From chef to photographer: making food photography come to life
Jai Arumugam is a food photographer at Talabat UAE. Before taking up his camera, Jai graduated from chef school and worked as a chef for almost eight years, which gave him a profound understanding of different cuisines, dishes and food characteristics.
Since joining the Delivery Hero family in 2017, Jai and his team are managing a portfolio of over 5000 restaurants across seven countries.
How do you make food look good in pictures? Any tips and tricks?
- Use fresh ingredients as much as possible.
- Cook the food close to the shot time.
- Plate dishes in such a way to bring all the colorful elements appear in front of the camera.
- Spray water on lettuce and tomatoes to bring that freshness. Sometimes I use beauty sponges to lift certain elements in the dish etc.
But the important question I always ask myself is: does the food look appealing? Will the customer order after seeing this picture? If the answer is yes, then we’re ahead of the game.
How did you become a food photographer?
I was a chef for eight years and a food safety manager for seven, and I worked with several hospitality pioneers like Marriott and Hilton. Slowly I started photography as a hobby. I still remember, I used to wake up 3am and drive 100km to capture some sunrise shots. I didn’t know what to shoot, I used to shoot everything.
One day at work I was asked to bring my camera to shoot a few dishes as there was a requirement for a magazine. That’s the moment I realized that I see the food from a chef’s perspective. Slowly I started spending more time on food photography. People started telling me that my food shots look very different, in a good way, and this is where I’m at right now. I’m very thankful for where I am – I’m living my dream.
Are any dishes particularly difficult to make look nice?
Tell me about it! Burgers and sandwiches are extremely challenging.
Are there specific angles that you use to shoot certain foods?
I learned this the hard way. First off all you need to understand the purpose of the shoot. If it is for menu purposes you need to show the food entirely, so the user can see what they are paying for. For example, pizzas are best shot at a 90 degree angle to show all the toppings. Burgers are best shot at 0 degrees (eye level) because it allows you to see all the layers. Having said that, there is no one size fits all and there is always room for out-of-the-box thinking.
How many dishes do you usually photograph in a day?
That completely depends on the brief. Some clients are very demanding and like to have different backgrounds for different dishes – in that case I shoot 10-15 dishes. If it is a simple brief and food shots only for menu purposes then it can go up to 40 dishes in a day.
Do you use any particular gear?
Definitely. I use Nikon D810, one of the best Nikon cameras I would say. The lens you use plays a vital role too. I mostly use the 105mm (f/2.8) macro lens – you can’t do food without macro lenses, in particular 105mm macro. I use 24-70 (f/2.8) for my flatlays and I have my 50mm(f/1.8) as well. Some photographers use tilt-shift lenses as well, which is my next go to lens. It is not mandatory to have one but it is an upgrade.
What’s the difference between shooting food and people?
I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are certain people who are naturally photogenic. You take one shot and it looks amazing. Similarly there are certain foods with nice colors that don’t require much work – “photogenic foods” if you will.
Every photographer has their own way of telling a story. But when it comes to food, in order to tell the story the photographer needs to understand the food, its history, how its cooked, any special ingredients that are used. Every cuisine has its own characteristics.
What do you love about food photography?
Food to me – more than flavors, colors and shapes – is tradition, culture and emotion, which connects people. Photography helps me to bring that emotion to life through the storytelling process. When I shoot I’m completely into it, I even forget myself. When the owner of the restaurant or the chef actively gets involved in the process, I try to understand their vision, their story, their emotions – freezing them all into a frame. When I hear “Jai this looks awesome this is exactly what I want,” I feel that I have achieved something. This feeling is the most important thing I like about my work. It’s a journey into framing emotions.