Today, we’re interviewing Farhana Afreen. She’s a recipe developer, food and product stylist and food photographer. Here’s the skinny on how to be a food photographer and the secrets of food styling that make all the difference. Tune in for culinary inspirations and to get to know Farhana better.
Q1. Hi Farhana! We’re delighted to have you for the interview today. Please tell us a little about yourself.
Firstly, thank you for reaching out. I am a food, product stylist and photographer based in Kolkata, India. I come from a family with a very rich culinary background and was always inclined towards the art of food. Alongside my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Plant Sciences, I have pursued a 12-year long Diploma in Fine arts. Thus there was no lack of creativity, it just needed proper channelling. It started with writing about food, documenting down family recipes then slowly shifting into photography to get better photographs of my food.
Q2. What inspired you to become a food photographer and a food stylist?
As I mentioned, my interests were always artistically bent, once I realised that I can paint my compositions out of Canvas too I learned how to make better use of my art. I would look at phone wallpapers of food which was more an elaborate composition than just a well-shot food photograph and wanted to tell my stories similarly. Styling compositions came easy to me and I focused on transferring my visions from canvas to photo frames. Back when I started dabbling into food styling, people around barely knew what it was about, explaining my visions on food to others was hard, so I started showing them instead.
Q3. What’s your favourite cuisine and why?
I love and adore all kinds of food, every cuisine has its uniqueness. But if I were to choose it would be South Asian food as a whole. Mostly because of its brilliant use of spices and diversity within a particular region.
Q4. Tell us your top three tips to capture tempting food photographs.
- Light is the key. The underlit composition will ruin the clarity whereas overexposure will take the charm away from it. It’s important to learn how and when to correctly expose your compositions to light.
- Do not blame your camera for not taking great pictures. The fault lies in your vision and usage of your device. The camera is doing enough by being a decent medium to capture your ideas. Know your camera well to use it to its fullest.
- Do not treat food photography the same as landscape and portraits. it’s an entirely different and vast Genre. Your food cannot portray emotions, you will have to work around it to make it speak.
Q5. What’s one piece of advice you’d want to give to someone who’s new to food photography?
Know your food well. It’s important to have certain knowledge about the foods you want to capture. What is it? How is it made? What’s the texture and colour? A little bit of history goes a long way especially when the story you are trying to tell through your picture stands out.
Q6. Which photography course did you enrol in and how was your experience?
I didn’t enrol in any course, it has been a long journey of self-learning, trying, failing and retrying.
Unfortunately for me, there was no one who can teach me the nitty-gritty of styling and photography back then like I do now for my students. I did observe and learn from certain European Stylists who were slowly introducing the art to Instagram.
Q7. Do you believe that attending photography courses is a must in order to be a food photographer?
Well, it might be helpful for those who don’t have a clear vision about art yet want to learn how it’s done. In my case, I taught myself and it was a long process. Learning new things can never be wrong: you can always put it to use. So if you have the opportunity to learn from someone then why not? It makes the process a whole lot faster!
Q8. What are the top five things you learnt while you were learning how to capture professional photographs?
Honestly, I am still learning every day. Everyone is! It’s hard to put it in numbers. But yes, the transition from intermediate photographer to professional photographer does come after a lot of self-learning about how to build up a composition, how to make your product shine, lighting, be it artificial or natural, the message you are trying to send across and lastly the portrayal of the brand mood.
Q9. What are the three things a food stylist wish their customers knew?
- Our effort that goes behind clicking one perfect composition,
- The creativity input and the cost of an extraordinary output
- The time needed.
Q10. You’ve collaborated with some of the most prominent culinary, food and wine brands such as (McDowell’s, Signature, Mio Amore, Winkies, Weikfield, McLeod Russell, The tea planet and 100 more). What’s next?
Anything which is worth telling a story about. I also style and shoot skincare products and shoes. But not many know of it.
Q11. What are some of the areas your photography course focuses on?
Well, my courses mostly focus on Styling and Photography 101 for beginners and advanced pursuers. It deals with all that you need to know about Storytelling, Compositions, Colours, Lighting, Propping, Photography basics, Layers, Spacing, Rules, Tricks, Tips, Angles, Lenses and a lot more.
Q12. What are some things to keep in mind when purchasing backdrops?
It should be in sync with the kind of mood you usually create. So, nothing too bright, stark or over textured. It should help to bring your subject into focus. Invest wisely.
Q13. As a food stylist, what’s the most important element that you believe has the power to transform any photograph?
The knowledge of building a perfect composition. Knowing what to use and to not use. Also, identifying the hero of the composition and working your way to make it shine.
Q14. What are the top 5 budget-props beginners should invest in?
- Backgrounds, if cannot be bought, can always be made. I make my own.
- Fabrics can be quite handy.
- Crockery. Something that doesn’t shine too much, so go for basic solids first.
- Try to use everyday items which you find in your kitchen.
- Cutlery. Nothing too fancy but decent.
Q15. Which country would you travel to for its food and culture?
I would travel to any corner of the world and explore its local culture! But China as a country fascinates me a lot mainly because of its diverse food map and skillset.
Q16. What’s your favourite photography/food styling hack?
Haha, that I can pre-paint a scene in my mind in minutes without drawing it out. 😅
Q17. Which camera/gear do you use?
I am a Nikon user. I’ve used quite a lot of Nikon bodies and currently use Z6 from the mirrorless series. The lenses I use are again mirrorless Nikon lenses like 50mm, 105mm and 35 mm (as per requirement).
Q18. What are your favourite editing software/apps?
Well, I am comfortable with Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.
Q19. How do you set up the shoots and how much time does each shoot take?
It takes me almost 30 minutes to direct and implement one composition once I understand the required mood and lighting. So to get one perfect picture done I have to devote at least 30 minutes if not more. I create the composition, I roughly have in mind, then I Nick Tack (to give life to perfect composition, the elements in it need to be tampered with. Some nicking of sides, tacking down an unruly fringe or box is necessary). Next, I set it into a final frame, all the while keeping my camera set to explore the best angle for the product in the picture. Once I get an idea of the angle I want, I work on styling my final mood and start clicking!
Q20. What inspires you to work every day and how do you work?
Usually, I’m a one-woman army! On good days I have an assistant or intern working with me. I have never approached a brand for work. Brands have always approached me. Very rarely do I reach out to brands for a cause such as awareness programmes and non-monetary associations. I barely get time to create content for my socials separately, most of my social media content is done for different brands as a part of my job. During long outdoor or studio shoot days my assistants help me get the project get completed.
Q21. What is one best photography gadget/equipment one must invest in?
If you have a DSLR buy an electronic dry box to store it first! I have lost very costly camera bodies to contamination because of moisture in tropical countries such as ours. It is not a gadget but will help not deteriorate your camera quality over time. Then you can focus on other things like a tripod and diffuser.
Q22. Can food styling be done on a budget? If yes, how?
Yes, you can start with everyday items while you are trying your hand at it but as you move up the ladder, you have got to start investing. It’s a never-ending process!
Q23. One celebrity/chef you’d like to work with…
There’s more than one on my list. 😉
Q24. What was your first experience in your kitchen like and what did you photograph?
I have been cooking since the age of 7 and I didn’t photograph anything surely. But the first cooked food that I photographed was a cake baked by me.
Q25. What’s the most common mistake most food photographers and stylists make?
By creating a big mess while styling and using filters on food pictures while post-processing the images.
Q26. Your Instagram reels are beautiful! What tips would you share with our readers that’ll help them create stunning reels?
When making videos I tap into a natural light set up when I need bright and light moods. On the other hand, I switch to artificial light while creating a darker theme. For beginners: you can just keep your camera on a tripod and shoot small clips. Keep it non-messy and as natural as possible. Remember, 30 seconds works best for reels.
Q27. What’s the best and worst part about being a food photographer and a stylist?
That you often overwork yourself and your creative juices drain out to the point of nil at times. But the best part is that you have made a career out of something you know you can do the best.
Q28. What’s the Kolkata food and culture like?
Insane! We love food in all shapes, sizes and colours. Just trying to teach the city about the importance of my work now.
Q29. Name three dishes everyone must try when in Kolkata.
Calcutta-style Fish Fry, Kathi Rolls and Phuchka!
Q30. 1 recipe you’d like to share with our readers…
Oats and Banana Pancakes
These healthy pancakes are guaranteed to delight the kids and adults alike!
Makes: 8 pancakes Total time required: 20 minutes Calories per serving: 733
1 cup of oat flour, 2 tbsp brown sugar or castor sugar, 1 egg, ½ tsp vinegar, ½ tbsp oil (optional), A dash of vanilla extract, ½ cup of milk, 1 small banana (chopped), ½ tsp baking powder, Butter (for brushing), Fresh fruits (cut into bite-sized pieces for garnish), Maple syrup or honey (for garnish)
Put all the ingredients in a blending and blend until smooth. The mixture will be dense due to the presence of the banana. If the mixture is too thick, then add a little milk to adjust the consistency. Brush a pan with butter. Scoop out some mixture onto the pan in a circular motion. Cook for 1-2 minutes before dipping and cooking on the other side. Repeat the same with the rest of the mixture. Garnish with your favourite fruits such as banana or kiwi. Drizzle maple syrup or honey on top right before serving.
Oats and Banana Pancakes
- 1 cup of oat flour
- 2 tbsp brown sugar or castor sugar
- 1 egg
- ½ tsp vinegar
- ½ tbsp oil optional
- A dash of vanilla extract
- ½ cup of milk
- 1 small banana cut into pieces
- ½ tsp baking powder
- Butter for brushing
- Fresh fruits cut into bite-sized pieces for garnish
- Maple syrup or honey for garnish
- Crush a cup of rolled oats into flour. Put all the ingredients in a blending and blend until smooth. The mixture will be dense due to the presence of the banana.
- If the mixture is too thick, then add a little milk to adjust the consistency.
- Brush a pan with butter. Scoop out some mixture onto the pan in a circular motion. Cook for 1-2 minutes before dipping and cooking on the other side.
- Repeat the same with the rest of the mixture.
- Garnish with your favourite fruits such as banana or kiwi. Drizzle maple syrup or honey on top right before serving.
For more inspiration, follow Farhana Afreen on Instagram.
Shristi is an avid reader, recipe developer and wellness enthusiast. She’s probably making a mess in her kitchen right now.