We have a news update for you this morning: yesterday a fistfight at the Springfield Mall in Delaware County led to gunshots in the parking lot. While no one was hurt, shoppers and mall employees were shaken as the building was put on lockdown and evacuated. The mall is expected to reopen this morning. As for our regular programming, you won't want to miss this week's look ahead as it includes a weather forecast and an eye towards the midterm elections. And, don't forget, the Eagles hope to extend their win streak today as they take on the Panthers at 1 p.m.
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Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan just released his Ultimate Dining Guide for 2018 and it's full of recommendations. The guide includes a myriad of restaurant reviews showcasing the range of cuisines found in Philly, and LaBan's delicious descriptions are accompanied by food portraits shot by several Inquirer photographers. To learn the secret to capturing each dish on camera, we spoke to photographer Tim Tai, who explains how you, too, can take the perfect shot to show off what you're eating. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
A lot of prep and art direction goes into food photography. How do you make the food look as mouth-watering as possible?
Photographing food is just one part of our job at the Inquirer and Daily News, so I can't claim to be an expert food photographer. While photographing the dining guide, I spent a lot of time looking at other food photographers' work to see how they approached different photographs. Because I'm photographing dishes at the restaurant, I usually have time and space constraints. Plus, the food has to look close to how it is usually presented to customers. If I were photographing recipes for a cookbook or something like that, I would have the leeway to choose the surfaces, textures, colors, etc., to go along with the food. At most restaurants, the food is already presented in an aesthetically pleasing way. For certain dishes, I'll photograph it as it's presented and then photograph it sliced or cut open or something, so we have multiple options. Sometimes you want to get a really tight detail shot showing off a texture or ingredient. I usually let the geometry of the food guide how I compose the photo.
What were some challenges you faced in trying to capture each dish?
Unfortunately, I usually show up to super reflective tables (or plain white linen tablecloths) as well as super reflective plates and bowls. A lot of restaurants are dimly lit inside, so I usually bring some small flashes to light the food — but then I have to try to keep the lights from creating distracting reflections on all the shiny surfaces. I'd prefer to photograph against darker, matte surfaces — but again, I don't have the luxury of determining how the food is presented or what kind of tables the restaurant has.
What were some tips, tricks or skills you learned as you visited each restaurant?
If anything, you learn that if you want it to look good rather than just OK, you have to pay attention to the little details instead of brushing them aside. One shortcut I did occasionally use, which my colleague Michael Bryant told me, is that when you need to reflect a little light onto one side of a dish in a pinch, ask the kitchen for a sheet of aluminum foil. Most kitchens will have some.
For amateur photographers who'd like to explore the food photography space, do you have any tips to offer?
Light makes a lot of difference. For a lot of dishes, try placing the food next to a large window and then photograph it so the light is coming from the side or behind the food. When the light is coming from an angle, rather than straight on, it creates shadows, which accentuate the texture of the dish. Try to block out other light sources (like yellow overhead lights!) that might pollute the quality and color of the window light. If you're at home and able to style the food, think about the surface that the food will be photographed against. Find an appropriate bowl or plate that compliments the food but doesn't distract from it. Pair it with a fabric, like a towel or napkin. Maybe sprinkle some raw ingredients, like herbs, around it.
What's something most readers wouldn't know when it comes to taking photos of food?
There's no right way to do it. You can make food look good with many different approaches. Some food photographers use strong colors and harsh light. Some create these painterly still-life scenes. Some make the food look prim and polished, while others make it look casual and relaxed. The most important thing is the light.
It's most definitely fall. Have you decorated your space yet? Thanks for giving us some inspiration, @f.wska!
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Our readers' latest question: What if alcohol is not for you, but you still want to go out and make friends in Philly?
The answer: Happy hour seems to be a top choice for many after a long day of work, but reporter Grace Dickinson found several other ways you can meet others with similar interests without having to rely on booze.
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