“Wait, don’t eat that yet, let me get a shot of it.”
When seriously gorgeous food hits the table, my husband knows there will be a short delay while I try to capture an image that does it justice. I’ve learned to work fast so our food doesn’t get too cold and Rich's hunger doesn’t get too acute. For most of us, a few quick clicks are enough and we’re ready to dive into the meal. But every once in a while I stumble across someone who takes food photography to a much higher level, crafting each shot like a classic painting. When I discovered the mouthwatering images shot by Croatian photographer Lili Basic on her Traveling Oven website, I kept saying to myself, “How does she do that?”
I decided to find out. So I wrote to Lili at her home in Zagreb and asked if she would share a few of her food photography secrets with us.
What is your earliest memory of photography?
My interest in photography started when I was about 14 or 15 years old and I got my first camera as a gift from my parents (no smartphones at that time!). It was nothing fancy but it was pink and it was a camera so I was the happiest girl. At that time I wasn’t interested in learning anything technical about photography; I simply enjoyed taking pictures.
You were born in Dubrovnik and lived in Scotland, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and Switzerland before returning to Croatia and settling in Zagreb. Do you find that photographing an unknown city is a good way to get to know its character?
Oh definitely! I enjoy discovering new places with a camera in my hands. Because of it, I pay more attention to details and especially those areas that are not very touristy — the hidden alleys, narrow streets, and corners where you discover the true charm and character of the city. Having said that, sometimes it’s also nice to just walk around the new place without a camera, taking in the moment and not carrying heavy gear all the time.
What do you hope your photos say to others?
The most important thing for me is that my photos evoke emotions in viewers and that they tell a story. When somebody writes to me to say that my photo touched them in some way or made them remember a special moment — a smell or taste from their childhood or something like that — it makes me emotional every single time. And that is the main reason why I love photography so much.
When did you start doing professional photography?
In my mid 30s. All the time before that, I felt like something was missing in my life. Photography is so much more than a job to me, it’s the way I express myself and how I process a lot of my emotions and life challenges; it’s how I see and experience the world around me. I am forever grateful that I managed to get the courage I needed to start learning photography, building my business, and pursuing my dreams.
What drew you to food photography?
In 2014 I started taking my photography more seriously, learning and practicing every single day. I lived in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. It was winter at the time, and the winters there are very harsh and very, very cold — like -45 Celsius cold! So obviously, during the winter months you spend a lot of time inside. That meant that my usual subjects like travel, architecture, nature, etc. were all impossible to shoot; I had to come up with something interesting I could shoot at home. And that’s how I discovered the world of food photography and fell in love straight away!
You use only natural light. Why?
Light is what makes the photo beautiful and sometimes exceptional, and it helps in storytelling, too. I adore natural light, the play of light and shadows, the contrast it creates. For those learning to shoot food in natural light, I advise you to study the light in the area where you shoot — how it changes during the day, when it gets warmer and colder, when you get direct sunlight and when it’s softer light. The best light for food photography is the soft, diffused light we get on an overcast day; the worst is direct harsh sunlight. It’s best to have only one light source, such as a window, and to place your subject so that the light comes from the side ('sidelight') or from behind ('backlight'). Avoid placing the subject with light coming from the front, as that will result in a flat image with no contrast, and that is not visually pleasing.
You took your photography to the next level with the online Photography Institute. What are some of the lessons you learned there?
The Photography Institute gave me a great starting point in my photography journey. They taught me the technical side and some basic principles. For instance there’s the 'rule of thirds.' Imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that there are 9 parts. If we place our subject in the intersections or along the lines, the photo becomes more balanced without becoming static, enabling the viewer to interact with it more naturally. I also learned about negative space, the area around the main subject in a photo. Negative space defines and emphasizes the main subject, drawing our eyes to it. It gives our eyes somewhere to rest and prevents an image from appearing too cluttered.
Are there bad photography habits that people should let go of?
For one thing, over-editing a photo (it’s good to know when to stop!).
How do you know when you’ve taken a truly outstanding shot?
Well, that definitely doesn’t happen on every shoot, especially for a perfectionist like myself. But honestly, you just feel it. I get really excited like a little kid when I feel that everything is working so well together: light, subject, colors, textures, shapes, composition — and that’s when I know I’m getting ‘the shot’!
I’ll probably never produce masterpiece food photos like Lili’s, but she’s given me a lot to think about and play around with in my own work. To enjoy more of her mouthwatering images visit Lili's Instagram page and her Traveling Oven website.
And for those of my readers who enjoy photographing food, I’d love to hear your best tips and secrets of success. Of course, your disaster stories are always welcome as well!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California. Right now I'm on a Nutters' World Tour seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and wacky food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
#1 Amazon Bestseller in Tourist Destinations, Travel Tips, Gastronomy Essays, and Senior Travel