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.
What 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
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?