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A Sense of Place Suffuses Joann Pai’s Food Photography

By Jenny Carless

 

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.

 

photo of the Eiffel Tower by Joann Pai
photo of a colorful Paris street by Joann Pai
Photo of the Palais Royale by Joann Pai

Based in Paris, Pai specializes in food and travel photography.

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.

photograph of a French feast by Joann Pai

“A beautiful picture of food takes you places,” she says. “For example, when I see a photo of a bowl of pasta at a restaurant in Rome, I feel like I’m transported there.”

She also says that she finds food styling very meditative.

“I can take my time on the set, whereas other types of photography can be quicker, more intense,” she explains.

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 traveling for pleasure, I prefer to leave some free time to discover things on my own, and photograph when I feel inspired to.”

picture of gnocchi by Joanne Pai
flocons de sel, photo by Joann Pai

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.  

photo of baskets in Fez, taken by Joann Pai
photograph of a woman in Fez, taken by Joann Pai
photo of a woman in Fez, taken by Joann Pai

Pai took these shots in Fez, Morocco.

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 unappetizing 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.

a photo of oysters by joann pai
a photo of beer ice cream float by Joann Pai

Pai says, “In these shots, lighting is focused on the subject, which helps to draw the eyes there. The temperature is balanced as well.”

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.

This photo, taken in Kyoto, is a good example of her current style, says Pai.  

“During my first professional shoot for a restaurant, I was very nervous because I had to work in front of the chef, the bar manager, the restaurant manager, the PR manager, and so on,” she says. “The chef plated the food and then put the dish on the table, and I set up my little scene and placed my reflector on the side.... Then when I was all ready to take the photo, the reflector fell over onto the food and everyone gasped!”

Pai was embarrassed, but everything worked out fine.

“I took a deep breath and continued with the shoot,” she says. “I’ve learned to ‘keep calm and carry on.’”

A CHANGING STYLE, A CHANGING INDUSTRY

Pai has learned—and continues to evolve—her craft by experimenting and doing.

“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 strawberry banana bread photo illustrates my early love for Instagram filters,” Pai says. The other photos are more recent Instagram uploads.

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.

photo of a kimono by Joann Pai
photo of crab legs by Joann Pai
photo of Japanese structure by Joann Pai

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.

WHAT’S NEXT

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 fall of 2018.

When she isn’t traveling, 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.