A Sense of Place Suffuses Joann Pai’s Food Photography
Joann Pai’s passion for food photography was born in the farmers markets of Paris. Today, this Adobe Stock premium contributor uses her career as a passport to explore her biggest passions—food culture and travel.
“I consider myself someone who lives to eat,” says Pai. “I was initially drawn to food photography as a way of documenting my life and travels.”
This interest in food photography began to develop in earnest during a three-month trip to Paris.
“I’d taken time off from my day job because I’d always wanted to live in Paris. While there, I visited farmers markets and felt inspired to cook and photograph the beautiful produce,” she explains.
She began doing more cooking and styling at home, and photography became her creative outlet.
“It was the first time I’d done anything creative, and I felt like I had discovered this whole other side of me,” she says. “When I returned to Canada, I continued to cook and photograph and posted those images on Instagram.”
FOOD AND TRAVEL
One of the best things about food photography, in Pai’s mind, is that images of food have the ability to connect people to different places and feelings.
Pai’s portfolio features both food and travel imagery. In fact, she doesn’t draw a distinct line between the two types of images.
“Most of my travel photography still has a focus on food culture, so it’s more like a marriage between my biggest passions,” she says. “Before going on a trip now, I research a bit ahead to find interesting places to eat and visit—although when I’m travelling for pleasure, I prefer to leave some free time to discover things on my own, and photograph when I feel inspired to.”
Pai likes to give her photos a sense of place and context—as exemplified by these images, in particular the central image, which was taken for Flocons de Sel, a five-star restaurant in Megève, France.
THE ART OF FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Pai’s style is natural and rustic; her food photos have a sense of time and place.
“I try to incorporate elements of the place with the food. For example, in Flocons de Sel [shown above], the restaurant is located in the mountains but the dining room is quite formal, with white tablecloths, etc.,” she says. “I chose to photograph the dish on the rocks outside of the restaurant, as they are a big part of the region’s landscape.”
Pai advises nascent food photographers to focus on light and styling—and to plan ahead.
“Good lighting is so essential; even the prettiest dishes can look unappetising if photographed under bad light,” she says. “As a natural light photographer, I try to find the best light in the room, usually by the window, and I turn off other lights in the room to avoid light pollution.”
Pai prefers to light her subjects from the side or back, to provide depth and dimension. Lighting from the front can make the subject appear flat.
For styling, she suggests starting simple.
“I usually begin by placing my subject in the scene and building around it,” she explains.
And she warns that certain types of food “expire” quickly on set.
“Before taking the photo, I think about the goal, the story I want to tell,” Joann says. “It helps to think ahead of time about the angle I’ll want to use and the props I’ll need.”
THE BEST-LAID PLANS…
Of course, even with all the planning in the world, things can go wrong from time to time.
“I’m self-taught—I practice daily, collaborate with other photographers, read books, and watch videos,” she says. “There’s so much to learn about food photography, and I feel like my work evolves as I learn more and more.”
She describes her early work as over-styled.
“I was a big fan of using all of the Instagram filters, too,” she says. “Now, I prefer photos that look more natural.”
The field of photography has evolved, too: With social media, it has become a mass medium.
“You can see photos of food around the world instantly, all the time,” Pai says. “I love being able to see what people on the other side of the world are eating, and how quickly food trends spread.”
But this creates challenges, too, she points out.
“It can be hard to find your voice and create something unique, when food photography is now so widespread and shared around the world instantly,” she says.
Pai began contributing to Adobe Stock in 2017—something that has encouraged her to take more photos outside of client work, she says. When she travels, she carries her Sony RX1R II. For editing, she relies mostly on Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
Pai is currently hard at work photographing for a recipe and lifestyle book on the aperitif scene in Paris—due to be published in the autumn of 2018.
When she isn’t travelling, she lives in Paris. But no matter where she is, the first thought she thinks when she wakes up is still “What should I eat today?”
Learn more about Joann Pai via her portfolio site.