Ben Seto is an Oakland-based food blogger and photographer. Born and raised in Hawaii, Ben first started blogging about the Bay Area food scene back in 2006 with his blog, “Cooking with The Single Guy.” Over the past decade, the blog not only attracted a wider audience but evolved with a new name, “Focus Snap Eat,” where Ben showcases his food photography as well as continue to share his notes on the latest restaurants and culinary stores around the Bay Area and beyond. He just celebrated the 10th year anniversary of his successful blog and looks forward to what is in store for the next ten years. Aside from food, Ben also loves to travel around the world and try different cuisines. This week Ben speaks to atlas about his trip to Vietnam, who he would love to go on a photo shoot with, and where he would like to travel next.
How did you first become interested in photography?
Ben Seto: I was always fascinated at looking at pictures growing up. I was mesmerized how a photo could evoke emotions and tell a story in one quick instance. So when I was in high school in Hawaii, I saved up money working part time to buy my first camera, which was an Olympus, and I’ve been taking pictures ever since.
You have been blogging about food in the Bay Area and beyond for ten years now on Focus Snap Eat where you also post a lot of your food photography. How has blogging changed over the past decade?
People’s attention span has definitely shortened in the time that I have been blogging. For me, that means less writing long prose and more focus on having a lot of engaging images in my post to catch the eye of visitors.
Are you self-taught or do you have a formal training in photography?
Yes, I am self taught. Early on I took a few beginning photography classes but never found them necessarily insightful. I got a few good pointers here and there, but the end result I learned was that you get better photos when you can invest in better equipment and lighting. In terms of the soul of a photo, it still rests with how you frame the photo and see it through your eyes. And that you can not really learn.
Aside from food photography, you also engage in other types of photography i.e., nature, sports, and travel. What do you enjoy photographing the most and why?
I think my photography site, benseto.smugmug.com, best demonstrates my main areas of interests, which you correctly point out as food, travel, nature and sports. I equally enjoy photographing all but each provide a different satisfaction. With sports (especially baseball), I enjoy the challenge of capturing that moment of action. Things can happen so quickly so it is really prepping for the right moment and then getting lucky. Travel is really trying to find moments in a foreign land that convey how I felt when I was visiting, and nature is really just enjoying the beauty of flowers (plus flowers, like food, don’t move). And with food, it’s both the excitement with how beautiful food can be sometimes, and then trying to tell a story through how I present the food. I really enjoy that challenge.
How is food photography different from travel photography?
Food photography mostly deals with a smaller space, mostly a table, while travel photography can involve an entire mountainside. So both offer different challenges in scale. But what is most exciting to me is when I get to do food photography while traveling! That’s my biggest joy because you see the beauty of the food that is different than what we see here, and then there’s the challenge of conveying that country’s vibe and story through the photo.
Tell us a bit about these wonderful and vibrant street scenes from your trip in Vietnam. Which cities did you visit? What was your experience like photographing there?
When I travel, I typically go to one place and spend some time there instead of going from city to city, trying to squeeze in a lot of experience into a short period. When I stay in one place, it allows me to really absorb the culture and help me understand a place.
My Vietnam trip was a 10-day stay in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. There’s really not a lot to do in Vietnam, and I go mostly because I love the freshness of the food. But in-between meals, I mostly found myself walking and walking and walking, just people watching and exploring the city. Because Ho Chi Minh City is not as interesting as, say, Hanoi with its historical buildings, I spent most of my time photographing the street scenes, especially the markets.
What I find exciting about visiting places like Vietnam, where the country may not be necessarily prosperous to produce slick skyscrapers or fancy restaurants, is that it feels more real to me, more authentic.
Any photographers who inspire you?
I’ve been inspired by many photographers over the years, like Herb Ritts and Ansel Adams. My current fascination is Vivian Maier, who worked as a nanny in Chicago but took black and white photographs of the street scene of Chicago in the 1940s. She never became famous as a photographer when she was alive, but became famous when her old negatives were discovered by an art student who purchased it at an estate sale. I just loved the fact that despite not being recognized for her photography when she was living, she still continued to take tons and tons of photos (this was all on film before digital) because she just loved to take photos. And I really enjoy looking at her photos because the street scenes are always capturing moments in people’s lives. It may seem invasive to some, but to me it chronicles life at a certain moment in history. And every moment should be memorialized, I believe. Because every moment means something to at least one person.
If you could go on a photo shoot with any photographer (living or deceased), who would it be?
Well, since I am obsessed with Vivian Maier, it would be to follow her around Chicago. Of course, I would hope she leaves the kids with their parents.
What is your dream food & travel photography trip?
There are many places I would love to go and visit and try their cuisine. But at the moment I am not obsessing over any cuisine or destination. I think the ideal food-related travel for me would involve someplace near water because growing up in Hawaii I have a need to be near water like a coastal destination, and a place where the food offers a taste that I have never experienced before, something that tickles my palate and makes me feel that excitement of discovering something that maybe no one else (but the locals) have experienced. If anyone knows a place like that, I am open to suggestions!
What is your next project?
I do not really work project to project. In my head, there are different photo themes I think about tackling or I would like to do. It is really just finding the time since this is not my full-time job. I wish it was. So on my free time, I am mostly focused on taking photos for my food blog. So if I really have a “next” project, it will be my first.
Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Ben!
For more information about Ben, visit his blog. All images © Ben Seto.