How To Run A Photo Shoot

If things have been a little quiet here, it’s because I’ve been lost in props, linens, and piles of cheese. This past week, I spent three full days on the set for Di Bruno Bros. Cheese Guide: Wedges, Pairings, Recipes, and More from Philadelphia’s House of Cheese. Yep, that’s the official title. Try saying it three times in a row. You might need to grease your jaws with some triple creme.

I should begin by saying that the words “photo shoot” made me feel angsty a week ago. Finishing this manuscript was a feat — 170 cheeses to research and eat, 30 recipes to test and retest (all in about 6 months, while working full time) — so the thought of joining strangers in a warehouse to style and photograph all of this in three days filled me with uncertainty. Was I supposed to give input? Cook samples? Wear an apron?

I shouldn’t have worried. Photographer Jason Varney had coffee ready and a vision to share on Tuesday morning. ¬†Food stylist Carrie Purcell had soup on the stove and a table full of rented props that looked like a gypsy rummage sale — my kind of thing. I flopped down on a kitchen stool, nibbled some sharp Cheddar, and watched the day unfold. It was a thrill to see it come together.

Here are a few things I took away from the shoot, which ran as smoothly as cream:

Start with a vision and collect objects that reflect that vision.

Before the shoot, Jason and Carrie looked over the recipes and the book’s table of contents. They talked about mood and tone, then picked textures and a color scheme. They wanted it to feel “warm and rustic” they told me, just like many of the cheeses in the book. Carrie surfed through several prop houses around New York to find just the right bowls, knives, and cutting boards. Jason scoped out barn doors, old wood, even slate shingles. It wasn’t a color scheme I’d ever imagined, but when I looked over the prop tables, I realized they’d chosen a color palate that looked like cheese rinds. Gray, beige, rust, tarnished silver. The colors we used mirrored the cheese, never overshadowing it. Genius.

If you’re the author, step back and enjoy watching the creative process.

I can imagine that many writers feel very tense on a set. After all, it’s weird to write a book, then let go of it so that others can shape, market, bind, and sell it. It’s probably a little bit like sending a child to kindergarten. It helped to work with professionals I trusted. Although I didn’t know Carrie or Jason, except through their blogs, I knew they had experience and I could tell by their easy laughter that they’d worked together before. When I overheard Carrie say to her assistant, “This is going to be a good finger lickin’ day,” I knew we’d all get along.

In the course of ten hours, Carrie and her assistant Dana made 13 recipes. They used real ingredients — no glue, no hair spray (I’d read about food stylist tricks). “We eat everything we make,” Carrie told me. When a recipe was ready, she would survey her treasure trove and consult with Jason about dishes and backgrounds. Then she got down on her hands and knees with a tray of tweezers and Q-tips to put the dish together. She made it look easy.

I learned: use Pam to make bread look shiny. Float scallions in water to keep them fresh.

If you’re the photographer, be relaxed and open.

Jason was all about crumbs. He liked to reach into a bowl of soup with his index finger and dab a little onto a spoon. All of the food under his lens looked lovingly wrangled, rather than pristine. After each shot, he invited everyone to follow him to his studio where he pulled the images onto the screen. It was always amazing to see how a sandwich prop-styled on the floor could rise so tantalizingly from pixels. Jason kept the sets simple, relying on food and background to create mood.

I learned: look at the rind of a cheese to direct your color scheme. Don’t be afraid to tear and shmear.

If you’re the creative director, don’t be afraid of hooks.

Josh McDonnell from Running Press spent all three days overseeing the shoot. He was great at recognizing when we’d used the same background too many times and offering creative direction when necessary. At the end of our second day, which we did on location at Di Bruno Bros., he climbed onto a stool and started rigging hooks from the ceiling. I wasn’t sure what he was up to. Turns out he had the idea to hang some Provolone so we could get an air shot. It took him two hours to set it up. We could have shot hunks of Prov on a cutting board, but Josh liked the idea of capturing the way cheesemakers and stores like Di Bruno Bros. showcase these giant bulbous cheeses. Jason’s shot of a ghost white Provolone hanging from a dark hook is one of my favorites from that day.

Of course, you’ll have to wait a few months to see it. But when you do, I’m pretty sure you’ll gasp.


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4 Responses to “How To Run A Photo Shoot”
  1. David J. Daniels says:

    Very cool insider scoop on the process! So excited for you that the book is done — I know how hard you worked! Best!

  2. Earth & Fork says:

    This shoot seems like an amazing process with all these creative steps that lead to a final book. Jason Varney is by far my favorite local food photographer. His style is so captivating with a stark showcase for the actual product or food. I’m pretty excited for this to come out.

  3. Laney says:

    Ohhhh so that’s how they do it! And it looks like a great time was had by all…Best of luck!

  4. Salvatore says:

    Loved the ‘behind-the-scenes scoop’ Madame!! This is super exciting. Also, is that Grande provolone that I see in the last picture? Were you able to give your creative input for any of the shots, or just relishing the time to just stop and observe?

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