No one would argue that the first of our senses that we think of when it comes to food is taste. That’s a given. But, our other senses play a huge part, including sight. If that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t see such interest in the variety of food and cooking content on television or in print. Before we ever bring fork to mouth, we eat with our eyes. Now, in my opinion, there is no harder medium to make food look appetizing than still photography (I’m certain ANY food blogger will agree!). To make food look appetizing in a photo… It is truly an art.
I had the pleasure to interview one of the nation’s most sought after artists, food and lifestyle photographer Heath Robbins, of Heath Robbins Photography. Heath’s been shooting for nearly 20 years, and his images have been featured in national campaigns for clients including Arby’s, McCain Foods, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, French’s, Welch’s, New Balance and Choice Hotels. Images have also graced the pages of numerous cookbooks and magazines. I wanted to find out about the inside workings of his craft, and to get a glimpse in to this photographic foodie’s own food experiences.
Foodie Journal: In a world with so many subjects to photograph, how did you come about the decision to make food and lifestyle photography your specialty?
Heath Robbins: It was a natural progression of my career development, commercial opportunities and my passions in life. As I started shooting people in lifestyle situations the food just kind of followed and since I’ve always been a “foodie” myself it felt like a great fit.
FJ: What are you looking for when photographing food? What really excites you about it?
HR: I am always looking for that one angle, the direction of light or the focus that will bring out the “flavor.” The key is to highlight that spot in the dish that makes you want to bite into it. Every time I create an image that makes me hungry I know I’ve done my job.
FJ: Many of the shots I’ve seen from your studio seem almost effortless, like someone cooked a meal for friends and snapped a photo before everyone sat down to eat. How much effort and prep are necessary to make food appetizing in photographs?
HR: That’s exactly the point and I’m happy to hear you say that! But, there’s often a studio full of art directors, producers, assistants as well as a food stylist and prop stylist working to help me capture those beautiful and mouth-watering images. The “pre-production” work usually begins weeks in advance as we work with the ad agency in developing the concepts and then working with the prop stylist to source the most appropriate props. Food stylists source the ingredients needed to enhance the food product or those needed to create a dish. Sometimes she will fly fresh grapes in from a grower in California and other times pull fresh fiddleheads right out of her garden.
FJ: Say you’re out for dinner with friends and you’re served a beautiful dish that deserves to be photographed. You have limited gear, maybe just a point-and-shoot or your cell phone. What’s the main thing you would do to get the best possible shot?
HR: The best advice I can give to anyone shooting with limited gear is to always back light, don’t mix different light sources and try to use natural light when you can. If I’m out to dinner with friends and find myself unable to get the right light or composition I just enjoy the food and make it a great memory or inspiration for a future shoot. I find that bad pictures of food don’t tell much of a story and can ruin the memory of a good meal.
FJ: Cutting specifically to the food: Most of us have food experiences or memories that we cherish. Maybe a specific dish mom used to make, or a night out with a loved one that was just unforgettable. What food experience or memory really locked you in to loving food?
HR: Tough question; I’ve had so many! I cherish the memories of making Chinese food with my family as a kid and then experimenting in my own kitchen as a bachelor in New York City. It would be hard to pinpoint just one since my life revolves around good food with friends and family.
Heath shoots on location and in his 9500 sq ft studio just outside of Boston. The studio boasts 18 floor to ceiling windows, gorgeous daylight, a high-end working kitchen, client conference room and 2 prop rooms among other amenities. Below is just a sampling of a few of the amazing shots he has produced. Seriously? Can you look at the shot of the french fries and NOT want to eat them, like, right now?