Blog Home Tips & Tutorials Creative Tips How to Capture the Essence of Street Food in Photography

Don’t just focus on the food. Capture the details outside the frame for a more authentic depiction of street vendors and local cuisines.

What is street food? Street food, as we know, is food sold by a vendor or hawker on the street, or in another public space such as a market or fair. But, the essence of street food has taken on a much greater meaning. It can be a window into another culture, a preserve for cultural identity and heritage, or a unifier of people from all walks of life. 

Street food is a feast for our senses, including the eyes, making it a visually exciting subject to capture from behind the lens. The mouth-watering aromatics attract a wide range of people to the street-side in droves. The wide variety of ingredients make for beautiful, vibrant dishes—and stunning photography.

Capturing all the elements of what makes street food an experience like no other poses a challenge, but one you can achieve with the following pointers.


Movement 

Street food is the original fast good. Vendors have perfected the art of preparing delicious dishes quickly so customers can enjoy their meal at the roadside or on-the-go. Capturing the rapid movements in which dishes are ordered, prepared, and consumed is essential in evoking the fast-paced atmosphere and electric energy integral to the essence of street food. 

Motion blur in photography is an effective tool in demonstrating these rapid movements. When we see objects traveling at high speeds, they can appear blurry—exactly how they appear in photos. It takes us approximately 100 milliseconds for the neurons in our brain to fully encode information. And, depending on your shutter speed settings, it can take your camera much, much longer. Fortunately, incorporating the motion blur effect in photography implies the subject is moving and can bring a photo to life. 


Smoke and Steam

Even in photos, you can almost smell a steaming bowl of hot soup or the smoke imparted by the so-called “breath of a wok,” bringing together the flavors of a delicious stir fry to give it that umami flavor. As it turns out, research suggests photos of hot food can arouse our sense of smell, tricking our minds into believing we can perceive aromas of the dishes we see before us, published digitally or in print. 

Better yet, smoke and steam emitted from hot food provide a visual cue of the aromatics we can’t otherwise see, triggering our smell memories, dubbed “smellizing.” Capturing smoke and steam from freshly prepared food can give viewers the sense that they’re breathing in a symphony of different aromatic smells (while giving them an appetite). It also adds a perceived sense of movement to the image since smoke and steam is always in motion. 


Preparation

Part of what makes the experience so thrilling is its preparation. Typically prepared openly before customers, this only adds to the sense of anticipation before the dish is served. While bustling food markets and vendors can appear chaotic, it’s organized chaos, further illustrated by how each dish is prepared—methodically, efficiently, and skillfully.

Capturing the preparation of street food provides viewers with a closer look at the skill, knowledge, and work that goes into every dish, while providing an element of suspense as your photos go on to reveal the final dish.


Context 

Context is everything. Take your viewer on a visual journey by pulling the frame a little wider to capture the food stall and surrounding environment. People eating street food at the side of the road as the rest of the world goes by arguably makes for a more compelling photo. There’s context brought by the contrast of the two elements.


The Chef 

Some street vendors have dedicated several decades to perfecting one dish. Other street vendors are family-run businesses whose legacies are maintained and passed down through the generations.

Unlike high-profile restaurant chefs, street vendors serving modestly-priced fare are rarely given the spotlight. Turning the lens onto street food chefs adds a human element to your photos and shares the (often) untold story behind the dish. It captures the early mornings, the late nights, the passion, history, and heritage that goes into perfecting each dish. 


The Customers 

When it comes to experiencing authentic, flavorful dishes, nothing compares to the generation-run food vendors you might find on the roadside. And, the people know it.

Behind every incredible food vendor is a loyal customer base from different cultural and economic backgrounds. This is what makes street food a great equalizer. It brings people together from all walks of life to enjoy authentic food—the kind you won’t find at a five-star restaurant. Taking photos of the vendors’ diverse customer base is a testament to the quality of the food.


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Cover image via Peter Adams.