David Ma is a director and filmmaker whose cinematic photos and videos of food have caught the attention of both the culinary and creative worlds, earning him a spot in Adweek's Top 100 Creatives of 2021. In this interview, we learn his valuable creative insights, advice for filmmakers and photographers, and how creating content on the go allows him to be more productive, build stronger client relationships, and make more compelling content.
All About David
David Ma has a unique and impressive background that makes him a knowledgeable and versatile creative. He began as an agency creative before transitioning to the culinary world as a food stylist. Now, as a director and filmmaker, he brings an innovative and fresh approach to cinematic food imagery, with his latest project, Food Films, which shows recipe videos in the style of famous directors, receiving over 10 million views and even capturing the attention of Michael Bay. There is a good chance you have seen Ma's work, which has been featured on Fast Company, Mashable, Buzzfeed, Food & Wine Magazine, VICE, and Bravo.
I was lucky enough to speak with Ma earlier this month, and he provided some truly valuable insights on being a creative and on working with his iPhone to create and edit content on the go. He has also released a guide to his favorite LA restaurants, so be sure to take a look at that if you live in the area and enjoy good food!
Ma is particularly fond of his iPhone 13 Pro, which I've also been testing for a few weeks. It is Apple's most versatile camera system yet, and I have found myself particularly impressed by the macro capabilities, Cinematic mode, and the 3x zoom (in tandem with the standard and ultra-wide focal lengths), all of which make it easy and fun to capture compelling content whenever and wherever.
Ma also spoke about this quite a bit. He told me how he does not have heavy technical training and as such, he puts less emphasis on the specific camera and lens combination and more on being agile and ready to create whenever. As he puts it, clients expect more than ever to be able to get "nimble and crazy narratives on the fly" and because of that, the "iPhone has been a blessing in [his] pocket." That is not to say there isn't a place for heavy duty equipment, but as Ma puts it, having a capable camera in his pocket frees him to be quicker and create without the need "for a whole team or crew."
The same extends to editing. Ma said: "There's something special to be able to show the chef at the end of the meal a photo of their work." Furthermore, "I can bang out an edit in the Uber to the next job, which keeps me from overthinking or over-polishing." I think the editing process should be closely connected to the shooting process; if you begin post-processing too long after the time of taking a photograph, you lose the thread of creation, and the results often suffer. Being able to shoot and edit in one quick motion is a real plus.
Ma also discussed how this has changed his working relationship with clients. By being able to show a client quick edits, it allows "clients to be true collaborators and not just the on-camera talent." In turn, he notes that this allows clients to see the value in pushing a shoot a bit further, while the intimacy of watching a cut together helps them to feel more investment and pride in the project.
Ma's favorite feature of the iPhone is its slow-motion mode. As he puts it: "other creators are focused on hyperlapse and ramped-up footage. This allows the food a moment to breathe on screen... it tells the audience: 'hey, this is really important.'"
The Democratization of Creativity
One of the most important points Ma made was how features like Cinematic mode have democratized creativity:
I love the idea that a 14-year-old or 25-year-old can make a short film using Cinematic mode. It takes the aesthetic that was only attainable by people that had the budget and crews with expertise and enables more storytellers. I love to see that we’re democratizing something that is a cinematic technique that many people didn’t have access to, enabling storytellers from all backgrounds, economic status, training (or lack thereof) to tell stories they want to tell. In a field where we don’t always have the best representation, I love that everyone can tell the stories that are true to them and have it be on the same level, which opens up immense possibilities. For the industry, culture, and the world, that’s a really special thing.
I think this is particularly important, as no one should be kept from exploring their creativity by lack of access.
Advice for Creatives
Ma has a lot of good advice for creatives. Talking to more seasoned creatives can be tremendously beneficial:
It's great to talk to anyone about their relationship with creativity. Sharing stories can help inspire someone else, but it reminds you of where you were, are, and going and that you should never focus on any one at once. You need all three to propel you to the next step, to be present, and to appreciate where you are and what you've accomplished.
We often worry a lot about the gear we are using, but as he puts it:
Practice and make mistakes. Don't worry about finding your niche immediately. In the beginning, learn and try as much as you can. Find what motivates you. Being able to experiment with that device in my pocket helped me find my signature style and voice by being prolific. Don't worry too much about the equipment you're using. Your phone is a great entry point to experiment and discover your voice... Never discount that tools that you have available to you. Everyone has resources. Resources can be formed and relationships can be made. Focus on story, and aesthetic will come from that.
On the topic of gear, Ma offered some great advice for maximizing the content you create with your iPhone:
Shoot in Macro
There is an incredible amount of texture and detail in the foods we eat every day. Use the macro feature to capture these vivid details that you wouldn’t always see with the naked eye. For a larger-than-life close-up, get your phone super close to the subject — get almost uncomfortably close, up to 2 cm away — to see your food from a whole new perspective.
Film Flames, Liquid Pours, Splashes, and Drips in Slow Motion
Any time you have a flame, liquid pour, splash, or drip moment, try using slo-mo to shoot it. Slo-mo is one of my favorite ways to turn a moment that passes in the blink of an eye and suspend that beauty into a memorable, cinematic shot.
Use Cinematic Mode To Tell the Story Behind Your Meal
In the example above, I simply filmed with my desired composition. Then, later on, I adjusted the aperture to my liking and added the focus transitions. Being able to make those adjustments after the fact is not only technically freeing, it allows you to focus more on storytelling and composition in the moment.
As a filmmaker and storyteller, I love incorporating chefs and people into my food shots. Just switch the camera to Cinematic mode and you’ll see the lens automatically finds faces, using depth of field to turn anyone into a cinematographer wherever they are. A simple tap on the screen shifts focus from the person to the food in front of them, bringing humanity and narrative into your food sequences.
Get Ultra-wide and Ultra-close
To make subjects feel larger than life, turn your phone upside down and switch the camera to the .5 lens (Ultra Wide). Bring your phone close to the subject. Doing this will make your subject tower over the frame, giving it a commanding presence as you compose your shot. Try it on vertically stacked items like sandwiches, burgers, sushi, salads & waffles, etc.
Use Portrait Mode
Depth of field adds a professional and romantic aesthetic to any photo, especially when shooting food and/or people. Just open Portrait mode on the camera, make sure you have enough light, and tap the subject you want to be in focus. After you’ve captured your Portrait mode shot, you can perfect it further by adjusting the background blur. Tap Edit, the “f” in the upper lefthand corner, and move the slider at the bottom.
If you have an iPhone with Portrait mode and you haven't tried adjusting the depth of field after capture, definitely give it a look; it's a very neat and useful feature.
Before you go, here's another from the Food Films series, just because they're so much fun:
I really enjoyed speaking with David Ma. His approach and work are a great reminder that storytelling is what matters, and it is so important to remove gatekeeping and lower the cost of entry to being creative. You can see more of his work on his Instagram page and his website.