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What makes a good food photo? Ask OKC food shooter Brandon Smith

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Food photographer Brandon Smith shows chef Emma Ryan some of photos he's taken during a photo shoot for Ryan in Oklahoma City. Smith has a laptop and external monitor tethered to his camera so he can show clients pictures as he works. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]
Food photographer Brandon Smith shows chef Emma Ryan some of photos he's taken during a photo shoot for Ryan in Oklahoma City. Smith has a laptop and external monitor tethered to his camera so he can show clients pictures as he works. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]

His subject sat still and without any clothes on as photographer Brandon Smith adjusted the lighting, clicked off a few pictures and smiled at what his camera caught.

“I love the shine on the beans,” he said.

It was a typical Thursday morning in a Paseo home where Smith, 29, each week pays a visit and photographs food for client Emma Ryan, a chef, food blogger, health coach and owner of Plant, a Midtown vegan restaurant scheduled to open this summer.

The subject of the shine was the bowl of lentils that go into Ryan’s vegan sloppy Joe sliders.

Combining his marketing background with a love for food and photography, Smith runs The Dwelling Table, an Oklahoma City-based advertising service for the hospitality industry. Some of the metro area’s hottest restaurants have called on Smith to bring their dishes to life through still photography.

Over the course of a few hours, Smith shot several photos of Ryan’s gourmet food, including a tabbouleh-based dish and a set of raw Twix bars. Ryan posts the food pictures on her website.

In a competitive market with foodies on the lookout for the next big thing, photography is a critical aspect of showing off one’s culinary chops and bringing customers through the door.

“It makes a difference,” Ryan said. “People eat visually. If someone puts up a picture and it doesn’t look good, I’m not going to try it.”

That’s true not only for restaurateurs, but for some self-styled food critics and home cooks who fancy themselves the Annie Leibowitzes of food photography, but whose pictures of vittles leave onlookers reaching for antacids.

While there is a host of great food photography online, there are parts of the internet dedicated to collecting the worst of such pictures, from terrible shots of casserole disasters to — and this has been documented — a pizza sauce, tuna salad and bacon bit sandwich.

Tracy Hamlin, an Oklahoma City resident who posts food and beverage reviews across social media, says no matter how good the meal is, a bad photo can turn people away.

“You eat with your eyes, and the same goes with trying to get someone to try what you're trying,” he said.

Like a lot of foodies, Hamlin shoots food photos through his smartphone camera, but he pays special attention to lighting and detail. If you want someone to try that great new place you found, take several shots and edit before posting, he said.

“Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it,” he said.

Smith took to food photography while following blogs. Now, Instagram has enabled him to connect with other shooters and pick up insights about techniques and gear.

At Ryan’s house, he set the dishes on a marble slab on top of an old milk crate. A tripod held the camera for shots from above. He carried the camera for close-ups. A nearby laptop showed what the photos would look like before he hit the camera button.

It was far more elaborate than the point-and-shoot food photos people see on a relative’s social media page. Smith also keeps an eye on trends in the medium. Is gold cutlery in? Is that back splash right for this dish? What about butcher block?

In consulting with clients, Smith will create a “mood board,” or a collage of photos he thinks will set the proper tone for a menu, website or magazine. Often that means keeping in mind what kind of dish is being shot, what the season is and what type of restaurant he’s working with.

“It’s usually a collaboration between myself and the client,” Smith said. “If someone has a vision, I’ll roll with it.”

And there are tricks to certain shots. When it comes to “styling” a burger, Smith likes to show off the meat and toppings by moving the top bun back a little.

As he snapped away at the sloppy Joe sliders, Smith and Ryan simultaneously cheered one shot they thought was perfect. Smith laughed.

“It’s the best feeling when you and the person you’re working with are like ‘yeah, that’s it,’” he said.

Related Photos
<strong>Food photographer Brandon Smith talks about his craft during a photo shoot in Oklahoma City.</strong>

Food photographer Brandon Smith talks about his craft during a photo shoot in Oklahoma City.

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-f6d098b7758a1984b7ac97c9aba37253.jpg" alt="Photo - Food photographer Brandon Smith talks about his craft during a photo shoot in Oklahoma City. " title=" Food photographer Brandon Smith talks about his craft during a photo shoot in Oklahoma City. "><figcaption> Food photographer Brandon Smith talks about his craft during a photo shoot in Oklahoma City. </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-eb4b31c0ea51cb1db8c81e7c7fe4936e.jpg" alt="Photo - Chef Emma Ryan uses her phone to take a picture of the set up by food photographer Brandon Smith. " title=" Chef Emma Ryan uses her phone to take a picture of the set up by food photographer Brandon Smith. "><figcaption> Chef Emma Ryan uses her phone to take a picture of the set up by food photographer Brandon Smith. </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-b67601ee5d5c7709238a93654c4fda83.jpg" alt="Photo - Food photographer Brandon Smith positions his camera on a tripod for an overhead shot. " title=" Food photographer Brandon Smith positions his camera on a tripod for an overhead shot. "><figcaption> Food photographer Brandon Smith positions his camera on a tripod for an overhead shot. </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-053c67f41c5880f0714f524f4d211351.jpg" alt="Photo - Food photographer Brandon Smith shows chef Emma Ryan some of photos he's taken during a photo shoot for Ryan in Oklahoma City. Smith has a laptop and external monitor tethered to his camera so he can show clients pictures as he works. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman] " title=" Food photographer Brandon Smith shows chef Emma Ryan some of photos he's taken during a photo shoot for Ryan in Oklahoma City. Smith has a laptop and external monitor tethered to his camera so he can show clients pictures as he works. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Food photographer Brandon Smith shows chef Emma Ryan some of photos he's taken during a photo shoot for Ryan in Oklahoma City. Smith has a laptop and external monitor tethered to his camera so he can show clients pictures as he works. [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-9a2c6c8816c2d5b0f2fadfe00765da49.jpg" alt="Photo - Food photographer Brandon Smith checks the image on the back of his camera during a photo shoot in Oklahoma City. The monitor behind him shows the photos as he takes them. " title=" Food photographer Brandon Smith checks the image on the back of his camera during a photo shoot in Oklahoma City. The monitor behind him shows the photos as he takes them. "><figcaption> Food photographer Brandon Smith checks the image on the back of his camera during a photo shoot in Oklahoma City. The monitor behind him shows the photos as he takes them. </figcaption></figure>
Josh Dulaney

Josh Dulaney joined The Oklahoman in November 2016. Dulaney is a California Newspaper Publishers Association award winner for his writing. In both 2018 and 2019 he earned newspaper writer of the year honors from the Great Plains Journalism Awards. Read more ›

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