I travel a lot as a guidebook writer and photographer, and I love photographing - and eating - local food wherever I go. But the place where I’m based, the London borough of Hackney, is so diverse that it occurred to me to make a world food journey on my own doorstep.
You can eat every kind of cuisine here: Turkish, Caribbean, Georgian, Sicilian, all types of Indian… the list is pretty much endless. Food evokes home for each of these different communities: it’s a way of sharing precious traditions and memories.
I want to celebrate this in my blog Eat Hackney. And I ask people I interview for recipes, so that the blog will eventually develop into a global cookbook. Here are my tips for how to capture a passion for food on camera.
Where to get inspiration
The best source of inspiration is the people, places and dishes you’re photographing: if you open your eyes and your mind you’ll develop your own style rather than absorbing somebody else’s. Having said that, I love to drool at other people’s pictures in cookery books. I’m a fan of David Loftus, who photographs Jamie Oliver’s books - the natural “thrown together” food shots and warm portraiture suit Jamie’s take on life and cooking.
Lighting and camera angles
Natural light is the way to go - no harsh shadows and the food looks much more appetising. If you’re photographing in a restaurant, just borrow a tablecloth and take the dish outside. Shallow depth of field adds to the edibility of whatever you’re photographing - you feel you could reach in and grab a morsel. I tend to photograph food at a low angle to get plenty of detail. It can look quirky and fresh though to photograph from above, as with these cakes from Violet.
Cakes by Violet. Image by Helena Smith
Cooking, styling and props
If cooking isn’t your thing, you might have to rope in a friend here. I test the recipes for my blog, so cooking myself is integral to the process. And often, instead of snapping food in a restaurant, it’s easier to photograph my versions so I can control the light and take my time. I don’t overload any image with props or fancy bowls, though doing more elaborate set-ups could be fun. I find that unglazed crockery works best, as the food shines rather than the plate.
Rabbit terrine. Image by Helena Smith
With more complex dishes, or if time is short, it’s easiest to get help. This rabbit terrine was photographed at Hackney City Farm - the chef made the dish specially and it had just come out of the oven. There was no one in the restaurant, so I found a light spot and I had plenty of time for pictures (while being driven crazy by the gorgeous rabbity bacon scents).
Taking foodie portraits
I get permission from restaurant-owners/chefs in advance, and spend time chatting with the person I’m going to photograph. Sometimes a set-up that feels fake - asking someone to whisk, stir or chop - actually gives the strongest and most natural-looking results. In the image of the mother and son below, who run the Gujarati Rasoi stall at Broadway Market, I wanted to show their closeness, so I asked them to hug… And I used a 50mm lens to give a tight crop that reflects the density of the market crowd.
Gujarati-Rasoi. Image by Helena Smith
How to capture ambience and dealing with the permissions issue
If you’re photographing inside, it’s really worth taking a tripod. Using a flash for wide shots isn’t very effective, and with a tripod you can get the sense of people moving through the scene which adds dynamism.
Photographing the Long Table night market in winter initially seemed tricky as my tripod kept getting knocked over - I thought I’d have to use flash. Then I realised could use the ambient light from the stalls and no flash: much more atmospheric. The crowds made it hard to manoeuvre, but it also meant that people didn’t really notice me, and I got some candid shots of stallholders and punters.
The Long Table night market. Image by Helena Smith
I use my images for editorial rather than commercial purposes, so I don’t have model release forms or necessarily ask permission. If you want to sell images to a picture library though, this is something you have to consider. I keep a stash of Eat Hackney business cards with me so people know why I’m taking pictures and can see themselves online. And of course, if people don’t want to be photographed, put your camera away.
Publishing and publicising your work
A blog is a labour of love, and involves time and commitment. But the joy is it’s so easy to get published and spread the word about people and places you’re interested in. I used a WordPress template for Eat Hackney, and learnt a lot about web stuff in the process. Twitter provides free marketing - et voilà! You’re up and blogging.
Helena's five favourite food blogs
- Anissa Helou: good recipes, recommendations and opinion on foodie issues, plus belly dancer of the month!
- Café Fernando: by an Istanbul-based cook and photographer who takes colourful and imaginative pics.
- Feasts and Festivals: recipes, poems and stories to take you through the year.
- Tartelette: delicious images from a professional food and lifestyle photographer.
- The English Can Cook: Ms Marmite Lover, the queen of secret supper clubs, opens her front door.
Learn more about capturing the flavour of a subject or scene with Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Photography.