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10 Lessons For Cookbook Authors

Amanda Loren at work on a culinary photoshoot

As a chef you probably have had the desire to write a cookbook. If not the desire, requests to write one! But as someone who has been there and done that, I have also been on the other side of creating a cookbook as a photographer.

From Photographer to Chef, let me give you some insight on things you might not have thought of when you start thinking about your cookbook development. I want you to be as prepared as possible for this journey, as it is a huge investment of time, energy and financial resources for everyone involved.

1. How many times should I test my recipe?

If you are anything like me the testing never ends! But a good rule of thumb for me is to test the recipe at least three times. Then, I send it to a few friends or family to give it a try and offer feedback. When I was developing my gluten free bread (back when there weren’t brands like Udi’s) I remember making loaves and loaves of bread and force-feeding it to my kids and my mom until I got it exactly where I wanted it!

The most important thing to remember is to test these recipes prior to making them for your book. It will be totally overwhelming if you feel the pressure of writing your recipes while you try to create them for the camera. The photoshoot should be “the icing on the cake”.

2. How to provide inspiration photos of your recipes:

When you are going through the testing phase, this is also an opportunity to capture the way you want your final product to basically look. This doesn’t mean it has to be perfect, the lighting doesn’t have to be great, but the style of your finished product should be captured.

Don’t forget that things look different in front of the camera, so don’t feel like it has to be styled perfectly. The purpose of taking a quick shot of your recipe is to pass this along to your photographer and give them an idea of your style along with the kind of work you produce.

Finally, this is also why it is vital to do recipe testing. I highly suggest not providing photos from other chefs making something similar. Inspiration photos are for style inspiration and should only be used for recipe production purposes.

3. Can any photographers shoot food?

To expand on the previous point and to answer this question: No, not all photographers can shoot food. Sorry! This may be unpopular among the photography community, but this is coming from someone who eats, sleeps and breathes food photography. I am educating myself on a daily basis, I am a part of food photography communities, and my commitment is achieving the best possible result for your recipes.

There are amazing photographers out there who I could not come close to, nor would I attempt to market myself as someone who captures landscape photography or wedding photography. I leave that to photographers who are passionate and educated in those fields.

It is so important to research this when you begin your cookbook because although understanding the principles of lighting is vital, you also have to know how food acts and reacts in front of the camera. You need to know how to communicate with art directors (if you are using a publishing company) or how to actually ‘be’ the art director for the author (if you are self publishing).

You should also know your limits and when you need to bring on a food stylist. There is just so much that goes into taking a quality food photo that goes beyond plating it and snapping the shutter.

4. What to understand about food styling before your shoot:

Food styling is an art. If a publisher asks if you can style your food for photos, you’ll need to understand that does not mean, ‘Can you plate it?’. Plating a recipe for a customer is completely different than styling it for the camera.

A food stylist typically cooks the recipes and works together with the food photographer to complete the entire scene. That doesn’t mean you can’t cook your food on set and guide the vision, but please understand there will come a time during each shot where you need to hand off your work to us.

Fun fact: Something that makes my approach a little different is that I have a sous chef that cooks the recipes and assists me on set. Then, I style and shoot the dishes. The art of styling is a passion of mine and I learn something new every single time I style a dish. This is why the art of food photography was made for me!

5. How much of each recipe should I plan for?

Plan for at least two dishes. For example, if you are doing steaks you’ll want to at least have a backup on hand. When it comes to soups and stews, I recommend making full batches so we have enough to work with on set.

Bakers should also plan for a full batch at minimum, but more than that is always better. We need options because they aren’t all camera worthy, especially when we start shooting smaller items like cookies and pastries.

When it comes to sauces, creams, and ingredients that are being used as props — making more than you think you will need always wins! When you have to stop in the middle of setting a scene to make more of something, it can slow down an already long day of shooting.

6. Do I need an assistant?

Yes, please! Even if it’s your niece who you are paying $10 an hour to make store runs, watch the oven, do the dishes–you need an assistant!

Writing a cookbook is a big deal and a huge project. You can’t do it alone. The professionals you hire will have their own assistants who have responsibilities to keep things running smoothly. It's important to balance that with additional support on your end to maintain an amazing team atmosphere.

7. How many recipes can we do in a day?

Savory chefs, your magic number is three which is probably surprising until you actually start the process. It takes about 2.5 hours to produce a photo, plus we will likely get multiple angles and options for the editors to choose from.

Pastry chefs, your magic number is five. Sweets go a little bit faster, but after so many shots you start to lose inspiration and need to reset your creative brain.

Of course these are estimates and I now limit my sessions to 8 hours at maximum. This means we estimate the number of dishes we can do in a day based on the complexity of cooking and styling. However, if we have only completed 2 or 4 recipes and it has taken 7 hours, we will wrap for the day and start fresh in the morning.

8. How to select backdrops, and who provides them?

I highly recommend letting your cookbook team help you select the backdrops for your project. You will want to rotate through backdrops throughout the shoot, and you need quality backdrops that are big enough to capture everything you desire.

It is also essential that you understand your brand and the target audience for the cookbook. The visual elements are vital to clearly representing who you are and who you are trying to reach.

9. How much time should I set aside for pre-production planning?

Typically, I plan on two pre-production calls (depending on how many total recipes we are shooting). After the first one, you will have a lot of homework. Here are some things you (and your publishers) might be assigned to do:

  • Upload inspiration photos (photos of your recipes and style inspo)

  • Write descriptions of each recipe

  • Provide your bookmap

  • Provide a book layout

  • Provide template overlays for the cover

During the second call, we will tighten things up and make sure we have a clear plan of action for each shoot day. It’s really important to be as organized as possible during this time so you are fully prepared for the unexpected.

10. How much should I budget for cookbook photos?

There is a wide range when it comes to financial budgeting, but here are some guidelines you can keep in mind:

  • How many eyes will be on your book? This means, “Is it going to be sold exclusively in your area? Or are you launching a book tour?”. Your copyrights and licensing will relate to how far your book will reach.

  • It’s not just about the photos! Don’t forget you have to purchase all the food for this book, hire an assistant, purchase or rent props, etc. All these are additional expenses that authors sometimes forget about.

  • How much experience does your photographer have? When you begin researching, you will want to take into consideration how well your photographer understands “Commercial Photography”. A commercial photographer provides custom estimates based on your unique project. You absolutely want your photographer to intimately understand how to shoot food!

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