A grainy picture of a Jimmy John's sub.
A bowl of brothy noodles, steaming and ready for its closeup.
An iced mocha snapped at a movie theater concession stand.
These photographs, and thousands more like them — some better, some far worse — can be found in full color on the Internet or even on our phones as friends instantly send us images of their deliciously drippy cheeseburgers. More and more, it seems, before we raise fork to mouth or bring dishes to the table, we are reaching for the camera. The documentation of what we eat can be found on personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace and other networking sites.
On the photo-sharing website Flickr, more than 21,000 people belong to a group called "What I Ate." They are posting pictures of breakfast, lunch and dinner, and all the snacks in between. And if you want to see the above-mentioned photos, all taken in the Tampa Bay area, head to Foodspotting.com. For more drool-worthy food photography, there's Foodgawker.com.
No doubt about it, the food paparazzi nation is growing.
This weekend hundreds of food bloggers will gather in San Francisco for the annual BlogHer Food conference to network old-school — face to face — and learn how to grow their online ventures. One of the seminars is about food styling and photography. Also, the "Foodspotters" will be out en masse, snapping photos at the restaurants and food shops in the city's historic Ferry Building as part of a scavenger hunt. Expect to see what they see within seconds.
Jaden Hair, founder of the popular cooking site Steamykitchen.com and a resident of Manatee County, is a big name on the BlogHer Food speakers' schedule. Hair leads seminars around the country, teaching food styling and photography, with a side dish of marketing assistance. The hot word in blogging these days is "monetizing," meaning how to turn passion into money, achieved through pay-per-click advertising and banner ads, among other options.
Hair attributes the growth of online food photography to our love affair with food. We see good-looking food and it makes us happy, she says. Simple as that.
"You eat with you eyes," Hair says. "On the Web, you are engaging in only one sense, and it's visual."
Tampa Bay restaurateur and chef Christopher Ponte has noticed more people taking photos of their meals at his upscale Cafe Ponte in Clearwater. While some restaurants and their patrons advocate banning snap-happy diners, Ponte welcomes the attention. He views it the same as people taking photos of each other during a special-occasion dinner.
"I think it's a compliment if someone wants to take photos of my food," he says. "Now, if they start setting up a photo studio with lights, that's another thing."
Ponte says he recently saw a series of photos online of someone's meal at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York. What a cool way, he says, to experience a restaurant like that without "having to pay the big prices." The Web has opened up an avenue for food criticism that for years was the sole purview of professional journalists. Bring it on, Ponte says.
He even takes photos of his own dishes — using his iPhone — so that his employees have a visual guide to replicate his creations. Lighting, he says, is the key element to good photos — and that's what makes taking photos in restaurants a little difficult. The low lighting is good for the mood, not so great to show off the best duck confit you've ever eaten.
"Sometimes there are great photos (online) and sometimes I think, 'Did my food really look like that?' "
To combat dim restaurant lighting, Hair suggests sitting by a window and using a white napkin as a reflector to bounce natural light onto the food. Smile nicely at diners snarling at you if you bounce off a camera flash.
Shelisa Goulbourne of Riverview has been photographing her culinary handiwork for her food site, Big2beautiful.com, since December. The focus of her blog is Southern home cooking with a modern twist, so expect to find recipes for collard greens and neck bones, all nicely photographed.
Sites such as Wordpress or Blogspot make it easy for anyone to get a food blog up and running in one evening, but if it doesn't have gorgeous photos, it probably won't get much attention. The days of the Julie/Julia Project, the website that launched the bestselling book and award-winning movie, are over. Julie Powell's 2002 blog had no photos, and the comment section was clunky and not used much. Today's food blogs are more like websites with advertising, comment functions and sophisticated usability.
"The photos are the reason I would read a blog," Goulbourne says. "The dish is what attracts me."
Hair's Steamy Kitchen was Goulbourne's inspiration, and Hair eventually became her mentor. In fact, Hair is the one who told Goulbourne to "let the food speak for itself." In other words, don't over-prop photos and do get in tight.
"It's really just mindless food porn," Hair says of the multitude of photos of creme brulee, cupcakes and more on the Web.
And a way to break bread together without actually breaking the bread. Or even being together.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.