Capturing food through human lens: 3 food photographers decode the process

In the age of Instagram, is everyone a food photographer? certainly not

By Laraib Anwer

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Published: Thu 15 Sep 2022, 6:37 PM

The dripping sauces, glistening glazes, cream swirls, and sizzling smokes. When you rush to your favourite restaurant with a rumble in your belly, you do not even think about what got you here in the first place. Your unconscious mind tricks you as you devour your food. It was the images on your phones, billboards, and posters, that activated your salivary glands. The real tricksters behind this are the ones with the cameras, capturing the ever-changing nature of food as they play with shadows and lights in the age of social media.

With a dynamic food scene, the UAE is home to a growing number of food photographers who are bringing out the culinary essence of the region. We spoke to three such food photographers who talk about their ways of giving life to food, and how social media is yet to kill the timeless art.

Mandy Toh

An avid photographer since her formative years, Mandy got her first film camera at the age of 10. She would flip through magazines and look at the pictures, as she stared at them in awe, hoping to capture the same one day. Hailing from Singapore, Mandy came to Dubai in 2010 and started getting into professional food photography.

Along with her staple equipment, like artificial strobe lights and her Canon R5, Mandy always recommends using a stylist, especially in bigger projects. She is always that person who will be found with a few props, and tools like sponges and sprays wherever she goes, since she styles her own food on smaller projects. “Sometimes clients do not want that dirty, raw look of food and want a very well-orchestrated look. That is where a stylist comes in handy,” says Mandy.

The evolution of food photography has changed with time, with design and styles taking up different forms. “Five or six years ago, there was a very organic and rustic look that people went for. Now it has changed to more modern pop art and vibrant colours.”

As for what makes the UAE a good destination for food photography? “Too many restaurants!” says Mandy. With a diverse variety of restaurants and dishes, the need for a food photographer is always growing and has its own place in the market, aside from social media food bloggers and influencers.

Teena Agnel

From not being allowed to enter the kitchen as a young girl, to becoming an avid food blogger and photographer, Teena found her passion for photography and food side by side. Hailing from India, a software engineer by profession, Teena started blogging about her own recipes and got into food photography when she moved to the US. Seeing the wide variety of restaurants in the UAE, she decided to professionally take it up once she moved to Dubai.

With social media taking up every inch of our lives, the food industry has seen a major change too, with amateur photographers and bloggers taking to the frontlines. But are professional food photographers facing the brunt due to this change?

“If you are looking for more of a social media type of content, then that form of content creation works. But most of our clients want high quality images taken with professional techniques and lighting, and for that someone experienced is essential,” says Teena.

Intricate details like lighting, placement, props, and styling have an immense impact on the way food is shot. According to Teena, having a stylist on the job is a must as it makes a huge difference when it comes to the presentation of the food. On small projects she has done the styling herself while also photographing the food. “What comes out of the kitchen by the chef, and then on the camera lens must be two different things,” says Teena.

It is not only the lighting or technical aspects that matter to Teena, but also minuscule things like keeping a burger from falling, making sure an ice cream is scooped gracefully, and the small details which eventually become a big part of the purchase.

With time, food has evolved too, making food photography a rapidly changing art. The competition has become more challenging, says Teena, with less experienced photographers coming in and offering less prices for more images. “What the clients do not realise is that they will be getting very similar shots in all those images. I think this has happened due to the easy access of photography with a phone. It has its pros and cons,” she adds.

The UAE is becoming a hub for foodies and photographers alike. With different nationalities, cuisines, and endless number of restaurants opening up, Teena feels there might never be enough photographers in the region, since the numbers of restaurants are always skyrocketing. Despite competition, she says there will always be a place for experienced photographers.

Orkun Orcan

A food enthusiast who loves to cook and feast with family and friends, Orkun Orcan is a food photographer hailing from Turkey, and has been into still photography since 2001. He moved to the UAE in 2008, where he started doing full-time professional photography. As part of his family business, he also does interior, architectural and jewellery photography.

Orkun does not exactly see social media posing any competition to his field since he believes they are on different levels, and the clients who want professional photography will always go for someone who has experience, and use professional equipment and techniques, rather than resorting to phones.

As Covid hit, the rates of unemployment soared, which, for this industry, meant that many people who used to take up photography as a hobby were now taking up fulltime jobs in the field. According to Orkun, they became a brand of their own, offering much lower prices to clients. “The prices they give are ridiculous. I don’t know how they survive,” says Orkun.

Teamwork comes first to Orkun, who goes by the principle that having a good team of designers and stylists makes the dream work. In the end, it is the client’s demands that they strive to fulfil, and working together with everyone’s input is what makes it complete. “It is not only the camera which does the magic, but also everything that goes behind the scenes,” says Orkun.

With new restaurants, dishes, and presentation styles, food photography is changing rapidly, according to Orkun, who believes the competition is growing, but that also gives them the chance of improving themselves and experiencing new things.

After the 2008 recession, when Orkun arrived in the UAE, a lot of people opened up restaurants and invested in the F&B business, which led to more demand for food photographers. With the booming scene within the UAE, Orkun has seen a massive change since this food revolution began. “It never stops growing,” he says.

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