Scrolling past succulent sautéed shrimp, poached eggs oozing rich yolk over piles of shaved cheese and broccolini, raw juices garnished with a sliver of cannabis leaf and artfully drizzled honey on a stark white marble slab — it all looks delicious and elegant, mouthwatering and envy inspiring.
The photographer of these artful compositions, Monica Lo, is so adept at food photography that her minimalist designs originally earned her a gig as the creative director at Nomiku, a startup selling sous vide machines for the home cook.
“Nomiku found me on Instagram and hired me to style a video shoot,” Lo says. “After that, they hired me as a creative director.”
Lo handled food styling and photography there for two years while branching out with her own cannabis-infused Instagram. During that time she also shot a cookbook called “Sous Vide at Home.”
The sous vide technique, long revered by chefs for evenly cooking meats, involves sealing the ingredient in a plastic bag and submerging it in precisely and consistently heated water. The technique was generally reserved for restaurant use because the immersion circulator machines traditionally used for sous vide were too bulky and expensive for a typical home kitchen. But as the method grew in popularity, smaller versions debuted for home cooks.
Living in a small, strictly “no smoking” apartment complex in San Francisco, Lo discovered that sous vide not only worked very well for making cannabis infusions, but proved to be very discreet — subduing the telltale smell of cooking with weed.
“I turned to cannabis to alleviate some of the pain from a herniated disc,” Lo says, adding that the edibles on the market in 2013 were mostly sweet desserts and dosed too intensely for her needs. “I would have couchlock for hours. I was told that 25 milligrams was beginner dosage, and it knocked me out.”
Seeking low-dose options that would allow her to be lucid and functional throughout the day, Lo experimented with making infusions at home using the Nomiku. With a maximum temperature of 203ºF, the immersion circulator allows for a low and slow infusion process.
“All you need to do is strain it,” Lo says. “Just drop your cannabis in your oil base, and it will decarb and infuse on its own.”
Lo pioneered using this technology for cannabis infusions, and with her background in advertising and photography, she soon decided to make it appealing for the masses: she launched Sous Weed as an Instagram account and personal blog in 2015.
“Sometimes the perfect garnish in the dish or styling from a prop can make a huge impact in the final image,” she said. “I love to hone in on those little details.”
Lo’s styling promotes the idea of cannabis as an upscale lifestyle choice and wellness accessory, with all the slickness of a Williams Sonoma catalog — on weed.
“People were contacting me who didn’t realize that there were so many applications for cannabis,” Lo says. “You can just put it in a salad dressing or whatever you’re normally eating.”
Lo also adds that her styling appeals to women, who represent a substantial portion of the cannabis community.
“Women account for 40 percent of cannabis users and we need to start appealing to them,” Lo says.
Most commercial food stylists rely on tricks of the trade to make food look appetizing while it’s being photographed — most of which render the food inedible. Glycerin is brushed on to make food shine, burgers are structurally engineered with toothpicks, a roasted turkey is often raw inside with just the skin burnished to signify golden brown doneness, and bowls of cereal frequently float in a sea of glue so flakes do not become too sodden or sink into actual milk.
“Food dies fast on set,” Lo says. “It might look delicious for the commercial but it’s never edible.”
Preferring to shoot real food that can actually be enjoyed afterwards, Lo must work quickly to capture her images. She says sketching out compositions ahead of time and prepping ingredients the day before helps shoots come together quickly.
“When it’s on the plate it’s ready to go, and I usually shoot within 10 minutes,” Lo says. “Sometimes it takes two or three platings to get it just right.”
When choosing cannabis to accompany her dishes, Lo looks for fluffy fat buds, usually with a “hero bud” that displays unique characteristics or an interesting shape. Distinctive leaves often appear as garnishes, with Lo favoring the undersides of large fan leaves for their textural contrast of light veins against a matte surface.
“I like breaking leaves into singular petals to style with,” Lo says.
These “petals” usually make appearances on top of a raw juices or smoothies — a subtle accent to an otherwise straight-looking image.
When planning her compositions, she aims for a “light airy and earthy aesthetic,” choosing ceramic tableware to accompany her dishes and keeping props to a minimum. Lo says she also likes to play with interesting crops to highlight the focal point in her photographs.
Images are either restrained and elegant, or messy and dynamic. Take, for example, her recent styling for a medicated shrimp cocktail sauce. The photograph includes raw shrimp resting on a bed of ice, with cannabis buds tossed casually among them. A small bowl of sauce rests in the corner of the image, along with juicy lemon wedges ready to be squeezed.
And because it’s one of Lo’s photos, everything is 100 percent real.
“You can buy plastic fake ice that looks really real when dropped into a cocktail,” Lo says. “But that’s not what I did.”
As an example of Lo’s work, the shot encapsulates much of her method: a novel intent to her infusion, an emphasis on capturing the lifestyle of an upscale cannabis enthusiast and styling a challenging product to make it look effortless.
Advice from Sous Weed’s Monica Lo on upping your social media game.
Don’t repurpose other people’s images without permission.
Vary Your Compositions
Shooting both horizontally and vertically allows for maximum versatility on different social media platforms.
Keep the Image Positive
Portray cannabis in the best sense possible. Avoid stereotypical or sexist imagery.
Know Your Audience
Be active in replying to comments and questions to cultivate the best relationship with followers.
Be On Time
The time you post is as important as your imagery. Experiment to see when your audience is watching.
Use trending hashtags to meet new followers.
Watch What Works
“People really love steak” Lo says, “and yolk porn!”
Post at least once a day to watch your platform grow.
Work with Pros
If you’re building a brand, enlist a photographer or designer to help create the best content.
Share what you love and people will notice!
TELL US, have you ever tried cooking with a sous vide machine?