In the first of our series of interviews with Dishtag freelance food photographers, we caught up with Hong Kong born and raised third-year medical student Charlotte, aka @nothingbutfoodies. Charlotte tells us how she got into food photography and what inspires her. She talks about the first dish she photographed and how she has improved over the years. And she reveals what it has been like to work as a freelance photographer for Dishtag over the past nine months.
How did you get into food photography?
Actually, I didn’t start off with food photography – it was just trip photography, taking photos of scenic views or people. My dad is into photography, so that’s who inspired me. Eventually, I started taking photos of food because I like eating so much! So it just seemed very natural for me to take photos of the food I eat. I think it’s the perfect combination of my two passions: my passion for food and my passion for photography.
How did you go from food photographer to being a freelance photographer for Dishtag?
Well, at first, when Adam and Raffy approached me through my foodie account on Instagram, I was really surprised, because I was just an amateur. I didn’t know much about the gear, lighting or settings, so I was nervous at first. But I think at Dishtag what they look for is not the perfect food photographer but someone with potential. Never would I have thought that, as a medical student, I’d one day be able to go to restaurants and take photos as a professional food photographer. But then I realised that it doesn’t matter; as a photographer at Dishtag, you don’t have to be perfect. You’re not expected to know everything. The most important thing is that you have passion and that you have a vision. What is valued is that you have your own point of view, your own artistic sense and your own style in food photography. As long as you have these, I think you’re more than capable of being a photographer at Dishtag.
What was the first dish you photographed?
A macaron! I’m sure I did snap some random shots of food when eating out, but the first photo where I really tried to take a nice photo was this macaron (below). As you see, it’s a very basic shot with a white background of me holding the macaron. So it was nothing too spectacular.
And from that first dish to now, what do you wish you would have known then?
Two things: first, it’s better to take more shots than less. Improving is a lot about trial and error. You can’t take one shot and it’s going to be perfect . So don’t be afraid to take more photos of the same dish and try to make adjustments each time. Second, don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself. As a food photographer, when you want that perfect shot, it’s not like you can act normal at a restaurant, like a customer, and just sit in your seat taking photos. Sometimes, especially for flat lays, you need to get the photo from up high. So don’t be afraid to take off your shoes and stand on a chair and take the photo! If you see a nice wall, take the dish in front of the wall and get the shot. And if the lighting inside is not so good, take the dish outside and get your shot and go back inside. People may look at you in a weird way, but don’t worry. They don’t know you, and I assure you the outcome is going to be so much better. It’s going to be worth it! Of course, rule number one is not to disturb other people, but within this rule just do creative things that you think will make your photo look nice. And, again, don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself. Have fun!
What have you learned most since the beginning?
I think I’ve realised not to rely so much on editing but really focusing on taking a good photo, because it’s going to make a difference. For example, good lighting will make or break your photo. Whenever I go to restaurants, I always try to take the window seat. It’s going to make your photos look so much better. Natural light really works like magic. With good lighting, the details of the photos, the colours are just going to be so much better. Also, composition and angle are key. These are not things that editing will help you with that much, so always try to get a good photo instead of saying, Oh, I can just take a mediocre photo and have the editing do the magic for me.
When did you know you were doing it “right”?
Well, to be honest, I don’t think there was this “click” moment that I immediately knew I was finally doing it right. But, now that I look back, I do see there has been progress. When I just started off, I might have taken a hundred photos and seen one that I love, but now if I take a hundred photos, there’s probably 60 that I say, Oh, wow, I really like this shot! I think it’s a lot about practising. Trial and error. In photography, there’s not gonna be this moment when you say, Oh, I finally found the key to taking good photos, and I am going to follow that rule every time to get the perfect photo. No, it’s not going to be that way, but I think as you go on and you gain more experience, you start to develop an artistic eye. Now when I see a dish or an object, I already picture a photo in my mind, so I know which angle I should use to approach this particular dish. I think it’s a lot about experience, really. With experience, I know the things that I should avoid and the things that I should do to help me to take a good photo.
And how do you compare a recent photo with the first macaron shot?
We can see that the macaron photo is just very plain, with a boring background. Now I know how to utilise different props and different backgrounds to make the photos look more interesting. Looking at the flat lay of the Nepalese lamb curry (below), there are a lot of things going on on the table. The props help to make your theme more cohesive and, therefore, your photo more interesting. Another thing is about perspective. Now that I have taken more food photos, I know that there are different angles and perspectives that I can choose to take my photos. The macaron photo was taken from a straight 90-degree angle, which is the most natural option. But now I know that I can try different angles and perspectives based on the interesting elements I can find in the background. For example, in this burger shot (below), if you look more closely, there’s actually a barbed window in between the camera and the burger. I really like the effect that it gives; it gives the photo more texture, and there’s this spacial element to it. So I realised that trying different perspectives and angles in taking food photos helps taking what you might say is the “right” photo.
And what about lifestyle shots?
One thing I really like right now is using action shots. It makes your photo so much more lively and sometimes helps to bring out the “better part” of the food. Like in this noodle shot (below) – if I hadn’t taken the noodles out, it would just be an ordinary bowl of noodles. Now, with the noodles picked up with the chopsticks, you can really see what’s hidden inside the bowl, and it makes everything so much more appealing.
And has Dishtag helped you to improve as a food photographer?
Definitely! It has helped me to improve a lot. Before Dishtag, I only took photos because I was passionate about food photography. I would take photos of what I ate and post on Instagram. It was only for me and my followers; there wasn’t really much consequence behind posting a bad photo. I just posted photos thinking, Oh yeah, that’s pretty nice. But after I joined Dishtag, the aim of a shoot becomes different; it’s not just about pleasing followers – you have to meet a certain aesthetic standard, and it really helped me to push myself, trying even harder. I can’t just take “pretty” photos. I have to take really good photos because you have to satisfy your client as well. Also, Dishtag is really about professional food photography, so the settings are very different. Usually, for my Instagram account, I just sit down at the restaurant, and before I eat, I spend a minute or two taking snapshots of my food, but for Dishtag, you really need a few hours to set up your lighting and your props to perfect your shot. And so having to push yourself to that kind of aesthetic level has really helped me to improve a lot. Just thinking how to make the perfect shot – it’s a really good training process for me.
What are the most difficult dishes to shoot?
Dishes that don’t have much dimension are tough – like dishes that are really, really flat. For example, a carpaccio, with very thin slices of fish. So if you take a side-shot photo from a 90-degree angle, it is not going to show much in the photo. So you have to think of ways to make those things pop. Here you can think of doing a flat lay. Like, for pizza, you can do a flat lay; that really works. Also, I’ve learned to do action shots, so trying to lift the object up so that it doesn’t look so flat. Another thing that I find really hard to shoot is whole meat and fish plates – like a roasted suckling pig, a steamed fish or a roasted chicken. These are hard to make look appealing. I am still figuring out how to make these things look nice, so it’s an ongoing challenge. But one thing I would say helps is trying to utilise props to make the scene more lively.
So aside from the difficult dishes, how do you vary your approach to different types of food?
I think the first thing is the environment of the restaurant itself, which can really make a difference. If you’re at a café, the interiors are most likely going to be more brightly lit. If you‘re at a high-end restaurant, maybe it is going to be darker. The second thing is the props that you use. For example, if I am at a café, I want to use cloths that are pastel colours or use more wool and cotton and plants. If I am at a more high-end restaurant, I want to step back from things that feel too homey. So props are going to make a huge difference. Another thing that makes a difference is the editing; for example, you can go for warmer or cooler tones in post-production.
What inspires you?
Definitely the work of others. There are so many amazing photographers with gorgeous photos on social media; you can really take inspiration from them. You can see how they use lighting and composition. You can recognise their style and their tones. From their photos you try to take something you like yourself and evolve it into something of your own.
And what do you like most about being a food photographer?
The food! As a food photographer, you get to try so many different types of food, and it’s always a pleasure (and a reward) for me to get to try some of the dishes after taking the photos. That’s always the best part. And, of course, the connections that I’ve built as a photographer are something that I am really grateful for – whether with restaurants, managers or fellow food photographers. It’s so nice to meet people from the F&B industry. And you see how so many people in the industry have such a vision and put so much heart into what they do (see For the Love of F&B). Also, I really enjoy being able to get to know other food photographers to share ideas and taking inspiration from each other.
Is Hong Kong a good place to be a food photographer?
Hong Kong is definitely amazing for food photography, considering how glorious the food scene is. There are so many different kinds of cuisines – from Chinese, to Indian, to Japanese, to French and from cheap eats to fine dining. Varying from one type of food to another, there are different ways to take photos of that specific dish or food, and I think it gives you a lot of space to create. And, at the same time, it is a challenge. You can’t just stick to your one-way game. You have to think of different ways to capture the essence of different type of cuisines and different dishes. So I think this is an amazing training opportunity as well a really good environment to grow and create your own style and your own photography.
It’s clear you are super passionate about being a food photographer, so how do you balance this with being a full-time medical student?
I am not gonna lie – studying medicine is not easy at all. It does take a lot of dedication and a lot of time. But, for me, food photography is part of my daily life. Because, I mean, we all need to eat, right? So it’s a daily habit for me to bring my camera with me. People say I am crazy because I carry this several-kilo object every day, but it’s become a habit for me; every day I go out to eat, and I take my camera and take photos of my food. So I don’t see food photography as much as a burden as part of my routine. Of course, there is editing, which is really time-consuming, and most times, it takes me a full afternoon to edit photos for a Dishtag visual menu. But while it may be time-consuming, it is not a waste of time at all. I really enjoy every moment of it. I find it really fun and stimulating. I guess it’s like a destress method for me; when I’m tired of studying, I edit my photos. When I have a break, I go to a restaurant or café and take photos.
So any advice to food photographers who are considering being part of Dishtag?
Being part of Dishtag has been such an incredible experience for me, so I would say just go for it! So if you’re interested and you’re passionate about food photography, just go ahead and give it a try. You’ll find that it is really so worth it and so rewarding. And I do hope that more food photographers will join the Dishtag network. We do need a lot more talented food photographers, and I can assure you won’t regret it.