About two years ago I hit a wall with food blogging. To become on par with the great “mise en scène” food stylists & photographers-bloggers (Tartelette, Ilva, Matt, Aran), in addition to a lot of time to practice and refine your craft (talent doesn’t hurt either), food styling and photography takes a lot of props: plates, cups, napkins, placemats, silverware, backgrounds, baskets, utensils, textiles, sprigs of lavender, leaves, and vintage this and that.
It’s a lot of stuff.
And all those little details make some of the best food photos feel like you’ve really walked in on a party, stepped into someone’s kitchen, or sat down in a beautiful restaurant. I live in an apartment whose actual size I haven’t been able to accurately measure but we believe it’s in the neighborhood of 40 sq meters, about 430 sq feet. I know there are smaller apartments in places like NYC, but it’s about as small as I want to go. When I was moving into the apartment years ago, I took a look at the big container I kept full of interesting plates and cups, things I never used in everyday life but just for food photography, and I had to make a decision.
It just didn’t make sense to keep all of it.
So I pared down my food photography props to a small selection and continued to make do. Now I don’t wander into cooking stores looking for cute cups or bowls and I don’t crave linens or other things I see in beautifully designed food photography. If you look at my more more recent years of photography on this site, I stopped worrying about the props as much and just concentrated on the food. If you see the same plates or placemats in my photos, I know you’ll forgive me.
At the same time, I decided I really wanted to improve at taking portraits of people and capturing their uniqueness and helping to tell their story, too. My photography while traveling was always full of interesting sights and food, but not so much of the people that colored that landscape and those memories. From the street food seller in India to the taralli, bread, or mozzarella makers, they colored my food moments, too.
Jaden from Steamy Kitchen (awesome food blogger and friend) posted a video from food photojournalist Penny De Los Santos after I started writing this post, and Penny summed up almost perfectly what I love about food photography, and what I hope to embrace moving forward:
“It’s not just what’s about on the plate. It’s about everything around it – the details, the history, the scenes, the people, the culture, the history, the geography, and especially the moments. All of this is great substance for photographs.”
While I love cooking in my own kitchen and sharing recipes, it’s not what completely drives me. I stand in awe of those that can publish recipe after recipe and continue to make them fresh, interesting, and appealing.
Me? I just really love food. It’s the one constant with every person on this planet. And I love everything around it.
Case in point: here’s one of my favorite portraits from Thailand – a woman selling street food outside one of the temples near Chiang Mai. Though Thai people often speak English, for some reason I had to tell her in Italian she had “un bel sorriso” (beautiful smile), pointing to my own mouth and smiling.
She shocked me when she responded, “Grazie.”
I love that it’s now one of my food photography memories.
I think we all relate to your feelings and as individuals we all express it differently. I think that’s the key to understanding why we do the things we do, otherwise we would all have the same way of portraiting food. Photography and foods are subjective (taste wise) but what connects us all is our love of both.
Ms. Adventures in Italy says
Thanks for your words. Of course at some point I definitely wanted to be you…but I have to be me. :) I love that there is space for both.
I’ve always loved your food posts, and I agree…the street shots are my favorite – so much character. What is this lady in Thailand selling?
What?! Does this mean we are not going to go prop shopping together any more?? I just don’t believe it… Do you still want to see me when I come to Milan? Should be there 3 days first week in May…
Ms. Adventures in Italy says
@Erin – I think it’s tofu but perhaps it’s another root of some sort. As beautiful as she was I actually didn’t buy from her because I wasn’t that hungry… :)
@Ilva – I will go with you, but I won’t be looking for me :) We better see each other this time when you come – CALL ME!
Tim Van Loan says
I can totally relate, but its a pity that having a food blog seems to necessitate some ridiculously awesome photography. I LOVE food, but for me, its in the details- the ingredients, proportions and process. Those are my strengths, not making each step in the process a “perfect”shot (with lavender!). Your blog is awesome and recipes are rad- that’s all that counts to me :)
Sara Maternini says
My last super prep for food photography? The back of the fruit and veggy box: it’s wood and it looks like an old table! Perfect with the spring light and free ;)
Sara, I’ve been thinking about this since you first posted it and it makes me sad that you, as a talented photographer with your own style, even feel the “need” to post it. We each have our own ways, the ones that suit our lives and the messages we attempt convey. I’ve never once seen a photo of yours and thought, “Pity, no props.” What I see is beautiful food (and more) lovingly prepared and presented. It’s also sad to me that food blogs have become so competitive with one another. And the poor magazines! The other day, amid the whole kerfuffle when Vegetarian Times photoshopped out meat from stock photographs and then, in explanation said, “We can’t afford a photographer and stylist.” I thought: Hire a food blogger! WE do it. WE manage. Can’t a magazine?
Anyway … two cents.
Thoughtful post. Being limited in terms of space has opened up new creative angles. You are teaching that instead of spending energy on prop collections, we can focus on other opportunities: the food, the street environment, the cooks.
Love the Chiang Mai shot. It tells a story, which to me is more interesting than just the aesthetic arrangements of beautiful props.
Thanks for the inspiration!
Ms. Adventures in Italy says
@Tim – un bacione :) Many more Magic Moments for us in store. heh.
@Alanna – wow, thanks so much for your words – I think finding one’s own style is aptly put – but before you realize that’s what you’re doing, it can feel a bit like failure. I probably should have come to terms with this long before now.
@Annie – thanks a lot for your words, too. They buoy me up :)
Nita Tucker says
I love food photographs! They’re why I love your blog! Your Italian dishes take me back to when I lived in Florence.
That’s how I feel as well. The beautiful blog posts with the lighting just so, the linens and the beautiful ceramic dishes. It’s pretty but I also crave interesting.