Photographing street food – 10 lessons learned

A few weeks ago now I had the pleasure of an afternoon spent with my camera in a sunny Camden Lock market in London. Camden Lock has a big and bustling street food area full of locals and tourists. It bursts with life and colour (and calories!). Going as a new photographer I simply decided to look carefully at what I saw, to take as many photos as I could, not randomly, but thinking about my camera settings and to pause everyone and again to sample the wares. (To keep creative energy up, you understand!) I just wanted to have a fun, relaxing time and to see what I would learn. I spent a lot of time around the most interesting stalls, standing to one side so as not to disrupt trade and taking as many pictures as I felt I needed to get a reasonable shot. I always asked the stall holder for permission to do this as I was clearly taking more than a holiday snapshot. All stall holders said yes without hesitation, most seemed very surprised I would even ask and some even insisted on posing for a portrait! I had a great time and learned a ton of small stuff, either when I was there or in the editing afterwards, which added up to a very productive day.

So let me share some of the images and some of the lessons:

1. Stock up on memory cards.

I had my camera set to shoot Raw (The first time I had decided to do this) and also high quality JPEG and soon filled the 8GB card I had originally taken to London for the weekend. I was feeling very smart that I had taken the decision on arrival to call in to Calumet in Drummond Street near my hotel for a spare 16GB card. I have now ordered a whole pile of cards from Amazon with faster write speeds to take on my travels to Australia and Bali coming up soon.

Steaming paella - edited photo

Steaming paella – edited photo

2. Do your best but don’t judge until you get home and edit.

I had fun shooting but when I reviewed my images on the camera screen in the hotel that night I was a bit disappointed. I didn’t feel I had got any really good shots even though I expected that there would only be a few amongst the many taken. It was only when I started to do editing on a larger screen and to use the tools available to me to complete the picture making that I got results that did please me.

3. Get as close as you can but expect to crop

I had reading heard on several podcasts the advice that this kind of photography felt more intimate if shot with a relatively wide lens and close up rather than with an extreme telephoto. In any event because of the crowds, to get any kind of shot of the food itself it was necessary to right against the corner of counter a lot of the time. But even then I found a lot of the images displeased me because of distracting extraneous details when what I wanted was the food itself. Cropping later did the trick and, because I had shot in Raw with a high megapixel camera, I had plenty of detail left to play with. The image below is the unedited original which resulted in the version above, which was one of my favourites.

Steaming paella original

Steaming paella origina


4. Use the adjustment brush in Lightroom to remove further distractions

I accept that whether you want the details of the background in or not is a question of what artistic vision you are seeking to achieve. I have to say I didn’t have one in mind when I was there, other than to take pictures of street food that looked tempting and evocative of my time there. I did know I wanted people’s hands in the shots. It was  by accident, fiddling about in Lightroom that I discovered that it was possible to set the adjustment brush to the lowest exposure possible and to reduce the highlights and make the blacks really black then paint out the background I didn’t want. The Con was that it produced a ‘fake’ photo in that the environment was removed, the pro was that I liked how it highlighted the food and hands and made them the star of the image. I have other images where I left the background in for a different effect which I will show in a subsequent post.


5. It’s very easy to work in a series by using constant processing approaches.

Here my subject matter was all very similar ( or at least the ones I chose to work with out of a huge batch of dissimilar ones were similar!) I did process some of these photos in an entirely different way, creating black and white set and to my eye the ones with disparate subjects but constant processing seem to belong better together than the images of the same item with different processes applied.


6. I need a Wacom tablet.

I am trying not to be a gearhead but I have a Intuos Pro Special Edition Wacom tablet in the DHL delivery system as I write. At the moment I am applying the brushes in Lightroom with my finger on an Apple track pad. It works surprisingly well but nowhere near well enough for what I want to do. I am led to believe that the tablet plus pressure sensitive pen will give me much closer control. I like the idea of the image below but I am frustrated at the botched editing of the background. This was the best I could get with a forefinger but you can see, I am sure the remaining glints of red background items and the dodgy in-roads into the fingers. There are similar flaws in the other images too but you can look for those yourself! I am hoping that practice with the tablet will enable me to do much better with this image. ( I suspect, although have to yet test it, that these botches would only get worse with a print rather than a low resolution screen image).


7. I should have taken more shots to show the whole story

As an exercise learning my camera, editing and being brave taking close up photos in public this was a successful day. But I focused too closely on the street food. In order to tell the story of the market better I should he done more establishing shots and more portraits of the people. I have some but not enough to do a good photo essay.  I shall have to go back.  This is no bad thing!


8. People and food are more interesting than food alone.

I like this shot more than the burger one above because the first one is just a guy holding a plate. Even though you can’t see the face of this guy it seems to me that the half eaten food and the way he holds it tells the story of his enjoyment and the trickery of eating street food and getting it in your mouth and not over your jacket. It seems to capture a moment more than the first one. Disgusting though it might be, I want to take this half eaten burger and try it more than I want to taste the pristine one above!


9. Fast shutter speed is good for images of street food being made.

Stall holders work fast and hard on a busy weekend to feed milling crowds and many of my shots were immediate rejects because hands moved or people walked infront of my lens. More early photos were rejects though because it took me a while to remember the basics of the exposure triangle. Fast shutter speeds freeze motion. They also let less light in so you can afford a wider aperture which blurs the background by giving shallower depth of field, which is just the combination I wanted.

10. Duck confit wraps are delicious.


Duck confit wrap


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