A grainy picture of a Jimmy John's sub.
A bowl of brothy noodles, steaming and ready for its closeup.
An iced mocha snapped at a movie theater concession stand.
More and more, it seems, before we raise fork to mouth or bring dishes to the table, we are reaching for the camera or smart phone. The documentation of what we eat can be found on personal blogs, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace and other networking sites.
On the photo-sharing website Flickr, more than 21,000 people belong to a group called "What I Ate." They post pictures of breakfast, lunch and dinner, and all the snacks in between. If you want to see the above-mentioned photos, head to Foodspotting.com. For more drool-worthy food photography, there's Foodgawker.com.
No doubt about it, the food paparazzi nation is growing.
Last month, hundreds of food bloggers gathered in San Francisco for the annual BlogHer Food conference to learn how to grow their online ventures. One seminar is about food styling and photography.
Jaden Hair, founder of the popular cooking site Steamykitchen.com and a resident of Manatee County, Fla., was a big name on the BlogHer Food speakers' schedule. Hair leads seminars around the country, teaching food styling and photography, with a side dish of marketing assistance. The hot word in blogging these days is "monetizing," meaning how to turn passion into money, achieved through pay-per-click advertising and banner ads, among other options.
Hair attributes the growth of online food photography to our love affair with food. Good-looking food makes us happy. "You eat with you eyes," Hair says. "On the Web, you are engaging in only one sense, and it's visual."
Restaurateur and chef Christopher Ponte has noticed more people taking photos of their meals at his upscale Cafe Ponte in Clearwater, Fla. While some restaurants and their patrons advocate banning snap-happy diners, Ponte welcomes the attention.
"I think it's a compliment if someone wants to take photos of my food," he says. "Now, if they start setting up a photo studio with lights, that's another thing."
Ponte says he recently saw a series of photos online of someone's meal at Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York. What a cool way, he says, to experience a restaurant like that without "having to pay the big prices." The Web has opened up an avenue for food criticism that for years was the sole purview of professional journalists. Bring it on, Ponte says.
He even takes photos of his own dishes -- using his iPhone -- so employees have a visual guide to replicate his creations.
Lighting, he says, is the key element to good photos. But low lighting that's good for the mood isn't so great for showing off duck confit.
To combat dim restaurant lighting, Hair suggests sitting by a window or using a white napkin as a reflector to bounce light onto the food from your flash. Smile nicely at the diners snarling at you from the next table.
Sites such as Wordpress or Blogspot make it easy for anyone to get a food blog up and running in one evening, but if it doesn't have gorgeous photos, it probably won't get much attention. The days of the Julie/Julia Project, the website that launched the bestselling book and award-winning movie, are over. Julie Powell's 2002 blog had no photos, and the comment section was clunky and not used much. Today's food blogs are more like websites with advertising, comment functions and sophisticated usability.
"The photos are the reason I would read a blog," says Shelisa Goulbourne of Riverview, Fla. "The dish is what attracts me."
She's been photographing her culinary handiwork for Big2beautiful.com, her blog about Southern home cooking with a modern twist. She was inspired by Hair's Steamy Kitchen, and Hair eventually became her mentor. In fact, Hair is the one who told Goulbourne to "let the food speak for itself." In other words, don't over-prop photos and do get in tight.
"It's really just mindless food porn," Hair says of the multitude of photos of creme brulee, cupcakes and more on the Web.
And a way to break bread together without actually breaking the bread. Or even being together.
Hair offers other suggestions for photographing food for the Web.
-- Use natural light but avoid direct, harsh sunlight. To soften light, filter it through cheesecloth. (Hair usually has light coming from behind the food at about 1 o'clock and puts the camera at the 6 o'clock position.)
-- Use a camera with a macro setting to ensure sharp and vivid images. Know your camera, but also know that the photographer's eye is more important than equipment quality. Even inexpensive cameras can take excellent photos.
-- Use a tripod to steady your shots, or make your body into a tripod by bracing yourself against something.
-- Shoot photos from a lower angle, as if you're sitting at the table, ready to dig in.
-- Get in tight. Don't worry about props; they can detract from the food and can make photos look clunky. (Hair uses a $3 square of white Foamcore board to put the plates on.) -- Pay attention to detail. If the food looks messy on the plate, the photo will look messy. Move around and take photos from different angles. You'll soon find what's pleasing to the eye.