Eric Wolfinger entered the world of food photography through the kitchen door. He spent five years cooking and baking in San Francisco, where he found his mentor Chad Robertson at Tartine, a high-end bakery famous for its breads and pastries. After having his hands in dough for so long, he truly had a feel for the bread and what it took to make it delicious — which is why Robertson thought Wolfinger would be the perfect man to tell the photographic story behind the bakery. Wolfinger never put down the camera again, except to keep cooking and baking.
We at SmugMug managed to catch a few moments with him outside (and inside) the kitchen to learn more about how his food photography keeps his clients — and us — hungry for more.
Tip #1: Find what you love and photograph it.
I have a real love and appreciation both for food and for the craft of cooking. What I try to do as a photographer of cookbooks — and of other food media — is not only shoot the food itself in a beautiful, interesting, and appropriate way, but also get behind the food a little bit: who made it, where does it come from, and why does the person do things the way they do. I’m trying to get into the culture and mind of the cook, as well as take pictures of the food on the plate. Wherever people cook and eat — which is anywhere in the world — there’s an interesting story to tell, and there are beautiful things to capture along with it.
I shoot people. I shoot places. I shoot. The beautiful thing in my line of work is I get to shoot everything. Yes, I’m a food photographer, but look at all the other wonderful things that are part of the story of food. The landscape. The building. The kitchen, the people, the farm. It’s everything.
Tip #2: Once you find your passion, don’t forget the details — or to keep learning.
Since I didn’t come to photography from photo school and didn’t have a photo mentor, my biggest challenge for a while was making sure I showed up with a charged battery and a memory card that had been downloaded. As I embraced photography as a livelihood, the challenge became figuring out things on the fly since I didn’t feel trained. I’m going to shoot in this location, this is the vibe the subject wants to tell, and this is the story I see; how do I make this happen? It was a constant, “I don’t know, but I’m going to figure it out.”
Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to say no.
The hardest part when I was starting out was saying no. I wanted to say yes to everything, and I realized that saying yes to everything means you spread yourself too thin. There wasn’t enough fuel for the excitement and passion because I was taking on everything and not just things that really interested me. Find projects that are interesting, gratifying, and pay the bills. I pick projects that I find personally interesting. If I’m curious and engaged about a project, then I’ll do a good job with the photography.
Tip #4: And don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.
I try to immerse myself in the subject matter as much as I can. I find that the projects I’m most interested in are the ones that allow me to tell a bigger story, dive in, get my hands dirty, and come out of it with an interesting story to tell.
For example, in the film I’m going through the production of a book on chocolate. When we were discussing the project with my client, I was interested in their vision and approach. For them it was important to show cacao at its origin. These guys are engaged in the whole chain, and I was excited to experience these origins as well.
Their stated mission is to teach people how to make good chocolate from beans. And I was like, “You can do this at home?” They said, “Of course you can.” So I wanted to make their chocolate at home — go through all the steps and get to know the process of making chocolate in order to get a better idea of how I would want to photograph it.
One of the many things I learned while making chocolate was that chocolate doesn’t change color. You can’t rely on color cues for guidance. The color difference between a roasted bean and a raw bean is almost nothing. But what’s beautiful, interesting, and instructive are the textures. That showed me that what I really need to get across in the photos were the changes in texture. By going through their process and making the chocolate myself, I discovered how I wanted to approach this project.
Tip #5: Gear is okay — vision is better.
When I started I had a camera and one lens. That was it. I can do almost anything I want with a camera and a lens. You get really good at finding windows and creating the light you want with a single window. Just start shooting.
Beyond having a camera and a lens, what you need is some healthy sense of self-critique. And I say healthy because you shouldn’t over-critique yourself and never put anything out there. But editing yourself helps.
Tip #6: Props can help bring the vision to life.
Generally, if you’re shooting at someone’s restaurant, you’re going to use the tabletops and props that are available there because you want to take a portrait of the whole experience of that restaurant. You’re not going to bring a white tablecloth to a rustic beer hall, for example. But there are times, like with Dandelion chocolate, where we’re shooting in a factory and I want to bring some added mood to the photos that their space doesn’t have. So I’ll bring surfaces, tabletops, and props like plates, flatware, forks and knives and spoons.
Over the years I’ve developed a library of plates and flatware that I can draw on to help accentuate a story. For example, I shot a brew pub that created classic Spanish cuisine, and the plates they used were the inexpensive melamine stuff you get at a restaurant supply store. I felt it wasn’t the most accurate representation of the experience at this restaurant, so I brought some additional plates that had a little bit of style, texture, glaze, and feeling, which I thought would enhance the vibe. In the middle of the shoot, the chef, the manager, and the owner came over to see the photos and proclaimed, “Well, we’re getting rid of all our plates now.” It’s fun getting people to see their own hard work in a different way — and maybe in a better one.
And a little pro tip: I always carry around a four-by-four-foot folded section of Vellum, which works really well for light diffusion. It fits in the back of my camera bag.
Tip #7: Pay attention to the light.
Look for a window that gets indirect sunlight. Turn off all the overhead lights in the room so your single source of light is that one window. Put the food on the table about three feet from the window and at waist level. Walk around that food 360 degrees, and take pictures.
At the end you should end up with about 12 pictures, and you’ll have just lit food almost every single way it could possibly be lit. Front light, side light, back light, etc., and now it’s up to you to decide what angle looks best. That’s where your artistry comes in.
Tip #8: Never, ever forget to back up your images.
I back up my photos every night while traveling on a project. I always carry two hard drives, and I download to one drive, then download to the other drive. Only after the photos are in two physical drives will I reformat the card. If I don’t have regular access to electricity, I’ll generally bring a lot of cards. I can generally shoot an entire project without reformatting a card.
Tip #9: Do good where you can.
When I was a kid my dad hammered into me that whatever I did as a career, the most important thing was I couldn’t be bored, and the second most important thing was I had to make some money to support myself, and the third thing was to do some good. That philosophy carries into photography for me.
Of course I’m not saving lives with my photography, but I feel strongly that I’m contributing to knowledge. I’m improving people’s lives through eating better, or understanding food a bit better. It feels wonderful when you do something to contribute to a greater good, and that’s part of what I love about photographing the story behind food.
To watch more of Wolfinger’s hands-on approach to photographing food, check out his SmugMug Film, Beyond the Plate.