Sushi, and the philosophy of photography

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Seared Wagyu beef with momeji oroshii.

Sushi is a universe in itself – there are so few components that if you get any one of them slightly wrong, the taste will be horrible. But if you get every one of them right, the experience can be magical. Specifically, your fish must be fresh and in season; precisely the right amount of soy sauce should be brushed on to the top, with a little dab of wasabi hiding between the rice and the fish. The fish itself is cut slightly concave so it drapes perfectly over the rice, itself measured to precisely the right quantity to make a mouthful and shaped by hand, not too tightly packed and not too loose, either.

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Katsuo (bonito) with ginger.

And then there’s the seasoning that accompanies the rice – a mix of mirin and rice vinegar – which must offer the right degree of tartness and sweetness to provide a counterpoint to the fish and soy sauce, but not so much that it overpowers or tastes sour. And this is before we even talk about more complicated creations that involve multiple types of fish, or searing, or additional condiments and seasoning.

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Broiled anago (freshwater conger eel).

There’s a parallel between sushi and photography (and sushi and many other things, actually) – aside from the obvious that it’s art, sushi making requires both technical skill and creativity. There are constraints, but you can work around them. It can be learned, it can be honed by experience, but there’s definitely an element of talent and intuition involved which all great sushi chefs possess. Photographs and sushi both come in small, bite-sized increments – they require little time to create if all the elements come together, and can be enjoyed in moments or contemplated for hours – I’ve eaten sushi dinners with 20+ different varieties served over many hours; I suppose that would be like going through the Magnum annual. Neither photography nor sushi is cheap, either; and mastery can take years.

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Torigai clam.

There’s even an anticipative element to it – the feeling of curiosity before you go to eat (wondering what is in season and came from Tsukiji today) is much like the feeling I get before a shoot; you’re all excited and ready to go. It’s also entirely possible that it’s just me.

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Seared katsuo

The best sushi I’ve ever eaten – so far – comes from a local chef in Kuala Lumpur at a restaurant called Hanare; Kenny Yew is an absolute genius when it comes to creating new things – for instance, seared wagyu with momeji oroshii chili – as a sushi. I need to go at least once a month or I get withdrawal symptoms and the DTs, because I just can’t eat sushi anywhere else now. The few lucky friends I’ve taken there feel the same way. It really is art – some of the pieces make me tingly and others nearly bring me to tears. I’ve eaten things there I never would have though edible, let alone ordered – and loved them. That’s much like how certain exhibitions, art or equipment inspire me to try photographic experiments that work out a lot better than expected.

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Seared hama-tai (sea bream)

And best of all, you can mix the two. The lighting conditions at that restaurant are pretty horrible, but they save me a seat at the counter which happens to have a halogen spot over it; I position my sushi carefully to be well-lit. This set might appear the same, but that’s because I wanted a consistent point of view; (and comparison)
they were also shot during the same meal. I discovered one other thing that night: the best color I’ve yet managed to achieve is delivered by a combination of Zeiss glass and Olympus cameras.

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Oo-toro. (Fatty yellowfin tuna belly)

I had the ZF.2 2/28 Distagon on the Pen Mini via an adaptor, and was utterly floored by the color when I opened up the raw files on my computer – the sushi literally looked like it had in real life. Every bit of the color, texture, iridescence and freshness was captured. I’m guessing it’s a combination of the fortuitous lighting, the great color and micro contrast of Zeiss lenses in general, and the pleasing color palette of Olympus cameras. Whatever it is, I think I’ve found my perfect sushi-camera.

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Red snapper.

My parting advice is that if you do get a chance to eat sushi made by a master, do as you would do at an exhibition of photographs by a great photographer: put away your preconceptions, go in with an open mind, and enjoy. You’ll probably be surprised. MT

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Kamburi (giant yellowtail).


  1. I like the Katsuo (Bonito) shot the best for its lighting and colors. The other shots have much more drab lighting.
    How come this one shot has much different lighting? I also think your Nikon D800E food shots with the ZF 28 look just as good or better than the Oly/Zeiss combo.Maybe you like the extra DOF of the Oly for this type of macro shooting?
    @Andre, yes I passed that Zeiss blind comparison test and only missed one of the comparisons. It is easy to tell once you have shot with Zeiss glass. Either read through some of the Zeiss image threads there in the FM alt section or rent a Zeiss lens and see for yourself. Zeiss lenses render color with an extra clarity as it renders all the very subtle various shades of color where as other CaNikon lenses have muddier colors. It is easy for me to see the difference in landscape shots with trees. The extra microcontrast and pop of these lenses gives you more of a feeling that you are there. Leica lenses are also excellent at color clarity.

    • Most of these in this set were available light; I started carrying some (small) lights after that, but it got a bit odd so I stopped photographing my food…

  2. Great images and write up – one thing I wish I could have seen is the same photo seen by Zeiss vs Oly. One hears so much about that 3D and microcontrast quality – assuming it is something on can see on a screen in ‘normal’ sizes.

    • Ah well, I don’t generally carry two identical lenses to make A-B comparisons over dinner – I also don’t have any identical focal lengths. That said, my Olympus 60 macro shootout does compare the new lens with the Zeiss – with some surprising results.

      • The Oly 60 macro comparison is interesting but doesn’t really address what makes Zeiss different. Might be interesting for a new topic to address that point. In that vein I recall (and .. found out again ..see ) an interesting experiment where photographers had to figure out which images were Zeiss or Canon. Time for more sushi testing ;D

  3. Not doing it for me Ming. For me I know a photo “works” when a chemical of varying doses, is released in my brain. This comes in various forms starting at ” clever” or “interesting” image. It will be at its peak when I sit and continue to look at and digest the aspects of it. Light and composition for me are the key most of the time.

    However the subject matter varies with this a lot! Some are drawn to Street photography, others sport, portraits and so on. In this case these images are starting behind the 8 ball!

    I am a family man that loves travel. And they are the images I am drawn to.

    As for these photos:

    I love sushi! I go to Japan every year. Not just to eat sushi! However for me it has a cultural context attached and here is where I struggle to connect with these images. As you have mentioned lighting was challenging and limited and perhaps that is another factor.

    I am qualifying all of the above comments by stating I am an amateur when it comes to photography! But so is everyone when it comes to a personal view. Not one person can rule the roost in photography. That’s why art and photography in this case is fascinating.

  4. Amazing photo with a simple setup!


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