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When writing about food, be it a cookbook or a food blog, as long as the media supports it, the use of pictures is going to make a difference in the quality of the work. So when I am writing about food where do my descriptions stop and the use of pictures begin. I don't believe it is best to leave out all descriptions of visual aspects of the food, and there is a certain limit to how much space you are going to want to devote to photos.

Just in regards to talking about the visual appearance of the food and plating: What criteria can I use to determine when to use words and when to use images?

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First, always include a picture of the finished product. It helps me, as the customer, realise what it is they're trying to achieve, it helps me see whether my intermediary stage is in the right direction, or completely not. It also makes me drool and want to make and eat that particular recipe. Without the picture, I'm in the dark.

With that starting point, consider what visual information is already contained in the picture of the finished product. For example, a picture of finished cookies contains information of size and colour ("bake until lightly brown"). If the cookies contain some sort of filling, you'd want your one photo of the finished product to show that - show the cookie broken in two, with the soft centre sort of leaking out. This is why it is common to show a slice of cake rather than the whole thing - you are providing information on layers. You want the one picture of the final product to be as informative as possible.

You would only need to provide additional pictures if some essential information is not contained in the picture of the final product and is easier shown than explained with words. The intermediary stages of constructing a chessboard cake or an apfelstrudel, for example, are not self-evident from the finished product.

How do you know the text information is not clear enough, and a picture of the intermediary stage is needed?

  • If you struggle to explain what one should do, a picture would probably help. If you find that it would help you to explain, that's a strong clue.
  • If what you're explaining could be simplified to an IKEA-like diagram (fold A over B), a picture would probably help.
  • If all a picture shows is a mix of products, or goop of some colour (read batter), it is of no use at all. If you need to describe the consistency of the batter, it is more helpful to say it's "like X" (e.g. "the consistency of thick yoghurt").
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What criteria can I use to determine when to use words and when to use images?

I think the criteria is simply real-estate. The empty box that would contain the photo or sketch. If you can describe something in text in less than that space, use text. If you can't and a photo or sketch with a line of text would do the job, the photo or sketch is more efficient and should be used.

As Galastel (+1) says, if the photo doesn't give much information (a ball of dough or bowl of batter or a cutting board full of macaroni you sliced) then leave it out, text is more efficient.

Think in terms of page real estate, that is the criterion. It isn't that a picture is worth a thousand words, the question is whether a picture is worth more words than would fit in the space it will occupy on the page. For a finished dish (unless it is just a pudding), the picture will almost always be worth more words than the space it occupies (or to reverse the formula, it would take more words to accurately describe the finished dish, than can fit in the same box on the page.)

But for other elements, sometimes a sketch, a diagram, or a photo or even series of photos can communicate far more efficiently than words. Imagine instructions on making a pretzel, or making a braided bread, or folding and pinching various kinds of fancy pasta knots or filled pastries. But then again, a photo of rolling a meatball doesn't do anything words can't do in less space, and more accurately: "Roll about two tablespoons of the mixture into a ball, makes about 40 balls."

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In food writing, there is a specific sub-genre for works (both short and long) that are photo-heavy, with particularly good-quality photos.

Food porn.

Where you draw the line depends on your audience. An awful lot of people will buy a book or read a blog about food just for the pictures. There's even an entire subset of videos that show recipes with only the barest words shown on the screen (the ingredients, the amounts (if you're lucky), and some directions (maybe)). They're all flashy, gooey, creamy, rich, and take a lot more work and skill than is implied (most of the work is shown in fast forward or time skips).

These are food porn with no redeeming qualities. Because none of the recipes are practical to make and they don't teach any skills. I'm sure some people make them, but I'd guess over 99% of the viewers who say they'll make them, or think about making them, never do.

Then there is food writing that is actually useful. Restaurant reviews that give some history or understanding of the cuisine. Recipes that people can and will make. Information about food history, cooking technique, etc.

Food erotica.

What's the difference between porn and erotica? Is the focus the "money shot" or the information? In fiction, erotica means there's a story there. In food writing, it's about whether you are conveying shallow emotional impact and not much else vs solid information coupled with the wow factor.

Most of these works have some pictures. Only older books have none or just a couple (because it used to be expensive to include pictures in books, even line drawings, and color plates, very pricey). How many you include depends on your budget (printing them costs more if in color, though not too bad, but getting professional photography is expensive if you don't do it yourself), your medium (if a blog, photos are key), and your readership.

Then there are hardcore informational food books. Usually there aren't a lot of pictures in these, though there are exceptions.

You didn't ask about the type of pictures, but I think this is an essential part of answering your question. There are pictures to draw in the reader and pictures to show something specific. And a lot of overlap.

You want something that shows the finished product (sometimes whole, sometimes sliced into). With a blog this is completely essential, with a cookbook, you can show a percentage of them. If you put in a lot of pictures at different angles, you cross the line into food porn (which is fine if that's what you're after).

Showing photos of different steps in a recipe is nice on a blog and useful for people who aren't very skilled at cooking, or for steps that are unusual. You can't always explain things verbally. Sometimes you need to show. But even blogs that show every step can get to be a bit much, though I'm very fond of this blog, I honestly can't read too many like that (it's just done exceptionally well). Though in a way it's like watching a video you can skim and move your eyes around, which is nice.

My suggestion for the level you seem to be going for (actual useful information for home cooks) is to take out all the pictures, drawings, graphs, whatever. Then read the section (and send to beta readers) and see if it makes sense. Once it does, then add back a few pictures. Focus on one overall shot and then pictures that show something that might be confusing to some readers in text alone. If you have the space, add more for visual appeal and to increase the information value.

Make the text the star.

But use pictures as much as you can without overwhelming the text. When you have space considerations, let the text have first dibs. Then fill in the space as you wish with high quality photographs or other images.

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    I especially appreciate you explicitly pointing out the importance of the type of photograph, even though Galastel hinted at it. – AGirlHasNoName Mar 2 at 21:23
  • @bruglesco thanks. I also just thought of another way to explain food porn...by contrasting it with food erotica (a term I just made up). So I edited my post to reflect that. – Cyn says make Monica whole Mar 2 at 22:20

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