TASTE OF SIGHT
Does your camera eat first before you do? Four food photographers weigh in on the phenomenon—and help you snap even better.
Shoot first and eat later, but according to our top food photographers, flavor is still king.
Sometime in 2010, world-renowned chef and innovator Heston Blumenthal decided to dress up some bull testicles to look like fruit, a delightful subterfuge much to the shock of his unsuspecting victims. One could argue that eating is a visual experience just as much as it is a gustatory one— that bright crimson of an apple contributes just as much as the sweet, juicy flesh; that the greenness of a mango amplifies the sourness of the meat. In a perfect world, flavor is the culmination of any eating experience, but in a perfect world, every dish would be amazing in all aspects. IRL, gastronomy is as much about the other senses as it is about sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness.
Science has proven time and again that taste isn’t the sole qualifier of a decent meal; it’s psychological, architectural: Colors—from the ingredients to the crockery—can affect appetite, while even the size and texture of cutlery (study in 2015 by Charles Michel, Carlos Velasco and Charles Spence) can change how the taste buds respond to the components. And as with every first impression, sight leads the way. As much trickery as Heston put into making offal more attractive, it worked.
Flip through the pages of a menu and you’ll find yourself taking second glances at the mouthwatering photographs. Thumb through social media and you’ll find yourself doubletapping almost automatically at the most mouthwatering snaps. A picture—a good one, at least—can convey the zing of a lemon meringue pie, the bite of a salted caramel sundae. In a society that, unfortunately and inadvertently, still bases decisions on appearances—a habit only compounded by hashtags and filters—even food needs to look impeccable.
According to artist-and-photographer tandem Everywhere We Shoot (EWWS), aka Ryan
“MY FAVORITE TIP IS TO SIT BESIDE A HUGE WINDOW AND EAT DURING DAYTIME. THIS WAY, YOU GET BEAUTIFULLY LIT DISHES FOR INSTAGRAM.” —MIGUEL NACIANCENO
and Garovs Vergara, social media has upped the ante when it comes to food presentation. “It has become an avenue for advertisement. Every restaurant with good food or even just Instagrammable food gets a free endorsement.”
Indeed, being snap-ready has become yet another task restaurants have to fulfill, as if inventory and customer service aren’t enough. It welcomed the likes of cottoncandy coiffures on top of milkshakes and ice cream sundaes accessorized with the entire supermarket snack aisle— photogenic from all angles, all meant to tease your eyes into purchasing these spectacular and captivating works of art and convincing you that they’re worth every single bite.
For food and travel photographer Miguel Nacianceno, a perfect shot requires just the right color palette, texture and physical proportions. A commercial photographer trained to capture any situation, Miguel, whose portfolio includes Yummy, Grid and Pepper.ph, among many others, fell into food photography because food is something he enjoys. His light-hearted approach to the subject instinctively leads him to prefer minimal effects: His photos are intensive and focused on a singular subject. To do this, he insists on natural light— mimicking it if the real thing isn’t available.
Gabby Cantero, meanwhile, studies all angles, looking for the best way to present a dish. At the last Madrid Fusion Manila, for example, she could be seen weaving through the crowd with plates full of food, which she laid down on a makeshift studio she set up in a corner. This allowed her to have more room to find the dishes’ most photogenic side, as well as to produce consistent quality in her pictures.
Now one of the busiest photographers in the business, Gabby worked on the debut issue of The Philippine Star’s Let’s Eat. She asked the editor if she could continue working for the mini-magazine, and a few years later, food photography has become her bread and butter.
Like Miguel, Gabby never forgets what should remain the highlight of the shot. “I love focusing on the food. Everything else there is just to complement our main subject.” Her trick: “I’m always trying to find new ways to shoot food,” she says. “There’s more to life than a top shot and a flat lay.”
For ace photographer Jeanne Young, who’s been in the industry since 1997, texture also emphasizes the quality of the picture—which is especially important in more commercial shoots. Jeanne, who always adjusts her style depending on the demand of the client and concept, puts special importance on the collaborating food stylist: “Food [division] between the photographers and the food stylists— there’s not much a photographer can do if the food styling is mediocre,” she says.
With visuals determining whether or not a customer will take a first bite, making food look irresistible is a careful and coordinated act. Gabby even jokingly admits that she’d sometimes struggle between professional conduct and personal hunger at work. Ironically, for the professionals involved in this tricky process, food shouldn’t be skin-deep. Perhaps it’s because they understand the situation better than others. Miguel confesses that every time a dish is brought in for him to shoot, what he thinks about is “this better taste good.”
Even EWWS, who specializes in a different kind of food photography, says that even in this day and age, looks shouldn’t matter at all. “No matter how beautiful, it is still food, it has to be enjoyed. You can always take the picture and you have it in your file forever. For taste, you have to keep coming back for more.”
After Ryan and Garovs tied the knot in 2013, they held an exhibit called FOODS in Pablo Gallery, which featured their lives as newlyweds. “We found new pleasure in going to the grocery, selecting food to buy, picking through fast food,” narrates Ryan. The way they photographed food was inconspicuous, purposely ordinary—a fried drumstick, unmarked french fries, a multilayered sandwich all shot against bright backgrounds. One of the pieces from the collection, a block of butter against a pastel pink backdrop, was briefly displayed at the now defunct The Girl + The Bull. The couple continued this theme with their second exhibit, FOODS: PANIC BUYING.
Perhaps the only photographers in this set to prefer shooting the messy aftermath than the actual dish, the Vergaras opt for a more pop-art candidness in their shoots, reminiscent of ’70s ads.
But whether they’re shooting a plate of half-eaten spaghetti or a foie gras-topped, truffle-infused piece of rib eye, all photographers agree that they have to make their subjects look good, or, rather, look like they taste good. Every time a dish is brought out for the Vergaras to shoot, the first thing they think of is always: “Professionally, is it edible? Personally, it’s time to eat.”
Gabby agrees. “It doesn’t hurt if your food is both delicious and Instagrammable.”
Eating begins with the eyes, that much is certain, but as with any experience, trying food out is so much better than staring from the sidelines.
Always SHOW the TEXTURE of the food when doing photography. —JEANNE YOUNG
“We’re trending toward simple food, but with people being mindful of correct preparation so taste becomes paramount,” Miguel reflects. “That said, someone will always try to elevate the dining experience on the visual level, and that’s fine, too.”
“I’M ALWAYS TRYING NEW WAYS TO SHOOT FOOD. DOING THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AGAIN GETS BORING, BUT I LOVE WHAT I DO AND IT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE A JOB. I WAKE UP EVERY DAY EXCITED TO SHOOT.” —GABBY CANTERO
“Explore your angles and pick a spot with nice lighting,” Gabby urges. “There’s more to life than a top shot and a flat lay. I look for the best angle of the dish and work my shot from there.”