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Q&A with the photographer… Pól Ó Conghaile

We talk to the photographer of our Peru feature about his experience capturing Lima’s culinary ‘creative awakening’

Q&A with the photographer… Pól Ó Conghaile

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Tell us a little bit about your experience shooting Peru? How did you approach the shoot? Can you go into some specifics about how long it took you?

I spent a week on the ground in Lima. I’d never been to Peru before and was tempted to pack in a trip to Machu Picchu, but I’ve been in the game long enough to know that spreading yourself too thinly is a recipe for disaster with travel photography. I was travelling in July, too, when Lima can be pretty overcast (locals call it ‘garúa’, or ‘the belly of the donkey’, as my guide put it), so I knew outdoor shots would be problematic. Blue skies can lift any destination off the page; grey skies do the opposite.

Were there any difficult challenges that you had to overcome?

Advance planning was key to tackle the jetlag and long list of restaurants, markets, food stalls and neighbourhoods I had to get through. I arranged a guide, a driver (getting around in Lima can be time-consuming — it’s a sprawling city with a tricky public transport and taxi situation), and scheduled heavily. The big-name restaurants needed to be booked well ahead and I enlisted the help of Peru’s tourist organisation, peru.travel, for tips and logistics. But I left free time to follow my nose too — that’s always crucial.

You provided the photography to go along with a piece you’d written for the magazine. How did you balance your time between the editorial and photography on your trip?

With no small amount of logistical jujitsu! On a site visit, I try to prioritise the photos that absolutely have to happen, making notes on my phone in the spaces between. These notes record the feelings, impressions and gut instincts I’m getting about a place — a few throwaway lines by staff or locals, the kind of stuff you tend to forget afterwards. Later that evening, I add detail — menus, any historical or background info, thoughts I have had since. I also look back over the photos I’ve shot, binning the non-starters but keeping everything else. The idea is to trim and tidy as I go, but not to write the piece or do the full photo edit until I am out of the zone. You need that broader perspective for final drafts.

Did you feel under pressure to produce good-quality photography to illustrate your feature?

Of course! This is National Geographic Traveller, a beautifully produced magazine with a reputation (and eye) for premium images that make readers stop in their tracks. It’s a privilege to write and shoot for such a publication — and I never take it for granted. The trick to dealing with the pressure is putting a reliable process in place and trusting it. Lots of forward planning, having back-ups for stuff that doesn’t work out and so on. Feature assignments can be daunting, but you go through them day-by-day, shot-by-shot. You trust the process, knowing some days will go better than others. You’ll get up just as early for the deleted shots as you will the humdingers that could make a double-page spread.

What was your main focus of the photography?

Food, glorious food. I knew there would be lots of close-up food shots, but I also needed to convey a sense of Lima as a city of neighbourhoods, a sense of its people and street life, a sense that food isn’t just about the high-end, Michelin Star restaurants, but also about the market stalls, the cevicherias and the small producers. I needed to try to tell that story from farm and sea to fork. That was the challenge.

How did you go about showing the connection between the people and the food?

With chefs, I tried to shoot them in their kitchens, concentrating on plating up and doing their thing – as opposed to posed shots. I like that approach, the ‘you-are-there’ style that National Geographic Traveller does so well. So rather than spend an age lighting and staging a portrait, I prefer to sink into the background and just shoot away until a natural moment pings. That’s when the connections come through.

Otherwise, I usually take a fly-on-the-wall approach. I’m a great believer in shoe-leather travel writing, in pounding the streets, sitting in cafes, waiting on auspicious street corners and so on for a moment to appear. I’d much rather catch a natural moment or take a few shots of someone after building up a rapport than try to stage a shot. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it really does.

Were there any funny moments?

Well, I did love the owner of one peña (tavern) in Barranco, who tried to give an impression of how popular his place was. ‘One time, Jennifer Lopez almost came in,’ he said, proud as punch. Almost!

Is there anything you weren’t happy with, and what would you do differently next time?

The persistently overcast sky made it difficult to get any really good, wide shots of Lima – I was looking for one of those on the cliffs in Miraflores (where the hangliders float by) and in the old, colonial city. My travel window wasn’t flexible this time, but, on return, I would go for blue skies between December and April.

Could you tell us about your shots of dishes? How did you go about getting the right lighting for this while avoiding misplaced shadows?

I like to use a 50mm lens, narrow aperture and lots of natural light for plated dishes. Wherever possible, I’ll take a dish to a window or skylight. It just eliminates so many problems off the bat. If natural light is unavailable (and it often is), I’ll ask for a table with the brightest light. I don’t use lights in these situations, as they are cumbersome and very intrusive to other diners. Staged food shots are another story (and, of course, allow much more control), but I prefer to visit at mealtimes when there are other diners in a restaurant. That allows me to grab notes on atmosphere and reactions, too.

What would be your top three tips for our readers on telling the story of a place through its food?

  1. Look at the food
  2. Look at the people producing the food
  3. Look at the people eating the food — Food is nothing in a vacuum. It’s everything when you understand who is making and eating it

See more of Pól’s photography and get more tips with our FREE digital-only Photography Magazine.

 

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Published in issue 6 of National Geographic Traveller (UK) Photography Magazine