The Best Restaurants on Maui
Food Photography for Food Network
This was an amazing food photography project. I loved working with Discovery Inc. & Food Network. I grew up watching the Discovery Channel's environmental, science & travel content which deeply inspired me. Discovery Inc. has always stood out to me as special - high quality & full of integrity.
It was an honor to be hired to create new photography content for Food Network’s Guide to The Best Restaurants on Maui. I worked with 12 different Maui Restaurants for this project. What a fun & fabulous food adventure! I made so many wonderful connections in the Maui food scene & also ate super well along the way, thanks to the amazing aloha & generosity everywhere.
Before taking you further on my Maui Restaurant Adventure with Food Network, I want to first share more about my connection to food photography & helpful food photography techniques.
Table of contents:
- Why Food: Food is Glorious
- The Art of Food Photography
- Food Photography Lighting
- Food Photography Strategy
- Observe & Interact
- Light Nerd (Geeking out with Light)
- The Weird Stuff That Can Happen with Food Photography
- Setting up the Shot
- Video Lighting vs. Flash
- Why I love Food Photography
- And Now Back to this Food Network Shoot
- Flatbread Company
- Coconut Glens
- Maui Brewing Co.
- Star Noodle
- Hali'imaile General Store
- The Pint & Cork
- Da Kitchen
- Paia Fish Market
WHY FOOD: FOOD IS GLORIOUS
Food fuels our cells & entire existence… food is the building blocks of life.
Food is intimate & universal. Food brings us together.
THE ART OF FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Within the field of photography, I definitely see food photography as its own special craft.
I love the art of telling food stories & stimulating appetite through imagery. You first eat with your eyes.
So much goes into food presentation & making food feel both natural & phenomenal in a photograph. Food photography needs to feel relatable & alluring... People need to actually want to eat the food!
FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY LIGHTING
High quality ambient light helps food photography look & feel more natural. Ideally this ambient light is soft & nicely diffused (either naturally or by me).
Sometimes the ideal environment (for ambient) is inside next to a window, whereas sometimes the light is perfect & glorious outside… It all depends on the situation & the quality of the light.
Once you have that nice base of high quality diffused ambient light, the next step is to add in artificial light & lighting modifiers. I fine-tune multiple off-camera lights, reflectors & diffusers to add in extra dimension, pop, allure & magic! The key is to mimic the qualities of natural light with any artificial lighting I add in.
I definitely prefer & recommend working in environments with a good base of high quality diffused ambient light because it is overall easier to make these scenes look & feel more natural. However, I also love making food photography shine in darker environments, relying more heavily on artificial lighting as my main light source. Darker environments can provide more contrast & dynamic range to paint on while keeping the depth of field shallow. I’ve created some very dramatic & interesting images this way.
FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY STRATEGY
So, the very first thing I do is set up my “station” in the best natural light I can find while also considering the ideal ambiance. I get all of my tools set up & ready to go while I await the food & drinks coming my way.
Before the food comes out, I love connecting with the chefs &/or owners about their visions, passion & the significance of each dish. It's important for me to understand the backstory & the WHY. The sourcing of ingredients, the stories of creation & the emotions of each dish are all part of the food story & the layers of meaning. This deeply informs my approach.
Then once my star subject is in front of me I always begin by carefully studying my subject & how it interacts with the light…
OBSERVE & INTERACT
I believe in applying permaculture principles to all aspects of life. The first permaculture principle is to observe & interact. It’s so important to be a curious observer & a good listener in life… So much guidance comes from observing & listening - before you speak! It’s amazing how key this step is. Slowing down (which seems counterintuitive) really helps me showcase my star subjects in their “best light."
So, with curiosity & fresh eyes, I investigate... like a detective gathering data. I am taking it ALL in. I interact with all of the elements!
I study the shapes, textures, shadows & reflections… I observe any color casts or visually reflective oils. I investigate how light moves through & reflects throughout the scene. I study the solids, liquids & sauces. I note the reflections in each plate, cup, glass, dish & table… I carefully consider the attributes of each particular food, dish, drink… & of course, the lighting.
Some food stacks tall while some lays more flat & wide… Some food is most visually appealing from a side view while others are most beautifully witnessed from a top down perspective or a 45 degree angle. I consider all the angles & perspectives.
I carefully examine the dimensionality, the leading lines & what specific perspectives make my mouth water (& my eyes most excited).
I carefully study the light around me - the directionality of it, the quality of it, where it falls off, etc…
I ask myself what I want to draw attention to (or away from). Is the cutlery important? Do I want to fill the frame or crop in? Is the dish hot and steamy? Shall we cut into the food to create more dimension & enticing perspective? Do I want to isolate my subject with a shallow depth of field (blurring the background with some bokeh) or is the background atmosphere a key part of the vibe to tell the story & provide a sense of place?
I take note of what is working & what is not. I think about where & how I need to add or subtract into the scene. I start to interact & try things… I continue to interact, observe & reevaluate.
LIGHT NERD (GEEKING OUT WITH LIGHT)
I love that my job is to geek out about different qualities of light. I get to paint with light & energy for a living!
Like a kid in a candy store… I’m in love with all of my lighting gear & lighting modifiers. I get to sculpt the vision! It’s a fascinating process to study my subjects & the light with a detail-oriented fine tooth comb… & then I get to try things, fine-tune & finesse until I feel the perfect harmonious glow.
It’s like getting to cook while having access to the very best ingredients… & tasting along the way until it’s just right!
In addition to natural light in my photography, I work with everything from high powered strobes to speedlights as well as video lights & model lights. I also work with a range of lighting modifiers - everything from hard reflectors (for more hard light - helpful to enhance & highlight texture), softboxes (to soften the light), honeycomb grids (for more directional & controlled light), umbrellas (to spread out & soften the light), reflectors (to bounce & reflect light or to add a golden glow etc) & diffusers (to soften harsher light). As you can see, I have a lot of different options & tools depending on what each situation calls for.
Mixing ambient & studio lighting skillfully in photography is true alchemy. It’s a fascinating craft informed by the dexterity of our tools, the experience of our senses & our deep presence in the NOW.
This process is both highly intuitive & also full of technical details, precision & decisions - which is my favorite kind of flow. I’m often doing math in my head while also thinking creatively. I love using both hemispheres of my brain at the same time. I love all of the ideas, options & infinite possibilities that exist & how I get to hone in based on my unique perspective & eye.
I highlight the subtleties that want to be seen & I create more interest & dimension. I carefully sculpt the vibe for the perfect accents & depth… I direct the viewer’s attention. I paint with light. I tell the story!
THE WEIRD STUFF THAT CAN HAPPEN WITH FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Before getting into food photography I didn’t realize how awkward food photography can sometimes feel & be. Working with people (portrait photography) has its own factors that keep you on your toes - but the way light absorbs, wraps around & bounces off of people is often more predictable… Whereas lighting in food photography can sometimes feel more particular/quirky & less predictable… There are so many different types of weird shadows & reflections that can show up in your dish, drink or cutlery… Think about how naturally reflective so many plates & glasses are... & oh the mirroring qualities of sauces! Strange artifacts can appear that you may not expect. Sometimes it can feel like everything has disco ball mirrors, literally reflecting everything nearby back at ya. Lol.
Usually, the necessary extra diligence of paying attention to weird reflections often pertains to my lighting setup & the reflective qualities of plates, glasses, sauces, etc. - but every situation is truly unique. In the photo below you can see the passerbys walking by outside (& in this case, the passerbys were casting reflections not only on the food & drinks but also on the high gloss table). So funny! So much to be aware of in each particular situation...
SETTING UP THE SHOT
In some situations it’s really simple & setting up the perfect shot comes naturally, but in some situations it’s a complex & fascinating puzzle to get everything properly lit up & truly shining in concert. And, food is ALIVE - so you have to work quickly before your subject melts or deflates or looks less lively. All of my cylinders are firing as I consider my options & make quick wise decisions for the highest good.
Lighting can feel complicated & overwhelming but it all becomes much simpler when you break it down into bite sized chunks - I like to see it as the methodical simplicity of observing what is - then adding in one thing at a time & then tasting (like a recipe)… And like with music, the more sophisticated you get, you start to be able to string together complex chords & phrases & songs instead of just notes. And you get better at knowing when something will sound good before you even play it.
VIDEO LIGHTING VS. FLASH
Overall, I prefer video & model lights over flash for food photography because they are a constant light source vs. quick "lightning bolts" of flash that appear & disappear in an instant.
However, I definitely do ALSO use & enjoy flash in food photography. I often use high powered strobes & speedlights on top of video lights as a “kicker” (to add some extra pop or pizzazz) - to backlight or sidelight a drink (for an illuminated glow) or to light up the background of a scene etc… But I don’t typically use flash as my main artificial light source for food photography (unless I really want to dramatically stop fast action - like a liquid splash).
Based on the weird quirky food photography “disco ball mirror” effect I explained just a moment ago (that is SO common in food photography) video & model lights overall feel most efficient. Video/model lights behave almost like an immediate “live view” mode in the world of lighting (vs. the fleeting vanishing energy of flash). I still take test shots for in-camera previews, but video lights allow me to see so much without even pushing the shutter button. A constant light source makes it so much easier to inspect the quality of the light & to deliberately interact with all of the elements… It’s empowering to directly SEE the effects of my LIVE adjustments IN THE MOMENT... To experience the results of my styling efforts immediately & continue to fine tune. I’m able to pay attention to more layers of subtle details & work much more quickly. This leaves more room for delicate adjustments & to finesse the lighting into a true work of art.
My video lights can also be adjusted for color temperature. This is beyond helpful. There are so many restaurants & places with colored walls or lighting that creates unflattering color casts - so adjusting the color temperature on my video lights really helps me obtain a proper white balance & get the shot right in-camera. Fixing color temperature problems in post production is much more work & honestly provides an inferior result compared to making adjustments in the moment & getting the data right in-camera.
I often use 3 video lights (turned down as low as possible so the light is soft) as a starting point (basis) & then I turn up the levels & build on top of that (adding in flash) as needed. With these 3 video lights, I can cover things from multiple heights & angles (the textures & dimensions created with multi-directional lights are key)…
To help me with this precision lighting, I always bring an assistant on food photography shoots. I of course have light stands, but often it’s my trusty assistant helping me get the shot (by doing a backbend & having the right touch - getting the light angled, precisely in the pocket, where & how I need it). Backlighting & side lighting are often part of the recipe. But each situation really begs for different things. Oh the interesting angles we find...
I really delight in my ability to be so precise with color temperature & the directional energy of the light. I have super high standards which translates into high quality deliverables for my clients.
WHY I LOVE FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
Photography is really like improv - & such is life! There is no one-size-fits-all formula. It’s like knowing a language well enough to be able to uniquely express ourselves, in the moment, fluently & with freedom. Once you have your basics down & know how to use your amazing toolkit (gear, technique & eye) it’s really about dancing in the moment you’re in.
Of course there are some basics strategies we can all use as starting points - but really this art is about being PRESENT in the moment. It’s about SEEING & uniquely customizing. There are always unique circumstances & factors to be present with.
Yes having amazing gear is of course important, but knowing how to use it is even more important. Photography is about conscious observation & awareness… And then getting to re-imagine & speak!
As a photographer I get to morph & sculpt my reality. I get to tell the story. I get to implement my aesthetics, style & vibes! Photography is a 2D medium, but the goal is always to deliver that 3D interest & dimensionality. I’m always striving to create a multi dimensional feel vs. my subject feeling flat. Each scene & image must come alive!
AND NOW BACK TO THIS FOOD NETWORK SHOOT
Mahalo nui loa to everyone who helped to make this project happen! Grateful to all of the amazing GM’s & chefs I got to work with directly, as well as all of the other wonderful helpful restaurant personnel along the way. Thank you to my fabulous assistant (FLYING ‘OKOLE) who came with me on every one of these photoshoots, assisting with food stylizing & lighting. And a very special thank you to my friend Erin Hartigan, Senior Managing Editor at Food Network & Discovery Inc (& also Restaurants Managing Editor at Cooking Channel). Mahalo to Erin for hiring me for this project & sending me on all of these wonderful restaurant missions. Erin selected the featured dishes & photos from all of the content & info I provided & wrote all of the beautiful editorial content for this article. Erin is such a pleasure to work with & is the amazing woman responsible for making this ALL happen.
When scheduling these photoshoots, Food Network had me request that each restaurant present us with a couple of signature dishes & drinks they’d like to feature. Of course most restaurants presented multiple options - so I got to shoot a lot of extra content. It was fun to provide Food Network with many lovely choices (& make extra art) knowing that only one photo per restaurant would ultimately be selected and published.
I love the photos that were chosen & I’m also proud of the photos that weren’t published. So grateful for the entirety of this awesome experience! This was such a magical food photography adventure.
FYI I did not take all of the photos in the article - just the ones that clearly credit Chelsea Heller Photography.
I am not going to even attempt to describe these restaurants (the internet & the Food Network do an awesome job at that)... I am simply just wanting to present my photos that were published for this project (via screenshots from Food Network’s Maui Restaurant Guide). And, I've really enjoyed sharing about my overall approach with food photography.
Hope you enjoy my photos below!