The remote food photographer from Chennai
Sumanth Kumar’s lockdown business, Picture Palate, has him taking pictures for bloggers, chefs, and advertising firms across the globe
In April 2020, wellness consultant Ishani Vellodi Reddy, one of photographer Sumanth Kumar’s long-time clients, approached him with a unique assignment. “She wanted me to photograph a few dishes for her website and social media,” he says. While this might sound like any other photoshoot, what set it apart was the fact that Vellodi is now based in the UK and Kumar in Chennai. “She sent me reference images of her dishes, such as the five-ingredient tomato feta sauce, vegan chocolate truffles, and tahini maple overnight oats,” says Kumar, who could only source the bare minimum cutlery during lockdown and relied on YouTube videos to make the dishes himself. “I failed miserably,” he admits. “Only my recreation of the sauce was approved, and Ishani almost dropped me from the project.”
So, Kumar — who quit a career as a news photographer in 2012 to take up freelance photography — went all out with the props and even got a chef to pitch in. “I bought all the cutlery and crockery I could lay my hands on at IKEA. My friend, Indrani Singh in Puducherry, dabbles in pottery and as she wasn’t getting a lot of work during the pandemic, I asked her to make stoneware plates, bowls and cups.” With experts on board, he gave the shoot a second chance — and it worked.
Vellodi’s project was one of the first at his remote photography studio, Picture Palate. The lockdown initiative set up last year was an addition to his existing kitty of freelance projects with ITC Hotels, Hyatt Hotels, and the like. In May 2020, he landed his second assignment, for advertising firm 78 Design. “I shot their entire project on food ingredients over Zoom with art director Namashvi Desai,” he says.
The idea of a remote studio is “to be able to order pictures of food online, like you’d order food on a delivery app”. The only requirement from potential clients is reference pictures. And specific props, if any. While restaurants send images of dishes prepared during R&D, bloggers often send reference shots off the Internet. In the last year, he has shot images remotely for Vellodi; Dindigul Thalappakatti Restaurant; DANK, a restobar in Chennai; KSM Ashwagandha, and is in talks with an author in Pune for her new cookbook.
From cocktails and shawarma platters to delicate desserts and even raw food shots, Kumar, 38, has done it all. While images shot for restaurants always use fresh ingredients (as digital menus can easily reveal detailing, that is, mock food), he says artificial products go into banners and book covers. “We use engine oil, shoe polish for glazing, half-cooked ingredients, silicone ice cream, acrylic ice cubes, and the like [to make the food pop],” says the artist.
Lessons from the past
While setting up a business during a pandemic can be risky, Kumar says it wasn’t as difficult for him — he’d had his first brush with remote photography five years ago with a cocktail book project (Westland) for Tulleeho Wine and Spirits Academy in New Delhi. “With the art director in Delhi, and a low budget, we decided to work remotely,” says Kumar, who hired a bartender, and sourced barware for it. “We created a WhatsApp group with the art directors, who’d improvise on my shots. We were done in 10 days,” he says. While Kumar was certain back then that this could be a possible career path, he had a tough time breaking into the market. “I wasn’t taken seriously, and people wouldn’t trust their projects with remote photography. So, in a way, the pandemic helped as it forced people to think from a remote state-of-mind.”
Kumar’s studio, which he set up in three months in an independent house in Valasaravakkam, where he stays with his cat, is where the magic happens. The food is cooked by a team of chefs, home cooks, bakers, and food stylists, and then shot aesthetically. “I decided to use all the props from earlier shoots that I had tucked away. In the last year, I’ve spent almost ₹1 lakh to add planters, glassware, and artificial flowers to the inventory.” A majority of the garnishes come from the garden to ensure “the frame is fresh”. “I grow basil, rosemary, coriander, lemon, curry leaves, tomatoes and chillies, and will soon plant vegetables like radish and baby carrots,” says Kumar, who has brushed up his cooking skills over the last year too. “I make a great raw mango pickle now!” he says.
A market abroad
He admits that there are times when working ‘in-person’ seems simpler. “It’s easier with an art director or client in your studio telling you to move the spoon by an inch to the right, or tuck the napkin more neatly under the plate,” says Kumar, who is also working on a recipe channel for his YouTube page, a cross-exchange of sorts. “Home bakers who don’t have a professional set-up can avail my services and, in turn, I will showcase their recipes on my feed.”
Since most hotels have in-house photographers, and food bloggers double up as photographers, I ask him where he sees his business heading. “I’m aiming for Indian restaurants across the globe. Not well-established ones, but hotels and cafes that can’t afford professional photographers,” he says. Now in talks with an international Andhra restaurant chain, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Australia, and a home baker in Dubai, he adds, “At the end of the day, food bloggers aren’t food photographers. We bring an elevated sense of quality, professionalism, and appeal. It’s almost like asking you to allow us to become a salesman for your restaurant!”
₹35,000 per day, for eight shots. Details: picturepalate.com and sumanthkumar.com