Watching the Clock With Martha

I’ve got to admit that I’m not a regular reader of Martha Stewart Living. I don’t buy very many “women’s” magazines at all, so this may very well be a trend that has been on the go for some time now. But yesterday I was in a magazine shop flipping through stuff and the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living was especially disturbing. A visit to the website reveals the same. Almost all of the food photographs have been taken from above. The “clock shot” has reared its ugly head.

From its very inception MSL broke new ground when it came to food photography. Stewart’s whole schtick was clean, tidy, and organized paired with rich yet classic elements. This was not only obvious in the magazine’s recipes but in the photographs of the food. MSL set the standard for many, many years in terms of how magazines styled and shot their food articles. It was the MSL photographers who turned on their macro settings and got us in there to see the crumb of a cake, the glistening crispy skin of a roast chicken, the grain of a slice of roast beef or the detail work of a spectacularly decorated cookie. “Food porn” originated in the MSL studios where they managed to make food look sexy well before anyone else ever thought of it that way.

MSL was the inspiration not only for every other food magazine, cooking show and blog that followed in its footsteps, but it made us all strive to not only become better cooks, but better food photographers.

Which is why the shot from above place setting is so disturbing.

It makes sense in that “push the envelope” kind of way. If everyone is getting up close and personal, making porn-worthy shots of their dinner, MSL needs to go to the next level. And that place setting or clock shot from above is the next reasonable step.

The problem is that, unlike the tightly angled macro shots, shooting food from above is much more difficult. It actually requires a level of photographic skill that macro images do not. At TasteTO, I advise all my writers to make a point of avoiding clock shots – I refuse to use them if there are any other options at all – because most people really can’t take decent food photographs at this angle. Not only does it require a steady hand, or piles of equipment to ensure a steady camera, it also demands a decent knowledge of lighting (and/or necessary lighting gear). And while we all used to be able to make our photographs focus on the food, full plate shots require a decent cache of props and a fairly high level of skill with regard to styling. Not only do we now need nice plates and pretty linen, we need to know how to arrange them in a way that is pleasing – AND – we need to know how to take a decent photo of that setting without making it look trite, forced or throwing it into shadow. Nevermind making the food look decent.

Hopefully the trend will take some time to trickle down, but already those old food-porn up-close shots are beginning to look dated. And I suspect it won’t be long before food bloggers start inundating their readers with badly shot images of food that just don’t stand up to being scrutinized at that angle. From flipping through the magazine and surfing the MSL website, I’m picking up tricks and trends (it’s all about the cropping), but I still worry about how well it’s all going to translate when everyone else tries to copy the style.