One Extremely Important Question That Is Ignored By Aspiring Food Photographers (and Why You Need to Address it Now)

Pasta Raw

What does this photo tell you? Think about it. Think hard. What is this photo communicating? Do you have the answer for this? NO? Stop reading any further and observe the photo. Answer the questions. Got it? Now look at the next photo.

PastaWhat does this photo tell you? How is this different from the first photo? I know what you are thinking. Both are photographs of pasta. This is cooked, first one is not. What more? What does this “feel” like? What does the above photo “feel” like? Do you know why the first photo is different than second one?

Let’s look at some other examples

Photo 1 – Shaved Ice by roboppy 

Photo 2 – Shaved Ice by evilmidori

Photo 3 – Shaved Ice by isteeve

Here are three different photos of shaved ice. Same subject. But all these three photos are communicating something different. Look at all of them and answer the same questions and then read on.

Photo 1 is a photograph of shaved ice. Does that communicate anything to you other than the fact that it is shaved ice? Look at second photo now. Here we have the same subject as in the photo 1. But what else? In this photo, subject is outdoor. What else do you think is happening here? This photo is open for interpretation. Let’s look at photo 3. Almost same as photo 1. Subject is placed in a tight frame and almost a very similar setting as photo 1. Here’s the difference – this photo shows that someone ate/is eating shaved ice. Again open for interpretation.

Do you see how a subject with same styling and presentation, when placed in a different settings can communicate differently? The message here is less about reading a photograph and more about taking it and putting some thoughts before clicking that button.

The point here is that to communicate with our audience using this visual medium, we need to carefully understand what we want to photograph and why are we taking a photo in the first place. If you want to take a photograph of shaved ice to show what is shaved ice, what it looks like, then it may be better to just take a photo similar to photo 1. You may be shooting for a client who wants to put a photo of shaved ice on a packaging and the objective may be just to take a shaved ice photo, in that case, photo 1 is useful.

If an open-air restaurant wants to show their shaved ice in their outdoor seating, photo 2 could work (although, I would add some other elements to it, but you get the point). And same goes for photo 3.

Before taking the next photo for your dessert recipe, ask yourself before you pick the camera – are you taking a photograph “of that dessert”? Or are you making a photo “about that dessert”? There is a difference. And it is very subtle. However it changes the whole process of going about photographing your dessert.

My hero David duChemin illustrates a similar point by comparing photographing models versus taking portraits. Picture of a model is a photo of a person. Portrait, on the other hand, is a photo about a person.

As food photographers, we need to know how to differentiate between the “photo of” and “photo about” and also learn how to take these two photos. If you are shooting a photo of something, make sure the subject stands out and your photo communicates that. If your aim is to take a photo about shaved ice and the feeling of eating it in outdoors, make sure you place yourself and the subject such that photograph communicates what you want to show.

So as a photographer do you want a photo of the dish or about the dish? Well before you can answer that,  you need to know why you are shooting that dish. Are you shooting it to instigate feelings in someone? Or is your aim to show what is pasta? Before getting all geeked-up about gear, camera, lenses and all that equipment, and before you start drooling seeing that awesome camera and that f 1.2 lens, answer this question – Why are you taking that picture?

Once you know the why then and only then start thinking about the how. As David duChemin says Why defines the How. Without defining Why there is no point in talking about How. Buy all the fancy cameras in the world and all those lenses with VR and image stabilization but if you don’t define why you want to shoot the food and what you are planning to shoot, its waste of lot of money.

Without address “Why am I shooting this”  you can take thousands of pictures and still get nowhere. You can wander aimlessly in the woods of photographic jungle and never reach anywhere. Or you can address this question before you take your next shot and take a step in the right direction.

Before you click that button and snap a photo for that recipe, ask yourself why are you shooting this? This will answer the question on how to shoot this recipe and what actions to take to make this photo better.

Have you had days when you shot photos after photos, pressed that button over and over and over, and still found it really challenging to get one good shot? Tell us about it in the comments below. How did you address it? What suggestions do you have for readers?

Raw Pasta photo by Montanaro Maurizio™ and Prawn Pasta with greens by nettsu

  • BEST POST EVER!!!!!!!!!!! Really really brilliant and so thankful you are making us stop, ask questions and really think before snapping away.

    • Thank you for your comments Matt. This comment means a lot :).

      I am sure you must have come across photo enthusiasts wanting to know all about the gear before answering the same question – why am I shooting, which then defines the type of gear needed.

      What advice would you give?

      • Hi Neel!

        Everyone always asks about equipment first, assuming it’s the gear that makes it for me. That’s not always the case. I think because of my years as a graphic designer and art director I’ve always tried to communicate a point visually above all else (which is why this post resonated so much with me). I’ll ask people what they are trying to accomplish, what they are trying to say within the frame of their image. Every photo tells a story. Sometimes the answer to that is “I’m saying nothing at all” which is fine. I do that all the time. Other times it helps to back up, think about what you are trying to communicate, and take time to build the image before ever picking up a camera. Only then can we then start talking about gear.

        Did that make sense?

        • Totally makes sense Matt. As more and more people start to take photos, the idea that gear is important and it will make you better photographer and that anyone can take great photos by “just picking up the camera” (courtesy of the camera company marketing) is in many ways false. Vision or the skill behind a photo does not come packaged in a camera box. Thoughts?

  • I have to agree with Matt. Because, I have experience this, when I ask what I want to convey on my food photos, the pictures does tell the tell the story.

    • Monica, someone wanting to improve photography but not asking this question of why am I shooting this, reminds me of Alice asking the Cat…

      Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
      The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to

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  • SO good and insightful, thanks! 🙂

  • Intersting post. Not something I had thought about before when shooting food, although I do when photographing my family or events.

    • Thanks Barbara. I hope this post helps you to ask that question more and more. I have experienced that once I started asking questions like these, it helped me compose a photo much better.

  • Excellent post, Neel! Love the photo of/photo about difference youve talked about! It reminds me of why I love my favorite food blogs – all their photos are ABOUT food.

    • Thanks Sala. I have noticed that too. Most of my favorite food blogs too take photos about food. I think photos about food have this emotional appeal and some story behind them. What is your observation?

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  • Awesome post. all aspiring food photographers should read this!

    • Thanks for your comment Soma.

  • Fantastic post Neel! I’m so glad you pointed this out! I see so many people buying expensive cameras without knowing what they want to shoot and why. Saying that “A great camera doesn’t make a good photographer” may sounds like a cliche, but so many people still think the opposite.
    I started to take pictures of other things than just food which is out of my comfort zone, and thinking about the object I shoot and telling myself why I want to take that certain picture and what is interesting about it always helps.

    • Hello Sarka, Thank you for your comments. I think for someone who is absolutely new in photography, the gear and geekiness that comes with it, is a bit fascinating. But as go along and take more and more pictures, you start to realize that these are just tools, nothing more. It is like expecting that as soon as you buy an electric guitar, you will be a rock star and girls(or guys) will go crazy for you. Your thoughts?

  • A brilliant post Neel. Food photography is very different to other types of photography and in your comparison of “photo of/photo about” you hit the nail on the head. It’s what I discuss in my presentations and all the emails I get – it’s not about the camera, equipment and gear you use but the atmosphere, mood and what story you want the food to tell. Great stuff!

    • Hello Meeta, Thank you for this comment. Storytelling is so important yet so under-emphasized. Story-telling is really fascinating subject in itself.

  • Hello, great post! I, in fact started asking myself the same question (why am I taking this picture) a while ago, and this has made me expand my horizons and I noticed a huge improvement in my pictures. Thank you for confirming my thoughts on photography. The analogy (about Alice and the cat) fits well here. And I am trying to learn how to tell a story using photography (working on a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering leaves very little time to improve my photography skills).
    🙂

  • Neel

    Hi Neel, this is a great article. I’m new to food photography and my pictures needs a lot of improvement. But I know that I want to take pictures of the dessert that I make – to show the dessert.

  • Shooting summer pics of ice cream in my hot Mexican kitchen is really the most challenging. If I can’t get a good photos in the first 3 pics, it isn’t going to happen. Maybe I should only make ice cream in the winter…

    Kathleen

  • Wow I loved this post. Yes I have experienced that, and I stood back and decided that (based on some advice I read) to stop deciding how to take the picture, but instead letting the food tell me how it wanted to be taken. I tried to pay attention to what drew me specifically so that I could recapture that to my readers. I’m taking this photo to …

  • Hi Neel. Brilliant post but this make me think…can I be a good photographer?

  • “The point here is that to communicate with our audience using this visual medium, we need to carefully understand what we want to photograph and why are we taking a photo in the first place.”

    I think you have a very good point here. Way to many food photographers simply take a photo of the food without much thinking, thereby ruining both the customers potential gain and their own portfolio.

  • Really great post – made me stop and think and look back at my pictures. The ones I love the most are the ones where I can feel the heat of a dish, taste the sweetness and smell the basil! Photos about food are wonderful! Thank you for writing this…really made an impression on me.

  • Neel, I’m learning so much from you, thank you!! Such thoughtful discussion. (I read it over a few times to boot!) Since I don’t have the best equipment, I search very hard for the feeling in the object or the story. I think this reaches your “why” discussion. And I have to work hard on design to compensate for lack of technical ability.

  • Neel,
    I’ll admit I was expecting a month-long “get this camera with these capabilities and use it at these settings” class during which I would feel defensive of my small point and shoot little black camera with the button on the top and it’s lack of those capabilities.

    Yet this post, and this class, is refreshing–and that’s just amazing to me. Thank you so much.

    I’ve learned, from watching my spouse take pictures of flowers, or corners of buildings, or trees, or broken down trucks, that the eye of the person pushing the button is far more important than the button being pushed, and it’s nice to have that observation backed up by a professional.

    I appreciate it, thank you.

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  • Banafasheh

    Excellent post Neel! I have just started taking photos of foods I cook! And someday it really doesn’t work! Those foods are somehow my assignments which I upload to show how I’ve made the recipe! So, now I understand that I should think about the thing I really want to be captured in that picture! Texture, color, cut and so on. And most of the time I completely ignore the fact and just push the button over and over! And the result is obvious!!! I am going to really think about these questions before starting to shoot! Thanks for making my brain work in a different way:)

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  • The most important point addressed here, and I think it equally applies to all genres of Photography ! Thanks Neel for nailing it down in precise words 🙂 !

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  • Mihir Shah

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