There's a stylist on my platter

Published: 08 November, 2013 07:51 IST | Dhara Vora |

With the ever-increasing popularity of food shows on the television, and with cookbooks hitting shelves daily, we go behind the scenes to meet chefs, stylists and photographers � the real artists who create delectable spreads that have audiences and readers eating out of their hands, literally

For a while now, it’s not just actors who’ve had to don the greasepaint before facing the arc lights. Food in all its fragrant and delish avatars has moved out of our kitchens to grace cookbooks and be whipped up on demand for TV food shows. Naturally, it isn’t an easy job to paint such succulent, flavour-packed visuals; after all, behind every such frame are the not-so-pretty details. While it’s possible to make a person emote and act in front of the camera, a curry will stay a curry; it depends on the photographer’s craft, and even the stylist to visualise the final image of that curry, and whether to add or negate elements for that perfect frame.

Stew from Rampur, shot by Ashima Narain for the book, Dining with the Maharajas. Pics courtesy/Roli books/Ashima Narain

Mumbai-based Michael Swamy, chef, author, food stylist and photographer, tells us, “The biggest challenge in food photography is shooting within 10-15 minutes, as after that your food is dead.” One of Swamy’s latest projects is photographing for The Spice Route (Westland Books), Masterchef India 2012-winner Shipra Khanna’s book of recipes.

Jodhpur’s Laal Maas

“Are you aiming for something healthy, experimental or traditional? It’s important to decide what you are trying to create as it has to interest people. This is where props and set-up comes in,” says freelance photographer Anshika Varma, who photographed and styled the food shoots for Ritu Dalmia’ latest book, Diva Green. Fixing on the kind of emotion and approach you aim for with your dish plays an important part.

Get the basics right
“Firstly, look for good lighting and composition. With focus on texture of food and colours, think about the background,” says award-winning photographer, Ashima Narain. However, Swamy cautions that your props should not take away from the food. Swamy tells us that a lot of cheating and tweaking also goes behind shoots such as use of oils, gels and sprays to make food look glossier. Sometimes, bowls of food are also padded up with cardboard at the bottom for dishes such as salad to look full, “I don’t like to use that too much, but it depends on the client. If you are shooting ready-to-eat food like soups, glycerine is what you see in most images, finally. If it’s freshly cooked, you have the liberty of colours and good plating; there’s no need for even air brushing,” he reveals.

Dahi Chaat styled and shot by Swamy

“I take an organic approach towards my photographs. People look at photographs for an experience it has to look real and interest people in eating it,” says Varma. She also relies on symmetry, as it helps add an extra element to your dish. Varma is currently working on a book on Awadhi cuisine, and is shooting around Lucknow to incorporate the local cultures and the role they play in the recipes.

Photographer Anshika Varma relies on symmetry to add an edge to her food photographs. Pic/Anshika Varma

The good, the bad and the ugly
Swamy feels Italian food is easy to shoot while Narain prefers desserts, especially Western varieties. Swamy also loves shooting dishes with modern styles of plating. Both agree that Indian and Asian cuisine (especially curries) are difficult to shoot. “While vegetarian and non-vegetarian doesn’t make much of a difference, it is very difficult to shoot curry. It’s liquid and there isn’t much texture,” explains Narain. “Indian food always has family portions and curries and gravies are either brown or green (I call it ‘potty food’, he chuckles),” says Swamy.

Ashima Narain and Michael Swamy

Bring out the forks
Cutlery plays an important part in food styling and helps determine the mood of the dish. “If you are going for a traditional set-up, you need to keep the colours in mind, but cutlery can always help add to the theme. You can mix up things a bit to make fine-dine dishes look approachable with earthy
plating,” says Varma.

From the chef's mouth: Vikas Khanna
It is not just about putting a plate in front of your readers but creating an ambiance around it. People look at food and aspire to cook it and hence it has to be inspiring. The main criteria I have for photos in my book is, obviously, it has to look edible, and second, it has to match up to international standards.

Countless international titles are available in India, and you have to take it up a notch. But at the same time, you have several professionals here, today, to help you as well as stores to help with props for shoots. 

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