a really good photo of your meal online?
Corey chimes in: "Make sure you get a table by a window so you can have natural lighting. Then use something — a white napkin or a shirt or something, anything white that you have handy — to bounce some light back."
As for arranging the food, Emily recalls a lesson learned in art history about lines in a photo or piece of art known as "the golden triangle."
"It's the idea that there are three pieces in a photo. So, your golden triangle could be your plate of food, a glass of wine behind it and some other object that leads your eye in a different direction. It's an old art trick, so think about lines going around. Don't just put everything in one straight line."
The bottom line about food styling, though, is there's really no school for it. Emily recalls a lesson she learned from a food stylist in Chicago, a woman who'd been styling food for photography for decades.
"I asked her, 'Where did you pick up all your tricks?' And she said, 'Just doing it over and over and picking up things from different people. Practice makes perfect.'"
Professional photographers and food stylists Corey and Emily Critser are well-known for the time they spend perfecting food photographs for their clients. There are days when they spend hours on just one shot, lighting, styling and "really getting into the nitty-gritty," Corey says.
Here are some of their tips:
> When photographing a drink in a glass, light from directly behind it. "Glassware is always an opportunity," Emily says.
> Start with really good ingredients. "I've spent way too long in Publix just looking for the perfect hot dogs," Emily says.
> Many things can be used as a background for food. Think out of the box — like flooring, old wood, matte board and wrapping paper.
> Get green herbs from the plant, not precut, and keep them fresh in an ice bath. Also, sprinkle lemon juice on apples to keep them fresh.
> Never touch chocolate with your fingers. "Your hands are grime claws!" Emily says. "When you touch chocolate with your fingers, they show up, and it's so gross."
> Use a paintbrush and brush fruit or bread with a little olive oil to give it a shine.
> Other tools to have on hand are mini spatulas, an X-Acto knife, chopsticks, cutting boards, foam brushes, paintbrushes, cake-shaping tools, a blender to make snow and tacky putty for so many different things. "It's my favorite thing of all time," Emily says. "It's the perfect thing to prop something up."