Making Magic in the Kitchen: Donna Turner Ruhlman

Egg Shells Courtesy of Donna Turner Ruhlman

Egg Shells ©Donna Turner Ruhlman

There are times when I read an elegant haiku or see a sublime image and I find myself instantly transported.

I remember a friend showing me a two-line ad he had torn out of a magazine and simply couldn’t get over. The words were delicate, the image romantic, “I saw a man. He was dancing with his wife.” Alongside the words a couple danced at the edge of a pier in the distance in the dusk. When that kind of magic intimately captures an intangible moment, I stop and linger.

That’s how I felt when my daughter showed me Donna Turner Ruhlman’s photography on her husband, Michael Ruhlman’s blog. Donna captures the essence, and yes, the joy of Michael cooking. When she recently launched her food photography website, I naturally asked her about her food job:

Q: Donna, I read that you have a news and fine arts background. How did you get started as a food photographer? How did your food job evolve?

Aviation Cocktail Donna Turner Ruhlman

Aviation Cocktail ©Donna Turner Ruhlman

A: My background in photography is editorial photojournalism. I was a staff photographer on a daily newspaper and monthly magazine in Florida for five years. My goal for the newspaper was to capture the information in a visually interesting image while not affecting the subject–to be “a fly on the wall.”

Most of that work back then (mid ‘80’s) was all black & white and very different from the studio color work we did for the monthly magazine, which was mostly fashion, food and home interiors. Even when a writer and/or a stylist and I went on location, I always bought studio lights.

I didn’t venture into fine art photography until a few years ago. The kids were older and I was able to complete a series of black and white photos of leaves, photographed in our basement over three years, with studio lights. I had my first show last year at the Cleveland Botanical Garden.

Around that same time Michael’s blog was progressing to the point that he really wanted art for his posts. It was so easy to just snap a quick photo in our kitchen when he was making something he knew he would be blogging about.

Michael was picking up more readers and changed his blog’s design, and I felt I should spend more time on the photos and make them better. (I have my studio lights now in our dinning room and will use them whenever I feel I need to.)

So, if a beautiful, early morning light is pouring through the window—great, a tripod is all I need. But, sometimes available light is ugly, and to get the image right, I use the studio lights. I was happy to be able to contribute to Michael’s work and we have fun . . . most of the time. Afterward, I am often rewarded with a great lunch we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Q: Are there any particular tricks you’ve learned along the way in doing this food assignment?

A: No particular tricks. I don’t shoot any differently for Michael’s blog then for a printed piece. The one difference, if any, is that the internet doesn’t require large format quality where a big coffee table book would if the photo is running large.

The most important factor in food photography, and in any photography, is light. No matter how beautiful and delicious something may look, if it doesn’t have great light on it, it can’t look gorgeous. When we knew Michael’s book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking would be published with B&W photos, I knew this was something I’d like to do. I love and prefer shooting in B&W —even if it’s for food.

Gougere, Excerpt from Ratio Donna Turner Ruhlman

Gougere, from Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking ©Donna Turner Ruhlman

I do shoot differently when I know it will run in B&W—you have to. I look at the subjects textures, tones and contrast in their shades whereas in color photography, the color is so important to the composition. Sometimes I will also change my camera settings to get more grain in a B&W, reminiscent of high speed B&W film.

Some food shots require a lot of patience, time and manipulation to set up. Others need to be fast; to get it right in an instant. But even action shots need to be set up. I always test for light and exposure.

Food photography also follows trends. Right now, keeping things simple, shooting close-up with short depth of fields seems to be what you see a lot of.

Q: What do you find most rewarding or satisfying about this “food job”?

A: Michael and I have been blessed with knowing what we wanted to do for our work at young ages. I think Michael was in the 5th grade when he knew he would be a writer. I was in 11th grade when I knew I wanted to be a photographer and went to RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) to study. This enabled us to work our way faster to being self employed.

It was important to us both when we decided to live our lives together, that we would try to have our work be our passions. So, being able to work at home with each other or alone is huge. I don’t think either one of us could conceive of working for anyone other then ourselves. You get used to working in your pajamas.

Q: Is there a downside of being self-employed?

A: I can’t think of a downside of being self employed—it’s the working at home that can be difficult in that it’s hard to get away from your work. It’s always there—like the dishes that keep piling up in the kitchen.

Q: Has your “food job” become a full-time occupation?

A: Having recently created my page, “Photo info” on Michael’s blog, and handling the web site, “,” you bet I am working full-time. Responding to viewers’ questions and requests for photos has added to my other photography work. So far, it’s a fun challenge. I won’t want to do it if it ever becomes a drag.

I know I’ll be watching and reading the culinary chemistry of Michael and Donna forever.

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