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Modernist Cuisine: Photo Secrets Behind the Book

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Modernist Cuisine: Photo Secrets Behind the Book

One of the authors explains how the amazing shots of the book were taken, this text is an extract from Modernist Cuisine - Volume 1, History and fundamentals.

«One of the founding principles of this book is our decision to use great graphics and photographs to make the technical processes of food preparation approachable and understandable, and maybe even intriguing and compelling. Most existing books about the science of cooking are based on text and diagrams; we wanted a book that was far more visual.

That’s tricky, because some important food-science concepts are not easy to visualize. A key development was the idea of the cutaway photo that would show what was happening inside food as it cooked. Initially I thought of doing it wih illustrations, but that would lack the sense of verisimilitude that would draw people in. The cutaways had to be photos to show what was happening and make it seem real. So we cut stuff in half. An abrasive water jet cuter, an electrical discharge machining system, and other machine-shop tools let us cut apart our pots, pans, and other gear. Food was cut in various ways, including with meat-cutting band saws. 

The cutaway photos are all real. We arranged food in our cut-in-half equipment and then took the pictures. In most cases, the food really is being cooked as shown or was cooked in an identical uncut pan, then swapped in. Te pad that id shown on page 2•50 is cooked in a cutaway wok (with about on-third of one side removed so the pan could still hold some oil), which is sitting on a wok burner that is also partially cut away (but with enough left to burn gas).

It turns out there is a reason people don’t cut their woks like this! We had problems with oil falling into the burner and the whole thing catching fire, so it was a bit dangerous and very messy. But the picture really is a shot of what it looks like to stir-fry noodles in a wok that’s been cut apart. In a few cases, we couldn’t actually cook in the cutaway—for example, the whipping siphon shown on page 4•261, the pressure canner on page 2•90, and the microwave oven on page 2•186 couldn’t function after we bisected them.

A technique we used to create many of the cutaways was to glue a piece of heat-resistant borosilicate glass to a cut pot with silicone caulking. Then we digitally edited the image to remove evidence of the caulking and the glass. It’s some-what like the technique used in Hollywood movies to make people look like they’re soaring through the air: film them “flying” while supported by wires, then digitally remove the wires. Creating cutaways to illustrate the process of deep-frying was a particular challenge. We build a special frying tank out of Pyrex borosilicate glass so we could photograph food as it was fried.

Twice we burned up or shattered the tank, but ultimately we were able to get the shots (see page 2•118). We often created composite shots by editing multiple images together. For example, when making the photo of hamburgers sizzling on a cutaway grill, Ryan had difficulty finding a photographic exposure to capture the coals and the meat simultaneously; camera sensors capture a far smaller range of brightness than human eyes do. So for each image of this kind, we took multiple shots with different exposures and combined parts of them together to make the final image. In other cases, we did this using a technique called high-dynamic-range imaging, but more often we created the composites directly in software. As a result, purists will argue, each of these is a “photo illustration” rather than a single photograph. That comes with the territory – a magical view that shows you what is happening inside a pressure cooker as if it were cut in half is technically not a pure photo, nor can it be. These photos are as close to real as we could make them. Aside from the cutaways, the other images are all real photos of real food. Food photographs and styling are well-developed arts that often make appetizing photos by using tricks—like mixing up fake ice cream that won’t melt, using plastic ice cubes instead of real ones, or faking a roast chicken by painting a browning compound on a nearly raw bird. We generally did not use these techniques in the book. Our goal was to show how cooking works, in as realistic a way as we could.

In a few cases we did have to resort to some extra work to achieve the effects we wanted. One of the questions we get is “Who was your food stylist?” The answer is, nobody. Or, alternatively, one could say that everyone on the team was a stylist. Part of the art of Modernist cooking is styling and presentation; we see it as an integral aspect of cooking this type of cuisine. We also want to focus more on the food than on the table settings, so our shots are generally made without plates or silverware in the frame.

We shot the photographs primarily with Canon digital cameras, including the EOS-1Ds Mark II, EOS-1Ds Mark III, and EOS 5D Mark II, outfitted with a variety of lenses. A broncolor studio flash was used for most of the photos, with a variety of soft boxes or other light modifiers. We used Nikon microscopes for the microscopy shots, along with custom-made servomotors and computerized controls for taking shots with extensive depth of field. We also used a number of objective lenses and condensers, including bright field, dark field, differential interference contrast and Hoffman modulation contrast. For a few shots, we used a Vision Research Phantom V12 video camera that shoots high-definition resolution video at up to 6,200 frames per second (...). We also used Adobe Photoshop extensively, as well as other digital photography software, including Helicon Focus.»

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