They’re Just Like Us! Bon Appétit Shot Its Latest Food Pics on an iPhone
Of all of Instagram’s special interest groups, perhaps no community elicits as many eye rolls as food grammers. It’s not all bad, of course. In the right hands, a photo of a cheeseburger can garner as many likes as a minor celebrity’s selfie. Then there’s the rest of us, captioning shots of our half-melted ice cream with #yum.
Food, like pretty much everything we post online, is just another proxy to show the world who we are and what we care about. Still, food photography is having a moment, and will continue to, for the very reason pretty much all photography is having a moment: It’s now easier than ever to take a great photo. Or at least it’s easier than ever to slap enough filters on it to convince people it’s a great photo.
Thank the tools at hand—literally. The phone you’re clutching is about as capable of capturing those barbacoa tacos as most basic point-and-shoots on the market. It’s still no substitute for a multi-thousand-dollar DSLR, but with the right lighting and post-production know-how, your phone’s camera can definitely hold its own. For proof, check out Bon Appétit’s March issue. As part of its culture issue, the food magazine asked its photographers to swap out their fancy DSLR cameras for the iPhone. Almost every photo in the feature well (aka the big, visual stories in the middle of the magazine), was shot on an iPhone 6s.
Alex Grossman, Bon Appétit’s creative director, explains that the whole thing sort of came about as a joke. “I think we probably said it jokingly initially and then were like, you know, it actually might be possible,” he says. We could go ahead and list all of the specs that make the camera on the 6s better than any generation before it, but just know that before this phone, the quality Bon Appétit achieved just wouldn’t have been possible. Could they have done the same thing with any number of non-Apple phone cameras? Probably. Grossman says it’s really just a matter of increased file size—a bar the latest crop of smart phones has no trouble rising above. The bigger the file, the better it will look on a printed magazine page.
That said, Bon Appétit isn’t the first magazine to try something like this. Back in 2012, Time magazine’s “Wireless Issue” showcased well photography that was shot on the iPhone 4S. Later that year, the magazine ran a shot of Hurricane Sandy—taken by photographer Ben Lowy, also on the 4S—on its cover. Lowy had used the iPhone’s limitations to his advantage; his gloomy photo of waves pummeling the East Coast was noticeably grainer than your typical cover photo, but thematically it worked.
By comparison, the difference in quality between Bon Appétit‘s March cover photo—a dazzling shot of a gooey margarita pizza—and a well-photo of loaded nachos is, to the untrained eye, barely noticeable. Both were taken by still-life photographers Peden + Munk; except one was captured on a Nikon (the pizza) and the other on an iPhone (the nachos). If you look really hard, you might notice that the shot of the pizza is crisper. The colors of the nachos are less vivid, the definition of the pan less defined than that of the pizza. “It sort of looks like film,” says Grossman. He says that, with the iPhone, many of the photos were taken in as much natural light as possible and oftentimes some form of clamp and bluetooth shutter release was used to ensure the phone didn’t shake. It produced good shots, but there were limitations. “We really had to run the photos as they were taken,” he says. “Even blowing it up five to 10 percent you could notice a difference.”
Of course, the decision to use iPhone photos is less about the technical achievement than it is a commentary on food culture as it stands in 2016. The whole thing is really just a tongue in cheek nod to how pervasive food photography has become. Bon Appétit and its staffers are as guilty as anyone in propagating food-as-selfie culture, and the spread of photos is proof of peak levels of self-awareness.
Appropriately, many of the photos are composed to play on food-gram tropes. The editors went as far as making a joke board of played-out food styling shots. There’s the classic hold-it-in-your-hand photo, the food-photo-disguised-as-interior-design shot, the minimalist overhead shot, and Grossman’s weakness: the artfully-messy-table shot. “You start nudging things and saying, ‘Ah if only that were over there,’” he says. “Pretty soon you’re eating dinner with six people, and they’re like, dude, you’ve got to be kidding me.”