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Q&A with bartender and food & drink photographer Tom Brown

Tom Brown of Honking Elephant Photography

How did you get into photography? Is a subject you studied?

I studied Fine Art at University, which is a topic I really enjoyed, however I think I got a bit disillusioned with the fact that it sometimes would seem that it was more of a lifestyle choice than a study. Photography was always my little pleasure. I would go on walks and always take my camera with me and conveniently enough, lessons on composition and colour theory came in very handy. Although I never really had any formal training with a camera.

Food and drink photography is a very specific genre; practically, how does it differ from other subjects?

Food and drink photography has to be particularly true to life. Portraits can have a lot of artistic flair and event photography is more about the energy and feeling of the space and what is happening. Food and drink on other hand, must look very clean and crisp. If your colours are off, or focus is in the wrong place, your end image can look unappetising, which is entirely against the grain! Other forms of photography can be a lot more forgiving, or indeed offer more routes for artistic freedom.

Your work with the bar scene in The Hague means a lot of night work; is that a challenge in terms of getting a shot in low light? Yes! I’ve had to invest a lot of money into equipment to deal with that, my first big upgrade was when I bought a full frame camera. Which makes a huge difference as you have a bigger sensor to work with and so the sensor has more light information to work with. Then I bought ‘faster’ lenses, which mean they can work in lower light settings, but considering that a high quality fast lens can be anywhere from 500 - 1,500 euro, they require a lot of work to save for! I also have a couple of flashes, which can be very nice for shooting indoors or at events, but flashes going off in someone’s face isn’t too nice for them and I did accidentally make one explode from over use...

How important is it to get ‘action’ into a food/drink shot? If you are just making a photo of a drink by itself I don’t think you need action so much, but if someone is making the drink whilst you make your shots, it can really add a lot. In that situation, it’s nice to try and create an image that captures a moment in such a way that you can imagine what has, and is about to happen. I find it is a lot easier for the viewer to connect with the image in that situation. So, I think action has a time and place, if you want water splashing everywhere, but frozen with a fast shutter, it can look nice, but I feel it must add something to your end product. If not it can feel rather superfluous, I mean if someone was making a drink for me as a customer and I end up soaked to the bone because the drink went everywhere, it isn’t a great experience. If a photo is meant to imitate your drinking experience, it doesn’t make too much sense to have that type of action. Fire is a great one on the other hand, as you often get things being burnt and singed as part of the process anyway and it always turns heads.

If someone is looking to improve their social media shots on their phone, what three tips can you share?

Turn off the auto settings! Be that for exposure or 'beauty' settings, you won’t learn very well and it can hold you back. If you keep wondering why some parts of your image are a lot darker than you’d like, that is probably why. Always try to use natural light, it makes everything look that be cleaner and richer. In the same vein, turn off your flash, the light is often way too harsh and won’t make your drink look nice at all.

Make the photos before you enjoy your cocktails, if you are in a dark environment the last thing you want is a pair of moving hands over a drink.

What’s your personal favourite cocktail and why?

I love tequila and mezcal as a base spirit, so a paloma is a wonderful drink for me. But my favourite is one that I never thought of a name for, but it’s basically a daiquiri but with mezcal, cucumber and a dash of firewater. It’s a very interesting flavour but also surprisingly refreshing.

As a cocktail enjoyer, can you share a really simple recipe that people can make at home using produce from the supermarket / liquor store? Sours are really easy to make at home, you can buy sugar syrup or make it (equal parts boiling water to sugar), then you just need lemon juice and your spirit of choice. You can use egg white if you want too, but that really is just for the texture of your drink, it barely adds to the taste. You can use many different spirits, rum, vodka, whiskey but amaretto is my favourite!

Check out Tom's guide to better cocktail photography here.


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