From the blog July 27, 2011 Modernist Cuisine Team

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, Part 3

Arriving at Our Style

[See part one of this series for rec­ol­lec­tions by pho­tog­ra­pher Ryan Matthew Smith about how he came to join the MC team, and part two for his account of the lessons he learned about shooting food.Ed.]

One question people ask me again and again is: “Why did you choose to shoot most of the images for Modernist Cuisine on a solid black or white background?” There is no simple answer to this. Five main factors drove us toward this approach as the best solution for our design.

  • Efficiency
    MC is a really big book, it is heavily illustrated, and we had just a couple of years to complete the photography. So every day I had to complete a huge volume of shots (we took some 147,000 during the course of the project). Having a solid, consistent background kept the shooting moving along quickly. We had to light just the subject, not an entire set, so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time setting up lighting.

The solid black also allows for maximum contrast for certain subjects

  • Consistency
    One of the design challenges for a multi-volume work like Modernist Cuisine is the need to unify the diverse parts of the book with a common visual language. For a book of such wide scope with so many photos, common type styles and illustrative elements aren’t really sufficient, the images need to all share some common “look” so that readers never turn the page and suddenly feel like they have dropped into a different book. By using a small number of backgrounds, we hoped that photos spanning a wide range of subjects would nevertheless share a family resemblance.

Especially nice for liquids, a solid backlight can really bring out the fine details of a splash

  • Flexibility
    Many chapters in Modernist Cuisine are chock-full of complex layouts, in which half a dozen or more art and text elements must fit on the page in a clear and attractive way. These jigsaw puzzles are a lot easier for the designer to solve when the photos have a solid background that matches the page. Photos in which the subject extends to the edges of the frame, what photographers call “full bleed”, images effectively limit design options to devoting most or all of the page to a single photo or segregating the images in boxes. Photos on solid white or black backgrounds, in contrast, can float around text blocks and run smoothly off the page.

When filling a spread with annotations, a solid background helped keep captions easy to read

  • Isolation
    Throughout the book, but especially in the many step-by-step photo sequences, we tried to maximize the clarity and impact of the photographs by emphasizing the foreground subject. We found that with the background blank, the reader’s eye is naturally drawn to the focal point of the image, which makes the step-by-step instructions much easier to follow.

Keeping the viewer looking at the intended focal point is key for step-by-step photographs

  • Style
    I have always preferred a minimalist approach to photography. I like the subject to stand alone as the center of attention. Solid backgrounds thus resonated with my personal aesthetic.

One of my personal favorites from Modernist Cuisine

Of course, every design choice has its trade-offs. Our initial attempts to shoot on white paper and black velvet left some subjects looking like they were floating in space. We fixed this problem by changing shooting surfaces to white or black glass. The glass throws up subtle reflections that ground the subjects.


That solution brought its own challenges, however. The reflections were often too strong, sometimes even mirror-like in intensity. So we simply toned down the reflections in Photoshop by using gradients and soft paintbrushes.

A subtle reflection helps provide a sense of ground

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