Indian food photography can be intimidating for many people. Whether you are a restaurant owner who wants excellent marketing 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 more truly reflected in Indian food. Apart from language and dialects, travel 100 km in any direction and the food changes or is reimagined for a native palate.
Regional and cultural differences 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, 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 stepped out to eat at restaurants, I still recall my father preferring a cosy bowl of fried rice with some fried chicken 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, a vast range of vegetarian and meat-based food is cooked across various regions of India. It’s nothing less than magic to see how we have managed to collaborate and create a palette of flavours and textures using similar or 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 in a way that highlights the hero and hints at the side dishes to create a visually appealing photograph.
When I travel in India and come across menus, I often see different dishes lit in the same 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 mainly light for? And how do you bring contrast into the shot without it looking bad or bland?
An experienced food photographer will look at a dish and quickly figure lighting, its quality, and its position to create a rough composition which is further tweaked to enhance the food’s main features and texture. Depending on the project, a food photographer can also recommend or use certain props, backdrops or side dishes that will help tell a better story of the food being shot.
TIPS AND TRICKS
While Indian food is largely vegetarian in nature, meat-based dishes are equally lip-smacking. 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 all the ingredients of the dish. Take simple dal for instance. It’s a curry made with 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 foreground or background, and playing with the rich colours inherent in Indian food is one way to create interesting food photos.
Creatively, shooting thalis is more challenging as it’s expected that the shot shows all items. 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) can be positioned in the background.
Non-vegetarian Indian dishes are mostly curries or meat barbequed in a tandoor (clay oven). For grilled meat dishes, lighting is everything as these items are often chunky, juicy and full of texture. Position the light (or the plate) in such a way that the light unravels the texture. Hard lighting often works better for grilled meats.
The point is not to make it 100% perfect but to make the viewer drool. Brush a little oil on grilled meats to help them look more alive and appealing. The utensils and hardware used to cook meats can also be interesting to shoot, so do include these when creating food shots.
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 require a keen eye for detail and the ability to quickly style the food in minor ways so that at least parts of the meat stick out of the gravy, adding texture to an otherwise flat red or brown dish. Here, it’s also wise to incorporate a juicy naan or other bread in the frame to provide context and break the monotony.
Curries served in deep dishes may need to cheat on elevation. Padding the bottom of a bowl or balti with dough often helps raise the food and help you compose appealing shots at eye level.
Apart from all this, the choice of background, plates and other props also impact the quality of your Indian food photography. Create contrast between the plates and curries by using light coloured plates/bowls for dark curries and vice versa.
Indian food photography is not everyone’s cup of tea. It takes years of shooting experience to gain confidence in this highly competitive and specialised niche of photography.
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. But I’ve also had some clients who contact me after not getting the desired results, complaining of having wasted their marketing budget, time, staff and kitchen resources and wary of repeating the same mistake.
In such instances, clients must see the photographer’s food portfolio and past clients to make an informed decision that looks beyond budget.
For any business, time is money. It always pays off to reconsider the budget (or trim the shot list) and hire a professional food photographer in India who is reliable and delivers on the agreed timeline. Apart from years of experience, a great food photographer may have a list of reliable food and prop stylists they work with to elevate the food shoot.
Working with such a creative team, where each individual has an assigned role and is a master of their own craft, helps when it comes to creating stunning food shots for your restaurant business that will leave your customers drooling!