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Eric Wolfinger wanted to be a chef but became a self-trained food photographer. In the last 15 years, he has captured food for 25 cookbooks, editorial and commercial clients, and traveled the world doing food photography.
Wolfinger’s first cookbook on bread landed him a nomination for the James Beard award for best photography, and he won the coveted award ten years later. The New York Times called him the Annie Leibovitz of Food Photography in 2017.
“I have been doing travel photography for much longer,” Wolfinger tells PetaPixel, “but since 2008, I have said I am a food photographer.
“After college, I wanted to be a food writer and to be the food voice that I would respect; I needed to learn how to become a better cook. I worked in restaurants for a year and then wound up at the world-renowned Tartine Bakery in San Francisco and apprenticed myself to the owner.
“Until that moment, it was the best bread I’d ever tasted, and he invited me eventually to work with him on his bread book in which we were going to teach the world how to make his bread that until then was a secret. I was going to the bank with that and opening a bakery later in life. But he offered me the opportunity to work with him on this book and photograph it.
“This was too good of an opportunity to pass up. It showed me that, hey, there is a career possibility that I could make a living taking pictures of food.”
The James Beard Award for Photography
The photography in Tartine Bread was one of three finalists for the 2010 James Beard Award.
In 2020, Wolfinger was once again nominated for American Sfoglino: A Master Class in Handmade Pasta and, this time, won the James Beard Award for photography.
“I worked with probably one of the most famous pasta chefs in America [Michelin-recommended Los Angeles chef Evan Funke] whose goal was to teach and keep alive the dying art of making pasta entirely by hand — mixing and rolling the dough out by hand with a five-and-a-half-foot pole, the mattarello,” says the chef-photographer. “A sheet of rolled-out pasta is called sfoglia, and a male person who rolls the pasta is a sfoglino.
“I learned to roll pasta by hand before taking a single photo. Like the Tartine Bread book, it’s a teaching book. It exists not to fluff its author’s ego or to put pretty pictures in the world, but it’s a workhorse to celebrate and dignify the inherent beauty of the craft and the artisans.
“I was not thinking about the style of the photography other than I wanted for every photo to choose the right angle that would both teach and exalt the subject matter.”
“Make the Light You Wish You Had”
When Wolfinger started with a job at Tartine Bakery, he had no idea he was destined to be a photographer one day.
“Before I ever considered photography for a living, another photographer came in to shoot at the bakery,” says Wolfinger. “I shadowed him or sort of helped clear the way for his shoot, and I watched him work.
“I didn’t really, understand what was going on. He was shooting medium format…it was a huge camera, and he had many lights. I asked him, ‘What advice can you give an aspiring photographer?’ He said, ‘Make the light you wish you had.’ But I was like, ‘I don’t know what light I wish I had.’”
Later, the bread photographer found himself in a pizzeria, capturing the beautiful fire blazing in the oven, but there was no good light for the pizzaiolo working beside it. He wished there was a window right next to him with the sun shining in this direction.
“And, boom,” says the photographer. “I can make that kind of light [with my flash heads and softboxes].”
He now understood what the photographer meant when he said, “Make the light you wish you had.”
When Wolfinger’s baker boss asked him to photograph the bread book in 2009 as his first professional assignment, it took him a couple of years to finish the project as he was teaching himself photography as he went along. There was a window at the bakery, and the sunlight bounced off the building across the road and entered the kitchen as a soft window light which he harvested for his imagery.
“That was one light that I loved,” he says. “And then I did another commission at a small Lodge in the Bay Area where there was only a tiny window, and the light shining through there was like a cool kind of soft light that gave the photo a completely different mood than what I’d been getting at Tartine. And there again, it was like, oh wow, this is a [totally different] quality of light.
“The source of the light and the whole setup is telling a story, and so early in my career, I was a natural light shooter, and I would just make do with whatever light I could find.”
“As I grew in my career, I had opportunities to shoot in places that didn’t have windows. I began making the light that I wished I had because I was in places where I didn’t have any light. I did a cookbook in a casino early in my career, and if you know, one of the secrets of casinos is that they don’t have any windows. So, I needed to learn how to use artificial light.
“I now have a set of Profoto B1X, a set of Profoto B10, and the little on-camera flash — the Profoto A1. I never shoot that [A1] on camera. It’s like a little emergency light if I need a fifth light or a little pop here or there.
“I also use a bunch of different Profoto modifiers, huge modifiers, small modifiers, and multiple modifiers but never bigger than 4×4 feet.
Wolfinger, whose clients are chefs with multiple Michelin stars, like William Bradley in San Diego, would recommend beginner food photographers to use window light – not outdoors in the sun and not the overhead tungsten type (or any other type) of light. If there is no window or it is dark outside, he advises against bouncing flash off the ceiling but instead using a wall.
“Turn off all of the overhead lights if you can [otherwise] you’re just getting a garbled mess. Bounce that on-camera flash off the wall adjacent to you, and that will begin to approximate the window light. Ceiling-bounce, that’ll never look good.”
“I’ve never photographed food under a skylight and been happy with the image, and if you’re bouncing light off the ceiling, it’s basically, you’re creating a skylight. You want a little shape; you want shadow; you want something to help define the thing. If I put a softbox on a boom arm right over the food, it would work maybe for a fill, but that would never be my key.
“I use a snoot. I use my little on-camera flash for off-camera to give me specular highlights. It’s always, what is the food telling me? What am I trying to say here?
“I do a fair amount of video and photo side by side, and LED lighting is the answer. If you use LEDs thoughtfully with sound diffusion, it can be great.
“I happen to love working without a tripod. I like being free. I’m at my best when I’m kind of improvising and figuring it out, but what I love about strobe is that I can always get a sharp shot handheld.
“Now, on a commercial set, you know, maybe I’ll do that to find my angle, but then I gotta lock in so we can finesse things.”
A Food Should Say “Eat Me”
“Every dish, whether it’s a street taco or a fancy Sacher-Torte [Austrian chocolate cake] or a dish from a three-star Michelin restaurant, has its personality, appeal, and story,” says the globe-trotting photographer. “What a perfect food photograph should do is to capture the essence and the intent of that food.
“A photo of a taco should just scream at you, ‘Eat Me’ because that’s what that’s all about. The Sacher-Torte in Vienna should also scream ‘Eat Me,’ but it’s refined food served in a refined hotel setting, and I want to feel the setting in that photograph. A great food photo has a sense of personality and place beyond just looking delicious.
“You could compare it to some degree to a person’s portrait. A great portrait is more than just nice light on someone’s face. When you’re getting a great iconic portrait, you’re getting at its essence.
Treat the Food Like a Portrait
If the cake-maker at a wedding asks the wedding photographer to take a photo of the $2,000 cake for his site, Wolfinger would advise the photographer to think of the cake as a person to get the best image.
“Treat that cake like it’s the bride,” says the food photographer. “Make that cake look elegant, timeless, and beautiful. Do everything that you do for the bride. Do to that cake, literally the same thing.
“What makes a classic, flattering portrait? Soft three-quarter light from one side, right? Shoot the cake like that.
“Treat it like a portrait, whether it is a simple taco or an expensive prime steak. Think of it not as a piece of food on the plate but as a person with a story and a vibe. How would you shoot that if it were a person?
Real vs. Fake Food
Food photographers have used various tricks like substituting glue for milk in cereal shots, so it does not get absorbed, glycerin coated onto seafood to make it look juicier, lacquer painted onto rice to make it shinier, or shaving cream instead of whipped cream.
“That’s very old, old school,” says Wolfinger, who graduated with a political science and Spanish major from Pomona College in Claremont, California. “I believe it. That’s a whole different school of food photography.”
Wofinger says such tricks are resorted to in the industry only if the client has a particular sort of regimen of how they want their food to be presented. Also, in the film days, it would be laborious to do it later if you did not get your grill marks dark enough on the steak.
“I think the world, in general, is moving towards a style of food photography where we want the food to look real and delicious. Previously, you were shooting Polaroids to ensure you liked your composition and lighting. Then you had to wait for those to develop and then go back and take the photo. So, that steak had to look good for like an hour and a half. With digital, you can shoot that steak while it’s still warm and get the essence of that real food.
“I’ve even done ice cream work for McDonald’s, and we shot real ice cream [some use mashed potatoes], and what the client was most excited about was when everybody thought the photo was over, there was a little bit of melting happening, and I started shooting the melts.
“I started doing things with the melting ice cream that just made the ice cream look so delicious like you wanted to eat it, not perfect, but like you just want to eat it now, and you straddle the line between delicious and grotesque.
“I can tease things out of the food that nobody had planned for, and that is the fun and maybe secret sauce of making the food do something that nobody was expecting.
“What people hopefully look to me for is to help them get to that level where we’re like, ‘Oh my God, that looks so delicious.’ These are unexpected things that you won’t get with mashed potatoes.”
“I just wrapped a shoot with a three Michelin star chef. People pay hundreds of dollars for this guy’s food. He spends a ton of time making sure every plate looks perfect, and one of his comments was, ‘Wow, I never realized our food looked that good.’
“This is one way of saying that sometimes in the hands of an excellent food photographer, you can make food look better to anybody, even the person who created and plated it. You can show them their food in a different light, which makes them stop and say, ‘Wow, that looks better than it does in real life,’ and that’s why I’m in business.”
Cookbook Photo Shoots
“We try to shoot at least eight recipes per day in a cookbook shoot,” says the cookbook photographer. “Usually, you’re photographing between 50-80 recipes, and you shoot between 5-8 days, so you’re done in a week or ten days at 10 hours a day.
“I very rarely choose a milk white plate. A neutral tone from light to dark is more pleasing. The plate needs to have some texture and visual interest. The plate should have some texture in the glaze, maybe not in the clay or ceramic itself. All those considerations contribute to the final feeling and effect of the photograph.
On Cellphone Pics at Restaurants
Wolfinger says there is an etiquette of taking a photo of your food at a restaurant.
“Take it quickly, put it away, and eat the meal,” he advises. “The chef has prepared something for you, and their intent is for you to eat it, not take a photo of it. It’s very nice to take a photo of the meal but just do it quickly.
“You don’t go to a restaurant to build your portfolio as a food photographer; you go there to eat a nice meal. If you want to build your portfolio as a food photographer, go to the chef and offer to take photos for his Instagram the next day.
Unusual Culinary Experiences
“I’ve eaten some wild stuff,” says Wolfinger. “I was in Thailand, and we were at the authors’ family house as the guests of honor. They put out this spread, and one of the dishes was ant egg salad. It also featured live ants from the nest.
“I had to make that look like food, and not only that, but I also had to eat it. I was there as a guest, so I had to try it. I love my job.
“On that day, I ate ants and ant eggs, and by the end of the meal, an ant walked across my placemat, and I picked it up and put it in my mouth.
“In Oaxaca, Mexico, I was eating cricket quesadillas. I’m into crazy, exotic foods, but it’s cooler if you’re in a place where people actually eat the stuff.
“What made me question ‘Why am I doing this?’ was when I was working on a set and we were trying to fit fruits and vegetables into the design of a package. It was like, ‘Let’s move the pea this way, oh no, we got to move the pea that way, and then we gotta put the Kiwi here, oh we gotta move the Kiwi there. I did three straight weeks of that, and I was like, ‘I cannot do this. That is not interesting to me.’
“The ant egg salad was interesting because it was saturated with culture, and we were in an interesting place with a story. But getting fruits and vegetables to fit on 50 different packages was just too soul-sucking an assignment. It wasn’t about the food but about food as a prop.”
Cameras, Lenses, and Shooting Tethered
When Wolfinger set off for Latin America in 2006 to do a food blog, his first camera was the Canon Rebel XT.
“In high school, I took a black and white film class, and then through college, I always traveled every summer. I lived in Mexico for a summer, in Costa Rica for a summer, in Tahiti for a summer, in Germany for a year, and in Spain. I’ve always shot film back then but never with an SLR, but always with a point-and-shoot.
“Always color, always negative. I ultimately realized that Kodak 400 was my favorite. I’ve developed two or three rolls of film in my life.
“Once the Sony a7R III came out, I was like, ‘This is it. I don’t need another camera, and then I dropped it. I needed a repair, and I found the Sony a7R IV…I was like, ‘This is a great camera; I love this thing.
“I love autofocus on the Sony a7R IV. [If I am photographing a pizza] I’m zeroing in on that pepperoni cup and the little fat inside, making sure it glistens and looks delicious. And that’s where I move that central focusing square to get autofocus [but where I specifically want.]
“Shooting tethered is a blessing and a curse. When you show the client the back of your
camera, they can’t see as much, so they must trust you. But in tethered, when you put someone’s food in good light and make a few edit adjustments with curves, you can get people excited about what you’re doing.
“I find that shooting tethered is more of a help than a hindrance. It’s weird coming from a guy who likes to be all free. What I mean is I don’t want to be attached to a tripod, but I don’t mind being attached to a computer.
“I do my own Lightroom. I do a lot of looks and feel editing in Lightroom, but I outsource a hardcore pixel modification. If I have to do it big or change the photo materially, I outsource that.”
Looking Toward the Future
“Food is my true north. That’s where I get my energy, and photography continues to be how I can express my love of it and make a living.
“I guess unless CNN turns me into the next Anthony Bourdain, I’m going to be shooting for the rest of my life,” says Wolfinger, whose mantra is ‘Shoot the feeling, not just the stuff.’ “I will always be in food. I love food. Whenever I think I’ve seen everything, a new project comes along that just surprises me with something new or exciting that I hadn’t learned or didn’t have a perspective on.
“Shooting food has meant me free diving with women divers in South Korea, hiking in the Alps with cheese makers, learning their craft, and more. Food touches so many interesting people and places.”
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.
Image credits: All photos courtesy Eric Wolfinger. Header photo courtesy Hayne Palmour IV / For The San Diego Union-Tribune)