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Travel Photography Subjects: Food Preparation

Morning Porridge Going hand in hand with the previous Travel Photography Subject: Food, is what goes on behind the scenes. Some will consider food and food preparation one and the same and photograph them as such. But I have often found the ceremony, skill, art and heart that goes into creating the meal deserves its own category.

While food photography on the road may be fairly easy (it’s placed right in front of your or you grab it from a cart, after all) shooting food preparation is going to take a little more tenacity.  You’re going to have to get behind the scenes and often through kitchen doors to get the low down on where your food comes from.  For the most part, previous techniques of smiling and asking politely are a great place to start. If it’s a food cart out in the street or a market where everything is in the open, it’s always appreciated if you sample the fare first.  I won’t discourage you from simply walking around and shooting, but I have found I get a better response when I’ve stopped and made a purchase, shared a smile and show genuine interest in what’s being cooked.

Restaurants can be a different nut to crack.  In more developed countries, with their strict rules and health concerns, getting into the kitchen can take some work.  A good first step is, after enjoying a wonderful meal, ask to meet the chef.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If the chef is busy, they are busy.  But sometimes they will come out to talk shop.  Everyone has an ego and many of us enjoy hearing compliments about our work, especially if we pour ourselves into it.  If you’re a good conversationalist, you may be allowed to sneak a peek in the kitchen.  In third world countries there will be less barrier between the kitchen and the eating area and it may only require simply asking your waitperson if a photo is ok.

Another great way to get a feel for food preparation is to go couchsurfing.  Couchsurfing is the act of staying in someone’s home, either on a couch or spare bed, while on your travels.  I had great luck with the site couchsurfing.org (there are others out there as well) on a recent trip to Morocco.  While I don’t have a lot of photographs inside the home, I was welcome in the kitchen to watch the mother of the house prepare a tremendous, delicious couscous dish.  This wasn’t some cookbook method, it was simply the way she made it for her family week after week and it was a pleasure to be involved.  Cooked on a two burner camping stove with multiple washings and steamings and other techniques I don’t use, it was a delight to behold and I do have a few quick snapshots of the mother in action.

Chances are, if you’re not out in the hot sun of an open-air market, things are going to be dim.  Resist the urge to use your flash.  In the end you may need to, but cooking is an active, lively event, so let a little blur into your pictures (blur of motion that is, not blur of everything).  Practice at home with higher ISOs to see what is tolerable for you.  I’ve found great luck at times with ISOs as high as 6400 and used the grain in the image to an effect.   Be careful of getting in the way of the food preparation if you’re in small spaces.  Before your step in, observe the flow and understand what’s really going on in the cooking space.  Watch out for all the hot stuff, obviously, and slow your shutter to around 1/15th of a second to experiment with capturing better looking flames from a burner or direct fire.  Focus on faces and the action.  When people are really focused on meal preparation their faces will reflect the concentration and add emotion to the shot.  Cover the mechanics, but don’t forget to bring some emotion (smiles, frowns, curses, sweat, etc…) into the frame.

I’d like to see what you’ve managed to shoot while on your travels.  Share a photo or five of Food Preparation in the comments section below.


Previous articles in the Travel Photography Subjects series include Water, Old People, Young People, Religion, Sports, Socializing, Icons, Rich, Poor, Transportation, Economy and Food. These posts are not intent on telling you everything you need to do, step by step, to capture perfect, cookie-cutter pictures while traveling.  Instead, they are intent on pointing out some vital elements to capture when on the road and highlight thought provoking questions you may want to ask yourself.  My hope is they help guide you to find your own means to better expressing what your travels have meant to you and present that in the best light possible.  Be sure to subscribe to this site to receive the other nine subjects as they are posted!

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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