Some of you know that I had this wonderful opportunity to speak at a ‘CTPPA (Connecticut Professional Photographers Association)’ about food photography recently. “Tell Your Food Story Stunningly” was the topic I chose to package my knowledge and experience with food photography and deliver to a group of very talented and accomplished photographers. The amazing response I received during and after the program encouraged me to create a few posts on some of the key aspects of food photography I covered during the session. Here’s the first one and it is very close to my heart.
Storytelling is the an essential component of any form of art, and food photography is no exception. It took a few years for me to understand the importance and value behind storytelling. I believed for a long time that beautiful props made impressive images. I used to amass fancy props like crazy even before I took time to understand the basic building blocks of food photography. It took time for me to realize that ‘Story’ was the backbone, but when the ‘Aha’ moment’ occurred, it had a huge impact on my approach toward every aspect of photography – lighting, styling, composition, etc. Read on to learn about my take and experience with ‘Storytelling’.
Why do you need a story?
It may sound cliched, but it is so true that we all eat with our eyes first. Food is all about its taste, texture, temperature and flavors. You have got to make your audience experience all these dimensions with just their eyes and it is a very complex thing to do. But, if you know to activate their senses just by having them look at your images, you have a winner. We must trigger the ‘I WANT TO EAT THAT NOW!’ feeling. To be able to do that you need a story.
So what is a food story?
It is a simple message about the food you want to share with your audience. A story is typically:
- A feeling/mood you want to convey
- ‘Warm Autumn’ soup
- ‘Date night’ dessert
- ‘Refreshing Summer’ beverage
- An emotion you’d like to trigger
- ‘Childhood’ favorite
- ‘Traditional Holiday’ food
- ‘Grandma’s’ recipe
- The specialty that needs a highlight
- Texture (crispy)
- Ingredients (apples)
- Flavors (garlicky)
- Taste (spicy)
Ask yourself the question “What do you want to showcase/highlight?”, this will help you arrive at your story.
Why are stories powerful?
I am a self taught photographer and a significant part of my learning comes from closely and carefully observing others’ images. Going through at least a dozen photographs everyday is one of my learning goals and I have been doing this religiously since a couple of years now. During my initial days of learning photography, I noticed that certain images grabbed my attention much more than the others did. Gradually, I started to become aware of the details and aspects that made me spend more time on these pictures. It is this process that gave me several ‘Aha’ moments and here is what they taught me about the value of storytelling.
Impart an authentic feel to your images:
Your stories are unique to you and if you are able to translate them well into your images, they make them very unique and authentic. That feeling your images will eventually speak is the key differentiator you are looking for.
Help determine your light:
We all know photography is all about light. To me, food photography is all about the ‘Story’ as it is the story that drives even the choice of your light. An image capturing a ‘Winter Soup’ demands a totally different light as compared to a ‘Summer Picnic Sandwich’. If you know your story, you’ll know your light!
Serve as a guide to style and choose suitable props:
Food styling is all about bringing your story to life. It requires a very thoughtful selection of props that make pertinent connections to your story. It is a pretty complex process and knowing your story simplifies it for you. It helps you see the image as set of related elements coming together cohesively to give it a depth and convey a message. If you know your story and it’s hero, you’ll get the idea to line up your props suitably and almost effortlessly.
If it is a tradition you want to highlight, think about what is special and unique about it; this will drive your prop selection. If it is your mom or grandma’s recipe you want to show case, picture their kitchen/cooking process in your mind and think about all those elements that will help you reflect that vision. You won’t believe how powerful a simple story can be towards your styling.
There are other nuances of food styling beyond the ‘Story’, but to me ‘Story’ establishes the foundation for it.
Make you think about compositions:
In simple terms, ‘Composition’ is about what fills your frame and how. It is about the angles that elevate your food and highlight its specialty. Your decision about going tight or wide, portrait or landscape, shooting top down or at eye level are all dependent on your story.
Do you want to show the layers of a cake, or the cake as a whole or the cake that’s ready to be attacked by a crowd? These are the questions that drive the story for your shot and hence its composition.
We’ve discussed enough about the need, value and power of food stories. Now that we know stories are the lifelines of images, let’s look at how to generate more interest to our images by adding layers to our stories. The basic story for the image below is ” A flavorful and spicy soup (Rasam)”. The garlic, curry leaves and red chilies come together to tell you that it is flavorful and hot. I wanted to add further interest to the image by giving it a rustic feel. I did it because, this recipe comes from my mom’s kitchen. I recalled the utensils she’d normally use. The pan (kadhai) and the tongs (idukki) are very typical of an Indian kitchen. The covered bowl in the back has white rice that the rasam is always eaten with. When mom sets up the food to serve, she’ll always bring a small pot (sombu) of water together with a few glasses. This soup being really hot and spicy will certainly call for a glass of water as soon as you’ve had a couple of spoons of it.
This image is a complete depiction of the ‘Rasam’ coming from my mom’s kitchen.
This post captures my own thought process and experience towards storytelling as well as other aspects of food photography. Different people could approach these aspects very differently, but I’ve shared with you a photocopy of what’s in my heart and brain.
Did you find this helpful? Please leave me a comment if you did or even if you didn’t. What would you do differently? Do you have any questions? Is there anything else that you’d like for me to post about? Your interaction is very helpful and valuable. Bring it on, folks!