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Dissecting The Formula For Food Porn

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"Can I just say one judgmental thing? He has terrible food photos."

I was having a discussion with a photographer friend who was appalled at the quality of photos another friend of hers was posting. "I mean, you take way too many food photos, but at least they're good," she said, looking straight at me.

Food photos -- good ones at least -- are appealing. We all take them. We all love them. There's no sense in denying it.

Personally I like food photos (and I am very much guilty of taking far too many of them) because they provide for good visual inspiration, no recipes needed. It is also certainly worth arguing that posting photos of what we eat is certainly getting us to think more, and talk more, about what it is that we're ingesting. But just as with all good things, we must have some moderation.

Instagram announced that this Thanksgiving it broke its single-day record for photo sharing, with U.S. users sharing 10 million images (on average, the social sharing application sees about 5 million photos shared per day). That's 226 photographs per second. Full disclosure: I posted one.

Do we really need 226 photographs per second of overdone turkey and a grayish gravy? When we share a food photo, are we sharing for the betterment of our community, or are we simply boasting about our amazing culinary efforts? We all know the answer to that question; it's nice to get accolades for a job well done, and sharing food photos with our friends is almost good as having them at the table. Just keep in mind that although you might be able to improve on a moderately mediocre photo, there's no filter for overcooked Brussels sprouts.

No one is immune to the food photo dilemma: I am the first to admit that I have a  serious problem when it comes to well framed coffee porn shots. But that double espresso and sparkling water was too good not to take a picture of! Food does as much to awake our visual sense as it does our taste buds. But ultimately, food is simply food, and just because you wrapped a stack of cookies in a piece of twine (you think I am kidding? There are entire Pinterest boards devoted to baker's twine) doesn't make them taste better.

Sometimes you have to wonder if recipes in the food blog world are put together with the photo in mind first and the ingredients second, as if an artist were building up a canvas with different colors and strokes and then deciding on exactly what the subject was that he intended to depict.

There's a formula to good food porn.

  1. Put food on clean white ceramic dishes, preferably handmade, preferably on a white table. A whitewashed farm table is of course the most ideal.
  2. Add in a rustic looking tea towel and some other kitchen accoutrement (a whisk for baked dishes and a wooden spoon for soups).
  3. Take photo directly from above and if taking photo from a different angle, ensure at all costs a very shallow depth of field.

Then there are the additional rules depending on what dish you're photographing:

  1. Place puddings and any type of raw nut butter in mason jars.
  2. Baked goods should have a photo of all ingredients, perfectly spaced out on a table, taken from above.
  3. Photograph any warm drinks in the hands of someone with hand-knitted fingerless gloves on.
  4. Wrap sandwiches in wax paper, or even better, more twine.
  5. Make sure cocktails have large ice cubes in them.
  6. Any dish that has anything sprinkled on top - powdered sugar, bread crumbs, etc. - should be photographed with some of the topping sprinkled on the side, as if you just casually missed the dish, but left a very clean and organized mess that makes the food look just a little more quaint.
  7. Always add a sprig of rosemary.
  8. Always increase your aperture. God forbid you have a large depth of field.

You could write an entire book on the subject. The food we're making and eating comes second to our addiction to a certain set of visuals.

Oh you individually wrapped your tacos in twine? They look delicious! Note: No one individually wraps their tacos in twine unless there is a DSLR around.

Think about it: when was the last time you drooled over a cookbook or a food blog that was text-only? It rarely happens anymore. We're so focused on the visual outcome we forget what's actually in the food. That paired with the fact that while we're busy snapping away, millions of people around the world are going hungry. What if for every food photo posted on social media, 10 cents went to solving world hunger? Now there's a smart app.

The antidote to the food porn problem? See how many things you can wrap in twine. Don't stop at cute stacks of cookies. If the food blogs can do it, you can too. A leafy arugula salad? Why not. Just make sure to use the Amaro filter when you post it on Instagram.

I am off to take some pictures of my afternoon coffee break...