Self-taught photographer Ranji Thangiah is passionate about using pictures to showcase cuisines. She tells Jungmin Seo how she captures the perfect pic
"Yellow is quite a challenging colour," confesses self-taught food photographer and blogger Ranji Thangiah. "Everyone loves a good dhal, but it is really hard to photograph and make it look amazing, so that's my challenge for myself."
The mother of two is in her fifties and describes herself as "very much a late starter" in the changing field of food photography.
It all started with her parenting blog, Tooting Mama, which she created seven years ago while living in France. "I wasn't working and I really got into cooking. When I came back to England, it became a cooking blog and that's when I started to realise that I needed to take decent pictures of my food, and so that spurred another journey," she explains.
Just as her posts about a family holiday in Montpellier in 2016 gradually transformed into recipes for Sri Lankan love cakes and homemade mango lassi, her style of food photography has shifted from the rustic, one-pan shot of chicken biryani to elegantly styled shots of tomatoes placed on a washed-out tablecloth or a curried pumpkin soup boasting a beautiful golden hue.
The photography industry has become more welcoming in that time, particularly with the prevalence of decent cameras on mobile phones and the growth of social media. She, too, spent a "good couple of years playing around on [her] phone" before deciding to invest in cameras and lenses (see essential kit list for more). "Food photography is very democratic now – anyone can do it – but doing it professionally can be quite hard to break into, so you have to find your specialism," she says.
Thangiah found hers in Sri Lankan food, which is part of her heritage and culture. "It's having its moment now. That's what I cook, that's what my blog and writing are about, and that's featuring in my photography," she says. For example, her work is being printed in a magazine in Sri Lanka called Hi!!, which showcases "slightly more Westernised recipes with Sri Lankan spices and cooking".
She was also involved with the launch photography for the Tamil Prince in London's Islington, which opened in June last year.
"I approached them and it was a real insight into how restaurants run, because I did the shoot in the kitchen while they were throwing the roti," she says. "I'm very conscious that I don't want to be in the way, because I know they've got to cook. They don't want me to say: ‘can you do that again?'"
Thangiah believes food photography can tell multiple stories. Movement shots can convey how dishes are made, while visual aids can help people better understand lesser-known cuisines. "It can definitely make a cuisine more accessible, especially if people don't know what a particular ingredient is or how to eat a dish." She gives the example of drumsticks (also known as moringa), a long, green vegetable that is chopped and stirred into a curry.
"Good photography helps to interpret that food so you can see what it looks like, maybe what the textures are, what the colours are, and it really sort of opens up that world," she says. "That's what I like to do: show people the more unusual ingredients. You want someone to look at that photo and think: ‘I want to make that, I want to buy that, I want to eat that.'"
How to organise your shoot
Building a media pack
"You need to be where your audience is. If you are on TikTok and it works for you, that's great. Lots of photographers do a lot of behind-the-scenes shoots and that can work well on Instagram.
Shooting on the day
"You have to come to an understanding of what you want quite early on, in the pre-production phase. I break down the shoot into individual shots: what meal, what drink, how do I want this presented? Then I break down the angles of the pictures. Am I going to do a head-on shot? Is a waiter going to be putting the glass down? On the day, it's down to time and efficiency."
Dealing with challenges
"A lot of people find curries quite hard to style and shoot, so I've been trying to create how it would look naturally on a plate, maybe with rice, so it's ready to eat. If you are photographing the packaging of your product, it's about making an image that is very simple yet very beautiful. If you're shooting in a restaurant you've got to be really quick, because you've only got an hour or so before lunch, which means you've got to think quickly on your feet to get the shot."
See others' work
"The Two Photographers is a group for different photographers, where people can learn about different styles, so even though I'm a food photographer, you can find influences from fashion photography or portraiture. Often, I'll book a session with a more experienced photographer to go through my portfolio. It's good to be able to connect with them."
Essential kit for food photography
Camera and lenses
I use the Sony 7 alpha ii mirrorless system with a Tamron 2.8 28-75mm zoom and a Sony 50mm prime lens. I hire lenses, such as macro lenses, as and when I need them depending on the shoot. I have an iPhone 11 but I'm looking to upgrade to the iPhone 15 – there have been huge improvements and advances in camera technology and the results are impressive.
A tripod is essential to help keep the camera still and get crisp shots, or for shooting in low light conditions. I use a Manfrotto 055 tripod with an overhead arm (great for overhead shots); a C-stand for wide angle overhead shots; and the Arkon Pro phone stand, which is great for overhead cooking videos.
I use a five in one reflector for manipulating light
I use an iMac in the studio and a Mac Air when I am shooting on location
I use a ScanDisk 5tb external drive
Software For editing purposes, I use Adobe Lightroom Classic, and for retouching I use Adobe Photoshop.
I use Exposure 7 for additional editing, Lightroom for mobile phone editing, as well as VSCO and Snapseed. Capcut is good for reels.
A background for your photos is a great idea, and they're easy to store and clean. My favourites are by Capture by Lucy, Errer and Blueberry.
I've amassed a collection of props by scouring thrift stores and flea markets. This helps to give my images a unique feel.