By Dayle Hayes, Ms, Rd 2014-08-19 23:51:01
Learn to take school food photos that are worth 1,000+ words and 10,000+ views. I am writing this article from a very personal perspective, because as a social media blogger advocating for school nutrition professionals and the terrific work they do serving healthy meals to kids, I live and breathe school food photos every day. I’m guessing that I have some 5,000 school food jpegs (the most common digital format for photos) stored on my computer. Many have been sent to me by districts from every state in the USA. Sadly, I would estimate that about half of my school food photo library is completely unusable. Many images are blurry or unfocused. Countless others were taken under fluorescent lights, which can suck the life and eye appeal out of food. There are plenty of “photobombs” by children who may not have had permission to be photographed. In far too many of the photos that I receive from schools across the country, you can’t even identify the food item being spotlighted, usually because it’s too dark, covered in plastic wrap or seriously out of focus. These failed photos make me sad. I am always disappointed when I cannot use a photo to illustrate a success story—or when a nearly perfect photo is ruined by a glaring food safety concern. But what upsets me most is that school nutrition programs are not getting the value from one of the most convenient and effective marketing tools they have available: smartphones. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words rings truer today than ever before. Most camera phones can take photos that rival all but the fanciest digital cameras. And smartphone images can be shared instantly on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. Within moments, a photo of your colorful, delicious, nutritious school meal can be online for your customers—and the rest of the world—to see. Indeed, almost all of the images in this article came from schools using smartphones! In today’s fast-moving, all-electronic-communication world, great school food photos are not simply a nice marketing option. They are essential tools for promoting your program and marketing your meals. We are a visual society, and your customers want to see your meals when making decisions, not just read a few words on a monthly menu. Fortunately, fabulous photos are just a click away—if you focus on six elements every time you take a school food photo. #1. BACKGROUND Sometimes we are so intent on the central subject of our photo that we fail to realize that there are other elements that will show up. Take a few moments to review what’s behind and around your subject. It may prompt you to find a different angle, move elsewhere or even create a neutral background of your own. You’ve heard rankings of the good, the bad and the ugly, right? Well, here’s the great, the marginal and the must avoid when it comes to backgrounds for school meal tray shots. THE GREAT: A bright primary color tray makes an ideal background for food items. Blue is especially effective, because no food is naturally this color and even a milk carton will pop against a blue background. Clean, stainless steel counters or tables are generally good places to set trays or even individual items, like salads. THE MARGINAL: Beware of overly intense colors, like yellow, orange and purple, which tend to be too “hot” and wash out food colors. Pale, pastel-colored trays or backgrounds also do not do justice to colorful food items like fruits and veggies. THE MUST AVOID: Never use a tray with swirled or marbled colors. It’s almost impossible to make food look appetizing, and inevitably you risk receiving comments using unfortunate terms, like slop. If you have trays like this in your cafeteria, do not use them for photos. Consider purchasing one individual “photo tray,” and use it to take photos. #2. QUALITY Always start with high-quality foods that are as fresh as possible. Apply the same food safety mantra when taking photos that you use when prepping meals for service: Make sure that hot foods are hot and cold foods are cold. The temperature not only affects the taste, but also the appearance of a food item. THE GREAT: The goal of a great school food photo is to make quality apparent before you learn anything else about the food. Make sure that all portion sizes are correct and include all components of the reimbursable meal. THE MARGINAL: Check produce carefully. Is there wrinkly skin on a tomato or a bruise on an apple? How about brownish edges on lettuce leaves? Online viewers will judge your meal harshly if there are even small indications that food items, especially produce, are not fresh. THE MUST AVOID: A meal that is composed of all pre-packaged products (such as a breakfast cereal pack, fruit cup, fruit juice and flavored milk) might meet meal pattern requirements—and even be a popular choice among student customers. But it’s likely to be judged harshly by school food critics. Even if the meal is made from scratch, but packaged at your central production facility to be satellited to schools, some online viewers will make presumptions based on first impressions. Excessive packaging and foam-based trays also may be environmental “hot buttons.” #3. PEOPLE Happy kids + appealing school food + smiling school nutrition professionals = a win-win-win. Including people in your school food photos is a wonderful addition if you always observe the following ABCs: (A) You have permission to share the photo of the individual; (B) all food safety practices are observed; and (C) the meal and service are in compliance with federal regulations. THE GREAT: Candid shots of customers don’t have to be perfectly composed to be perfectly wonderful. Do make certain your photos show customers who are smiling— and that the food is giving them something to smile about. THE MARGINAL: Perceived problems with food safety will trump gorgeous local food and happy customers in any photo every time. Although gloves may not be required in your locale when hand washing procedures are in place, it is not a good idea to show food preparation or service by employees with bare hands. Review candid photos carefully for aspects likely to grab negative attention before posting online or providing to the media. THE MUST AVOID: Never show identifying photos of children unless you are positive you have permission. Check with your school or district about its policy. Never share a photo of an adult without asking. Never share a photo that even hints at poor food safety practices, a lack of personal hygiene or meals that do not comply with regulations. #4. CONTRAST Every time you set up a school food photo, look for contrasts. Put complementary colors next to each other and be deliberate in placing different shapes and sizes of food side by side. This may take some practice before it becomes second nature, but if you add it to a regular checklist, it soon will become a habit! THE GREAT: Meals do not have to be complicated or even arranged on a lunch tray to offer tasty, eye-appealing contrast. Consider just some of your meal components. Some of the most popular photos ever posted on School Meals That Rock have been of simple vegetable cups: two or three bright vegetables in white or black soufflé cups set on a stainless tray. THE MARGINAL: Even a lovely meal comprised of locally sourced items can look blah—and thus less appealing—if your photo shows too much of one color. Steer away from lightly colored foods placed in white or beige containers. Be creative. Serving chicken, potatoes, pears and milk on your beige compostable tray? Place some bright spinach leaves under the chicken or potatoes. Better yet—work with staff to rethink the menu in the first place so that you avoid that eye appeal problem at the point of service! THE MUST AVOID: In addition to avoiding monochromatic meals, be on the lookout for other contrast problems. For example, spaghetti sauce gets lost on a red tray and a cool kale salad will not show up on a dark green one. #5. LIGHTING One of the essential elements of any photo is proper lighting. Admittedly, this can be difficult to control in school cafeterias and kitchens. That’s because fluorescent lighting is harsh and tends to wash out the natural colors of food. THE GREAT: Professional food photographers agree: Natural light, but not direct sunlight, is best for food. No window readily available? Simply scout out an appropriate place somewhere in the school and set up a photo shoot during off hours; you can easily carry a tray to a window or even roll your salad bar closer to natural light for a photo op. THE MARGINAL: If you must take smartphone photos under fluorescent lights, make sure to use the automatic focus function (see #6). Remove any plastic wrap and container lids to minimize glare. THE MUST AVOID: Dark photos of food and people are often worse than no photos at all. If your photo is too dark to identify the food item, it is probably best not to take it or share it. Viewers will tend to assume the worst about your meals, if they cannot easily tell what you are serving. Don’t leave yourself open to accusations of “mystery” meat! #6. FOCUS The final element is, in fact, the most important. You can have a beautiful background, high-quality food, adorable children, gorgeous contrasting colors and proper lighting. But, if your photo is not in focus, viewers will not get your message. Do you know how to focus your phone (or camera)? If you don’t, learn right now; you can even practice by taking a photo of this page! With most of today’s smartphones, the answer is simple: Tap the screen on the area that you want in focus. The phone will focus and adjust the lighting at the same time. That’s what those little boxes or circles on the screen indicate. Hold the phone as steady as possible and then click your photo. If you need more detailed instructions, go online and search the model of your phone or camera and “how to focus.” Also, check out your phone’s app store; there are many apps available to improve the phone’s capabilities to adjust focus and lighting. THE GREAT: Check all photos before you post them online or share with the media. All the elements should be crisp and clear. If there’s text on a package or background poster, you should be able to read it without straining. THE MARGINAL: “Depth of field” is a photographic term that relates to the ability to have items in both the foreground and background in focus. This is a skill to master, so you should concentrate on having your primary subject matter in focus. THE MUST AVOID: Honestly, there is no reason to save—and certainly no reason to share—blurry school food photos. If you don’t like what you see when you view a photo on your smartphone screen, just delete it and take another one! That’s the beauty of digital photography. Leave the arty, blurred action shots to the professionals. You should focus on focusing every time you take a photo. Practice Makes Perfect Everyone in the school nutrition world— from SNA to your school district’s webmaster—wants great photos of food to showcase the amazing options that children are enjoying at breakfast, lunch, snack time and supper. If you want the world to see what a fantastic job you are doing, all it really takes is practice. The more photos you take, the more likely you are to see your program featured in the media—online or in print. After years of looking at thousands of school food photos, this is my best advice: Purchase at least one solid color tray in a deep primary blue, dark green or brick red for every kitchen in the district. Use that tray for all meal photos—and get into a photo habit. Take at least one photo a day and review it with your kitchen colleagues. Notice what works and consider how you might make the photo more appealing. Then post it, tweet it or pin it so that even more customers will eat it! Dayle Hayes is a nutrition consultant and speaker based in Billings, Mont. You can reach her at EatWellatSchool@gmail.com. For more advice about using your smartphone to promote your school meals operation, as well as do & don’t examples of photos, check out her Annual National Conference 2014 presentation at http://tinyurl.com/SmartphonePhotosANC14. Photos courtesy of: Bibb County (Ga.) School District (page 28); Nashoba Regional High School, Bolton, Mass; Solvang (Calif.) School; Freedom Area (Pa.) School District; ESC Region 11 CNP, Fort Worth, Texas; Northeastern School District, Manchester, Pa.; Fulton County (Ga.) Schools (page 29, counterclockwise from top left); Decorah (Iowa) Schools (page 31). SNAPSHOT • Great school food photos are not simply a nice marketing option. They are essential tools for promoting your program. • If your photo is too dark to identify the food item, don’t share it online or with media. • Do you know how to focus your phone (or camera)? Candid Camera! Remember, School Nutrition also wants to share your high-quality photos, especially of special events like School Lunch Hero Day (see page 40). Take the advice in this article to heart next month when you and your students “Get in the Game With School Lunch,” celebrating National School Lunch Week 2014. Submit your photos and short reports to firstname.lastname@example.org or via snail mail to SNA Headquarters. For more tips on sending photos worthy of publication, visit www.schoolnutrition.org/SNMagazine/ContributeContent to download a copy of “7 Steps to a Publishable Photo.”
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