Steam rises from a piping hot hairy crab as it is taken from a saucepan and placed into an ice bucket. Once cool, the shell is gently removed to reveal tender crab meat and an egg yolk-like cream. It is cooked perfectly. The delicacy is arranged on an old metal plate alongside a rusty baking tray, the mottled texture of the tableware striking a contrast with the smooth crab shell. A few garnishes, and the dish is picture perfect.
This is a typical setup for Taiwanese food photographer Ben Chen, who has built a career around photographing classic dishes and ingredients. His approach is to establish the food item as the hero subject by playing with colour and light, rather than crowding an image with accessories.
“Photography is the art of light. I think my style is simple, and I like to create contrast by leaving some shadow in a picture”.
Ben’s love for photography began during a family holiday in Japan. Captivated by the scenery and local artefacts, he returned home with ten rolls of film to develop. After being gifted a Nikon D80, he started work as an assistant before quitting his job and taking a chance as a freelance photographer.
Like most people, Ben has an emotional connection to food, particularly those reminiscent of childhood or tradition. He notes how there is always a sense of reflection when shooting local cuisine, as well as a duty to preserve and capture the heritage of a dish.
“Meals like braised meat on rice and wine cooked chicken all create that nostalgic feeling for me when shooting. Even using old saucepans that have been used for many years can help to show the history of a dish.”
When it comes to his gear, Ben’s essentials include a reliable camera with a high resolution, and a steady flash. His favourite camera is the Nikon D810, which has a resolution of 36.3 megapixels and allows for ease of cropping without compromising the image. For food photography, he rotates two lenses - the Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED and the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G.
Having shot for over one hundred restaurants, Ben’s advice to aspiring photographers is to learn how to work well with clients. There are skills all photographers should develop and those skills go beyond technique, such as listening, compromise and not taking feedback personally.
“Always stay objective. When shooting for a long time, there are blind spots we ourselves cannot see. It is good to view our work from the perspective of the spectator”.
Perhaps the greatest challenge, especially as a food photographer, is arriving at a restaurant only to realise that the setting is unsuitable for shooting. In these situations, Ben asserts that being innovative and proactive is essential, as well as having a wide range of props on hand. However, Ben states that balancing a client brief with artistic instinct is always a fine balance.
“Meeting the needs of clients and satisfying their creative desires...I think most photographers will encounter this difficulty. If we only do what clients want us to do, passion will be burnt out very quickly.”
For Ben, the true meaning of photography is to take the viewer on a journey back in time. It is a form of retrospect, an honest record of a moment. Whether it be food, people or places, Ben explains that photography preserves what we may have otherwise forgotten.
“After many years, you may reminisce about the friends who have lost touch, the relationships that ended or the loved ones who are no longer present. To reawaken memories...I think this is the true purpose of photography”.
Ben Chen is a Taiwanese freelance photographer specialising in food photography. He studied design at university and has been working for six years. He is the proud owner of three cats and regularly donates to cat shelters that provide treatment to strays. He is also a travel enthusiast who has visited Iceland, England and Japan.