Parikshit Rao Takes a Different Approach to Food Photography

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All photographs are copyrighted and used with permission by Parikshit Rao.

Parikshit Rao’s journey into photography began with a backpacking trip through his home country in India. His journey outdoors led him back inside where he wanted to learn the craft of studio lighting, which eventually translated into food photography. Rao favors minimalism in his setup and execution, and unlike many food photographers, he shoots vertically. Outside of food, Rao specializes in architectural and travel photography, and has been published in Time Out Mumbai, Rolling Stone and National Geographic Traveler, among other publications. More of his work can be found on his website.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Parikshit: I actually started travelling first, soon after graduating from college in Bombay. I wanted to explore the country FoodPhoto08_(C) ParikshitRaothoroughly, unravelling destinations that were far-removed from the clichés still found in magazines. We’re lucky in India to have the Himalayas in our own backyard and the spectacular valleys and villages served as great inspiration for travel photography and writing. During this time, my photos featured in travel magazines so that started off a career in photography. Although specialising in food came years later.

Phoblographer: What made you get into food photography?

Parikshit: After backpacking for almost 2 years, I sensed that only shooting outdoors wasn’t cutting it for me. I was keen on picking up studio lighting skills to create polished images, something I could utilise on my travel shoots as well to tell stories. So I assisted a mentor and learnt on the job for a year. My choice to photograph food was motivated by wanting to create visuals that celebrate the beauty of food – an essential life-force and something everyone identifies with, unlike high-fashion or automobile that I find gorgeous but sometimes overtly aspirational.

Phoblographer: To you, what makes for a great food photo and what elements do you always try to incorporate into your creative process while shooting the image?

Parikshit: A great food photograph must tick off the mandatory basics – impeccable lighting, creative angles, clean yet interesting composition and show off any texture that makes the dish appealing in the first place. Contrast is a huge plus, both in colours and highlight-shadow. When shooting for clients, I try to include elements and mood of the location. This is very important for me to make assignments look unique. Many times, I’ve taken a plate to unmentionable places simply because the background layer was better. The chefs were aghast but happy once they saw the final shot. I shoot high-key often, it just makes food look ethereal, although after a few shots it can get sterile and boring.

FoodPhoto01_(C) ParikshitRaoPhoblographer: Your portfolio shows off a very different approach from other photographers. Lots of your work is shot vertically. Why?

Parikshit: I’m a minimalist to a large extent and work through the process of reductionism to place a subject smack in the spotlight without revealing everything at once. I rarely use food-stylists, so all shots are the result of my ideas working with the chef’s. By instinct I tend to work around the plates and that invariably creates better vertical options. Come to think of it, maybe my background in shooting for print also influenced this instinct to a large extent, where we consciously imagined our photos used in 2 or 3 column-wide spacing.

Phoblographer: Let’s talk business: how much time do you actually spend shooting vs doing other tasks like networking, marketing, editing, etc.

Parikshit: Shooting takes typically 15% or lesser, compared to the whole time spent on all other business aspects. Emailing, meeting and convincing new clients takes up a huge chunk of time on any shoot. Minor post takes up another portion, though I consciously prefer to get the shot clean and neat in-camera.

Phoblographer: You shoot other things like travel work, but how do you get into the food photography business? We imagine that it’s a lot of networking and finding editors along with taking the time to gain their trust.

Parikshit: Like I said, travel photography started off my journey and I still pursue it. In fact, my travel photo stock still FoodPhoto06_(C) ParikshitRaocontributes a bigger part of my income from the business. Food comes a close second. Networking is important, cold calls even more. These things do take time. To tell you a secret, for every time I was hired , I’ve not been hired 6 times. Haha! It’s just part of the game.

Phoblographer: How do you ensure that you get repeat food photography business? 

Parikshit: In India, clients can be unaware of (or don’t want to acknowledge) the importance of professional food photography for their business. Also it’s a cost-conscious market when it comes to photography. So there typically isn’t a huge volume of repeat work from commercial clients. Having said that, sometimes a client introduces a new branch or a new menu and may hire you for a secondary shoot. The challenge then is to ensure that I’m on top of their mind. Calls, monthly emails and some advertising on social networks helps to remind them. A couple of times I have been passing a client’s establishment, dropped in to say hello, and they’re excited over having launched something new and I shoot a couple of frames out of goodwill. That sort of flexibility helps in generating repeat as well.

Phoblographer: Do you feel that managing the delicate relationship between a restaurant/chef and the editor of a place like Time Out plus suiting your own creative needs is tough to do? Why or why not?

Parikshit: Actually, I’ve been fortunate in this matter that clients who hire me share the same wavelength. It’s also a conscious decision on my part to work with them or not. So our ideas and ideals have already mingled at the halfway point. Editors – once their editorial brief is met – are pretty open-minded and enthusiastic to take suggestions in layouts or extra takeaways from the shoot that satisfy me entirely. It’s not tough, just a delicate balance mostly relying on people-management but it all works out well in the end.
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