Commonwealth Club Hosts Food Photography Panel

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commonwealth club food photography panel
Top Row: Richard Pelletier, Pim; Bottom Row: Megan Gordon and Shing Wong

Last week I had the absolute pleasure of taking part in a food photography panel organized by the Commonwealth Club entitled Eat, Shoots and Leaves. There were three of us on the panel: Shing Wong, a professional local photographer specializing in everything from food to weddings and Pim Techamuanvivit of the popular blog, Chez Pim. The ever-gracious Richard Pelletier was the moderator, and helped make the panel much more of a casual conversation than a stuffy, scripted talk.

That evening, we covered aspects of food photography that many folks are curious about: how to start, what equipment is necessary, how to find your own style, and how to market yourself. Here's a little insight into what we had to say:

Jumping Into the World of Food Photography
You've got to begin somewhere and it seems with many people that I've spoken with, it's a bit more accidental than anything. For me, I began my blog A Sweet Spoonful because I love writing and wanted an immediate platform to reach people and talk about food. The photography came second, but has evolved into a very important part of the blog. Pim mentioned how she began blogging so long ago that she didn't really have any models--she just jumped right in. And her photography's changed through the years. These days, she doesn't lug her heavy DSLR camera around while traveling or eating out around town; she prefers a light little Lumix instead as it facilitates capturing a moment and telling a story quickly. She's less intrigued by composing and styling the perfect shot. Shing's story is not uncommon: he has more of a corporate day-job, but is passionate about photography, so he's found a way to make both work and ends up shooting and editing a great deal in the evenings and on the weekends.

Finding Your Personal Style
Richard asked all of us if we have a personal style and what that would be. I spoke about how finding your personal style is so much about finding what is not your style. For me this was huge. I attended a food photography class with a teacher who was very interested in glues, foams, and other tricks to make food look like a perfectly manicured museum object. This isn't real food. Luckily during that particular weekend, I met the lovely Lara Ferroni who has become one of my biggest inspirations. She shoots photos mainly using natural light where food is center stage. Real food. That she's usually made herself. So for beginners who are searching for their own unique style, my advice would be to begin finding who inspires you (and who really does not). And practice. A lot. On your own or with friends. Your style will evolve with time and practice.


a sweet spoonful photos
A few of my own photos

Preparing for a Shoot
We all chatted about how we prepare to shoot food. Being the type-A personality that I am, I lay everything out (linens, utensils, any props) ahead of time and have a clear sense of what I'm going to try and achieve (or the story I'm going to try and tell) before I've even cooked/baked the dish. I also do a few test shots for lighting to determine which room/area in the house is going to be the best bet given the time of day. Not everyone's like this. Pim is a bit more spontaneous with her photos--probably helped by her travels and need to be quick with her set-up. Shing shoots food at home and has done restaurant photo shoots where you're not so lucky to have a sense of how everything will be before you arrive. Flexibility is crucial here. You'll probably find that your approach aligns nicely with your personality. That being said, be open to surprises and allow yourself to play and break out of your box every now and then. Some of my favorite shots are a direct result of me cutting into cakes and climbing on top of tables.

What About the Ethics of Shooting Food?
Richard raised an excellent point in speaking about the ethics of shooting food, especially in restaurants: do you need to ask? What about if people are in your shots--do you need a release? All of us answered similarly in that we don't get model releases and don't ask permission. Pim had a great point that the second you ask permission to take someone's photo, it becomes much less authentic as they're usually posing for you in some way. In a photography workshop this past year, the fabulous Penny de los Santos taught us to really feel out situations and be aware of people's body language. But otherwise, to just start shooting until it becomes clear that it's time to stop. As far as restaurants, we all discussed not using a flash. This impedes on others' dining experience and, frankly, creates bad photos anyway. And we discussed speed: I find that if I'm focusing on shooting my meal, I'm not really enjoying my meal or who I'm sitting next to. So if I feel inclined to take a photo, I do it quickly and settle into my evening.

How to Market Yourself and Your Photos
As an amateur photographer, marketing yourself is important. Even for Shing, marketing is critical as photography isn't his day-job and it's important for him to remain current on what's going on in the photography world and for his work to be seen. Pim and I both discussed the importance of integrating yourself into your community: if you're a food blogger, get to know other bloggers. Start a discussion with them on their blogs and on twitter. Be authentic and genuine. Be patient--people aren't going to notice your blog and your photos right away. But they will. There are also the photo sharing sites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting that help drive traffic to your blog via a particular photo. And good old-fashioned networking never hurts, either.

audience questions
Answering Great Questions From the Audience

At the end of the evening, audience members had a chance to ask a few questions. And after the talk was over, folks came up to greet us individually. This was such a wonderful experience for me because I remember being on the other side of the table not all that long ago, and it was an honor to be able to share what I've learned with others. If you're curious about other food-related events the Commonwealth is putting on, check out The Bay Gourmet's Facebook page or the Commonwealth Club's online schedule for more details.

Who are your favorite food photographers right now? Where do you find inspiration?

Here are a Few of My Favorite Food Bloggers/Photographers:

  • Christopher Hirsheimer of Canal House is a photo goddess. Acquaint yourself.
  • Erik Wolfinger
  • shot the Tartine Bread book and the Outerlands Cafe website. His photos are stunningly spare and virtually tactile.
  • Katie Quinn Davies pens the blog, What Katie Ate. Her photos stand out from many food blogs in large part due to the unique magazine-style format but also because of her uncanny ability to tell a story and set a mood/feeling with each shot.
  • The blog Nordlijus is just so lovely and simple. Each of Keiko's photos quite literally stir up a response or reaction--a tall order for a simple photo. And that's a testament to Keiko's talent.


Photos of the evening taken by the talented photographer, Danielle Tsi. Check out her blog, Bon Vivant to see more of her work!