Last Updated on November 21, 2023
When you’re traveling, the last thing you want is pictures of the same old same old food you can find at home. In fact, the whole point of traveling is to have new and unusual experiences, and that means trying out gustatory delights you’ve never tried before (and photographing them). It also means capturing photos of culinary experiences you wouldn’t be able to duplicate so easily at home. So, that being said, here are 7 tips to help you land those unique, one-of-a-kind amazing food pictures you just can’t get anywhere else.
Follow Your Curiosity
While you may likely get “pretty” food when dining in hotels or restaurants that cater to tourists, the most interesting fare will be in the streets, open markets, delis, and family-owned hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The best way to find them? Follow your curiosity.
Leave the guidebook in the hotel and spend time wandering. Keep your “food eyes” open as you walk the streets, and let your nose guide you as well. Even if you don’t plan to eat at a particular stall, you can always ask to take a picture if the food looks interesting.
TAKEAWAY: Thai food is very region-specific: if you fell in love with some particular dish, be ready that you won’t find it in other parts of the country. For example, Gaeng Hang Lay is a popular dish in the north but is severely lacking in quantity elsewhere, just like Khao Soi. So don’t just stay in one place, wander the country… There are so many different dishes to try!
Make a Genuine Connection
When you see something you’d like to photograph, spend a few moments making a genuine connection with the vendor. Not only is this the respectful thing to do, but you might also find yourself getting invited back to see how things are prepared or even meeting the whole family. Sometimes vendors or restaurant employees will even go out of their way to plate the food for you. And don’t worry, even if you don’t speak the language, there are plenty of non-verbal ways to show interest and curiosity.
What you should not do, however, is simply come up and take a snap without asking permission. This is particularly important when photographing people, but it also pertains to their goods. Some countries have laws related to unauthorized photography, so it’s better to be safe (and respectful!) than sorry.
Capture the Ambience
One thing unique to travel is that we get to be in environments we normally don’t experience at home. Make the most of this in your photography. Let the folks back home see the context surrounding your food. For example, many of the things on this breakfast plate you can probably find at home, but the view—that’s something completely singular to this place. Photos with context will help land your experiences in place and time and allow your viewers to get a taste of your adventure beyond the deliciousness of the food.
Use What You Have
At home, we can take our time to set up for a food photo shoot. Not so much on the road. Often we’re just able to bring a camera and a lens or maybe even just a smartphone. That means we need to be creative when it comes to dimly-lit restaurants. First and foremost, find the natural light (i.e., sit by a window).
Need a reflector? If your menu is printed on white paper, try propping it up or using a white napkin for a bit of fill light. Not able to sit near a window? You can use your smartphone for a bit of extra light (the white-lit screen—not the flash or the flashlight).
If you use your phone make sure you’re shooting in RAW, though, as it might throw your white balance off. And whatever you do, avoid the on-camera flash. Not only is it obnoxious, it generally makes food look flat.
Capture Local Specialties
Searching out the local delicacies is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a foodie on the road. If you like, do some research to find what a region is known for, or better yet, ask a local. Then meander around searching for it. And don’t forget the ingredients—the spices in an Indian market, freshly caught fish on the New England Coast, or even how the Polish sweeten their tea with jam. All of these are perfect for close-in shots that say something both about the food and the culture itself.
Show it Being Cooked
Depending on where you’re visiting, the food prep might be some of the most unique photos you come home with. With any luck, it might be wildly different than anything you’ve seen before, and at the very least will lead to interesting and dynamic compositions. You might even learn a thing or two that you want to try at home.
Don’t Forget the Editing
Finally, don’t forget to give your photos a bit of editing to make them look your best. Shooting in RAW is ideal, and for that, you’ll need an editing program like Lightroom or Luminar that has advanced RAW photo processing. So does open source GIMP. If you’re shooting with your phone and want to share a photo immediately, try using a third partly mobile photo editing app. Whichever you choose, you might want to consider staying away from using too many Instagram filters—they’re becoming a bit over-used.
In the end, what you want to end up with are photos that really show off the uniqueness of the cuisine and the culture of the place you’re visiting. So be adventurous, meander, and create the shots that will forever remind you of your experiences.