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A Lot of Room for Experimentation.
While eating the delicious food served on your table is easy, making it look good is a completely different story. All the beautiful pictures of the scrumptious food that attracts you to it, there is a tireless team working behind the scenes making it look that way with interesting tips and tricks up their sleeve. In this month’s issue we speak to Isabella Cassini about food photography, her passion for photographing food and more.

How did food photography happen? Have you always had an interest for food?
Well yes, I’ve always been hungry. I do love food, but initially that’s not what motivated me to start photographing it. When I began developing my portfolio, food photography was not what it is today - there weren’t nearly as many people doing it commercially. But the photographers I knew who were shooting food were doing stunning things with it, nothing like what I had seen before. Food seemed to lend itself to both the fine art and commercial worlds. So I wanted to be able to make a living as a photographer, but not have to completely sacrifice my art. And because it was a largely untouched niche, I felt there was so much I could do with it that hadn’t been done before. A lot of room for experimentation.


What are the most important things to take note of in food photography?
No matter what subject you’re photographing there are elements that separate a great photo from a bad one. Lighting, storytelling, the decisive moment - as coined by Henri Cartier Bresson, composition of your subject.  Whether you’re in the studio or out on the streets. I see a lot of classes and workshops out there that teach how to be a food photographer. While I think those are really helpful, as there are specific tactics we tend to use repeatedly when shooting food (natural lighting, shooting overhead, etc.) like I've never approached the subject as just ‘food’.
Food is something we all experience every day. But whether you have an abundance of it, or not enough, or whatever your relationship is to it, we all have different experiences. My job is to make it look enticing and delicious. In my personal work I enjoy taking a different perspective, seeing food in a way that I haven’t before.  

How important is food styling in food photography? 
It’s incredibly important. Food is a very delicate subject and it takes enormous precision and finesse to get it camera ready; the way something is plated, sliced, dressed, garnished; has perfect grill marks; the way something’s undercooked which makes it look like it’s cooked to perfection; moving crumbs next to the plate ever so slightly with tweezers until it’s just right.
Stylists really elevate the work, whether they're a food stylist, prop stylist, or a professional chef. They also have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves, and tools in their literal tool kits. A lot of my personal work I style myself, but I love collaborating. Stylists bring another set of eyes and expertise to any project. I invite them into my process as much as possible.   


What important components as a food photographer makes your work challenging?
Food is at times a finicky subject and can be unforgiving. It’s alive yet dying at the same time. The moment you slice into that tomato, or garnish a dish, especially hot ones, or start layering a sandwich, the elements immediately begin to change. You have to be swift, with the shot prepped as much as possible before your ‘hero’ subject comes out of the kitchen and under the lights. At which point, none of it stays fresh for very long. Meat begins to sweat or dry out, greens wilt, other things loose volume. These are very particular circumstances to shooting food. All of this can lead to a lot of food waste, which I try and keep to a minimum. The more prepared/prepped each shot is, the less likely the subject becomes unusable and you have to start over - which you really don’t want to do.

How do you incorporate your own sense of style into your photography and differentiate yourself in this genre?
I don’t know that I’ve purposely tried to differentiate my work from others. If I focus too much on what others are doing or base what I create off of another’s work in order to be different, then there’s no truth to my own work.
If someone is inclined towards a visual art or practice, usually they already have a distinct aesthetic or point of view. Sometimes it just takes time to develop it. The more I practice and the more I dedicate myself to the craft, my aesthetic and personal vision became more defined. I just had to follow where my instincts were leading me.

Are there any memorable or favourite moments of shoots you could share with us? What made that image or shoot special?
Any time I get to make a giant mess! My current project is all about making a giant mess. Firstly, I built two tall adjustable ramps by hand with 2x4’s. Plexiglass was attached to serve as a track for food and liquids. I had never held a drill before any of this, let alone built something that needed a heavy amount of precision. In the studio we cover everything from floor to ceiling with tarps, and set the ramps up facing one another. Then food and liquids are sent down both ramps simultaneously, making a giant splash, crash and mess in the middle. It’s so much fun and a lot of work. Capturing the perfect moment of impact is tricky. But when I become frustrated by not getting the perfect shot, or start taking things too seriously, I look around at the puddles of milk, beer, spaghetti and/or pie all mixed together, and think about what a wonderfully ridiculous job I have. 

What is the most unexpected thing about photographing food?
I never expected that I'd be able to do so much with it. There are so many different worlds to see and visual stories to tell with food. It lends itself to fantasy and reality. There’s the story a meal can tell - what culture it originates from, the process of making it, how the food is plated and the table is set. That image can evoke home sickness, or a desire to travel or wanting to relax on your couch and watch a movie. Something real, tangible. Then I can turn around and create a completely different and surreal setting. Like an underwater world with purple cauliflower and green onions that look like seaweed. Or I can photograph a splash of milk just because I think it's beautiful and feels like painting with food.

Who has inspired you in your career and why?
Where to begin?! The list is long. If I start at the very beginning, it was the likes of Robert Capa and Henri-Cartier Bresson. I wanted to be just like them. All the MAGNUM photographers were heroes for me. Robert Frank too. They perfectly captured these essential moments. Sometimes historical and epic, other times just simple every day moments. Irving Penn’s portraits do the same. He extracts a person’s truth; captures their character or a rare glimpse into who they are. Diane Arbus too, whom I love for bringing light to unseen people in society.
They made me want to become a photographer. As a food photographer, I’ve been heavily influenced by more contemporary people (some of whom I’ve had the wonderful fortune of working with) like Michael Crichton, Sam Kaplan, Beth Galton, Jillian Lochner, The Voorhes, to name a few. They all push the envelope of commercial food and still life photography and experiment with what they do, while also making a living out of it.

What is your favourite thing about what you do? What advice would you give to other photographers or artists?
I love that when I’m working, everything outside of that moment falls away. I love that when I show up for a shoot, no matter how much preparation I’ve done, I really don’t know what magic might transpire in front of the camera. I love light, and its enormous effect on the mood and story of a photo.
But my absolute favourite thing? It’s that I’m lucky enough to do what I love for a living. And my advice is… Experiment! What story do you want to tell? And how can you tell it? Don’t be afraid to fail or take a bad photo (I take bad pictures all the time). Just don’t show them to anybody. And don’t get too hung up on needing the newest or best equipment.

Weapons of Choice (cameras and equipment)
I’m not a big ‘gear-head’ and feel that people place too much importance on what’s in your studio or your camera bag. That being said, I’m in serious need of a camera upgrade! My workhorse is the Canon 5D Mark II with the 50mm EF 2.5 macro lens. I recently purchased some ProPhoto D2 lights - great for freezing motion (like liquids flying through the air), without entirely breaking the bank. I have a medium format Bronica ETRS film camera for fun, with a 75mm lens.
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