Whatever dish is put in front of him, food photographer William Reavell can make it look amazing — a skill that has landed him major assignments. Here he explains what goes into a great shot — and how we can all take better food photos, too.
When did you first pick up a camera?
I was 14 or 15. My family brought home a 35mm camera; when I saw it I thought, ‘Wow!’. I thought it looked amazing, very seductive and something I really wanted to master. My mum actually used to do some photography when she was younger and had her own darkroom.
What was the attraction of food?
Initially, I used to enjoy taking photographs of people, landscapes... I thought I was going to be more of an arty-type photographer, but had no idea about how to make a living at all. When I graduated I obviously realised I had to make some money and I realised that food photography might be a good way to do that.
What have been some of your best projects?
I’ve enjoyed meeting some really interesting people. Working with James Martin, the celebrity chef, on one of his earlier books and having him in the studio was a highlight. Another time [British food writer and television presenter] Mary Berry came into the studio to look at the photography I was doing for her book. That was exciting.
Who is normally in the studio with you when you do a shoot?
We have the food stylist and his/her team, [maybe] the prop stylist and the art director.
What are some of the photographic issues and problems that are unique to food?
Food is a really messy thing. As soon as it is cooked it starts going cold, it starts going stale, so the big issue is to photograph it as quickly as possible, making quick decisions. It can easily be the case that you’re talking so much about what you’re going to do in the photograph that the food is slowly dying in front of the lens. So preparation is key.
How short is your window of opportunity?
Usually about 10 minutes. The greatest challenge to a food photographer is probably to photograph a piping hot cheese souffle, which is really inflated when it comes out of the oven, and you’ve got to get the shot as soon as it comes out. I love those challenges.
What’s the secret to making food look great for a photo?
Preparation — and being confident enough to say, ‘It’s not working, let’s re-plate and do it again.’ I think often there is a temptation to keep going and thinking that the food is OK, where actually it has died. Starting again is sometimes the best way forward.
Something that’s notoriously difficult to make look good?
Things that are cylindrical in shape I find really annoying — so a tortilla wrap or a log, like a Swiss roll. I think it’s the way the lens produces a two-dimension image when we’re so used to looking at food with both our eyes and we compensate for these awkward shapes. Our brain looks at the filling and looks at the shape and we know what it tastes like and we go, ‘Yummy!’ But if you just look at it through a lens then all you see are these uncomfortable shapes.
What’s the answer?
Really the only option is to cut it in half, split it open and concentrate on the filling rather than the shape.
Do you ever swap ingredients for a lookalike because it looks better or lasts better under the lights?
Certainly in the past when I started there were a lot of foods made up artificially, and I think the reason for that was that it was a much slower process and there were very hot lights. Now we work much more dynamically, so there’re very few things that are changed.
What kind of thing might be fudged?
I know that when fruits are out of season you can hire really good model fruit. An apricot, for example — they are really challenging to make look great because they are so seasonal, so you can hire a model instead.
Any there other little cheats?
No. With the type of work I do — editorial work for magazines and cookbooks — there’s a real passion and a real desire to photograph the real food, as you see it, as you cook it.
What happens to the food at the end of the shoot?
We try and eat it on the day, or we share it out and take it home. On rare occasions when we’re able to — because, obviously, it’s all cooked food — we share it out to homeless charities.
I’m in a restaurant and I want a nice picture for my Instagram account. What should I be doing?
The lens of a smartphone is a wide-angle, so if you get too close to the food and you position the camera at an awkward angle it will distort the food; it creates an odd-looking plate and bowl and the food itself looks strange, too. So with your smartphone, the most successful food photographs are the ones that are simply overhead. Also, aim for natural light as well, if you can. If it’s daytime, sit by a window.