The Ardent Epicure

An Ode to the Pleasures of Food

Food Photography "A Perspective"~ Thoughts 
 on Composition with Adam Barnes. Plus an
 Interview with Cheryl Beverage Barnes.

Above image is property of

This is our third installment on the study of photography. Today our guest is Adam Barnes
 who is the co-author of Picture-Perfect Meals, along with wife Cheryl Beverage Barnes.

The couple has two cookbooks already published, plus a few things in the works.
So, to start off with we will be chatting with the Cheryl to see if we can
get a closer look into this amazing duo...

And if you missed our first two installments, make sure to check these out as well...
Food Styling with Nancy Lopez-McHugh here.
Setting the Mood with Faith Gorsky Safarini here.

So let is begin with the interview~

A chat with Cheryl:
TAE~ Previously we did a review here on TAE of your delightful book “picture-perfect meals: Little Book of Appetizers”. I understand there have been a few changes that have taken place with your book since that time. Can you tell us a bit about those changes?

Cheryl~ First, let me say what a lovely review it was, too (and gorgeous clicks to boot!). So, thank you, thank you for that. People often ask what inspired us initially to take on a cookbook project and my reply is, “Wine.” It’s true! We were having cocktails with a good friend of ours one night a few years back who basically bullied us into the first one (but in a good way). So, really, we actually started this series of what I call “boutique books” on Blurb almost as a dare. At that time, Blurb was effectively the only real viable online publisher at the time. When Amazon came out with CreateSpace, it was a total game-changer in the self-publishing world. We could create a bigger book with better printing at a fraction of the cost. Total no-brainer.

TAE~ While we are on the subject of books, I know you have another book out there. What is the focus of that particular cookbook?

Cheryl~ “picture-perfect meals Christmas Cookies & Confections” was our first baby, a collection of delicious Christmas goodies that, frankly, I make year-round (especially the Walnut Cream Cheese Cookies, a.k.a. Adam’s favorite, the Buttermilk Pecan Pralines and the Milk Chocolate Truffles). The experience was beyond challenging, though, since we shot, produced, and designed the book in three weeks. Three weeks! That’s recipe development, recipe testing, styling, shooting, writing, editing (a soul-crushing job) and more editing. It was insane.

I call it our “baby” because producing a cookbook is, I imagine, like childbirth. You look at your beautiful baby when it’s all over and you eventually forget about the pain….eventually. But you learn from the experience and know that, without a doubt, for your second “child,” you will definitely have a longer gestation period. And given an epidural for sure.

TAE~ Are there any future plans for another book or do you have anything else in the works that you could share with us?

Cheryl~ Yes and no. Yes, we are knee-deep into our third cookbook project: Soups, Salads and Sandwiches. Super fun since we really know what we’re doing with the publishing program this time! My approach to writing cookbooks is based on this: Have you ever thumbed through a cookbook and thought to yourself, “I wouldn’t make that. Or that? But I might make this?” Maybe a handful of recipes that you would actually try? So, it’s always my goal to offer “Little Black Dress” recipes. Go-to’s that are perfect for any occasion.

No, I can’t tell you how excited I am that we’re moving our website soon! Or how cool it’s going to be! With fun, new features [squeal!]. 

And, no, we can’t tell you about our upcoming television series, Picture-Perfect Meals: Changing the Way You Look at Food. Nor can we tell you that our show is unlike anything that anyone has ever seen in the food world (!). Or the fact that everyone who has seen the show loves it. I know, right! You’d like to know more about it! Like the fact that it’s going to be nationally distributed on the PBS networks (the underwriting is being secured as we speak). Oh, Alisha, I’d really love to give you more details about the incredible original music, how you’ll see Adam and me in our studio working behind-the-scenes and around our beautiful home and property! I so want to tell you about the party scene: an elegant tailgating picnic spread on the back of Adam’s beat-up old truck, parked in the middle of a rolling field with a panoramic view of the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains! Oh! The food! Cinnamon Palmiers! Roasted Tenderloin of Beef sandwiches with Gorgonzola-Horseradish Sauce. Smoked Trout Pâté!

I really want to, but I just can’t. Sorry.

TAE~. Now, on a more personal note…I know that you are a couple, and I know Adam handles the photography, but could you give us a few details of how you work together on a daily basis or project?

Cheryl~ Hopefully, without giving your readers a clinical case of the eye rolls, Adam and I really do have a picture-perfect partnership, both in and out of the studio. We literally do everything together: we work together; play tennis together, grocery shop together. We respect each other, communicate well and don’t try to “change” the other person. Well, at least I don’t anymore. I’ve given up trying to make Adam NOT put his dirty clothes on top of the hamper instead of inside it. Or NOT to put his spoon with trace amounts of leftover peanut butter still on it in the sink so when it gets wet, it smells awful and grosses me out! OR PUTTING HIS EMPTY WATER GLASSES BACK IN THE FRIDGE???

Since I’m perfect, I have nothing that needs “changing.”
Isn’t that right, sweetheart?
Adam? Hello???

And since we are here on the topic of “Food Photography let’s poke around the topic of food itself.

TAE~ Have you always had a passion for cooking?

Cheryl~ I’m a Southern girl. Food was a way of life and about so much more than eating. It was how we lived, how we loved, how we celebrated, how we comforted, how we healed. I inherited that fire in my belly to cook at a very young age. Pretty much upon waking, I think about food. What I’m gonna make for breakfast. What I’ll fix Adam for lunch. What recipes I’m developing or testing that day. Cooking to me is one of life’s greatest pleasures and there is no better feeling to prepare a meal that makes my family and friends happy. It’s like serving love on a plate. With a side of hugs.

TAE~ How would you describe your cooking style?

Cheryl~ Personally, I want food that’s accessible and familiar—no sous vide for me. I guess you could say that my approach to cooking embraces my Southern roots with a contemporary flair, with an emphasis on using quality ingredients. One of the guiding principles of Picture-Perfect Meals is product purity-all my recipes are made with items free of what I call the UnFab Four: high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, added MSG and hydrogenated oils. Picture-Perfect Meals is about a passionate lifestyle dedicating to making food that looks as good as it tastes. Perhaps this sums me up best: Make great food. Use the best ingredients possible. Make it look fabulous!

TAE~ And as one of my very favorite writers, can you tell us what got you interested in writing about food aside from recipes?

Cheryl~ You are too kind. It’s funny. I majored in journalism at UNC but never had any inclination to pursue a career in writing—at least not at first. I’ve always been a closet creative writer (and a closet singer, for that matter but that’s another story) and have written a handful of short stories and a children’s book that is still sitting in my bottom dresser drawer collecting dust. Writing can be and is an intensely personal thing, so the whole rejection factor was a big part of my not wanting to “put it out there.” I did a gig with a magazine for a while, recipe developing/editing and writing little blurbs about the food and found that I really enjoyed it. Cooking and writing are my passions; so writing about food just kind of fell into place. However, when we plunged into the blogosphere, I panicked. I mean really panicked. I felt so exposed. So vulnerable. Judged. It was surreal to have people take the time and write a nice comment, saying that they loved the recipe and my writing! Even when my sister-in-law (who is a phenomenal writer) told me she loved my style of writing, I definitely had a Sally Field Oscar moment, crying, “You like me? You really like me?”

You can find this lovely book of appetizers here...

Now on to the photo tutorial and a bit of Q and A with Adam~

Lights, Camera... Blog! Some thoughts on Composition

Simply put, composition is the term used to describe the art of making the eye look at what you, the artist, want it to look at.

To start with, following a simple principle of graphic design will immediately improve your composition because of the unchanging laws of mathematics. No, you don’t need a calculator. There’s this little thing called the Golden Mean, attributed to the Ancient Greeks, notably the great mathematician Pythagoras or, alternatively, to Phidias: sculptor, architect and renowned embezzler. It has also been referenced in Indian texts as old as 12,000 BC. So…it’s pretty reliable. The Golden Mean is an irrational mathematical constant, approximately 1.6180339887. This is meaningless, except that it allows me to use the phrase irrational mathematical constant.

The basic principal here is that you divide your visual field or “canvas” into thirds and place that on which you want to focus your viewer’s attention close to or along one of these lines. That’s it! Pretty simple, huh? The objective is to get the center ofinterest away from the center of the photograph. The Golden Mean is an effective way of achieving this, but note that mathematical precision is not necessarily the goal here, as any slight shift away from the center of your image will go a long way to creating the visual tension that creates interest. 

Ideally, the eye should move in a circular pattern around the photo, always ending back where it started at your focal point.

Color, value and weight--the brightness or dullness of a color and density of a shape--are the forces which draw the eye around your photo. Bright colors--reds, oranges, yellows--advance, i.e. move forward toward you, while darker colors--blues, purples, greens--recede, i.e. fade back, away from you. Try this: place a bright yellow and a dark blue napkin side by side and look at them one will seem closer than the other. Objects having weight, or dark visual mass, serve as anchor and bridge points to the eye, almost like stepping stones from one bright value to the next. Although we are not consciously aware of it, our eyes are in constant motion and locking onto a fixed point is unnatural. Our eyes are drawn to what is easiest to see and that is usually what is light in either color or value. The eye also seeks out what is familiar, so pull similar or complimentary colors and values from your dish when propping your shot to create movement in your composition. (Simply explained, a complimentary color is one that balances well with another--gold and purple, for example. Did I mention I'm a Lakers fan?). Notice in the photo of spaghetti how the bright values of the cheese and the pasta balanced with the weight of the wine glass move your eye around the image. Even though the first thing you look at is the meatball, the bright values keep your eye moving across the wine glass (mass and weight) in a circular pattern around the photo from meatball to the wineglass to the cheese, back to the pasta and meatball again.

Using triangles is also an efficient way to set objects to create movement. Setting your object (props) in a triangular relationship to your subject will naturally lead the eye to follow. Use color and light value to establish the points of the triangle and go from there. In the photo of the egg rolls, it is the complimentary colors of the green of the props and the gold of the egg roll that create the movement. Notice also the trianglee made by the green props and the garnish on the plate.

When we are confused, we are commonly said to be running in circles. The same applies to a photo.  It’s a great compositional trick to break a circle with the edge of the frame. This keeps the eye from getting stuck in the circle of the plate. Additionally, losing the edge of a plate will strengthen the attention of the eye onto the food. This can also apply to square or rectangular plates. 

There are some other more subtle points worth mentioning. In western culture, the natural movement of the eye tends to be from left to right--it’s how we’re trained to read--so a composition weighted to the right may “feel” more natural to the viewer. While this is not a hard and fast rule by any means, a frustrating composition can be resolved in many cases by shifting the weight of the image from one side to another.

Another is to shoot from a natural point of view. Point of view is important. Over the last few decades, it became very much de rigeur to photograph foods from directly overhead. This is generally a more artistic approach to food photography and I use this technique as well, but it is fundamentally an unnatural way of looking at food. As a rule, I prefer to choose the angle of view of someone who would be sitting down at the plate to eat ( roughly 60 to 70 degrees for those of you who were really into calculating the irrational mathematical constant above).

It is difficult in a short blog post to cover a subject on which much more capable people than I have written many long books, but these guidelines are a great place to start. As you can see, a lot of what we try to achieve in composing our images is creating something that feels natural to our perception. The choices you make will depend on what you are photographing; there will be times when the most pleasing shot will be an overhead with the subject dead on center. Be creative and experiment. It’s your food and your photo. Have fun!


A chat with Adam:
TAE~ I know that you are a professional photographer, but could you tell us a bit more about just how that came to be?

Adam~ To tell you the truth, I am still mystified as to how I became of photographer. I am trained as a musician with a degree in Jazz composition. I just picked up a camera one day and that was it. I learned by apprenticing myself to a photographer in Boston, and when I felt I had enough experience under my belt, I moved to Italy and began my career as a fashion photographer. Later I moved to Los Angeles and photographed celebrities until I realized I just didn’t have the temperament to deal with all that is involved with that – I’m not very interested in pandering to people’s insecurities – and that is when I began photographing food in earnest. A grapefruit has the advantage of not needing therapy and new headshots. Shooting food is a very meditative kind of process and suited me very well and given how much I love to eat….

TAE~ Aside from food, do you have any other subjects that you are passionate in photographing?

Adam~ I spent a number of years as a photojournalist, and although I don’t have as much time to pursue this as I used to, I still love to get out and meet people and make their portraits. I really enjoy people, my previous thoughts on Hollywood notwithstanding, and photographing them is always a lot of fun. I have planned a series of photos on tattoos, the people who get them and the artists who create them when I can get around to it.

TAE~ Here today, aside from what we are covering in that area, do you have 1 last piece of advice for all of us out there that are starting out?

Adam~ Be as serious about your photos as you are about your food. If you are a blogger, photos are what invite your readers into your post and your images should reflect the quality of your food. Invest in a good tripod.

*Note: All images except were noted at the opening image, are the copy written property of

Please help me in thanking my wonderful and talented friends
Adam and Cheryl for this amazing tutorial and interview!

Alisha~Magic of Spice

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