Jeff Kauck makes a living shooting the more delicious things in life.
Why food photography?
My wife and I both love to cook, which made it a natural transition from my product-photography business. Since 2004, I’ve done 11 cookbooks. As I began doing it I realized it’s similar to watercolor painting, which I’d studied in art school.
There’s a sensory experience with food and with watercolor because it’s a transparent medium. With oil painting, you work from midtones down, and you can go back and correct. With watercolor, like food photography, you work from midtones up. It’s important to have elements in the food lift and come to life, and it’s very spontaneous—like watercolor, you can’t go back and correct.
What’s a typical shoot like?
They differ for advertising and editorial. For advertising, I have a large crew and we do the shoot in one day. For editorial, I work without a crew, and the process is much more spontaneous and collaborative, which is inspiring. For cookbooks, you’ll talk with the chef to get a feel for their work and what they want from it. The shoot itself will last about a week, but then you’re doing about 15 dishes a day.
How do you shoot outdoors?
I start just before dawn. Watercolor painters focus on “first lift,” when light first begins to break. Before it approaches the horizon, the light and colors are very soft and gentle; then there’s a moment where they fill in the landscape and the world suddenly becomes three-dimensional. This is when I’ll begin taking atmosphere shots. The chef begins making recipes, and we’ll do those as they come out, one at a time. For Patricia Wells’ salad book, we often shot in her garden at her estate in Provence; I’d use one table and move that around until I found the perfect light.
And your gear?
For the salad book, I used either my Hasselblad H3 39 on a tripod, or my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III with a 24–105mm or 70– 200mm lens. I use available but indirect light, and my best tools are white tablecloths and bedsheets to use as fill cards. I’ll have someone hold these up or, on closer shots, use a towel or a napkin.
How do you approach a dish?
Composition is key. For something with a lot of colors, I’ll step back to make sure you can breathe them all in. When there are specific things to focus on, I’ll make sure your eye moves around. For pasta or very delicate lettuce, I’ll shoot closer up. Color is important, too.
What do you love most about your work?
The passion of chefs in working with them is very contagious. Being in a room with people who are the best of the best never feels like work, and you take joy out of it seven days a week. I will die with a camera in my hands.