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Why Photographer Tim Cheung Eats With His Eyes

Tim Cheung, professional food photographer

No judgment if you’ve been exploring your inner foodie and expanding your horizons with countless food recipes and at-home experiments. We’ve all been there lately. There is no question that eating is an act of self-care for the body and mind. Trying new dishes can be a way to satisfy our wanderlust and step out of our comfort zone in this new post quarantine reality. If there’s one thing that Instagram and TikTok don’t lack are luscious treats making us want to indulge, completely forgetting about the guilt. The process behind diving deep into the perfect shot of sticky rice or translucent and thread-like mung bean noodles is not an easy task. Especially when it means making it worthy of your Insta feed. There’s a lot of effort and strategy put into the curation of a mouth-watering food feed. 

Bay Area-based photographer Tim Cheung became a food photographer almost by accident. With over 132K followers on Instagram as @bayarea.foodies and 123K followers on TikTok, his passion for food photography developed during science camp. He was more intrigued by the different textures and shapes of the food he was eating while there than the actual plants and insects. Since then, he started capturing the unique traits of different food types, plus enjoying exotic blends and exquisite tastes. Cheung has built a name on himself by trying food snacks with particular flavors like chicken flavor pretzels, boba ice cream bars, and bubbling hot mac and cheese topped with iridescent red Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. If you need to find the most authentic Thai food in San Francisco or the most intriguing food snacks, this is your go-to guide.

I decided to take a deep dive into the key aspects that turned him into a successful photographer while getting to know a little more about the man behind the camera. 

Lighting and composition are more important than you think.

We already know that lighting is key when it comes to showing off food in a way that makes us drool. Cheung acknowledges the importance of foresight lighting to capture food in its clearest way. “It is important to frame the shot in a way that the different food angles look good,” Cheung said. “Food placement is crucial to making the whole scene look appealing and humanized.” Lighting allows you to focus on and manipulate different aspects of the dish. One can’t live without the other, and one of the things Cheung has learned throughout his career is that this is something you’re never going to stop learning. 

Experience is the best learning tool

Dropping out from Oregon State University wasn’t in his mind until he realized the influence his food content had on the local community and how social media could become his best ally. When pursuing his full-time entrepreneurship, he acknowledges the importance of experience and how it taught him everything he knows. Since day one, every photo shoot represented learning what worked and what didn’t. The path wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it. “Every photoshoot helped me prepare for the next one,” Cheung said. “It was the best exercise in learning how to improve. On the other hand, YouTube and blog posts helped me learn and keep me updated on tips, tools, and methods that I will always incorporate into my own style.”

If it has a ‘viral’ scent, go for it

There’s no doubt that going viral is the best way to go. When Cheung sees new, exciting, and eye-catching treats or dishes, he instantly knows he needs to try them and make them part of his flawless foodstagram. “Countless new dishes are popping up on social media every day. Restaurants are coming up with new recipes, especially in the bay area, and whether it’s the color, texture, or a motion aspect, there’s always intrigue about something never seen before,” Cheung said. “Dishes with fire or a new technique for scraping cheese, for instance, push photographers to develop original ways to take photos.” It’s like knowing it’s going to become a best-seller once it’s out there, you instantly want to get a hold of it and be the first one to try it. 

The hardest is to work with anything that melts or has fire on it 

The texture and the way it melts along with the blend of different flavors make it a delicious-looking treat. Yes, we’re talking about ice cream. We already know that ice cream is an obsession-worthy dessert; however, the behind the scenes process isn’t as sweet as its taste. “The key is to plan ahead. Since it melts, you need to make sure to take the right shot at the right time.” One of the most challenging dishes to photograph and having fun while you’re at it. 

Just like a few bites of anything sweet can lighten up anyone’s mood, flame can add an extra layer of flavor to a dish. “Fire is one of the hardest elements to work with on photos. At a certain power of water supply, fire becomes invisible, so if you’re taking a window photo and you set up a strong flash, it can appear invisible in the photograph,” Cheung says. “You have to plan ahead of time what type of light is best and make sure it’s not too strong.” It is essential to take into consideration the moving subject. According to Cheung, you need to have a higher shutter speed to get it right, and even though lighting food on fire is an exciting way to cook, it is pretty challenging when it comes to the actual shot. 

There’s always a way to get creative.……..with noodles  

If there’s one thing Cheung absolutely loves to photograph is noodles. There are countless types of noodles, and each portrays a different aesthetic, the thick ones never look like the thin ones, and the ways these can be arranged are infinite. “Part of the challenge is figuring out the best way to arrange the noodles. Chopsticks are a great tool to play around with, creating patterns and a unique layout,” Cheung says. According to Cheung, there’s an element of randomness to how the dish is photographed, making them never look the same. 

Embrace the art of storytelling, even with food 

There’s always more going on behind each dish than meets the eye. Our lives are a combination of dishes and bites that helps us show the world who we are. Every photo tells a story either in the way it was cooked, its origins, or through the man behind the camera. “I want to add different types of content, showcasing the story behind each dish or something unique about its background,” Cheung says. “I’m looking to go beyond a photo and add videos like BTS or explaining more about it. The audience appreciates that if they can feel identified or intrigued.” 

Learn to know the different value each social media platform adds to your business

It’s no secret that while Instagram is more tailored towards sharing snapshots curating a good-looking feed, TikTok enables people to post scripted clips. Even though the demographics differ, both are essential when growing a business like food photography. One of Cheung’s biggest successes is going viral on TikTok achieving tens of millions of views on his videos getting brand recognition. “I’ve learned that Instagram’s main appeal is aesthetics, so I’ve made sure that my photos are interesting enough that once they are scrolling through their feed, they feel the need to stop,” he said. For Cheung, TikTok is more a “casual setting” that allows him to showcase elements of his personality, giving him the opportunity to create more personalized content. 

A global pandemic has inspired experimentation

With a pandemic happening, people rely on coming up with innovative ways to stay relevant and up to date online. Content creators have been pushed to experiment with different content types looking to reminisce the feeling of savoring dishes at a rooftop patio or deciding to go all-in with food styling tactics and at-home recipes. “I think this is a time where we’ve been discovering a lot more of what works on social media. It pushes us to get creative at home but also to really listen to what the audience wants while understanding trends happening now and what we can expect for the future,” he said. 

Always look up at others

Living in a social media world allows users not only to create a community but also learn and engage with others experts as well. Cheung highlights the importance of constantly learning and getting inspired by other people’s work. Two of his favorites ig accounts are @betweenballoons, a food stylist and baker from the bay area, and @thebiteshot, a commercial food photographer. He follows YouTube channel figandlight as an ultimate guide to color and editing tips in his attempt to keep learning about lighting techniques and tools. It’s all about finding content that resonates with your brand while inspiring you to see things with a different eye. 

Co-authored with Camila Encomendero

Stephan Rabimov is an award-winning American journalist. Formerly the contributing editor at The Huffington Post, Haute Living, and New York Observer. Rabimov is now a contributing style & beauty editor at Forbes USA and editor-at-large at L’Officiel Austria. His work is regularly translated into Chinese, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Arabic languages. Stephan holds a Masters of International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs, and a Masters of Arts in Statistics - both from The Columbia University in NYC.

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