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Online Food Photos: Lovable Hobby, Annoying Obsession?

Two days ago, the New York Times ran an article with the headline, First Camera, Then Fork. The author, Kate Murphy describes the booming popularity of amateur and pro online food photos. Plus, the odd obsession some people have to "get the perfect photo of their food" - before they take a bite.

Nora Sherman, a food blogger featured in the article says, “I get this ‘must take picture’ feeling before I eat, and what’s worse is that I hate bad pictures so I have to capture it in just the right light and at just the right angle."...

Food Photography: Hobby, Foodie, Passion. When I say food photography - I'm not talking in-studio, fake food, ketchup that's really infused with red food dye and lettuce leaves that have been enhanced to be bright green via paint and brush, type photos. This is in-restaurant, at-table, cell-phone out, post to the world food photography. As well as photos from bloggers like me who will stage a photo shoot of their homemade goodies, posting recipes for the world to try - all before indulging in the photography subject matter, aka breakfast, lunch or dinner. (Though it's a pretty sure bet that I've nibbled and taste-tested all my recipes prior to photo shooting). I'm only human, right?

Obsession. But this topic quickly runs into conflict: Is there a downside to the food photography trend/obsession, or does food truly and innocently speak of one's soul and in a new-fangled, mouth-watering way, communicate something to the world about the eater/photogapher, like never before?

Everything I Eat, Bloggers. I must admit I don't really see why someone would want to blog about every little thing they eat. Every cracker, peanut, french fry, sip of juice, water, square of chocolate, bar of chocolate, bite of cake, bowl of pasta, slice of pizza, nibble of bread or top of muffin. Food Diaries, they are sometimes called. Blasted for the world to see, judge and comment on without avail. But the voyeurism attached to these types of blogs/diaries is fascinating. Everyone wants to peek inside someones fridge or medicine cabinet, right?

I'll admit that sometimes I get an uncontrollable urge to tweet, facebook, twitpic or blog about my dining experiences, what I ordered on the menu and how it tasted - but then again, sometimes I simply chow down in a moment of culinary solitude without whispering a breath about the foods I've just prepped, diced, chopped, whisked, baked, plated (or ordered) and eaten in joy.

Food Privacy Moments. Sometimes I'll make a special meal for my husband and I and remark, "Doesn't this look amazing?! And I'm not even going to take a picture of it! Just for us!" My husband will smile and nod his head in approval - and most of the time I will agree as well. But then there are those other times when I plate, serve and while my husband stares longingly, fork-in-hand, I'll shout, "Wait! I have to take a quick shot first!" I try not to do that so much though.

Foodies as Photographers. I personally love the foodie photographer trend. I love knowing that if I'm going to a new restaurant, I can simply Google or Yelp its name and probably find a few professional (or amateur) photos of the eats there. And yes, I have avoided certain restaurants based on bad online food photos. And vice versa. And I like to think that my own photos are contributing to the foodie community - hopefully giving folks a fair shot at getting what they crave when dining out.

Pala Pizza mid-slice-grabbing:
Restaurant Owners. I'd love to get the 'restaurant' side of the story. Do the owners love or loathe the cell-phone foodies? You may recall a few weeks ago I posted my review of Cafe Blossom East - chronicling all my courses with cell phone pics via my Blackberry Bold 9700 cell camera. My secret was that I wasn't simply whipping out my camera in plain site. I would discretely take one shot and hope that it came out. I don't like making a scene about it. And I would probably never post a poor review of a restaurant based on cell pics I took inside the restaurant. Something about that feels wrong. But good reviews - I would think the owners would adore! Anyone want to weigh in?

I wouldn't be surprised if photo-foodie-hating owners start putting up signs saying "no photos allowed" in plain view or even on their menus. There are already "no cell phone use while in line" signs all over the place. Think Coffee in NYC has this policy. And I once saw a poor tourist get yelled at inside a Starbucks for taking too many blatant photos.

My Policy: No Photos Allowed. Recently I dined at Dirt Candy restaurant in NYC for my husband's delayed birthday celebration. Each course was a colorful melange of vegan delights - crispy plump jalapeno hush puppies along side a creamy shimmering pat of sweet vegan butter, bright green baby lettuce, vivid orange and golden diced squash, dark spiced pepitas, moist *genius* gnocchi and a vegan dark chocolate mint ice cream bar to finish. It was pretty much a perfect dining experience. All through dinner, I had that itch, do I grab my Blackberry for just one little click??

The Craving. To Photog. Yes, all through the meal I was thinking, gosh I want to take a photo of that! But I resisted for the sake of annoying the other customers, my husband, the awesome Chef Amanda and even myself. For special dining experiences - I usually use the no photos allowed policy. Could you imagine a bride whipping out a cell phone before diving into her wedding cake? Not advisable.

Arugula Salad from Pala. My cell phone pic before Eating:
My To-Go Trick. One of my tricks here in NYC, is to get my photo food to-go, bring it home, and photo it in my in-home studio. This way I can get the shots I want, with my big bulky Canon macro camera lens - without ruining a dining experience. Just two days ago I did take-out at Pure Food and Wine - and I will be posting a very yummy review this week. Photos taken at home - not via cell phone. Some food is too beautiful to cell phone pic. And like I said, I only do this process for my favorite vegan eats. If I don't love it and crave it - I won't photo it.

Food as Art. I may not be an "every meal" blogger, but I definitely understand the fascination with what people eat. You can tell a lot about a person by what is on their dinner plate. But I also think that food needs commentary. Why did you eat, that? It's true, food speaks for itself, but I am always craving more information. Why did you put that much almond butter on your oatmeal? How did you get those brussel sprouts so gosh darn green?? Where in the world did you find that slice of pie? And, is that vegan?? If food communicates a piece of ourselves to the world, in a similar way that fashion and other art forms do, isn't it only fair that we get a little artists' commentary?

Food photography is all around us - in the pages (or on iPad screens) of magazines, on cell phones and online. The NYTimes article notes how certain camera companies are even creating foodie-friendly camera modes: "Evidently aware of the trend, manufacturers like Nikon, Olympus, Sony and Fuji have within the last two years released cameras with special “food” or “cuisine” modes, costing around $200 to $600. “These functions enable close-up shots with enhanced sharpness and saturation so the food colors and textures really pop,” said Terry Sullivan, associate editor of digital imaging technologies at Consumer Reports."

And websites like Foodgawker.com and Tastespotting.com only add to the "what are you eating?" obsession. Bloggers like me, even have food photo portfolios online. We've certainly come a long way in the past ten years. No more flipping through pages of Cooking Light or Gourmet (sniff) magazine for a glimpse of a succulent, cravable dish to tear out and hang on your fridge. Now you can simply google images, browse the web and twitter-search for real food, in real time - eaten by real, somewhat obsessed-people, aka photo-foodies.

Read the New York Times Article First Camera, Then Fork here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/07/dining/07camera.html?pagewanted=2&ref=dining

Note: My Food Photos in this post are mostly from one of my fave pizza places in NYC, Pala Pizza. They make an amazing vegan Daiya cheese pizza.

Berry Bite:


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