It’s one thing to plan a restaurant shoot or a client brief for a particular project, but how do you go about planning and photographing a much longer project, like a cookbook? In this post, I’m sharing my tips on how to photograph a self-published cookbook, but the advice holds true for a longer project like an e-book too.
Get Clear on Your Aesthetic
When you’ve picked your cookbook topic, it might already be really clear to you what kind of look and feel you want to create with your book. If you’re not so sure, start collecting visual inspiration from Pinterest, magazines, or other cookbooks to get inspired and sift through what resonates with you and what doesn’t. A few questions you might ask yourself:
- How do I want the cookbook to feel and what mood should it evoke?
- How do I want people to feel when they look through the book?
- Does the aesthetic align with the seasons?
- Do I want to shoot with hard light or soft light or a mixture of both?
- How much movement do I want to incorporate?
- Do I want to focus on food portraiture or include wider tablescapes as well?
When I was creating my cookbook, I knew I wanted the entire book to feel colorful, fun, bold and dynamic. This lent itself naturally to hard light, pops of color and a mixture of macro shots and food portraits.
Pick a Color Palette
Once you have a clear idea of the mood and feel for your cookbook, get clear on your primary color palette. If it’s a book of soups or stews, perhaps the tones and colors will be set within a fall palette of browns, burnt oranges, and mossy greens. The topic of your book might lead you to a particular color palette. Working within the confines of a specific palette will help you to create a book that feels cohesive and consistent. Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules, but I found it useful to pick six or seven main colors I would weave into the whole book, primarily through my choice of colorful surfaces. I then added a sense of variety through complementary props, styling, and composition.
You might have a huge collection of props that match the aesthetic you’ve set out for your cookbook. In that case, you’re set to go! However, it’s more likely that you have some existing pieces that are appropriate, but you need to bulk up your collection to give enough visual variety for an entire cookbook. If you have the budget to purchase more, that’s fantastic, but if you are on a budget, there are a few ways to get creative.
I approached a local homewares store in my city that stocked a lot of pieces I knew would match the aesthetic I was aiming for with my book. Every time I had a shoot planned in my diary, I would email the store a list of what I wanted, and I would rent the items for 20% of the retail price. This meant I had the flexibility to bring in new pieces for each cookbook section while maintaining a sense of consistency across the various shoots. I could also pick up pieces that would work perfectly for a certain recipe, but weren’t something I would necessarily want to use over and over again in my own props collection.
Another option could be to reach out to local food or props stylists in your area and agree on a similar loan deal where you can pick from their collection and return it when you’re done.
Once you have an idea of the direction you’re going to take your cookbook in, it’s time to plot out your shoot days. You can use software like Asana to keep on track or simply use your phone or computer's in-built calendar. It’s important to know how you like to work best. Personally, I didn’t want to shoot multiple days of the week for seven or eight weeks to tackle the entire cookbook in one heroic burst, although I appreciate that might work really well for others.
Instead, I tackled the photography section by section and would block out a week at a time to photograph. This worked particularly well because I was doing everything myself, from the cooking and plating to styling, shooting and washing up. This method gave me enough space around the edges of my schedule to maintain momentum, to sit with the images I had shot, and to see whether I was enjoying the direction and what changes I wanted to make moving forwards.
Try to keep a certain amount of flexibility in your approach. While the majority of my cookbook was shot section by section, sometimes, I hadn’t finished all of the testing for every recipe, so some shoot weeks would be a hybrid of recipes from different sections, depending on where I’d gotten to with my testing.
Print Your Images
When you’ve photographed a whole section, either use your home printer or take the files to a print shop and get the images in front of you in real life. You can pin them up on a wall in the order you had imagined them to go in, and this will not only help you to get a sense of how the book flows visually, but also a chance to spot any details that might need your attention in retouching, like stray crumbs or mess on the lip of a bowl that might have escaped you on the screen. You can swap the images around, see where you might need some more white space, variation, new angle, or some movement. The luxury when you’re self-publishing a cookbook is that you can work to your own schedule and reshoot anything that’s not working for you.
If you’ve tackled a longer project like self-publishing a cookbook or creating your own e-book, I would love to hear your tips for how you approached it, maintained momentum, or implemented a process that allowed you to be as happy as possible with the result.