Food for thought: what we can learn from this food photo contest

By Geoff Harris

The winners of the latest Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition (Food POTY) have recently been announced – you can see the full list of winners here.

As with previous years, the winning selection shows that there is much more to modern food photography than carefully styled, ‘food magazine’ shots of expensive-looking pasta or fancy cakes.

This is very good news if you are interested in food and food culture, but have been intimidated by trying out food photography. The genre has become much more inclusive and wide-ranging than it used to be. So what can we learn from some of the winning images this year?

It’s been emotional.

One of my favourite quotes about photography comes from the US portrait photographer, Steve Schapiro, where he talks about how the best images combine emotion with skilful execution.

The overall winner of the competition was Taste, by Chinese photographer Li Huaifeng, and this is a perfect example of what Schapiro is talking about.

“This picture is technically outstanding in its use of light and composition, but what raises it to the level of historic importance is the depth of its storytelling and emotion" - Caroline Kenyon, Director/Founder of the Pink Lady contest.

So, Li Huaifeing didn’t win this prestigious contest by taking a close-up of the food being cooked – the image works because of the family context, made even more poignant given the restrictions caused by Covid, as well as the wonderful composition and use of light. It is no coincidence that the last few winners of Food POTY have come from overseas, showing that the best food photography also crosses over into the travel and documentary genres. This is worth thinking about the next time you can travel abroad.

Food people are as interesting as food itself

Here is another big takeaway (pardon the pun) from the Food POTY winners: successful images can also centre around the people behind the food itself. Chefs have always made great subjects, a good example being Bob Carlos Clarke’s stunning portraits of Marco Pierre White.

In this latest Food POTY, check out Marina Spironetti’s shot of a butcher, which won The Claire Aho Award for Women Photographers, or David Thompson’s atmospheric shot from Taiwan, which won The Philip Harben Award for Food in Action.

Put food in its cultural and political context.

One of the most interesting categories in this competition is The Politics of Food. The winning image this year, taken by Sandro Maddalena, shows refugees from the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict, gathered in the basement of an abandoned sanatorium to share their food. Almost 30 years after the conflict, Abkhazian refugees are still living in abandoned buildings in poverty.

You don’t need to go to Eastern Europe to get these kind of pictures: food poverty is also rife in the UK and there are a host of cultural issues around diet and food choices.

Let there be light.

If you do shoot still-life food, it’s got to be something special to stand out. There is still plenty of mileage left in conventional still-life food photography but you need to ensure the lighting and composition really grab the viewer.

It doesn’t need to involve expensive studio lighting or complicated off-camera flash, however as we saw in the recent article on jewellery photography, all of you often need is diffused natural light.

You can practice still life food photography with anything, not just exotic grub; if you don’t believe me, check out some of the very creative approaches on display at the Potato Photographer of the Year competition!

Good composition is also really important, as can be seen in The winning image in the competition’s Marks & Spencer Food Portraiture category, taken by Harriet Harcourt.

If you do want to experiment with more than natural light, a fixed LED light source or similar can be less fiddly than setting up off-camera flash.

As with jewellery, have the light coming from either the side or the back rather than straight on – this will make the subject look very flat, without interesting shadows and texture. Creatively capturing and manipulating shadows can turn an OK image into an outstanding one.

Hopefully this blog has inspired you to try your hand at food photography or adjust your approach, and even if you don’t decide to enter Food POTY, focussing on food and food culture can add an interesting new dimension to your travel, street and documentary photography – particularly as the world starts to open up again.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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