Popping Yolks and Photographing Food with Egg Poppa
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Jenn de la Vega is a person that you want to be your best friend. In 2014, she launched a project to put out a cassette release with her band, The Shortsleeves. Since then, she's joined us for Creator Hangouts, dropped some wisdom for Creator Basics, live-tweeted rocket liftoffs, become editor-at-large for Put A Egg On It, and made me really, really hungry with her Instagram. Her photography skills are on point and she does a good job making the internet salivate. For that reason, we decided to ask her for some food photography tips that we could share with all of you. While some of the focus is on food, many of her other tips can really help anyone that's new to photographing, or 'gramming their work. –– Carol
How’d you get started in food photography?
I wouldn’t call myself a food photographer. I learned by doing. Originally I took photos as a visual catalog because I had a random sandwich delivery service where I never made the same one twice. Now I have friends that help me with photo shoots on my blog but when I’m experimenting at odd hours, I need to take the photos myself.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
I use the camera on my iPhone 6. Before that, I had a Samsung Galaxy S5. Before 2015, I shot mostly one-handed until I got an Amazon Basics tripod (which changed everything).
I love the spring tripod mount from Square Jellyfish. It holds your phone snug and can rotate.
Walk us through your food photo set up.
I have a bench that doubles as my tool box. Inside you’ll find fabric swatches, clips, utensils, tweezers, a Lightcase (#Kickstarted!), and flexible plastic backdrops. My tripod is always facing downward to take aerial shots if I want to work with time-lapse, zoom or completely hands-free.
I alternate between using the kitchen table or a chair dressed with a backdrop, cutting board and fabric swatch. If a photo is macro, you’ll know that I was rushed or too lazy to set up the chair.
What’s your secret to a good food photo?
Focus. Tap to focus and turn on the grid lines when you take photos on your phone. If you can get a focal point in the center or intersection of a square on the grid, you won’t have to crop or adjust much later.
Another important definition of focus is in your curation of your collection or feed. If you say you’re a chef and mostly post selfies, that’s not focused on what you’re trying to communicate to the world. A selfie in the kitchen can be part of the story, for sure, when it makes sense.
Are different types of food harder to photograph than others?
I love difficult food. It may be tricky to capture, so I prep a few servings and have another clean plate ready in case I don’t get it in one shot. Sometimes egg yolks flow the wrong way or don’t drip the way you want them to. If you let it pool, it develops a skin that wrinkles if you move it; much like hot cheese or milk. Ice cream melts. Greens and crispy garnishes on top of hot dishes will wilt. Salads need fluffing if you put dressing on them.
Cheese is fun. If I need a melt or sizzle, I break out the kitchen torch or for bigger pieces, my new Searzall.
What’s your favorite food to photograph?
EGGS. ~sings~ I love it when you call me Egg Poppa.
I get really giddy popping egg yolks. It’s so sensual and raw (literally). Funniest implement I’ve used has been an asparagus. Sous vide eggs are deceptive. I attempted to “pop” one and its custardy texture bounced back.
Do you take all of your photos in a kitchen? What’s the best setting for a food photograph? The most interesting place you've taken a food photo?
A majority of photos are from my kitchen because that is what I’m thinking about and making at that moment. However, you’ll find some photos from catering gigs and events. If I’m in it and you can see my hands, that means I didn’t take it!
I’ve styled a few salads on the rooftop of MoMA PS.1 with Salad for President. But my favorite food photo location was in Hawaii. We made dinner for my birthday and brought it out to the beach 20 feet away from our house. Blurry sunset and artichokes! Sometimes the story is more meaningful than having a perfect picture.
Your Instagram is one of the best that I follow. How do you describe the general vibe of your feed?
I’m hard to pin down. I swing between the extremes of trashy laziness with store-bought foods like Pop Tarts and meticulous locavore. Food is both pretty as a pile and organized neatly. Food tastes good out of a box and fresh from the farm. I’m constantly experimenting. And if a dish has an egg yolk, expect the next post to be a video of me popping it.
To quote the Descendents,
“I like food, food tastes good! I like food, food tastes good!
Juicy burgers, greasy fries, Turkey legs, and raw fish eyes
Teenage girls, with ketchup too! Get out of my way, or I'll eat you!”
Filter or no filter? Best filter?
For some reason, the only ready-to-go filter I like is “Breeze” on Twitter. It makes everything look retro and I try to provide different looking material across social media platforms. On Instagram, no filter unless something benefits from looking vintage in low light.
What are your shooting and photo editing preferences on Instagram?
I do have a set of parameters when I edit photos on Instagram. This is different for everyone. Most notable food photographers have a recognizable style or consistent prop. I go for moody when I’m shooting on black plates, more saturated on sunny days and there is almost always a rustic looking cutting board. Yours might be a fork you love, your blue dinner table or a napkin your grandma gave you. Natural light is the best. Not blaring direct sunlight but a moderately sunny day with some cloud cover.
These are my settings for a naturally lit food photo on Instagram: Adjust the camera to a point of interest like a drip, the center of a dish, or corner at the intersection or center of the nine grid lines. Rotate to straighten it out if there are hard lines in the photo. Sometimes I like the parabola of a plate to “kiss” the edges of a grid.
(And some advanced settings that Jenn recommends: Brightness 25-35, Contrast -50, Structure 10, Warmth -50, Saturation 15, Color 10, either the majority color or contrasting if it’s not a diverse palette. Highlights 20, Shadows 10, depending on the lighting situation Vignette, none except if it’s on a black surface, then it’s all the way to 100. Sharpen 15.)
Any advice for creators just getting started on social media?
You don’t have to be everywhere at once, pick one or two channels and really own them. I started out with all of my energy on Tumblr, but it’s evolved into a workflow from Instagram to Tumblr using IFTTT. I save some fun stuff like me beasting on an ice cream sandwich for Snapchat.
Know your file limitations on each platform. If you’re using GIFs, Tumblr’s file size limit is 1.5 MB while Twitter’s is 3 MB. If you use multiple apps to edit photos or video, compare the compression and video quality. It can get blurry uploading and downloading a copy of a copy.
A secret video editor I like to use for my saved Snapchat stories is Ultravisual. You can edit photo, video, and photo WITH video together on your phone. It even has an “auto edit” all clips to 16 seconds.
(Editor's note: You can check Kickstarter's image and video specifications in our FAQ.)
You recently became an editor at Put A Egg On It. Since you’ve joined their team, have you learned anything new about food photography, or telling stories around food in general?
I have! My favorite thing to do with the Egg team is creating parody recipes. In issue 12, we mocked up a 50’s Betty Crocker recipe card with my take on mortadella in a copper mold. Just listening to Ralph and Sarah art direct is fascinating. For one shot in the magazine, we may take hundreds of photos to get it right.
The way to find unique food stories is to listen, go where people make food or create a reason for people to gather and eat. A new feature we have is called “Dinner Conversation,” where we invite 3 diverse artists across genres (and generations!) to dinner. We record and transcribe the ensuing discussion. I loved listening to J.D. Samson and Barbara Hammer talk about growing up, found in issue 10.
You’ve backed so many projects on Kickstarter! What do you look for on a project page? What makes you stop and pledge? Do you have a favorite project description or video?
I follow my friends on Kickstarter and when I see multiple people backing a project, I go check it out. I’m always watching the food category for innovative ideas and spaces. Even if a bakery is located nowhere near where I live, helping someone make their dream come true with my small contribution is well worth it. I look for unique campaign rewards, first runs, editions and of their kind. If I’m one of the first backers to receive and try something, I’m probably one of the first in the world!
One of my favorites was a small zine run by Tumblr Book’s Rachel Fershleiser. Simple, succinct and a great story.
I loved the graphic of Butter and Scotch, really sold me on their idea with a bulleted list, too.
Guts of Glory isn’t really a food project but more a food-themed game project. Instead of using the Kickstarter title sections, they made their own header graphics that tied the whole “brand” together.
Scratch and sniff herbs on adult Lunchables! I was in as soon as I read that.
Want to leave us with a summer recipe and chill tune to vibe out to?
Here’s a fun non-recipe. Make an ice cream sandwich with a Pop Tart cut in half. Currently obsessed with Ice and Vice’s ice cream s'mores, so I made this monstrosity.
I love Slow Magic and this song reminds me of road trips with your hands out the windows. Beaches, fireworks, BBQs, holding hands, and more ice cream sandwiches this summer.
And our advice? Practice! Share photos with friends and get their feedback. If they ask when they can come over for dinner, take that as a sign that you're doing something right.