What’s For Lunch? The Story of a 10 Year Photo Project

What’s For Lunch? The Story of a 10 Year Photo Project

It’s no secret that PhotoShelter staff are, well, photo nerds. When we say “by photographers for photographers” we mean it. Keeping up with the latest trends, sharing inspiration and critiques in our #photography Slack channel, and bringing an unnecessary amount of gear to even the most casual of get-togethers are all the norm around here.

Lesser known is our obsession with food. If there’s anything to celebrate – even if it’s just 4PM on a Friday – chances are someone has run to grab chocolate babka from Breads Bakery or to the Union Square Greenmarket to get fresh blueberries in the summer.

Enter Peter Balderston, one of our most seasoned foodies. Peter is a Senior Developer here at PhotoShelter who’s been working on a personal food-related photo project for the better part of his time with us. For ten of his thirteen years at PhotoShelter, he’s been photographing his daily lunches, compiling them into an epic collection few of us have been privy to.

To give you an idea of the scale of this project, here’s a look at just one year of lunches.


Now imagine this times ten. Peter’s knack for creating beautiful food photos is already impressive, but his ten-year commitment to this daily project is mind-boggling. I had the pleasure of catching up with him earlier this month to learn more about the mouth-watering photo project he’s been keeping under wraps. Keep reading to find out what keeps him motivated, details about this set up and why he’s stuck with this project for over a decade.

All photos by Peter Balderston.

Can you tell us a little about what the project is and how it came about? How many images have you shot thus far?

The premise is simple:  Make an image of every lunch I eat, every day I eat one. Not that I thought my forgettable lunches were worth recording – I started it mainly to force myself to take more photos. At the time I was still somewhat new to the world of digital photography, and this was a way to get some practice in on a daily basis. After about a month of fits and starts it became a habit, and now has a bit of a life of its own – I’ve somehow been shooting for over a decade now!

I shot my first lunch (a chorizo burrito) on September 2nd, 2008. That’s about 2700 lunches, depending on when you read this.

One of Peter’s first images from Uncle Moe’s Chorizo Burrito, 2008

What gear are you using? How has it changed?

I started with a cheap-o Canon XTi and a decent Tamron medium length zoom lens, and my gear has improved as I’ve gotten more into photography (lunches aren’t all I shoot!). These days the workhorse rig is an aging Canon 5D MkII with an EF 50/1.4 lens and a 430EXII flash bounced off a nearby wall, all set to expose properly on the little swatch of posterboard I use for a white backdrop. The 5D2 also has a wifi grip (from before the days when wifi was standard!) that FTPs my shots straight up to PhotoShelter (I got tired of plugging a CF card reader into my computer every day).  

When I’m on vacation I try to travel a little lighter, and generally shoot using a Fuji X-E2 and Fuji’s slim little 27/2.8 in whatever light’s available

And in the rare instance I’ve forgotten all my gear, it’s my iPhone.

Walk us through the process. Do you really photograph every lunch?

The process is pretty straightforward – I buy or make a lunch, bring it to my office, maybe reference how I last shot this type of lunch (for consistency), make a few shots until I’ve got one that looks sharp and composed, then, if there’s time that day (I am doing this during my lunch break), edit, keyword & archive the winner. It’s actually simpler than it used to be; I’ve recently switched to working remotely and when I was in office there was sometimes a shortage of conference rooms to shoot in, meaning I’d have to improvise a studio. But that’s all part of the fun.

As for every lunch? Short answer: No, but almost all of them! Astute readers may have noticed that my lunch count is a little low for 10.5 years. This is because I rarely eat lunch on the weekends, substituting a late breakfast (which I almost never eat during the week) instead. Now there most certainly have been weekend days that I have had lunch and not photographed it, but they’re very few and far between. During the week it’s even rarer – I have to be really distracted (either on a weird vacation schedule or eating with a friend/boss) to miss a weekday lunch, but it does happen about once a year. I’ve toyed with the idea of revisiting those missed lunches, but that’s a project for another decade.

What have you learned about food photography – or more broadly just photography in general – through this project?

I’ve certainly learned a lot about maintaining image consistency over time by, well, looking back periodically and seeing how inconsistent I’ve been! I’m a much better user of Lightroom and custom camera presets now because of this project. I’ve also had to learn how to manage a long term project – developing a framework to keep this little curiosity plugging along while not missing photos or losing metadata.   

I’d also say there’s also something to be learned from trying to capture something as mundane and forgettable yet essential to life as lunch, which in isolation would be pretty boring, yet as a collection gets more interesting the larger it becomes (at least to me).  

What techniques do you use to light your food shots?

When I’m in a controlled environment I’m typically semi-softly lighting my food from one side via a wall bounce. This usually gives the mix of shadow fill from the edges of the bounce (or secondary bounces) and depth perception cast from the harsher light towards the center.

When I’m dealing with natural light I try to stay out of direct sunlight and away from arrays of LEDs, anything that’ll cast shadows that are too sharp. Indirect window light tends to be the best bet if I can find it.

What’s the easiest lunch to photograph? What’s the hardest?

The easiest lunches are untossed salads in round bowls. There’s usually enough variety in the toppings to make a balanced image, while not being too simple.

The hardest tends to be messy hot sandwiches on long rolls, particularly under crappy overhead lighting – so tasty, but really hard to make look appetizing in their natural environment.

Do you do any food styling (e.g. tucking a noodle under another so the end doesn’t show) before shooting?

Generally, I do minimal to no styling, which mostly consists of just cleaning up the edges of bowls or spreading out toppings for better composition. I try not to fuss, as I like to get my lunch recorded as quickly as possible (since this project has taken up enough of my life already!).

Do you have a favorite image and/or lunch? Why or why not?

Hard to choose! I don’t think there’s a single image, but there are categories. There’s a Japanese cafeteria of sorts around the corner from PhotoShelter (shoutout to Ennju!) that always has a selection of bento boxes in their cooler ready for pickup, and watching their contents and arrangements change within the framing of their little containers is always fun (and something I miss dearly about working in the office). It’s as much a record of someone else’s patient, steady work – preparing this little bento – as it is my lunch.

Bento Boxes from Ennju

I also enjoy vacation lunches, as they tend to be quite varied.

Turkey & Swiss at Ocean Beach

Who are your favorite food photographers?

Big fan of Daniel Krieger‘s refined realism and Bobby Doherty‘s brain-melting technicolor. Outside of food, Pete Souza‘s the man.

Do you have a way for people to follow along with the series?

Well, it just so happens I’ve got a PhotoShelter site dedicated just to this project: https://www.lunch.photos! I’m also occasionally posting some of the more interesting cross-sections of the work to Instagram @wfl.peter.

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It’s also worth noting that the rest of Peter’s work deserves its own shoutout. Check it out and be sure to follow him on Instagram for more savory posts.

If you’re a creator of sensory overload imagery like Peter, tag us on Instagram using #FiveSensePhoto, our latest photo campaign. Taste, smell, sight, touch and sound are all fair game, and one of our favorites will be featured Saturday, March 30 on our feed.

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