by Taylor Starek

Photographing food—with a pleasant result— looks easier than it actually is.

It takes someone with a seasoned eye to know the right angles, the right textures, props and light sources to produce a photo that stands out among the throng of Instagram foodies.

And Allie Lehman’s got it down.

As a photographer and co-owner of branding agency The Wonder Jam, Lehman’s worked with small, family-owned businesses and major brands alike, including Cherbourg Bakery in Bexley, Bonifacio in Grandview and wine label Ecco Domani—shooting and styling content for their websites and major campaigns.

Most recently, she’s delved into cookbook photography, finishing up her last of three cookbook shoots in a year.

“It’s cool, because I have a passion for cooking food, and it ended up being this weird integration into my profession that I never thought I’d be doing,” she says.

The first cookbook, Real Food, Real Simple, written by local blogger Taylor Riggs, put Lehman on the radar of Massachusetts-based Page Street Publishing. She shot Riggs’ cookbook last summer, followed by a vegan cookbook last November and a dessert cookbook in early February.

Below, she shares insight into the process of shooting a cookbook—plus a few tips on getting that bowl of soup to look just right.

What’s your process for shooting a cookbook?

For Taylor’s, we shot from a Tuesday through a Sunday. It doesn’t really need to be consecutive days, but while your head’s in the game and you’re focused, you might as well keep going with it. The thing about Taylor’s was, because she’s local, she came in and prepared all of the dishes, and we photographed it. With the second one in November and the one I’m shooting next, we actually have a team that I lead, and we prepare everything, style it and photograph it.

Are you part of the process of choosing the cover image?

[The authors] usually have a pretty good idea of what they want or envision. With Taylor’s, she wanted one of the salads that was really colorful. I usually see a mockup of what they’d like the cover to look like with a filler photo, so I can see how long the title is and what different kinds of texts need to be on top. And then I provide a couple of different cover options. They mark which recipes they’d be willing to put on the cover, so when I’m shooting for the interior spread, I’ll also shoot a version that would work really well on the cover. That really just means moving some things around, creating white space with the surface and the background. It’s always nice to have multiple options.


Adam and Allie Lehman, co-owners of The Wonder Jam, with Taylor Riggs, author of "Real Food, Real Simple"
Adam and Allie Lehman, co-owners of The Wonder Jam, with Taylor Riggs, author of “Real Food, Real Simple”

What were some of your favorite shots from Real Food, Real Simple?

I really loved some of the macro shots I got for hers—the pesto and the taco seasonings. We got some really good close-ups of the texture of the sauce and the texture of all of the grains of the spices, and it was fun to think even more simply than some of the more complex ones, where, you know, you’re styling and using multiple utensils. I loved how simple those were, and it really contrasted with a lot of the other stuff we got.

What are some of the common challenges with photographing a cookbook?

I would say making it so the cookbook [looks] cohesive as a whole but that from recipe to recipe there is variety and not everything is shot straight on or overhead. We print each approved shot, and we tape them up on the wall to get an idea of what we’re looking at. The great thing is that usually we know the order in which they’re going to be listed or how they’re going to be categorized, so I can make sure we’re using a variety of backgrounds, and we’re not using the same linens over and over. That’s definitely a challenge—making sure you don’t come out with basically the same shot over and over.

Anything you think might surprise the average person to know about the photo process?

The biggest question I get is, “Do you really make the food?” Obviously when Taylor made it, she didn’t skip ingredients or anything, so we were all able to eat it, which was awesome. When we make it, we do the same thing—we try not to skip anything or cut corners. We are aware of certain ingredients that aren’t technically necessary. For example, if you don’t put enough salt, you won’t be able to tell in the photo. But you want it to look accurate. When my team and I are preparing these dishes, we want there to be integrity in the way it looks so when a consumer buys the book, they don’t feel discouraged because ours looks different. I know in the food photography industry, there have been times where you’re not using edible ingredients, or you do the thing that just makes it look good. We try to make it look good but also taste really good.

Tell us about the props for Real Food?

We kept the plateware pretty neutral. If anything was colorful, it was sort of a mint green or a light teal. But we kept with grays, whites, off-whites, marble. We have a huge prop closet, and I just slowly add it. If I go to a thrift store or Old Time Pottery or World Market, I pick up a few things I find that are unique and neutral enough. [Taylor] also brought in a ton of stuff. She brought in some things from her grandmother and some things that she uses every day, like knives. That’s always really fun to have things in the cookbook that are actually meaningful. I try to keep our prop closet refreshed so we’re not using the same things as everyone else. You also have to be intentional about how you’re presenting it. So it’s also understanding the context—how are people going to eat this? Props are so much fun.

Allie’s 3 food photo tips

1. It’s easy for people to want to photograph things just as they come. So, if you get a big bowl of chili, it’s really hard to photograph it in a really deep dish or bowl, because of the shadow the bowl creates. If you plan on photographing food, don’t be afraid to use a shallow plate or bowl. It’s going to photograph better when things are all on the same plane.

2. Find natural light. We’ve all been there when we’re in a dark restaurant or we’re taking photos of our dinner and it’s 8 p.m., and it just doesn’t look that great. That’s because you’re not allowing some of the moisture or texture to grab the light. It’s kind of ridiculous, but walk toward a window or move the plate closer to a light source that’s natural.

3. Props are huge. Be able to have things that are unique, whether you’re thrifting and finding old glassware or plates, silverware—that adds a lot of character. If you look through a cookbook you love, they are incorporating unique props or linens that are neutral or have personality. And they’re even pulling texture from the actual dish, so you see crumbs that are present and things that don’t look perfect. It’s messy—and that’s how people eat.

Photos courtesy Allie Lehman