Douglas Johns lives by the mantra “beauty is in the details” every single day of his life. He’s a man obsessed, and it shows in his stunning images of culinary delights. It’s his magic that allows you to almost taste the rich sweetness of a double-layer chocolate cake, smell the garlic in the mashed potatoes, and feel the piping-hot filling of a homemade apple pie.
While not all food may appear beautiful, it’s the job of a food photographer to create an emotional response to it by transforming the food’s texture and color into a sentimental aspect. A recently photo assignment for Pilgrims’ Pride, which sells poultry to restaurants and supermarkets, challenged his culinary creativity. “Chicken is particularly tricky since you’re dealing with a short spoil cycle,” he says. Winning the race against the clock is much easier than it was in the days before digital. Capturing the details in “a perfect moment” with poultry is a challenge that might have seemed overwhelming. But digital has significantly made the lives of still-life imagers easier and more profitable.
Layering Perfection Digitally
There are no perfect moments. Ultimately, something before the camera will show imperfections. It may be a wrinkle in the napkin or the napkin fold itself. Perhaps the light across the chocolate cake is heavenly, but casts a shadow over the icing. And you must see the icing. For Johns, the solution is layering many little perfect details into one seemingly organic moment, using many captures of every detail needed by the client.
Johns is fearless, even in front of his clients. A big part of that confidence is the transfer to an all-digital studio about six years ago with his Phase One equipment. It changed his business forever. He uses a Phase One H 25 22-megapixel back with his Mamiya RZ67 and Sinar p view cameras. “I can sleep at night because I know I got ‘the’ shot,” he says.
“Say you have an amazing shot of Italian parsley. The light on the garnish looks like it fell out of God’s hands. It only looks a certain way for a moment and then you’ve got to fuss with the mashed potatoes. And you might miss the perfect parsley moment. Digital allows you to capture the watershed moments every time. It takes the challenge and frustration out of having to do everything perfect at once.”
Whether it’s capturing the sizzle of a hamburger, moisture on a tomato, or the back light on chips, with film it all had to occur in one moment. Johns shoots in real time and combines the best parts of the image in post-production using Adobe Photoshop.
Another plus with digital is all the variations a food photographer can offer the client. A client can come with a fixed idea and the shooter can offer 12 variations easily—variations as simple as with or without a napkin.
For one shot, filet mignon sitting on a plate next to garlic mashed potatoes, needed a stop more of light. But the mashed looked divine. With digital, Johns was able to light the steak and keep the great shot of the potatoes.
In a shot of a double-layer chocolate cake, he wanted to kick in a mirror to reflect light onto the walnut crust without ruining the light that illuminated the beauty of the uneven cut on the slice. He took two photos and processed later in Photoshop. “You build this tower. It’s like a sandwich of many layers,” he explains. Clients enjoy watching Johns’ “stream of consciousness” way of working in his 600-square-foot warehouse studio. It’s an inviting, homey place where out-of-town clients can hangout, shoot pool, and even hold marketing meetings while the shoot is going on. Vintage signs and an 8x10 Superman graphic decorate the huge kitchen and entertainment area.
“We want clients to be comfortable in our studio and for it to be their temporary office while they’re waiting for me.” A 30-inch Apple Cinema LCD display monitor is the star of the studio. It allows clients to see their vision as a 12x12 image as Johns is shooting it.
“We may have more than 10 people waiting at the shoot at any given time, including our team, agents, and art directors. That’s 10 pairs of eyes able to see what I’m shooting in real time.” This eliminates people having to hover over a Polaroid. The client can check the coloring, the portion size, as it is being done, or change to a warm or cool background. This way there are no surprises.
Part of the reason Johns is so taken with food photography is the challenge. “It’s such an organic subject. No two steaks or stalks of Italian parsley look the same. There are differences in color, texture, how the light hits it,” he says.
“People associate food with memories and that creates the connection with it. Whether it’s a brownie, a pear or a steak, you’re talking to everyone—it speaks to us in ways that move us.
Johns and his wife and producer, Kathy, believe much of their success is due to their 20-year business love affair with their food stylist, Brazilian-born independent contractor Nice Minor, based in Tennessee. Minor has a culinary arts and food science background, cooks, and has a host of tricks to make food appear perfect. “What she has you can’t teach,” says Johns. “She knows how food should appear, what color it should be, is it cooked enough or tender or juicy enough. Does it have the potential to move you? She has an artistic eye and responds to food.”