Shooting photos for my new book

The French Market Cookbook

We have just wrapped up the final photo shoot for my new book about vegetables and French cuisine, and as someone who loves to know how things work behind the scenes, I thought I would tell you a bit about what the process has been like.

For my first two books, I shot all the pictures myself, but I felt that being a one-woman-band was not the most relaxed experience of all, so for this new project I wanted to work with a team of pros to produce the photos.

This meant finding a photographer and a stylist for the photos of the finished dishes, and I was hoping to work with Françoise Nicol and Virginie Michelin, because I loved what they had done for Alain Ducasse’s Nature book. They were up for it, and my editor approved the choice after looking at their portfolios, so we were in business.

Because produce and seasonality are central to my book, it was important to me that we shoot each chapter in season. Had we shot everything at once, as is often done for practical reasons, we would have had to work with out-of-season fruits and vegetables, and it would have bothered me (a lot) to practice the opposite of what I was advocating. A secondary bonus was a lower food budget, since seasonal produce is generally cheaper.

The one hiccup in this carefully laid plan was that the stylist injured her hand a week before the fall shoot, so we decided to postpone it until she had fully recovered, and shoot fall and winter back-to-back. This was doable without compromise because, in truth, fall market stalls are not that different from winter ones, and it turned out to have a silver lining: instead of enduring the dark of December, we were able to benefit from the longer, brighter days of late February.

The French Market Cookbook

There are a hundred recipes in the book, but I had a budget for forty-eight food photos (plus an additional twenty-eight ambiance and market shots by Emilie Guelpa), so in preparation for each seasonal shoot, I had to select which dishes would be photographed. I chose the ones I thought would be most interesting to look at, and also the recipes I felt would benefit from a visual illustration, if they involved a particular dough-folding technique for instance. I then considered the selection as a whole, and made sure it was well-rounded and balanced in terms of dish type, color, etc.

The next step was to translate the recipes from English to French and send them to the stylist a couple of weeks before the shoot, so we could discuss the mood and presentation of each dish, and she could start gathering the necessary props and ingredients.

For each shoot — spring, summer, then fall/winter — we convened at the stylist’s house, and set things up for the next few days: depending on the complexity of the recipes, and how many hours of daylight we had that time of year, we were able to shoot four to six dishes a day.

The stylist, who was in charge of preparing the food (with a bit of kitchen help from me, and from an assistant for the final shoot), would get things started for a particular recipe. And while the various elements were marinating or resting or simmering or baking, we discussed props: what background to use (among a selection of fabrics, wooden planks, painted boards, stone slabs…), what dish or dishes to place the food in, and what accessories (glasses, silverware, napkins…) to add to bring additional life to the scene. Once we had those down, we tried to find our ideal composition for the shot and the best angle from which to shoot it.

The challenge was to instill a common style throughout all the photos, but make sure that each season had its own mood, and that each shot was distinctive: we paid close attention to color schemes, props we may have used in previous photos (though I’m not opposed to the occasional resurfacing of a dish or accessory, as long as it plays its role a bit differently), and types of backgrounds, again, to ensure a well-rounded and balanced look.

We would then move on to the more delicate and time-sensitive step of plating the food, and showing it at its most appetizing, fresh, and alive for the camera to capture. Small tweaks would be done at that point — adding a touch more caramel sauce, rotating the almond that’s catching too much light, adjusting the position of the salad leaf that’s pointing up awkwardly — and sometimes we would try a couple of different options to choose from later.

The French Market Cookbook

My mantra throughout those days was “la vraie vie” (real life), so much so that the stylist and photographer quickly started teasing me about it, but it was important to me that the shots reflect a credible, realistic scene.

Of course, to produce a pleasing image, you do have to use the occasional trick to work around the laws of perspective, prop things up, or add a bit more shine to those herbs. And of course, viewers understand that a food photo is like a miniature theatre set: it’s pretend. But I prefer my food presented simply, and I didn’t want any fuss or artifice that would make for a pretty image but wouldn’t be consistent with a real-life situation, such as ribbons tied around muffins, or raw ingredients used in the recipe scattered on the table (who does that?).

And I would always try to imagine the story we were telling. Not elaborate stories with a plot and tension and resolution, but just this: are we looking at the food just as it’s been brought to the table? Has someone just cut out a serving and put it on a plate? Is this the plate of someone who’s just started eating? Can we tell if that food is meant to be shared, or if it’s a single person’s serving, and if so, is the amount of food about right?

These basic principles — and the stylist’s and photographer’s talents, naturally — have allowed us to produce what I think is a lovely collection of shots that I hope will catch the reader’s eye, whet his appetite, and make him want to rush into the kitchen and cook. I very much wish I could share them with you in advance of the book’s publication next year — the wait is killing me! — but I hope this gives you an idea of the work involved in creating them.

Have you ever attended, or taken part in, a photo shoot? Were things done differently? And if you have questions about the process, feel free to ask in the comments, I’ll do my best to answer them!

The French Market Cookbook

  • Great post, one regret : a sample of those pictures would have been more than welcome ! ;) Good luck for the release of your book !

    • Thanks! As I mentioned at the end of the post, I am unable to share until the book actually comes out…

  • lovely post Clotilde! I know it will be absolutely beautiful and I look forward to buying it!

  • Fantastic, Clotilde! So looking forward to seeing the result of all this laborious (but rewarding!) work!

  • Fabulous- both the prospect of a new book from you and the insights. Have been gearing up for the photo shoot for the blad for my first book and it’s so lovely to hear how old hands like you navigate it.

  • I love all the detailed info. Thanks! I do take very amateurish food photos for my blog, but still try to capture the right light, angle, realism.

    You’ve given me lovely food for thought.

  • Congratulations on wrapping up the photo shoots for your new book! After reading your behind the scenes stories, I can’t wait to see the results!

    I try to imagine how you managed to prepare four to six (!) dishes a day! Doing the shopping, the prepping, the cooking, the plating, Those must have been long days!

    I did not expect that your photographer would shoot during daylight only and not in a studio. That must have been very intense too, seeing as the weather gods are not always as cooperative as one would like to have them.

    Thank you for sharing this experience with us and best wishes and good luck with your work,

    • Well, there was a lot of parallel cooking going on. :) And indeed, we had to submit ourselves to the whims of the weather, but natural lighting made the most sense for the natural look I was hoping for, and we were fortunate in that the stylist’s house receives lots of light, even on overcast days. Thanks for your kind words!

  • Hi and Congratulations! I loved reading your Chocolate and Zucchini cookbook and love to refer to your website for truly innovative ingredient pairings. Am looking forward to your next book, it must be exhausting but so rewarding to see the brilliant pictures – I also love the stories that come with each recipe, especially the one connected to the Honey Spice Loaf (in your cookbook).

  • Kat

    Your comment about the raw ingredients scattered about on the table (e.g. loose grains) made me laugh, that has also always puzzled me. I loved reading how you think about the story behind the scene for each photograph. I try to do that with my photos as well.

  • I’m so happy that you’re doing a book on vegetables. In my life in France vegetables seem to take a back seat, so much so that I, an American, could even win a French cooking contest with a vegetable course!

  • Aurora

    Ah, but no one asks the most important question. What happened to all the food after shooting? ;)

    • We eat some of it for lunch, and the stylist has five sons, so leftovers have never been a problem. :)

  • Great to read your behind the scenes post. Great point about the scattered raw ingredients. I have never got that either.

  • Joy

    Congrats! We loved using your book to eat through Paris almost 3 years ago! So can’t wait to see what this cookbook looks like with all the seasonal produce. Thanks for sharing your tips from behind the scenes.

  • Your book sounds wonderful!! I love to eat seasonally! Congratulations! :)

  • Clotilde, this was just fascinating. I can imagine it would be so inspiring and creative to be working with others to get their ideas about each dish that exists only as food and an image in your mind before the photo is taken.

    I can’t wait to see the book!

  • Lynn H.

    Sounds like a lot of work!

  • A really interesting post about the process of shooting food for a book! It seems very involved but I like the planning aspect that’s involved.

  • Vciki

    Alain’s Nature book is amazing and it looks like you got some of the best photographers and stylists available. Congrats and bet is was fun working with them (but also hard work). I used to be a designer and worked on a few photo shoots — they are tedious, but results are always fun and rewarding to see. Can’t wait to see your new book.

  • Pascale

    This is a very interesting post ! It is difficult to guess how much work is involved (one doesn’t think of it mostly); it is very impressive ! So is the time it takes for the book to be “born” … What a lengthy process ! I can imagine how impatient you must be … After reading this, I think I won’t be able to refrain from buying it (I’ve got so many cookbooks, I thought I’d better stop buying new ones…) ! By the way, I love the way you write in your posts too, so fresh, captivating, simple, clear, amusing and … very interesting !

    • Thank you so much Pascale, that means a lot to me!

  • Vicki

    Thanks for the post about Alain Ducasse’s new Flavor cookbook. I had never heard of it and ordered it immediately — what a beautiful book and I can’t wait to try the recipes…

  • pops

    Encore un best seller!!!!!!

  • Congratulations and keep up the great work!

  • Liz Thomas

    I know just how exacting food photography is — and it sounds as if your photo-shoot went very well indeed. Congratulations!

    We used to publish a dining guide here in Macau and photos were the bane of our lives. Restaurants would give us “snap-shots” of dishes and just didn’t understand that they really were not good enough for publication.

    Did many photo-shoots ourselves, no-where near as expert as you but not too bad. The great thing now is digital cameras — you can see your photos immediately. It was dreadful to have to wait to get the prints and then find out we’d not got the right shots. And Photoshop is a godsend too!

    Looking forward to your book publication. Did you decide to include metric measurements? Hope so! Quite understand when you say the wait is killing you!!


  • LOVE Ducasse’s Nature book and the photographers you chose.
    It will be a FAB book bien sur!

  • hi clotilde
    what would be your advice for women who have hundreds of recipes collected in getting a book deal like you did?

    • Big question! I wrote a series of Book updates (scroll down to see the first posts) describing what the process has been like for me. Beyond that, I recommend Dianne Jacob’s book Will Write for Food for good, comprehensive advice. You can also explore her blog for interesting discussions on the subject of bookwriting. Good luck!

  • Congratulations on your book! I’m sure it will be lovely, based on the photos I’ve seen on your blog. And yes, I’ve been on shoots before — not for food, but for cosmetics (product and models). It’s amazing the attention to detail it requires — as far as I could tell everything was held together for milliseconds with duct tape and putty :). Looking forward to the book!

  • saki

    I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the book. Sad, but here in Japan we have not had your previous two books translated in Japanese. Wish I could be a translator of your new book for great fans of your blog in Japan like me, for your words always raise me up!

  • I really enjoyed this peek behind the scenes! Apart from shooting for my blog, I have done some shots for magazines (I am primarly a garden writer, but sometimes include recipes in my articles on herbs or veg growing) and I completly relate to what you say about “consistent with a real-life situation”. Looking forward to your book!

  • Sounds like you were working with a great group. Looking forward to the book!

  • great post – interesting to read about the process and also interesting to read just how strongly your visual vision is part of the process. Loved your photos in chocolate and zucchini so will look forward to seeing the new book

  • What a fun process! And congratulations on your new book; it sounds like something I need to check out. I’ve never done any kind of photo shoot with food or other objects–only people. Photographing people is extremely difficult at times, so your project sounds more fun. I can’t wait to check out your new book, and hopefully grab a copy of your other one.

  • Am so happy to read your post. early on when I started food blogging, three years ago, it tremendously bothered me to find out that some images in cookbooks are ‘faked’ so to speak. One photographer/stylist duo was giving an interview/pointers about an ice cream shoot, and said how they constructed the ice cream from cotton and foam. No real ice cream at all in the shoot/cookbook. I was appalled! They were speaking with pride. Granted ice cream is tricky to shoot but still does not excuse it. Simple dishes are grossly modified. Ingredients aren’t real. As you mentioned I am not completely opposed when absolutely necessary to maybe add shine (I have never done that but again I am not a professional) or prop a salad for dimension but overall I like to keep it REAL. I feel the practice is incredibly misleading the consumer. How disappointing when you cook in your kitchen the dish come out completely different?! With that being said, I am guilty as charged at scattering veggies…:) Honestly I do like inanimate objects to photograph, they come alive!

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