The burger - a favourite with nearly everybody. So how do you go about making it look amazing? Read on...
Always use natural lighting - it just looks best for food. I know it is hard to come by, but it really produces the best pictures so try your very hardest to shoot during daylight hours. You will still need to help the light a bit, so I suggest having “bounce” cards to make sure the side away from the window still has a little sparkle. You can use any white card (try using a piece of white foam core or bristol board) or silver card (the underside of a take-out container works well).
I find placement of the “hero” easiest if the window light is either coming from the back or from the side. Arrange your photography around the window. I like to experiment with surfaces to compliment the food. For the burger we are shooting today, I like to keep an outdoor feel with natural materials and loose, casual propping. I’m also really into the dark and rustic look right now, so barn wood fits the bill perfectly. At home you won't have a million surfaces to choose from, but you probably have an old beat up chopping block that would do the trick.
Now, do I want to use a plate or simply place the burger on a wooden board? Should it have a drink in the shot? Beer? Cola? Wine? I always end up picking whichever compliments the look and feel of the shot without being distracting. Does a golden colour or brown colour or deep red go with the rest of your props? I recommend having “stand-in” food when you are setting up the shot so that your “hero” food doesn’t spoil while you are making up your mind. For a burger you can just use a bun with some paper towel inside.
Overhead shots are super trendy at the moment but it doesn’t suit the burger shot as well. For food with layers, you really want to shoot lower to give it some depth and show off its height, which is why we didn’t play with the camera angle all that much when we set up. I do always prefer vertical shots for food simply because it's easier to prop random blurry items in the background than to find objects right at the front that will compliment the food without overwhelming it.
Now for the good stuff - how to actually cook and style the burger. Toasted buns generally look better so the only decision to make is whether it is toasted under the broiler or has grill marks from the bbq. The burger should always have grill marks, in my opinion. If the bbq hasn't been good to you and your grill marks need work try heating up a metal skewer and remarking any problem areas. Either leave your burger covered in oil while you are setting up your shot or use clear piping jelly and just rub it all over the patty.
As for toppings, for blogs you are mainly shooting a particular recipe so you don’t have the luxury of choosing what looks best. If you can choose your lettuce, stay away from iceberg as it shoots very flat and never looks great. I’ve been digging arugula lately for more upscale looking burgers and curly lettuce for a more basic McD’s style burger.
I never put the cheese on the burger while its cooking. The technique I like to use is to dip a cheese slice in boiling water and simply lay it on top of the burger. It will look just melted but not form a crusty film on top. If you are using a blue cheese or soft cheese I melt it on just slightly with a heat gun or a clothing steamer.
All the other ingredients are up to you (and the recipe you are shooting). If you are taking some time to get the right shot, tomatoes might have to be re-wet with water to make sure the skin doesn't start to curl. I have a pipette (plastic eye dropper) I use for adding small amounts of liquid. Tomatoes also come in plenty of shapes and colours these days, so choose what fits best for the feel of the shot…. heirloom… hot house?
Sauce is the last thing I put on, if I am using any. Ketchup, mayo, mustard or whatever suits your fancy. There are two techniques I tend to use. The first is to put your sauce in a little piping bag (I usually make a disposable cone out of parchment paper) and squeeze it on to the top or bottom bun. I don’t like the look of a straight line (looks too forced) so I try to make an uneven pattern with some edges dripping more than others. The second technique you can use is to squeeze the sauce on the edge of your lid and press down ever so gently. The only thing I’d like to note is if you are working with ketchup, squeeze it into a bowl lined with paper towel before you use it. The paper towel soaks up the water in the ketchup so you don’t get leaking juices messing up your gorgeous shot.
Now for my favourite part - messing it up a bit. If you managed to keep the surface clean this whole time go ahead and add some crumbs, sea salt and cracked pepper, and maybe a fallen piece of lettuce. A realistic looking burger gives the shot a much more mouth-watering appeal that you just want to reach out and grab.
Just before your final shot, make sure everything looks fresh. Perhaps brush on a bit of oil to the burger patty and drop a little water on top of the tomato and replace wilted looking lettuce.
And Voila ! You eat with your eyes first and my eyes are saying yes.
Food Styling: The Burger was written and photographed by professional Canadian food stylist Adele Hagan (pictured above). She writes on food styling for the Globe and Mail and the LCBO’s Food and Drink magazine and has worked as a stylist on commercials, print work and motion pictures like Batman Begins and the first two Harry Potter films. She has also assisted with the 100th birthday cake for Britain’s Queen Mum. She graduated with a Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu in cuisine and patisserie. Check out Adele’s website and blog and follow her on Twitter @foodstyler