We caught up with our first-ever Dishtag food photographer, Mhairi Campbell – also known as @theweescottishwhisk – to hear how her passion for cooking led to food blogging and food photography. She reveals all on how she balances the mayhem of a full-time job, food photography and being a mum.
Please tell our readers a bit more about yourself and what keeps you busy.
I’m from Scotland, and I’ve lived in Hong Kong with my family for the past eight years. I manage the Asia division of a UK packaging and communications agency and have a food blog, www.theweescottishwhisk.com.
Why did you get into food photography?
For me, the food came before the photography. I have always loved cooking and experimenting in the kitchen. My mum taught me to cook at a young age, and my kitchen has always been my happy place. A couple of years ago, I was looking for a new creative outlet and decided to start documenting my recipe creations in the form of a blog, www.theweescottishwhisk.com. I had a Nikon SLR camera and had dabbled in a bit of photography over the years, but I had never really taken the time to properly understand the basics. I wanted my blog to showcase tasty, healthy recipes, but it was also important to me that it looked beautiful. In researching other food sites, it quickly became apparent that the food styling and photography were so important to engage the reader, and I realised that I needed to up my photography game a lot.
How do you balance being a working mama with your food photography?
To be honest, balancing being a working mum with anything is difficult! For me, it’s all about planning (I’m a bit of a control freak), prioritisation and realising that I can’t always do everything. When shooting my own recipes, it’s all about preparation because I know that I will only have a few hours to cook, style and shoot the dish.
When doing a shoot for Dishtag, I need to be prepared, but I also need to be more flexible because the timing and conditions can often be out with my control. I always find out in advance which dishes I will be shooting, how much time I will have and, if possible, visit the restaurant to get an idea of locations and available props. What is great about working with Dishtag is that I can do as many or as few shoots as I want, so I can fit it in around family life and can try to plan shoots when my daughter is at school.
What was the first dish you remember photographing?
The first recipe that I shot for my blog was a recipe for Irish wheaten bread – a great recipe that I make all the time, but in retrospect not the easiest thing to shoot! I didn’t really know what I was doing with the styling, and the bread itself doesn’t look very interesting, so it wasn’t the best starting point.
Has working with Dishtag helped you to improve?
Definitely! Working with Dishtag has pushed me out of my comfort zone. I have had to photograph dishes that I would never normally encounter in my home kitchen, and working in different restaurant settings with different light conditions has provided me with a lot of learning opportunities.
What inspires you?
A lot of things do, but mainly the food – I get really excited about trying to capture the amazing flavours, colours and smells of a dish in a photograph. I love beautiful tableware and restaurant decor, but at the end of the day, the star of the show is the food. You want someone to look at your photo and feel hungry. I also get inspired by looking at a lot of food blogs and the Instagram accounts of other foodies. I do have to stop myself from getting too caught up in comparing myself to others though. I am my own worst critic!
Is Hong Kong a good place to be a food photographer?
Hong Kong is great because there is such a diverse mix of wonderful restaurants. You can find literally every type of food, from amazing local dai pai dongs to Michelin-starred fine dining. As a food photographer, it means that there is always something new and interesting to photograph.
When did you know you were doing it “right”?
I’m not sure that I have ever felt like I am doing it totally “right” as I feel like I am continually learning, but I do see an improvement in my photos, and that is really satisfying. Seeing some of my images featured in marketing materials for JIA Group (for instance, Ham & Sherry) was really encouraging. It was great to actually see them in print.
What have you learned most since the beginning?
I have learned to try to keep things simple and to always let the food be the focal point of the image. To start with, I had a tendency to try and be too creative with my use of props and backdrops. I included too many things in a shot, and it just ended up detracting from the food. I have also learned that it’s tricky to shoot a good flat-lay image, especially without the right equipment. My advice would be to start by shooting one plate with a couple of appropriate props and a relatively simple backdrop.
What’s the number-one thing you wish you’d known starting out?
Practice, practice, practice is the most important thing, and improvement doesn’t happen overnight! When I started out, I really didn’t know very much. I had no formal training and didn’t really have a clue what I was doing. I found it really frustrating because I had an idea in my head of what I wanted my images to look like, but I really struggled to take photos that I was happy with. Reading and speaking to other photographers is really helpful, but ultimately, the best way to get better is to take lots and lots of photos. Playing about with my camera’s settings, taking lots of photos in different conditions and taking time to analyse what worked well and what didn’t really helped me to start seeing an improvement.
What dishes are the most challenging to shoot?
I definitely find dishes with a limited colour palette or not much texture hard to capture because they can look quite flat. This bowl of spaghetti (below) was looking very green and not particularly appetising, but by layering some props and introducing a fork lifting up some of the spaghetti from the bowl, I managed to give the image some movement and make it look much more engaging.
How do you vary your approach to different styles of food?
It’s really important to think about what you are actually shooting and what you want to get across with your image. For example, a burger almost always looks best shot from the side so that you can see all the layers of filling. A pizza is quite two-dimensional, so it looks good shot as a flat lay. The type of cuisine can really influence the shot too – for example, when shooting a noodle dish, it can be really effective to include a hand holding chopsticks picking up some of the noodles. I like to include a bit of a human touch in my shots as it helps the viewer to engage with the images.
What do you enjoy the most about being a food photographer?
When shooting for Dishtag, I love the experience of visiting different restaurants and working with different chefs. It’s a fun environment to work in, and when a chef is passionate about their menu, that passion and excitement is contagious. When I’m shooting at home, I love styling the dishes. I can happily spend hours playing about with different props and experimenting with shooting different angles.
Any advice to food photographers who are considering being part of Dishtag?
Contact the team at Dishtag to find out more! We are always looking for talented photographers to join the team.