Friday, November 5, 2010

Writing a Cookbook Part 7, styling and the photo shoots

What happens on a photo shoot?

Planning for several pages of photos (i.e. they are all going to be in the same magazine or book) requires some though. For a magazine you may have from 2 to 6 or 7 pages, must follow the magazine style and be in 'harmony' with the other writers' pages. But usually for magazines you get a stylist or the art director, or staff designer involved (sometimes all three!), and it is their job to make sure that your colour palette or styling taste don't clash with the rest of the pages.

For a book you are often on your own, and you must imagine the finished product: in a few words, when you turn the pages you don't want to be assaulted by images that are too different from one another: a bright red, followed by pastel colours, and then a black background, and so on. Be coherent in style and propping, and colour coordinated.

I have just seen this video: Behind the scenes on the photo shoot for India Cookbook, very familiar I must say, all the cooking, setting up, talking, props and food everywhere... with the difference that the book writer wasn't there, but there were two cooks and a stylist, plus the photographer. And of course the people who did the video!

And here are my snap shots (not the book shots) of 'behind the scenes', and a quick description of what happens and what it is needed for a cookbook photo shoot.


It takes time. You may need to borrow plates and props from shops (too expensive to buy everything!) and return them in perfect conditions, usually the day after. Some shops ask for a deposit, or charge a 20/30% for lending stuff. Also sometimes the choice is limited and often you see the same glasses and plates in all the magazines because everybody borrows the same stuff! I like to find artisan potters who are happy to lend stuff, and to go to second hand shops to find unusual or old pieces. For backgrounds it is difficult to find tablecloths of the right shade, so I usually go to shops that sell fabrics and buy a few pieces of material.

If you borrow stuff always credit the supplier.


It requires even longer than propping, you are shopping for the ingredients, and prepare the food (lots of it, we usually shoot 10 to 12 dishes in one day). If only some of the recipes in your book require photos, choose carefully among those that are more photogenic, or those that need a picture because they may be unfamiliar to the readers. In my new book every single recipe has a photo, plus there are many step by step photos. Basically it is a good workout for me, since I don't have two cooks in the kitchen and a stylist in the dining room (like in the video).

One recurring problem with ingredients is finding fruit and vegetables out of season. This happens also when working for magazines, where you usually shoot 4 to 2 months ahead (but sometimes also at short notice!). I remember trying to find artichokes once, after calling the entire nation I found them in the Manukau (now Auckland) botanic gardens, one odd plant that was fruiting out of season. The gardeners kindly gave me the artichokes :-)!

For a book can be even more difficult: sometimes you have only a few weeks to do all the photos, and one year worth of produce to photograph!


You may or may not need models, mine always been family members, neighbors, and friends.
Surprisingly quite a lot of people want to pose, and there are recurring jokes among my friends about who gets to be in the book and who doesn't. In a way I really prefer to use non professional models; all the food I photograph is real, and gets eaten, so it is quite appropriate that the models are also 'real' people, and they do really eat the food that they are holding!

Always credit the models in your book.


It is the first time that I had volunteers during photo shoots. I never thought of it, it is hard work and I never wanted to ask other people to help. But some offered, just because being on a shoot is exciting, you can learn a lot, and get food!!! So I got a variety of people keen to come over: a chef, an artist, an editor, a post graduate who wants to get into publishing, a gourmand!
For me it was practical help, and for them a learning experience. What do volunteers do? Well, a lot of waiting around to start with (believe me, even the waiting around can be tiring!), but they have to be ready when a screen needs to be held, or maybe a piece of material ironed (although usually it is I or the photographer who do the ironing), or loading the dishwasher, and sometimes helping with chopping and assembling food.

Always credit the volunteers in your book (a little credit for them will later in this post too!)

Organisation on location

Sometimes it all looks like a mess, and then it all comes together. Most of the shoots are done in my house and I try to be a good hostess as well, making sure that photographer, models and volunteers get plenty of coffee, tea, drinks and, mostly, water. And then food, once again making sure that only the food that has been already photographed is eaten!!!!

It is rewarding to feed people with the food that will appear in a book: you get instant remuneration from compliments, and it keeps you going. If they liked it, then readers will like it!


Now it is all done digitally, only my first book was on film. I liked film, it had magic, but I must admit that digital photos are the best for step by step images, and I really like to see what is happening on a screen. Of course the photographer has to work more processing the images, and sometimes you shoot and shoot and shoot far too much, and far too long!


On the one hand I have to say that my house is perfect for photo shoots because it has large windows and French doors, and plenty of natural light. Also the garden is big and easy to step in and out, the place is quiet, and open. But in New Zealand, and Auckland in particular, the weather is so changeable! Quite different from Italy, for example. Here in NZ the clouds seem to run faster overhead, one minute it is sunny, then it is not, then only partially... a bit of a waiting game really! Shooting ice cream is tough in New Zealand!

Occasionally I go on location, we did it once for this book, and I tell you: if you get well organized ahead you will only need to pack a few things. I am definitely getting better at this!
And then you just have to hope for good weather and light...

Cleaning up

A few years back in New Zealand was in fashion the term Super Mum. One of the main requisites to be a Super Mum was to be multi-tasking, and this term even found its way into job descriptions and CVs. Of course many women abhorred the idea: it is enough hard work being a Mum, even without the word Super attached to it! So it was mainly used by women who believed to be Super Mums but publicly denied (i.e. I am not a Super Mum, just an ordinary working mum who is up at dawn to make lunch boxes, goes to the office, then gets home in the evening, cooks dinner and read books to kids...). The term Super Mum was then replaced by the term Domestic Goddess. This 'confused' a few 'modern' women, but at least it had the advantage that you didn't have to be a Mum to be a Domestic Goddess. And it had appeal and glamour! So it was used, and accepted, by many, as a compliment. In fact many female food writers (including me) were referred to as domestic goddesses one time or another, yet only the 'original one' lives in Belgravia.

Why I am writing all this? Maybe because the terms Super Mum and Domestic Goddess always comes to mind when I am mopping the floors. You need a bit of humor when you clean up, I think. After the photographer is gone I am left with a house to clean, and children to care for, I find no glamour in cleaning, and this is why I want to say to my volunteers, Claire, Pat, Sue, Frances and Morgan, that I really appreciate every single pot and cup you washed! And I have a new term for you: thank you, my Super Goddesses!

Learning experiences

I never stop learning... what did I learned this time? Many things, including that when working with white icing you should wear white, but when working with chocolate, you should avoid wearing your cute pastel coloured skirt.

Till next post



  1. Another great post about the process of putting together your cookbook, dear Alessandra. Thanks so much for sharing your journey! Lots of great inside tips for anyone trying to create their own. I’m not, but there are so many things in your post I can relate to, and that made me smile.

    Even as a wee little blogger, I often feel this way: “sometimes you shoot and shoot and shoot far too much, and far too long!”

    Your “propping” snapshot of the turquoise and brown napkins is gorgeous! Food can definitely be trickier to photograph . . .

    It sounds like the weather in Auckland is just as changeable as it is here in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

    Yes, always express gratitude to those who help you with the cleaning up, even if you’re just cooking one meal, not trying to make a cookbook. They are Super Goddesses indeed!

    Your advice on avoiding chocolate while wearing a pastel-colored skirt is well taken, although I can’t recall the last time I wore either pastels or a skirt :)

    I would be happy to be a volunteer for one of your shoots anytime . . . if only we lived in the same hemisphere.

    Best of luck to you in your cooking and cookbook-making adventures, my friend!

  2. Interesting article Alessandra and good video too.
    I sincerely would have liked to be part of these 'little hands' ;)

  3. Thank you for your lovely comment Eggy! I really appreciate that you found the time to read all my blabbering, and write such a long and feeling comment.

    And you never know, the world is small, we may be in the same hemisphere sometimes :-)

    ciao and XXXX

  4. @ Vanille, the hands were mostly little this time ;-).
    Thank you for your thoughts :-)

  5. Alessandra, would you be ok if I posted a link to this post on my facebook page? You can email me at or find me on facebook as Sharon Rudd at (I think)


  6. Gonna tweet this - such a great series. How many will be in the series?

  7. I really enjoyed this post. Having absolutely no experience with this sort of thing, I learned a great deal and just a thanks for that.

    Sorry about the cute skirt..hope the chocolate stains came out.

  8. Oh neat, never would have thought of borrowing props, thanks for sharing.

  9. @ Sasa, actually I don't know, I will try to compact them... the fact is that you can only imagine the amount of work, but then that can change.

    @ Gardeningbren, the chocolate didn't come out completely, but it is a large skirt with stripes and movement, so it is not really noticeable...

    @ Jenny, look at back pages of books and magazine (especially magazines) there is the list of all the staff they borrow.

  10. Thanks for letting us come along to your shoot, Alessandra. I'm glad you could use some of the crockery. It was great fun, even the cleaning up!

  11. I am oh so glad you got a shot of me cleaning- not just prancing around with delicious food!!
    It was so much fun Ale! Thank you for asking me to be a part of it. I can't wait to see the finished book! :) :)

  12. I have really been enjoying these posts, Alessandra, but this one has really caught my interest. I have heard from so many people (but not at all scared away) about how much work goes in to writing a cookbook. I think of the process as being exciting, not a lot of work (but maybe that's just my naivete). But reading your first hand account has only increased my excitement! Thank you so much for sharing this invaluable information!!


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