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Focus on highlighting the contrasts while photographing Indian food

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Chandrima Sarkar is a food blogger who blogs at the award-winning blog, ‘Not out of the box.’ She has caught the attention of her readers as much for her writing as she has for the food photographs that she takes. Interestingly, she says that she is self-taught in her craft. She has moved into Mumbai from Delhi recently and I took the opportunity of asking her to share some of what she has learnt over time, when it comes to food photography, with us. Especially, how to capture Indian food well visually. Chandrima most generously did so and I hope that you find her practical tips to capture your Kitchen Tales as invaluable as I did.

KK: There is a point of view that Indian food does not photograph as well as many other international cuisines. What would you say to that?

Maybe I'd agree to this point of view a couple of years ago, but these days the scenario has changed drastically. Thanks to the exposure of social media, everybody is trying to capture food decently, whether they're doing it professionally or not, and the intention to share drool-worthy food photographs on various social platforms. Be it home or anywhere else, clicking and sharing the food photograph has became precedence all over. As an impact of such practices, Indian food becoming popular globally. Indian Food enthusiasts like columnists, chefs, bloggers, stylists, etc. are so conscious these days that they always put an extra effort to present their food better than before and via Social platforms their photographs are spreading internationally. A plate of Raj Kachori is no less appetizing than Pizza Margherita, whereas Indian desserts and sweets such as Gulab Jamun, Jalebi, Rasmalai, Gajar ka Halwa are some of the most loved, popular foods to shoot. A photograph of crisp, shiny, orange jalebis with dripping sugar syrup can give New York Cheesecake a tough competition any day.

2. What are the key challenges that you face while photographing Indian food. How do you overcome them?

For a mouthwatering photograph, creating contrast among food and its surroundings is always desired, and that is a bit tricky too. Understanding which colored pan or bowl/container will be the best match to present the food is very much required.
Usually, I don’t capture a brown curry in a brown bowl (terracotta works sometimes though). During my initial days of photography, it was a challenge, but with years of practice now I’ve developed the understanding of how to create the colour contrast. To be on a safer side White and Copper bottomed bowls goes best with Indian curries and dal.
The upper surface of dal, curries quickly dries up during the photo shoot, and that could be annoying if one doesn’t pay attention to this. This cannot be corrected during the post-processing, and the good food lost its glory somehow in such kind of photographs. To avoid, I keep my whole photo set up ready while the food is cooking. And after plating, I shot the photographs immediately.
Some of the Indian dishes don’t look glamorous in general e.g. Vegetable Korma, Chicken Bharta etc. making them look appetizing in photographs is a challenge. So, I always pay extra attention while garnishing these foods, choosing the right ingredients here saves the game.

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3. What are the parts that you enjoy the most about photographing Indian food? What do you find most fulfilling about it?

What not to enjoy photographing Indian food? The palate is so versatile with so much character in the recipes, the colours, flavours, textures, and particularly the ingredients play an important role when it comes to Indian Food Photography. I love to display raw ingredients which went into the dish such as veggies, whole spices or spice powders in my photo compositions artfully. The vibrance it adds to the frame, compliment the hero which is the food in a great way. Most of my photography works are indoor based where I love to capture Indian food in its different avatars, but I feel happiest when I get perfect shots of a dish (close-ups work best) which could give you major hunger pangs even when the stomach is full. Photographing Indian food on the streets especially where food is live in action is another part of Food Photography which I like to do. Chandni Chowk in Delhi is one of my favourite places among those streets, where one can capture variety of Kababs to Daulat Ki Chaat, Rabri Faluda to Masala Chai with all the actions going on here and there.

4. Are there any tips that you want to share with people who use their mobile phones to photograph and share pictures of Indian food that they cook at home? This could be in terms of plating, props, lighting or anything else.

First and foremost suggestion is to explore and use the manual settings of the phone camera. A lot can be done by changing white balance, focus, ISO, exposure etc. Use natural daylight as much as possible. Soft or diffused light coming from the window, side and backlights are best. Never, ever use flash. While shooting at night you may use the warm light of your kitchen chimney. Avoid bright sunlight which creates dark, solid shadows on the subject.
You don’t necessarily need a lot of props to beautify the photograph. Clean, scratch & stain-free plates, bowls, spoons work great. Try not to use flashy, bright colored crockery. Use interesting backgrounds like chopping board, plain white/pastel shade papers or kitchen napkins. While plating the food don’t overcrowd the plate/bowl with food, make sure to wipe off spills or dots of curries, dal from the inside borders with a paper napkin.
Flat lay/Top shots are popular these days especially on Instagram in terms of showing a story or to play with more props around the food. Close-up and Perspective shots are other best possible angles which one must try. Colour correct the photos by using your mobile’s photo edit functions or use photo editing apps to enhance the quality of the photographs before sharing them.

5. How important is storytelling while taking a photograph. Please give an example of a photograph of an Indian dish that you had taken and the story that you were trying to say through the photograph?

While speaking through a photograph an interwoven story always brings the subject closer to the heart. Food photographs, even if it’s staged, have the magnetism to touch the right notes of nostalgia in our mind. While capturing a regional dish, culture, tradition, customs become a character of the photograph. Altogether it reflects the essence and spirit of that part of the country. The inspiration comes primarily from my surroundings and past experiences.
A pile of Samosas on a newspaper-lined bamboo cane basket displayed at our local sweet shop or while my mother used to serve Payesh (Rice Pudding) in a bell metal bowl, all these have their influences on my photographs.
One such photograph was my Mutton Khichdi where I dished up the preparation on banana leaves, and the main serving pot was an earthen handi which added a rustic feel. The idea was to create an old world charm during a lunch setup. I tried to recreate my childhood memories of having khichdi during monsoon lunch as comfort food. Khichdi is also very common to serve as Prasad (offerings to God) in the eastern part of the country on banana leaf platters, and water in earthen glasses alongside the khichdi.
Adding human element in a picture always makes a photograph livelier. Here also I’ve tried to portray a natural action during eating by showing part of a hand. Fries and Papad are the best accompaniments one can think of to serve with Khichdi. So, I plated khichdi with eggplant fritters just the way my granny loved to feed us. In the photograph, I’ve tried to show the warmth of sit down together over a meal which was mandatory in the families earlier.