NYU’s Food Photography Course Is a Feast for the Eyes

The two-day class offers a soup to nuts lesson in the art and science of food photography

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A student with a digital camera taking a photo of a food dish presented on a windowsill.

 

You snap a photo of your plate. Glossy eggs with melting yolks, crisp potatoes flecked with red peppers, and a bright salad on the side. But on your phone, those vivid colors run into each other. The lettuce appears sad; the potatoes appear mealy. Capturing food in a photograph is an art and a skill. And NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development’s Food Photography course is here to teach you the ropes.

“Before I took Food Photography, I always thought my fascination with food culture and history was more of a hobby than anything else,” attests Gallatin School of Individualized Study junior Cici Wei. She’s concentrating her degree in luxury, art, and culture while also pursuing a minor in Food Studies. And she credits her unique academic path to the class. “This was definitely the course that confirmed my interest in studying food and food media.”

Food Photography professor giving a live cooking demonstration to a group of students in a kitchen.

Build a Delicious Foundation

“Food photography is often relegated to standing on a chair and taking an overhead shot at brunch with friends. But it’s so much more than that,” says Professor Michael Turkell, who teaches the course. “The people, places, and process are as important to making a final pretty plate.” A former cook who transitioned to a career as a photographer, author, and podcast host, Professor Turkell wanted to bring “the synergy of both perspectives” to NYU students. The resulting class, Food Photography, is a one-credit, two-day course, open (with permission) to anyone with a smartphone or DSLR camera. The first day is lecture-based, including a history of food photography, photography fundamentals, and styling and propping. On the second day, students spend time in the kitchen.

A group of students assembling their food presentations with ingredients available on a table.

Get Your Hands Dirty

On day two, Professor Turkell demonstrates recipes and students build their own artisanal toast. “I loved the live cooking demonstration because I had never seen the NYU kitchens before. And I knew I’d never be able to experience something like that in my normal classes,” affirms Madison Akles. She’s an Applied Psychology major who is also pursuing her MA in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness. Once they build their toast, the students learn how to plate and style their creations. Then, they photograph their work in natural light. “It’s a crash course, but we cover a lot,” says Professor Turkell.

Food Photography students showing the professor their food presentations.

Think Outside the Bread Box

While some students, like Cici, use the course as a springboard for their future career, others, like Madison, simply enjoy the opportunity to explore a personal passion. “I’ve always loved zine-making, art, and photography, but those are not always things I get to do in my major,” Madison explains. “So I have a personal goal to always do the things I’m interested in. Even if they don’t necessarily align with my academic career. Photography is a special interest I have outside of my major. And Food Photography sounded especially unique. I loved how open-ended it was—I really got to explore my own style of food photography.”

Avocado toast topped with a fried egg.

Have Your Cake and Photograph It, Too

Professor Turkell has had students put their newfound talents to use with careers in PR, marketing, social media, and more. Mostly, though, the course focuses on discovering a new area and honing a new skill set. “You don’t need any experience coming in. So even if you are remotely interested in food or photography, it’s a great course to have under your belt,” concludes Cici. “It’s not a big commitment, but you get a lot from it. And Professor Turkell is absolutely amazing. I would take this course again if I could!”