I recently had to the opportunity to work with Tasting Kitchen Magazine, and conduct four chef interviews across Hong Kong’s fine dining scene for this Perfect Pairings feature.
In the article, the chefs talked through their culinary interpretations to the brief: pairing a classic seafood seafood dish from their restaurant with this year’s Sauvignon Blanc from Cloudy Bay (a New Zealand producer).
As always, each project I take on brings its own eye-opening revelations, and this one was no different. This time, I had the pleasure of observing and learning from a successful photographer, whose portfolio includes fashion, architecture – and food – who was on the job with me.
After four days of hanging out, I convinced him to give me an interview where he (who prefers to go incognito, like a spy!) shared some of the secrets of food photography he has gathered over a long career as a professional photographer.What are some of the challenges in shooting food versus people, or buildings?
Food has this whole element of making it look appetising. There’s a science to that, really. There are a lot of things that you have to take into consideration because food has many textures; it could be saucy, it could be dry, reflective, or have oil on it.
So, lighting is very crucial. Plus food – especially hot food – if it sits for a while it starts to wilt. There’s techniques of not cooking food to the fullest to make sure the colors are still there, or to not cook it at all, even. Also, treating food with chemicals so that you have a longer period to photograph the food.
Without treating it or planning ahead, you have about a five minute window to shoot it. In photography that’s really short.
What are the wackiest techniques you’ve seen applied to food?I’ve seen everything, from hair spray to glue; anything that kind of sets it in place for a little bit longer. That stuff is not out of the ordinary, actually, it’s just a trade secret in food photography.
Which is the most difficult cuisine to shoot?
Chinese food. A lot of it is wok-fried and saucy. And flat. It doesn’t have height. Photography-wise, when a plate comes out saucy and flat, you can’t light it to look dimensional. Western pastas are pretty bad too.
Easy stuff to photograph would be… sushi. Sushi looks like art, it’s colourful and its got a shape to it, so you can light it.
Being in Hong Kong, however, there are a lot of chefs who take care to present Chinese food in an artistic manner. Those are usually OK to shoot.
But, if you are stuck with a flat dish, what can you do to counter that?
You use distractions to distract from the main visual. If the plate is somewhat non-photographable, then you start to throw in elements for lighting, angles, backdrops and texture to present it as a dining experience. Like a wine, or utensils. If it’s really bad then you can use shadows and textures behind to make it visually decent and just layer.
Tell us an anecdote from your days as a food photographer…
My first and probably last experience of a working for a major franchise campaign… It was for a burger franchise and it was so monotonous. Basically we had to cook three to four hundred burger patties in a span of four days trying to get the right ‘look’ which is this consistency where it’s not too grey or dull. It has to be juicy enough and cooked to their presentation standard.
They shipped us a truckload of patties, literally, and the assistant in the back was cooking patties non-stop. In the end we had to bring in an actual employee to cook it and moved the shoot to a franchise location instead of a studio.
The second problem was finding really green lettuce and fresh tomatoes. The lettuce had to have the right waviness to hold up the bun a little bit – and the tomatoes had to be an exact width… it was crazy.
Yeah, it was an educational shoot. I probably learned everything from that one shoot. I got that job earlier on in my career when I thought, ‘Oh yeah, food photography can’t be that difficult”.
And how wrong that proved to be! 🙂
Thanks for reading, and keep coming back for more bites…