Indian food photography can be intimidating for many creatives. Whether you are a restaurant owner who wants excellent shots for your menu and website or a cloud-kitchen entrepreneur seeking to list on Zomato and Swiggy, quality Indian food photography becomes crucial in putting your best business foot forward and securing new customers.
THE UNIQUE NATURE OF INDIAN FOOD
Indian food is one of the best cuisine available on the planet. The country’s diversity is accurately reflected in Indian food. Apart from language and dialects, travel 100 km in any direction and the food changes, often reimagined for a native palate.
Regional and cultural differences also vanish when it comes to food. Many people in the north love the simplicity of south Indian food such as a masala dosa with chutney, while southerners genuinely admire a well-made butter chicken, palak patta chaat or pav bhaji from the country’s northern and western regions.
I grew up in Bangalore and had grandparents in Bombay, so IMHO our family has seen the best of south and north Indian food. When we ate out at restaurants, my father preferred a cosy bowl of fried rice with fried chicken for sides, while my vegetarian mom always had a thing for chana masala and tandoori or rumali roti. In the 90s, a small restaurant called Hotel Shakti in Bangalore’s Malleshwaram area was her favourite when it came to the best chana masala in town. Sadly, this hotel no longer exists.
Every day, an immense range of vegetarian and meat-based food gets prepared across India. It’s nothing less than magic to see how we have managed to collaborate and create a palette of flavours and textures using the same ingredients, spices and produce. 🤤Put simply, Indian food is a feast – both for your tastebuds and your soul.
CHALLENGES OF INDIAN FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Indian food photography is not a simple job. Unlike European or Eastern one-pot meals, there is always something else that accompanies the hero dish. Even the famous dum-biryani has raita, papad or mirchi-ka-salan tagging along to tease your tongue.
Indian food mostly consists of curries served with accompaniments such as rice and flatbread rotis. While the colour of these curries ranges from yellow to brown to deep red, breads and rice have a flat white or beige tone. Meat based dishes and grills will always have a reddish hue and lots of texture. If you serve thalis, there will always be a range of colours from white to brown to green and anything in between.
Due to the wide range in textures, cooking techniques and colour, combined with native side pairings ranging from rotis to appams to rice, it’s critical to light the food carefully to highlight the hero items.
When I travel in India and come across food photography, I often see dishes lit in a single way which almost never works. Light-coloured food requires less light, while darker curries absorb, and hence, need more light. It’s a classic white dress and black suit at a wedding crisis! What do you light for? And how do you bring contrast into a shot without making the food look bad or bland?
An experienced food photographer will look at a dish and quickly notice its primary qualities and texture, figure lighting, and create a rough composition that is tweaked till we are satisfied. Depending on the project, a food photographer may also recommend or use certain props, specific backdrops or side dishes that help tell a better story of the main dish.
TIPS AND TRICKS
While Indian food is largely vegetarian in nature, meat-based dishes are equally lip-smacking. Sometimes the unique cooking methods employed in either type of food calls for different ideas that can make a shoot successful.
When shooting Indian food it’s important to know its primary ingredients. Take simple dal for instance. It’s a curry made of lentils and turmeric as the main ingredient so it will be in shades of yellow and look quite flat when you shoot it. However, coriander and tempered red chilis are also a part of dal. To break the monotony of yellow, style the dish with a sprig of fresh coriander or a bold red chilli and notice how it creates interest and contrast by colour.
Using ingredients in the shot and playing with rich colours is one way to create interesting Indian food photos.
Creatively, shooting thalis is more challenging as one expects all items to be visible. To show the complete range, overhead shots are best. However, try different camera angles where the hero items feature prominently, while less crucial ones (like pickle etc) can be placed to the back.
Non-vegetarian Indian dishes are mostly curries or meat barbequed in a tandoor (clay oven). For grilled meat dishes, lighting is everything. These dishes are chunky, juicy and full of texture. Light the dish in a way that unravels the texture. Hard lighting often works better for grilled meats.
The point is not to make Indian food photography 100% perfect but to make the viewer drool. Brush a little oil on grilled meats to make them pop. Often, the utensils and other hardware used to cook and serve meats can also be interesting, so keep an eye on them too.
Meat-based curries deserve more attention as the colour of the meat and curry are often the same. How do you distinguish the meat from the gravy without shooting separately?
Such dishes need a keen eye for detail and the ability to quickly style the food to visually separate the meat and the gravy. The point is to add texture to an otherwise flat red or brown dish. Here, you can also include a fluffy naan or other flatbreads to provide context and break the monotony.
Curries served in deep dishes may need to cheat on elevation. Raising the food above the brim helps you compose appealing shots.
Apart from these shooting factors, the choice of background, plates and other props also impact the quality of your Indian food photography. A simple way to create contrast is by using lighter plates/bowls for dark curries and vice-versa.
Indian food photography is not everyone’s cup of tea. It takes considerable experience to gain confidence and deliver perfect shots to paying clients in this specialised niche.
Most brands are cost-conscious when hiring a food photographer and will settle for someone who fits their budget. In some cases, this may work out fine for some clients. But there are also sad client stories when they relied on less-experienced food photographers. I’ve personally spoken to clients who contact me after not getting the desired results, lamenting the wasted marketing budget, time, staff and kitchen resources and wary of repeating the same mistake.
One word of advice: Always see the photographer’s food portfolio and verify their credentials to make an informed hiring decision. Genuine food photographers will always have a client list and published work on their website. Such professionals are usually not wasting precious time on creating for social media. They’re invested in honing their craft and getting the best results for paying clients and that’s what really matters… not how many followers they have.
For any business, time is money. It pays off to reconsider the budget (or trim expectations) and hire a professional food photographer in India who has proved to be reliable and delivers on a pre-agreed timeline. Apart from years of experience, a great food photographer can also have a list of reliable food and prop stylists they work with to elevate a food shoot.
Investing to work with such creative teams, where each individual has an assigned role and is a master of their own craft, helps to create stunning food shots for your restaurant business that will leave your customers drooling and the cash registers ringing!