At Dishtag we are all about celebrating and inspiring passionate foodies. This week we caught up with Hong Kong born and raised foodie and early adopter of the Dishtag app Calvin, aka @clai_eats. He shared with us some really good food photography tips and told us what inspired him to start documenting his dining experiences.
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself. What you do besides your passion for food?
My name is Calvin, aka “CLAI” as many friends call me these days. Locally born and raised in Hong Kong, then attended boarding school and college in the US when I was 16. I started my career working for international PR agencies and professional firms, and I am now working as a Project Manager for one of Hong Kong’s largest non-profit organisations. Prior to that, I spent about a year working as a Sales and Marketing Lead at a Hong Kong-based F&B tech platform, where I worked closely with restaurateurs and chefs to curate irresistible menus and seasonal offerings.
When and how did you acknowledge that you were crazy about food?
I would say it is always a privilege to be born into a true foodie family that loves food and takes you to uncountable food journeys since childhood. My parents are natural chefs and would spoil us with their homemade dishes.The “awakening” of my passion towards food came to me twice: The first one happened during this particular visit to a restaurant in Ontario where my father interned as a chef in between his studies, that was when I learned about his high expectations in food quality which he always upholds when we dine out. The second time was during those six years in the States when I was privileged to expose myself to different cuisines. This chapter of my life has taught me a huge lesson in food appreciation. My short yet sweet experience being in the F&B tech industry also made me realize just how much food means to me as if it is a language itself where I can connect with people around the globe.
What dish do you remember photographing for the first time?
Oh geez! I would probably say this bowl of hearty cart noodles I had when I first started my IG account.I have snapped some random photos but this was definitely the first that I tried to capture with style. As you can see, this is a self explanatory snapshot (Opened my camera – Snap – DONE!). Since then, I found myself building up a habit of documenting my meals where cameras always eat first (#CameraEatsFirst).
How do you see the role of food photography on your IG account? Do you find your followers more inspired by the photos or by the comments you make on the dishes?
When it comes to food, food photography is king. Everyone would agree that a good photo catches others’ attention instantly, and potentially influences others to give it a try. That being said, I do my best to stay as authentic as possible to capture the ‘soul’ of the dish to emphasise that ‘mouthwatering’ effect. I think my followers are kind of inspired by both my photos and the comments I make on the dishes (which I hope I’m right about them haha!). Keeping authenticity with honest opinions has been my focus given there are so many peers out there sharing similar content on a daily basis. I would also tend to stir my comments with some fun and personal flavours so followers would find my content creative, personal, and engaging – almost the same feeling as if I make the comment in person. Again, food is like a language to me that evolves and varies depending on the environment and people you enjoy the food with.
So we can say that you are passionate about food photography?
Absolutely! In fact, I was inspired by my father and elder brother, who are both very skilful photographers. With some experience as a student photographer back at school, I found food photography an interesting subject that allows the creative exploitations that I rarely apply at work. Ultimately, I wish to share and honour the food that I enjoy through my lens (and my glasses, literally haha).
What gear do you use to document your dining experiences?
I basically document my dining experiences with my best work buddy – my iPhone 11 Pro. It has been my partner in crime since Day 1 of my passion project aka my food blogging journey. To be frank I thought of whether I should upgrade by having a digital SLR camera for better photo quality, but perhaps sometime in the future. I am very satisfied to work with my best work buddy for the time being as I like to challenge myself on what I can do with limited resources to take good photos with minimal editing.
Your photos look so yummy and inspiring! Could you give us some tips on how to take great food photos even when dining out in non-optimal situations. For example lack of lighting, lack of props, dishes that may look dull, etc…
There are indeed a few tips that I am happy to share:
Not once, maybe twice, but why not more AKA take your time to nail the perfect shot
It takes a while to grasp a good sense of perfecting that one shot. Don’t be afraid to take multiple shots from different angles or distances.
If you use your phone, especially iPhone, I must say the photo quality can be pretty impressive if you catch the ‘right moment’. With the latest iOS, the beauty of “Portrait Mode” can be your BFF (‘Best Friend for Food’) and make the photos on par with the professional ones. The one big downside though, is that you have to keep trying and know the good distance for the certain composition and angle you wish to capture while not leaning back too much (safety comes first!).
In general my goal is to capture the dish soul and highlight it with the right angle or composition when I take that one shot. It can be pretty tricky when the dish lacks layers or dimensions or with key ingredients being plated separately on the dish. The most effective way is to have a good understanding of the dish and take note of its overall plating to make a call on how you wish to tackle your shots. Sometimes if it comes to dishes like burger, pizza or steaks, I would try to play around with the food to spice things up a little!
Natural lighting is your best friend! Or let your friend be your ‘light’!
When dining in a dim environment, don’t be shy to ask your friend next to you to share some light with you. Personally I don’t prefer a heavy duty fill light, so the adjustable lighting function on iPhone is very handy and helpful in such situations. If you have been relying heavily on your own flash light, give this a try with the lighting coming from different angles to help correct the shadows.
Another trick that I use is picking a table closest to the windows or anywhere that you can access to natural light, it works like magic and can naturally improve the details, the colours and the shadows of the photo tremendously. The best is if you get things right with the natural lighting, you don’t even need to bother much about the editing after too.
No props – just create your own background!
No props, no problem! You can create your own background in many ways such as going around the restaurants if permitted by the staff, or use your hands and forks to do a lift like I do for pastas. For me, I am one of those crazy ones that would just take my plate of food out and use the restaurant’s signage or any good background I can find to take the photo with! Never limit yourself, this is a good way to jump outside the box!
What is your favourite type of food to shoot?
Hands down definitely anything that comes with egg yolks or sauces. Capturing #eggporn has been a little obsession of mine whenever I hit up any brunch spots, the flowing egg yolk offers a natural “dripping” effect that would escalate the richness of your photo right away. Otherwise, noodles or pastas are fun to capture because I feel like “noods lifting” can make a statement and bring the photo to life.
What is your favourite food ever?
Any form of noodles because “no noods, no life!” From the super local cart noodles, Japanese ramen, to fancy pastas, I would take them all. I love them so much to a point where my close friends tease me for my crazy obsession with #noods!
Favourite restaurant in HK?
This is a very challenging question to answer as I honestly don’t have an absolute favourite. But if I must, both Frank’s and Shady Acres are my go-to for all occasions.I fell in love with both concepts since my first visits because of their cozy vibes, the casual yet spectacular food options and their hospitality. The full experiences from both restaurants reminded me so much of all the good old times I had back in the States. I just love going back and showing my support whenever I can, as a way to reminisce the good memories, and most importantly, to enjoy their lovely dishes with my friends!
As you are one of the earlier adopters of our newly-launched Dishtag app, can you tell us what you like about it?
- The clean layout and grid setting of the homepage – very easy to scroll and great to look at
- The distance and price indicators are somewhat helpful and user-friendly
- The different ‘guides’ from the camera mode certainly are helpful and novel experience for users to take their photos via the in-app camera function. Users who might be clueless of the positioning/angles of food pic would find them insightful
- Love how you can actually tag the restaurant with a list of dishes you can tag with the photo too. The fact that you can share your upload via Instagram can be pretty handy too!
Room for improvement:
- With the existing buttons for the quick search use, I thought a scroll bar with restaurants’ names/ cuisines/dishes would be helpful too
- As currently I still haven’t been able to find a full list of featured restaurants till I tag a restaurant name when uploading the photo
- Assuming the restaurants that can be tagged meaning those that are in partnership with Dishtag, I wonder if there is a function where users can also help adding a new restaurant if they have good food pic to share
- If that’s a case, then the team can add a review process so you can review the restaurant’s name and photo before letting them to be published to public within the app
- When uploading a photo, I thought it would be helpful to add an editing function after a photo is selected, and esp. after a photo is published for minor edits including texts/ positioning of the photo
- I find a few photos of mine could go off-grid when appearing on my actual profile (and turns out only one photo is shown on a separate row. I suppose it is due to the differences of the dimensions of the photos? Would be great if that can be improved!