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Framed: Joe Vaughn’s food photography tips from 30 years on the job

Frame > Frame Stories > July 2022: The Art Issue > Framed: Joe Vaughn’s food photography tips from 30 years on the job

Frame co-founder and creative director Joe Vaughn’s first camera was a 35mm Chinon with a threaded screw-on lens, purchased from a friend whose father worked at an ad agency.

That camera and the special access it offered to punk shows in the late 1980s sparked a successful photography career for Vaughn that now spans more than three decades.

In 1990, the Sterling Heights native began assisting fine art photographer Lisa Spindler, who assigned the burgeoning concert photographer his first still life. Vaughn nailed the assignment.

So when plans began coming together in 1995 for a new glossy monthly magazine serving the city and region, it was Vaughn who was tapped as Hour Detroit’s founding staff photographer.

And though he’s perhaps now best known for his immaculate food photos — Vaughn styles and captures all of the photographs for Frame and also shoots regularly for national clients — that part of the job sort of happened by chance.

“The ’90s Detroit food movement was a big part of who I became,” Vaughn says. “It wasn’t on purpose. [Hour Detroit Art Director] Shayne Bowman liked what I was doing and nobody really wanted to shoot food. They all wanted the fashion and the portraits. Being able to shoot food gave me more autonomy to nurture what I was doing and no one was really paying attention to it.”

Of course, things have changed a bit since then. The popular “foodie” movement of the last two decades propelled once-nameless restaurant chefs to the forefront of American pop culture, increasing the respect for and prominence of food photography in the process.

While the technology has now made it far easier to snap a decent photo in a dimly lit restaurant, the fundamentals of the craft remain largely the same as when Vaughn was first testing out that vintage Chinon.

Here, Vaughn shares some timeless pro tips for executing stellar food photography, learned from 30 years (and counting) on the job:

Less is more

You don’t need a lot of gear to take a good food photo. A close-focusing 50mm lens is more than sufficient. You don’t want to use really wide angle or really long lenses, because they will make the food distorted. Find a diffused window light, especially at a restaurant if you’re just shooting candidly. A small, portable bounce card that is unobtrusive is helpful. If I’m shooting in a restaurant I try not to make a spectacle. Maybe food bloggers do a little now. But I try to enjoy my time there while I’m taking a picture. If I’m in service, I try to be more discreet.

Focus on what’s unique

Knowing what to focus on in the photograph is the most important part. You’re trying to find something special that’s original to the dish. So if you’re shooting a Caesar salad and somebody is using an anchovy that’s larger and other places don’t, you try to make that photo look different from the others. Celebrate the differences from that dish and the way others do it.

Show some context

I like atmosphere in my photos. So seeing some of the table, seeing some of the hospitality amenities surrounding the plate gives a sense of plate — candles, napkins. If a burger is in a paper boat versus the dinnerware from the Townsend Hotel, it helps tell you where you are. Those things are important to know the style of the restaurant because that’s all you’re seeing. You can tell if the restaurant is casual or fine dining from those details. This is if you’re shooting in a restaurant. If you’re shooting in your kitchen, those rules still apply. If you’re shooting French onion soup at home, are you doing a casual version or a more formal one for your guests? That presentation and the visual cues are everything because there’s no context of what the room looks like. If you’re lucky, you get to shoot the room, too, but usually you get one shot and that one photo has to tell the whole story.

Aim for a new perspective

Find an alternate point of view: shooting on the floor, on a windowsill, shooting things in multiples. Having three cups of coffee next to each other might be more interesting than one. Shooting on leather booth seats. Don’t be afraid to take the food off the table.

Be intentional

Those sensitivities from 1996 until now are the same. I was shooting a lot of medium format film. We didn’t have digital. I had to rely on taking one or two shots. That helped me get trained up faster. The spray and pray method of shooting more and editing later is kind of wasteful. It takes a lot more time to edit later. You should be focusing on what you’re going after in the beginning.

Don’t fix it in post

Don’t depend on Photoshop to over-lift the shadows. Try to properly expose for the shadows. If you try to open it up too much it will look like an HDR mess and will probably be really noisy. Try to properly expose, even if you have to have a small tripod. I just don’t like to over-process. A lot of the software, you can jack up colors of lemons and things and it starts to not look real. I want it to look like film, not an illustration. My aspiration is to still make it feel organic.

Embrace the mood

In low light, you need a tripod. But shooting with a tripod at a restaurant isn’t easy. I’m not a fan of the small lights and flashes. I know what it feels like to be at a restaurant when other diners are trying to enjoy their meals, so I don’t like taking lights outs. Nikon makes cameras now where the ISO can be set to 30,000. When I was coming up, 400-speed film was a luxury. So the technology has made it easier to shoot in the dark. Make it moody. Embrace the dark, especially with cocktails. You don’t want to over-light it to mess with the vibe of the place.

Common mistakes to avoid:

• If you’re going to do shallow depth of field, make sure your focus is on what you want to draw the eye to.

• Being too far from the dish and having a whole bunch of table — trying to photograph seven dishes in one photo — unless that’s the story, it won’t work. You have to know what the function of that particular photo is.

• Mixing color temperatures. If the room is really yellow and the window is daylight, the combination of those two things are going to do some funky stuff to the food. There’s definitely more forgiveness with drinks. If something is a little tinged more yellow than not, no one knows what the drink looks like. But if you see greens in the salad looking kind of yellow, it’s not appetizing. You want food to look like food.