The gotcha, which you probably already know, is that both of these so-called “food porn” sites are notoriously picky and quirky. Don’t even think about submitting unless your masterpiece satisfies these minimal criteria: attractively prepared and presented food; the image in sharp (but not unnatural) focus; exposure neither overly dark or light; and the pic cropped to a 250 X 250 pixel, 72 dpi format.
About 6 months ago, I decided to make a concerted effort to break in to Foodgawker and Tastespotting. I’d taken some very general “how-to photograph food” sessions at culinary conferences, so I knew that most experts recommend shooting food in natural light.
And over the years, I’d picked up a few food styling tips watching stylists I’d worked with. I was also armed with the basic photo-editing skills of cropping, sizing, and slightly enhancing images using the Adobe Elements 8 software.
That said, I was bracing for some rejections, because, in my heart of hearts, I knew my photography “lacked.” Still, the string of no’s and negative reviewer comments ranging from, underexposed, overexposed, dull/unsharp, over-processed, flat, harsh lighting, composition too tight, and the biggie, “poor composition,” was even longer and more deflating than I’d expected.
When the first yes finally came (after about a month of regularly trying), I was as excited as if my latest cookbook had just made the bestseller list! Well almost!
To get right to the grim nitty-gritty stats, I had to submit about ten pics to both Foodgawker and Tastespotting before my first one was published. In each case, my initial “winner,” (the raspberry cobbler at right was one) was rejected by the other site. This is one reason I strongly recommend submitting to both at once: It’s proof (not to mention a salve to the ego) that the selection process is highly subjective—that one photo reviewer’s “good enough” is another’s “garbage,” that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder! (A Foodgawker ad for an entry-level photo editor/reviewer recently listed starting pay as $15 an hour, another reminder that judgments aren’t necessarily infallible assessments of mighty photo gods!)
Interestingly, although the two sites often seem to like and dislike different shots, statistically, they’ve been equally picky. Gradually, as I’ve learned and adapted, the rate of acceptance has risen, and on both sites one out of every two or three of my submissions now passes muster. (And I’m hoping for even better numbers in the future.) But I still haven’t cracked the code on which site will like what. If you have, please comment here and fill me in!
While criticism is never easy to take, the bits of feedback these sites always provide when rejecting photos are a key reason my success rate has gone up and my photography is getting noticeably better. The comments have helped me correct many basic exposure/lighting/processing problems in just a few months. That said, these two often don’t agree on even technical issues: The raspberry cobbler shot was summarily bounced by Foodgawker for harsh lighting and composition, but was promptly posted by Tastespotting. And the hot fudge sundae pic at left was run by Foodgawker yet rejected by Tastespotting for exactly the same reasons! One image that both apparently liked was the lavender buttercream-filled macarons below.
Today, my submissions tend to be rejected for “composition issues," doubtless the most subjective and complex of all aspects evaluated. Sometimes I take the criticism to heart, but other times, especially when the photo has been accepted at the competing site and I really like it, I’ve gained enough confidence in my own judgment to just chalk it up to reviewers’ differing personal tastes. A version of the pic of the strawberry-rhubarb sorbet at the very top was submitted to both sites today, and both rejected it. I resubmitted the version above and Foodgawker is running it, but Tastespotting objected to the composition. I remain convinced that it's a beautiful shot and really like the composition.
Was investing the considerable amount of time and the constant eating of humble pie required to get to yes with Foodgawker and Tastespotting worth it? Absolutely! Besides the benefit of increased site traffic, I know I’m shooting and posting better photos on my blog. It’s extremely gratifying to finally be able to take pics that really do my recipes justice, as well as simply to possess the ability to personally create truly pleasing images.
Should you decide to take on the challenge yourself, here are a few tips that have helped me:
>Always respond positively to the feedback from photo critiques and remind yourself that nobody is deliberately picking on you! Yes, reviewers are wrong sometimes, but if you keep hearing the same criticisms over and over, accept that they’re preventing your work from being published and address the problems. I'm told by Chuck at Foodgawker that they have different morning, evening and weekend editors, so unless you always submit at the same time on week days, be assured that more than one person is critiquing your work. At Tastespotting, in contrast, a single person makes all the final decisions; this is a good thing to keep in mind.
>Plan to devote at least a number of hours (8 to 10 or more if possible) a week to shooting and re-shooting, photo-editing and re-editing, and submitting and occasionally resubmitting based on criticisms received. Not only can a lot be learned over time through trial and error, but what’s learned will soon show in improved images. (My pics are so much better these days that just this weekend a relative asked me if somebody else was now taking my photos!) And persevering by making changes and resubmitting once or twice instead of falling into a funk can sometimes turn a no into a yes.
>As two of my foodie colleagues, Nancy Buchanan and Susie Kuack point out, for these particular sites, composing vertical or square shots tend to work better than horizontal because ultimately images must be cropped to a square and submitted in a 250 by 250 pixel format. And as Nancy advises, take shots both close in and farther out so you have the flexibility to submit close-up and broader view images if you’re told that your photo is cropped too tight or too wide.
>Understand that “food porn” sites are looking for more than just command of the technical aspects of photography. Even professionals are bounced if their food looks like mud or is crudely presented, because visitors to these sites come to be enticed by beautiful and seductive, not average-looking, fare. Simply slapping a piece of cake down on a dingy plate smeared with icing and cluttered with globs and crumbs will sink you, so develop some food styling expertise and obtain at least a minimum set of props (dishes, napkins, silverware, and such). Take a course; look closely how the food is presented in appealing photos; read some food styling how-to books. Here are two good books by Delores Custer and Denise Vivaldo, two of the many stylists whose work I greatly admire. And start building a prop collection. If budget is an issue, shop yard sales, secondhand shops, etc., and stick mostly with white and light-colored dishware, which is most versatile and also shows off food particularly well.
maple custard pie pic (right) and raspberry ice cream pic (above), which, as you can see, add interest to the round in the center though the use of colorful, strategically placed linens and cutlery. In the raspberry buttercream topped cookie shot below not only do linens add interest by echoing the frosting swirl, but the dark color of the tea in the cup helps balance the intense raspberry hue of the frosting.
The topic is enormously complicated though, because so many elements, from line, color, mass, form, texture and white space, come into play. I’ve learned most of what I now know simply by looking at hundreds of pics on Foodgawker and Tastespotting and carefully analyzing why certain images are visually appealing. And, or course, practicing, helps me learn what works and what doesn't. I’m guessing that this approach will work for you, too.
>Use at least a reasonably good dslr camera; a cheap model designed for taking snapshots of the kids won't do. I started with a Nikon D40, then upgraded to a secondhand Nikon D200. I immediately noticed that the images looked better, plus the larger viewer allowed me to frame and preview pics more easily (thus helping me improve compositions). (I'm sure other brands of comparable quality would serve equally well.) Pros suggest using a tripod and shooting tethered so you can preview images on a full computer screen, but I usually don't bother. They also suggest shooting "raw," meaning you have larger images with more information so you have more options when working with/fixing the pics using photo-editing software.
So now you see, step by step, one way it can be done. Getting to yes with Foodgawker and Tastespotting isn’t a matter of magic, luck, or who you know. It may not even require an innate sense of design or artistic talent or training, though these doubtless help a lot. If your pics are already regularly or even occasionally being posted on these sites, please do share any insights and suggestions. I’d love to hear your personal story and approach.
Oh yes! And feel free to post your comments about any images presented here. My skin has gotten thick and I can take it!