Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 6/29/16
Thomas Robert Clarke, freelance photographer who shot the appetite-inducing images for “The Jersey Shore Cookbook: Fresh Summer Flavors from the Boardwalk and Beyond,” is no stranger to leaning in close to a plate to get that perfect entree shot.
However, as any Central Jersey restauranteur can also agree, there is a fine line between snapping a great food shot to make your Instagram followers envious and feeling the need to stand up on a chair to get that perfect photo, which Clarke has actually seen people do.
“The biggest mistake you can make is taking yourself too seriously,” said Clarke. “If you’re passionate about that gooey cheeseburger right in front of you, it’s going to show, even if it’s not perfect.”
Although the average person snapping iPhone photos of their meal is no expert, Clarke certainly is. The Ewing-based photographer, who calls the book of 50 recipes contributed by Shore restaurants and written by Deborah Smith “his baby,” has been doing food photography for 11 years for publications such as Edible Jersey, BucksLife and Princeton Magazine.
Clarke, who started bussing tables at 13-years-old and at one time wanted to be a chef, said that he has a “real love of ingredients, the process and the artistry of it, which shines through my photography. It’s not, ‘Here’s a plate with some steak on it.’”
However, even if you’ll never be a professionally-trained food photographer (although you may wish you could) you can still take stellar food photos simply with your phone by utilizing Clarke’s tips.
What looks good?
Clarke said that people can get creative with their angles and recognize that the entire dish doesn’t need to be on display to get a great shot. He said that people should ask themselves, “Is it really the steak? Or, is it the butter melting or the asparagus on the side? What is it about this dish that’s really turning me on it?”
Another one of Clarke’s tips for people to get the most out of their personal food photography is to keep in mind where the lighting is. To get good lighting, photographers should have the light to their back so when they’re shooting towards a dish, the dish is illuminated. Also, if they notice that an image seems to be highlighted a certain color (such as red), they should move away from the object that could be causing it, such as a red umbrella or an orange bench, and get closer to a window.
Clean your camera
Clarke also said that one of the most common – and simple – mistakes he sees people make are not cleaning off their phone cameras, resulting in blurry images.
“Many people forget that this is your phone that’s been in your pocket all day,” said Clarke. “If the camera looks a little fuzzy, then wipe it off.”
Plus, Clarke tipped that amateur food photographers who often find themselves with fuzzy images due to shaky hands can use their elbows like a tripod. They can take a deep breath, hold it and then exhale so that they center their bodies to minimize the blur of their shot.
Clarke said that he is often “blown away” by the quality of the photos generated by a phone, since newer phones can create images with a larger number of megabytes while also maintaining control in the act of photographing.
The right app
For those who want a slightly more developed image while snapping with their phones, Clarke recommends that people download an editing software, such as Snapseed, an app developed by Nik, a popular editing suite. This app allows people to sharpen their image, change colors and has other features that go beyond filters offered on Instagram.
In Clarke’s opinion, the hardest dishes to photograph are those with little contrast – for example, scallops on a bed of risotto, which are both lightly colored.
“Food items such as cheeseburgers or fresh vegetables photograph the best, since colors and textures are easier for a camera to pick up,” he said.
Everyone is doing it
Jim Mullen, general manager and wine director at The Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick, said that he sees people taking photos of their food “pretty much all of the time.”
“I remember when you saw someone taking a photo of their food it meant that they were a food critic,” he said. “Now, I see people do it ten times a night.”
Mullen, who takes photos of his own meals if he finds them to be especially interesting or noteworthy and who is also the photographer for The Frog and the Peach, said that in his opinion, some of the restaurant’s most photogenic dishes are the local hothouse tomato, the Le Quebecois veal tartare, the strawberry tart and the braised merino lamb shank. Previously, they also served roasted bone marrow which was “by far the winner,” said Mullen.
Mullen said that in general, he doesn’t think that people photographing their food are intrusive, since it only takes a second and it’s beneficial for restaurants when people share them and post them online.
“The worst thing you can do is not be in the moment,” said Clarke. “It’s one thing if you both kind of agree that these fries look amazing. However, the second your food starts getting cold because you’re running around looking for the light, you know it’s time to reevaluate.”
To purchase “The Jersey Shore Cookbook: Fresh Summer Flavors from the Boardwalk and Beyond” for its $22.95 list price published by Quirk Books, find it on Amazon or click here.