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Why do we photograph food?

"Studies show that the connection between food photography and cravings is visceral. Eating with your eyes is more than a witty saying – it’s backed by science." Olympus

On Saturday, I hope, indeed I very much hope, the family is off to Port Douglas for ten days of togetherness in the tropics. There will be much wining and dining both in our rented luxury house and at locations such as this one, which features on the front page of my blog. It's one of the handful of good photographs I have of myself, and the location is perfect - The Tin Shed restaurant - one of our two favourite places to eat in Port Douglas. Not so much for the food which is not really what you would call gourmet, but for the ambience.

You can't really beat that view can you? Well of course you can, but it has to be one of Australia's very special places.

David took the photograph of me and a few more besides although on this occasion we did not take a photo of the food. I can't even remember what I ate - most likely fish and chips as this is what I tend to eat in such places when on holiday in Australia. I love fish and chips and never cook them at home these days. Far too unhealthy, but if you can't indulge in such things on holiday when can you? Well I suppose you should never do it, but no - "a little of what you fancy does you good", as my grandmother used to say. And when we went to the Yacht Club - the other favourite place - I definitely did! Moreover I photographed it.

I wonder now why I took the photograph and it's not very good - I am very definitely not a professional, even a talented amateur, photographer - I just point and shoot. So it's a bit dark and maybe even a bit blurry. I suppose I was impressed by the presentation - it's quite cute and it also show how very large portions in such places are. Does it remind me of the evening though? Well yes, this one does, but it's the context that is the real reminder.

Here is another occasion at which a number of photographs were taken - including of the food. Our last ever meal in France - at a small hotel an hour's drive from Nice, from where we would fly home the next day. There are other photos as well - some of the actual food - some of the setting. I remember the food as being good and photogenic, as you can see from the photograph of the first course, which I suspect was a gazpacho kind of soup. But it's the photograph of the setting with the waitress who I remember very clearly - she wore a beautiful large pendant kind of necklace I remember, and David also managed to take yet another very rare OK picture of me with the hotel cats. It's one of my favourites.

So yes I do remember the food but taking pictures of it does not remind me of its taste any more than if I had not taken them. The memory is of the hotel - a small family run hotel, nothing exceptional but it was the people who owned and ran it that made it a special place. That and it's place in my life - the last hotel, the last meal. And if I saw the photo of the food out of context I would probably have no idea of where it came from.

Here is another such photograph. Today, having decided on writing something brief about our current mania for photographing food, I browsed through my photographs. This was one of the photographs I came across. A beautiful looking dish but I had no idea of what it was and no idea where I had eaten it. At the time I was scrolling pretty fast through my collection but later I made a slower journey and slotted it into its context - a meal at Coombe out in the Yarra Valley with friends. Below are three other photos from that lunch:

More beautiful food but again I do not really remember it. The other two photographs are so much more representative of the occasion, and one of them is one of my all time favourite photographs - the two young girls so joyously smiling as they carried their flowers to the wedding reception they were part of organising. Plus the waitress's lovely smile when asked if we could photograph her. These are the things I remember. Not the food. Other than that it was good.

So is it ever worth taking photographs of the food you are eating? Well yes, but not because it is beautiful. Not for people like you and me anyway. Here is one that was worth taking. We were staying with Australian friends in their little house in a French village/small town near Albi. Their neighbours are Parisians and they invited us to see their holiday house and the renovations they were making. We all got along so well that they invited us to stay for a meal. Well not really a meal - it was composed of what they had in the fridge and you can see some of it here. All of the lovely charcuterie and fromagerie stuff that you get in France. Plus François' trick wine pourer that could fill two glasses at once. A quirky thing that shows the character of the man, and brings back the perfect impromptu nature of the occasion.

All the meals you share with family and friends, children showing off their creations, birthdays and other celebrations. These are worth taking photographs of.

I take more foodie pictures than many I'm sure, partly because of this blog - like my recent success with Ottolenghi's galette. But most of us really don't need to take photos of actual food do we? The occasion is the thing. Capturing that joy. And notice how many of those joyful occasions in our lives are, in fact, associated with food.

It seems, however that the young like to share the food they are eating via photographs. It's a phenomenon of modern times. So much so that:

"Taking it a step further, eateries like Caramel Winery in Israel and Dirty Bones in London have created entire dining experiences around the idea concept of Insta-worthy food photography, offering patrons photography kits and custom place settings that pop in photos." Olympus

There are even restaurants that give lessons on how to take good food photographs. Why would they do this? Well I guess if the young are snapping away at the food on their plate in a restaurant and then posting it on social media, it matters to the restaurant that the food looks good. I imagine this now places enormous pressure on restaurants to focus on the plating of their food. If it doesn't look good on the plate it sure as hell isn't going to look good in a photograph taken by a complete amateur who just flashes away willy nilly. If that is then posted and circulated it might not do a great deal for the reputation of the restaurant. Indeed some restaurants have banned the taking of photographs.

"An article on Esquire's blog provided a stern list of reasons why pausing for a photo shoot before eating is not OK, the most surreal being that it's an affront to the laws of thermodynamics (because it makes your food get cold), the most sensible being that your photos will probably be rubbish anyway." Trevor Baker - The Guardian


"Studies show that by actively delaying consumption, photographing food builds anticipation for what you’re about to eat – increasing your overall enjoyment."


"Picturing a juicy burger or a mouthwatering mac and cheese can cause a surge in ghrelin, the “food hormone” that induces hunger." Olympus

Which is why food photography is so important professionally these days. If you are a restaurant you need good photographs of your food on your website. Well do you? Or is it sufficient to have photographs of the place, and unillustrated menus. Which is a bit like recipe books without pictures and ones with glossy full-page pictures for every recipe. Another dilemma for the restaurants. And another cost - not to mention having the right crockery, cutlery napery, glassware, etc., etc.

And for cookbook publishers too. And here I launch into three photographs selected from this year's Pink Lady Food Photography Awards. This is the winner of the Food Portraiture Award - it's a photograph of a melon and feta salad. Now if you saw that photograph in a cookbook would you have a go at making it? I actually vaguely remember making something similar that I had found in a Coles Magazine - larger chunks I think and not so many - and even that took a lot of work to make it look good. But I have to say that it got eaten up pretty quickly by the grandchildren. The little squares are tempting I suppose.

I'm not sure I was that taken with the Food Stylist awards, but then these awards, which are sponsored by APAL - the company which 'owns' the pink lady apple, do more than concentrate on food on the plate:

"Huge global events - war, famine, the end of lockdowns, the revival of the hospitality industry, the chance to celebrate with friends and family again - all these are recorded in the awards, which show so vividly how food touches every aspect of our lives. The competition continues to be a truly global celebration of the art of food photography." Phil Turnbull - CEO APAL (Pink Lady)

Hence the two photographs below - the overall winner on the left and the winner of the European section - both of them glorious and so perfect in their depiction of what is important - beyond satisfying appetite - about food.

Having now browsed through hundreds of my own photographs I have decided that I should try and rethink the way I photograph the food experience. The emphasis should be on the experience, but yes, the food should feature too. The makers of the food have worked hard at presenting it and this should be recognised in some way. We'll see what I come up with in Port Douglas.

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