Food Photography: Barbecue by Brenda (Hartshorn) Licitra

Labor Day, the holiday dedicated to honor our workforce allow them to take a much needed break to relax.  If you're American, this probably also means have one last summer barbecue.

To celebrate this, I will be talking about how food photographers do barbecue.

The heat is on, the heat is.. Not on

Well, not usually anyway.  We have our tricks to make things look hot though.  Like most professional photography, food photography is heavy in being able to control elements to produce good imagery.  You need to be able to shoot the product in it's very short window when it looks nice and fresh.  Having an open flame doesn't give a stylist much time to tweak placement, the photographer the ability to adjust the lighting, or the art director a chance to call out any needs for changing direction.  There are times where a barbecue may have charcoal or gas going during a shoot, but it probably would probably be one with a budget weighted more toward the food budget than on the crew.  Waiting for that perfect flame to jump up and lick the food can happen at frame 1 or 100.  It is important to know what kind of time crunch each shot is allowed to know if you can have the luxury working with a real barbecue or if the project needs to be taken in the studio.  With a real barbecue, you will need to shoot outdoors which has the limitations of weather and ideal sunlight hours. Do not attempt to BBQ indoors, the smoke will not only stain the walls black but the carbon monoxide will kill you. If you manage to cheat death when attempting to barbecue indoors, you won't once the landlord hears about it.  Bottom line, don't be stupid.

Pseudo Studio 

To fake that warm glow of fire, you will need to place a light on the inside of the grill laying at the bottom with a red gel. It won't need to use much power since you will want a nice deep red, so using a speedlite is ideal for this situation. Pocket wizards or a hotshoe to PC sync is a must as you will be blocking the IR sensor of the flash unit.  Even though the speedlite won't be drawing much power at a low setting, I would also recommend attaching an extra battery to the unit to make sure that it will last for the duration of your shoot. 

The barbecue should have a grate where the charcoal can be placed on top to allow for air flow in from the bottom, this should allow enough space for your speedlite to hide.  Place the charcoal on the grate in a way that allows some holes for the red light to peak through and make them look hot.  Place your other lights and use a test steak on the grill to get things dialed in.  It is best to setup your lighting knowing how your the material properties of your subject are going to react, so get a cheap cut to use as a stand in.  You want to especially make sure the lighting is balanced the way you want it since it won't be easy to access the speedlite during the shoot.

Steak tartare?

The best way to cook meat for food photography is far from what you would want sitting at the end of your fork. The meat needs to look tender and juicy.  When it comes to food styling that does not mean beating the meat with a mallet or adding salt. Instead, that steak will need to be rare, cooked with a torch, and seared with a soldering gun.  This will prevent the meat from looking though and dry.  Brushing cooking oil on the food help make it look appetizing.


Paper towels are not only great for cleaning up spills, but can also act as easy to place little fire balls. You can control how large the flame is by the size of the paper towel piece you roll. Since you can easily roll them up and drop them exactly where they need to be, this works perfectly for food photography.  Once placed, have your assistants take wooden skewers burning on one end to ignite the little wads.  If you don't have any, pasta noodles also work well for lighting things in hard to reach places.  The paper will burn up quickly and also produce some smoke to further the effect that you have a real barbecue going.  You can repeatedly place flames until you've got what you need for easily layering a great image together in Photoshop (given you used a tripod and didn't make any changes.)

Make sure to buy backups of what you're grilling just in case the grill marks don't end up looking right or something gets burned in a way that doesn't look appetizing.  Always error on the side of caution and leave room in your budget for mis-steaks to happen.

Food Photography by Brenda (Hartshorn) Licitra

Although I shoot a wide variety of things for San Joaquin Magazine, I was primarily a food photographer for 2 years while working with them.

Early in my career, it was a highly respected field in photography because there was a lot of buzz at the time about how food photography isn't necessarily what you want to eat (i.e. that beautifully browned turkey might be rubbed with motor oil for the photo.)  Given, all the trickery in food photography I did for the magazine was through lighting only, as the photos were for editorials.  For everyone's integrity in editorial food photography, you have to shoot the plate that a guest of the restaurant is able to order.  Even though I didn't work with a stylist, people were still respectful of my profession.  

About a year ago, I thought about going back into food photography.  Food is something everyone is passionate about.  Many of our social interactions, no matter what culture, revolves around sharing a meal.  I was thirsting to be around passionate people again.  However, in recent years this field has lost its reverence.  People are no longer awed by the idea of food photography.  Any idea why? Yep, you guessed it: Instagram. There has been an explosion of photos of food thanks to people blogging about their every meal.  I still love food photography, but I have a hard time dedicating any time for it when it is a fad among amateurs.  While trying to break back into this field, I was met with a shocking number of rude people with a lack of respect for the field altogether.  There was an immediate chuckle after people learned I shot food, followed by an, "Oh, are you on Instagram?"  To which my usual response was, "ummm, no.  I've been making my living as a photographer for over 5 years."  Food photography is not the field to be in right now, I could be wrong- but I wouldn't recommend it.  Maybe in another 10 years when the fad has not only died, but has long been cold, stiff, and buried in the ground never to be exhumed again.

Right now, I'm a Research Photographer at Google, which I absolutely love.  I really couldn't ask for anything more: great team, totally awesome environment, and I love the work.  At Brooks, I concentrated in industrial/scientific photography and with my years of working professionally, it has finally led me to exactly where I wanted to be.

Photography is one of the rare professions where people can more easily jump fields to remake themselves.  I think most professions would require you to go back to school for years to get a different degree.  If you find yourself stagnating as a photographer, you do have the freedom to make a change.  I've moved from food and lifestyle, to studio portraits and weddings, to product and fashion, and now to research.  Wherever photography takes me, I hope that it continues to be around passionate people.