The Take-Out

Why is it so hard to take a pretty picture?

The Take-Out

Anyone who has spent a few hours with me is likely to pick up my, uhm, fussiness with aesthetics. In the various houses and apartments I have rented over the years, I have been known to rip out carpet, change out fixtures, and re-tile countertops. For almost a year, I dressed in nothing but beige and white. I once spent more than $100 on a collar for a thoroughly ungrateful pug. And while all the Chronicle editors have made their spaces their own, I am the only one who types out stories next to a giant portrait of myself.

But as confident as I may be in decorating a space or styling barrel-chested animals, it's probably best to lay my cards on the table. I am really, really bad at Instagram. It's not that I don't have an eye for what will make those hearts pop up, it's just something happens between moment of recognition and iPhone click. My current theory involves curmudgeonly demons.

The goal is to make quick snaps look like they came from Jody Horton's portfolio, but they always look more Nan Goldin. And grittiness is not really what you want in food photography. Under my lens, Callie Speer's biscuit and gravy dessert at Geraldine's, a stunner with a dazzlingly gold "yolk" and scattered kelly green nasturtium leaves, has all the vibrancy of the poster for Harold and Maude. Most of my shots of Tim Love's lovely venison dish at the recent Sustainable Food Center Fall Chef Series dinner came out looking like the more gruesome scenes of Starship Troopers. Need a musical analogy? If Taylor Swift made a cover of "Hotline Bling," it still wouldn't be as lame as my shot of one of Épicerie's beignets.

Sure, of course, absolutely. I try to improve. I read tips all the time. I try to find backlight, I never use a flash, and I never, ever, ever slant the camera (OK, maybe that one time when I felt artsy). I've even hinted at various Chronicle powers that I need a food photography class (hint hint). But I am still mystified at how to take a great photo. I have sat through many dinners with Jane Ko of A Taste of Koko or Rachel Holtin from Austin Foodstagram. I have taken what I thought were the same photos of the same food in the same lighting. Then I look at their Instagram feeds, where that slice of pizza looks as glittery as Versailles. My own looks like amateur ghost photography.

Of course there are a few flukes on the @chronfood Instagram feed, but I can't even take credit for that. Most of those were posted by AC food contributor Adrienne Whitehorse or texted to me by our Marketing Director Sarah Wolf. You know a Brandon Watson photograph from the oily filter.

You may say, "But Brandon, you paint such pictures with words, why do you even need to take pictures?" (Really, you may say that.) When out on reviews, I surreptitiously take shots of what I enjoyed so it's fresher in my memory. I take photos of interiors to crib for my own home. And consciously curated though it may be, Instagram feels like a warm hug compared to other social media platforms. It's all hearts and noms and happy moments. But wouldn't it be great if the photographs were really worth liking?

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Jane Ko, A Taste of Koko, Rachel Holtin, Austin Foodstagram, Geraldine's, Callie Speer, Tim Love, Sustainable Food Center, Épicerie

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