Text and photos by Catriona Mitchell.
“There’s nothing like pressing the shutter. The noise, it’s the buzz” – Sally May Mills
Sally May Mills was given her first camera at the age of seven. Her family lived on a farm in Western Australia; geographical isolation meant that the film had to be sent off in the post for development and printing, it was weeks before the pictures were returned, and the process was an expensive one. At a tender age, then, Sally learned that every picture had to count; each photo had to be captured with her fullest attention and no detail was to go unremarked.
This is the ethos Sally continues to work with – and the greatest wisdom she had to hand down to us at Slow Food Bali’s food photography event at The Elephant last Saturday. “It’s about being present,” she said. “When you press the shutter, nothing else exists.”
Sally came across as someone who knows how to be present. Suntanned and limber, jumping up and down from chairs claiming “your legs are your tripod – and your zoom lens”, she told us that she now lives on a beach in West Timor, where electricity is unavailable during the day and the Internet was installed only relatively recently. This “slow” pace of life seems to have honed the precision with which she notices all that’s going on around her.
So to spend half a day in her company was more than a lesson in snapping pictures. It was more than a meditation on honing the eye too: it was about stepping back and taking a broader perspective. “Mum and Dad were great storytellers,” she said, “and for me that’s what photography is all about. It’s more than just a photo of food on a plate; it’s a story – a story right from production, the garden, right through to the plate. That’s what I’m interested in, not just the final piece.”
Sally moved deftly from the philosophical to the practical, delivering an in-depth and deceptively simple guide to taking an effective food photograph. We talked about angle (“angle creates interest – it’s dynamic”), light (“photography is painting with light; you may think you are looking at colour, but mostly you’re looking at light…. watching the light is a big part of the meditation of photography”), composition (“it’s very rare to see a food photograph that’s symmetrical”), set-up (“don’t be afraid to put the food on the floor!”), props (“bring some of the raw ingredients in as additional interest”) and camera techniques. Not everyone at the workshop was equally proficient with camera usage or technology, and she was generous in sharing her knowledge about best lenses and ISO settings, best methods for file-keeping, as well as advising on where to place photographs later. “Pinterest is a worthy addiction. It’s the journal I always wanted… so, so inspiring.”
Sally talked about recent trends in food photography: nowadays it’s more popular to go for a “deconstructed” look, that is, showing the food already partially eaten rather than impeccable and lifeless on the plate. “Make it a bit of a mess – it becomes lively and real,” she said, hacking into a perfect plate of Eggs Benedict until the yellow sauce was oozing around the plate. “Once I’ve broken it up, it’s got some life. You think ‘I really want to eat that.’”
Sally’s true gift is her innate naturalness. Her key to effective photography was a refreshing one to hear: “it’s about being relaxed in the situation.” She doesn’t use food varnish or any fancy tricks; for two years she only used one lens, and she abhors flash and fancy lighting. “If it gets too dark, go home.” She’s a great fan of using whatever tools might be in front of you: at one point when the sun went behind a cloud, dimming the room, she held up a strip of white fabric, even a white cushion, as reflector.
She emphasized over and over the importance of paying attention to what’s in the frame, eliminating any unwanted elements right there and then. Post production can eat vastly into your time and relying on it develops bad habits, she said: “a good choice now saves time later – and sitting in front of the computer isn’t the fun bit.”
Sally has kept her pre-digital rigour 100% intact, and works with a great combination of spontaneity and exactitude. Her style is to give the work a human touch – evoking a mood by showing a waiter’s movement, rhythm, hands, used forks, crumbs – and she loves to pay attention to texture, and availing of beautiful ceramics. She’s a master in “keeping it real”, and this is surely her key to success.
PLEASE NOTE: All photos here are by Catriona Mitchell, attempting to take Sally’s lessons on board while covering this event, and not by Sally May Mills!
Sally May Mills works prolifically in Bali, shooting for clients in Ubud, Seminyak and Jimbaran. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Our thanks go to Jonathan Russell (owner of The Elephant) and his staff for providing beautifully presented, and stupendously delicious food, coffee and juices for us to photograph – and then consume.
You can learn more about Slow Food Bali here.