A passion for cuisine

Photographer Nick Tresidder lets Adrian Hatwell in on food photography trends, and his ambitions

Food photography has had a bum rap for some time now, apparently eliciting a feeling that scrumptious meal imagery exists only to trick consumers into purchasing something that will never look anything like the menu picture. For Auckland food photographer Nick Tresidder, that’s a holdover from times long past, and he’s eager to set the record straight with a bountiful portfolio of realistically shot culinary delights.

“Pretty much everything we shoot, after we’re done, you can pick it up and eat it. It might be a bit tired after sitting around for a while, I don’t usually do that, but you could,” the photographer explains, with a laugh. “That’s very much on trend for food — real food, kind of messy.”

Tresidder is well positioned to comment on the trends, he’s been working in the industry for decades, and is now one of the country’s best-regarded food photographers. Over his career he has amassed an enviable client list, shooting product, packaging, editorial, and book projects. Though he says he enjoys being a photographic generalist — letting different genre elements inform his style — for him, food is a passion that goes beyond photography.

“I’m into food: I like cooking, I like eating. I think if you’re going to be a good photographer of a particular subject, you want to be really engaged with that subject. For example, I don’t know a lot about sports, I’d be a lousy sports photographer. I’d be pointing the camera at the wrong end of the field, at a guy doing something wrong. I’d just be terrible at it.”

And while he is a big proponent of following one’s photographic passion, Tresidder is also a pragmatic professional. When giving young photographers career advice, he says doing something you care about is important, but so is doing something that will attract actual clients and pay the rent. For him, food photography ticks both of those boxes nicely, and his client base now includes some of the biggest brands in the industry.

The desire for imagery that authentically reflects the food being offered doesn’t stop with the fine-dining artisans, even huge fast-food companies are after that naturalistic take on their products. Tresidder shoots for Pizza Hut, and says it is really firm about presenting the food in a realistic way.

“People go, ‘Oh, that’s not what my pizza looks like’. But actually, it’s the exact same bases you get from the store. All the ingredients come from the store. Every ingredient that goes on the pizza is measured, usually we put on slightly less than you get if you order it,” he explains.

When creating the imagery, the photographer does so with a belief that, if you took away time pressures, any Pizza Hut worker could make a pizza look exactly like the ones in his shots, if they were so inclined.

“I couldn’t sleep at night if I thought I was conning consumers.”

Just because Tresidder is after faithful results doesn’t mean there aren’t a few cunning tricks to getting the image just so. He always works with a food stylist, a specialized individual whose job it is to make the dish look its very best. This can be a very involved and time-consuming process. To ensure the shoot moves along in the interim, the stylist will often produce a quick stand-in dish — which Tresidder dubs the “stunt double” — so the photographer can begin to set up the lighting and focus while the main course is being prepared.

“We’ll get all that stuff lined up until we’re happy, tell the food stylist we’re ready for them, and they will do the hero plate of food. That gets popped in there and shot as quickly as we can, while it’s all fresh. It’s quite fast when we finally get to our hero shot, but it can take a while to get there.”

The production can be slowed down considerably if it involves shooting food that is moving. In the case of his Pizza Hut work, a ‘cheese pull’ is often required, in which a slice of the pizza is lifted into the air with strands of melted cheese stretching from its side.

“That cheese doesn’t last very long on the pull, so you do a series of them to get a good one. And you might get a really good cheese pull but notice there’s a piece of pepperoni missing on the other pizza. So you can just quickly go, ‘Oh, let’s just borrow that from another pizza’, because there needs to be eight pepperoni slices, not nine, not seven.”

And that attention to detail isn’t only important on individual shoots, it’s also essential for repeat business. When Pizza Hut comes back to Tresidder with a new variation of pizza to shoot, he has to be sure he can exactly replicate the conditions of the earlier shoot, so both images sit together in the same ‘world’. To this end he has his assistant measure and note down every detail of each shoot — from the position of the lights to the height from camera to floor, so the identical ellipse of the plate can be recreated.

Getting the food’s specifications exactly right is key to both his clients’ and the photographer’s satisfaction — on a cereal shoot, for instance, he’ll tip out three boxes and count up the ingredient mix to make sure the one he shoots is a fair representation. When a small detail goes awry on the actual shoot, as in the pepperoni example above, Tresidder is happy to make small improvements with Photoshop.

“I think if you’re doing a job and thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just fix it up later’, you’re not doing your job properly. But there are some things it’s really easy to do in Photoshop, so you could spend an extra half-hour trying to, say, flag a light so it’s not reflecting, or you could just fix it later. You make those decisions as you go.”

As an early technology adopter (Tresidder guesses he was probably one of the first dozen photographers in New Zealand to go digital), the photographer’s Photoshop skills are such that he can quickly and confidently make those alterations. He’s also spent a lot of time learning the minutiae of pre-press, so he can supply clients with files that are ready to print right out the gate. His tech-savvy approach flows into what he describes as a very “systematized” business model, too.

“I’m not the sort of person who is comfortable running around with one camera and one battery and no backup. Everything has backups, the backups have backups. I believe if you’ve got all those sorts of things tied down — technology sorted out, software reliable, all those sorts of things — it frees you up to actually take photos and not be stressed about whether I have to update my firmware, or anything like that.”

Having successfully trend-spotted the popular ‘real food’ aesthetic for his clients, Tresidder is now looking ahead to motion as the next big thing in food photography.

In order to stay ahead of the curve and ensure he’s always learning fresh skills, the photographer warns against a worrying tendency he sees in more established photographers — disassociating from the new generation of up-and-coming photographers.

“Don’t push away these young people and just ring-fence what you do and hang out with your old cronies down at the pub. You don’t want to be cut off from all that new stuff, and you’re going to learn from them, from watching them do what they do,” he says.

“There can be a huge learning curve, but that’s great. If I stop learning I might as well give up and do something else.”

Article originally published in The Photographer’s Mail 207 September-October 2015

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