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Good enough to eat: the tantalising food photography of Stacie Ma

Stacie’s camera sat untouched up until 16 months ago. Then sparked by boredom and aided by online tutorials, she found her true passion—food photography—and came out of a world pandemic with a bright new career. Here she tells us more.
Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m Stacie, a food photographer. I live with my husband and my little girl in London. I started my photography journey about 16 months ago, and over the last six months, I have been taking photos professionally for restaurants based in London.

You made quite the career change from hotel sales manager to food photographer. How did this come about?

I’ve always had a creative bone in me, but I never did anything serious with it. I stopped working in hotel sales when my daughter was born, and I thought about my career long and hard during that break, but I couldn’t figure out what I really wanted to do. It was almost like a lifetime of built-up energy trapped in me without a way out, until one day, I randomly watch a tutorial video. It was then, everything became clear. I could see my path. I was very grateful that I figured out where my passion was. It’s never too late!

Has photography always been a passion for you?

I own a Canon camera. It was a present from my husband that I barely touched (oops, the truth just came out) until March last year during the lockdown. I watched a video on TV which was teaching how to frame food. Out of curiosity and boredom mostly :D, I picked my camera up and followed the instructions given by the video. It ended up being one of the best things I have done. I was fascinated and instantly enchanted. Soon I found myself practising photography in the middle of the night. I started living and breathing photography and have been totally in my zone since. That passion is still firing and sparkling in me today.

“I prefer using natural light, which I believe gives food sparkles. However, a studio light can perform much better when the light needs a great deal of manipulation and adjustment.”

What are your top tips for photographing food? How do you get it all to look so tantalising?

Colour and lighting are two of the most important elements to work on when photographing food. Once I decide on a subject to shoot, I choose my backdrops and props according to the colour of the subject. They help provide complementary or harmonic colours depending on the mood I am going for. Next, lighting becomes the most crucial thing to decide how the camera “sees” the food. I prefer using natural light, which I believe gives food sparkles. However, a studio light can perform much better when the light needs a great deal of manipulation and adjustment. I use reflectors and black cards to add or reduce light in different areas of the setting, which creates highlights and shadows. There are lots of other tips when it comes to photographing food, but to me, these are the two most important things to get right.

Where would you like to see your career in the next five or ten years?

I am still new in this industry. I hope to work with some major brands such as M&S food and Waitrose in the near future.

“After much practice, the sense of composition just comes naturally.”

How do you plan the composition of a photo when photographing food or drink?

Once I get the colours and lighting right, I just need to follow a few simple composition rules—high or low, rule of thirds, golden triangle etc. I play with my props, move them around, move them closer or further, try different cutlery and ornaments, add more items or remove some from the setting…after much practice, the sense of composition just comes naturally.

What is your current equipment setup?

I use a Canon 5D Mark IV camera. The two lenses I use alternatively are Canon 50mm f/1.4 and 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens. I have a Manfrotto 190XPRO tripod with a ball head and a Godox VL150 LED light. I use an iPad Pro for editing.

Do you have an ultimate ambition for your work? What would it be?

To shoot the Christmas commercial for John Lewis one day if I’m not overly ambitious :D

How did you come across the Affinity apps, and how are you finding them so far?

I use an iPad Pro exclusively for post-production, as I mentioned earlier. Therefore I needed a professional app that was comparable to desktop photo editing software. Affinity Photo came to me as the exact thing I was looking for. It is powerful, very easy to get to grips with, and it delivers amazing results. The best thing is that it is compatible with the Apple Pencil. That gives me precision when editing the finest details, and it improves my work efficiency massively. It is amazing software. I cannot recommend it more.

“I’m still exploring other functions in the app—there is so much to learn and so much more it has to offer.”

Tell us a bit about the post-production routine for your work.

I use the Develop Persona when a photo (RAW file) needs minimal adjustment. I can change the contrast, saturation, brightness, etc., by just moving a few bars—it’s super easy! When I need to do more comprehensive editing, such as compositing, I move to the Photo Persona—the main workspace in Affinity Photo. Here I use the main functions—focus merge, selection tools, brushes, adjustment tools such as brightness/contrast, curves, shadows/highlights, vibrance and white balance. I’m still exploring other functions in the app—there is so much to learn and so much more it has to offer.

Who inspires you and your work?

Joanie Simon, she is a wonderful American food photographer and an online tutor who taught me and inspired me to become a photographer. It was her video I was watching before I picked up my camera.

We hear you’re also a keen cook. What’s greater—your passion for cooking or photography?

At the moment, photography takes more of my time and attention, but I only shoot food, so I guess my passion for photography comes from my love of food.

Finally, what would your advice be to anyone wanting to take the leap and devote their career to photography?

If you are new to photography, I strongly suggest you do some systematic learning. When I say this, I don’t mean you have to do a long-term course or go to college. I mean really spend time reading, watching tutorials and listening to what professionals say. There are so many resources on the internet that allow us to learn for free. Altogether, I only spent $25 to buy a course ran by Ezra Anderson to learn how to use Affinity Photo. And that was one of my very best purchases. I also watched hundreds of free tutorials online. YouTube is a wonderful tool to use.

Then practice! I needn’t say more about this.

Last but not least, study other people’s work. I have gone through thousands of great food photos created by other fellow photographers. Some of them are so clever and inspiring. I study their lighting, the angle of their camera, composition and everything I can grasp from a photo (some photographers are so generous, and they give away their behind the scenes to show how they produce their pictures). Then I try to use those things I learnt when I shoot my own. Sometimes I even try to recreate the photos I really like. I learn so much by doing this.

“Don’t buy anything you think you need until you are absolutely sure you can’t work without it.”

If you are taking a leap into food photography, I wish you the best of luck. One last thing, don’t buy anything you think you need until you are absolutely sure you can’t work without it. And trust me, you don’t need that many props and equipment to start with.

You can find more of Stacie’s work on her website, Instagram and Facebook.