X100VI: Penny De Los Santos x Timeless value

X100VI: Culinary Borders

Penny De Los Santos documents the food culture of South Texas’s borderlands, losing herself in immersive scenes with FUJIFILM X100VI

Food photography is a beautifully varied genre, encompassing everything from pristine studio creations to the unpolished reality of everyday eats. For professional documentarian Penny De Los Santos, aesthetic is entirely driven by truth. Whatever her subject reveals, she’s there to revel in the visual story; expertly working, then sharing the fruits of her labor with viewers far and wide.

The boundless culture that surrounds food hasn’t always been her photographic inspiration, but it only took one outing before she was hooked. Returning from one of now countless trips – this time to the Texan border with FUJIFILM X100VI in hand – Penny is reminded of her exciting food photography beginnings.

Photo 2023 © Penny De Los Santos | FUJIFILM X100VI, 1/160 sec at F5.6, ISO 160

“I started out in newspapers, as a way to get more into magazine and commercial photography. I felt it was the quickest way to get the most experience and learn as much as I could, knowing I’d be going out every day into new environments to make photos,” the photographer reveals. “The images needed to tell stories, but also be good enough to publish.

“Soon, I won – based on my portfolio – an internship with National Geographic. They continued training me for the next ten years of my career, and I was growing my understanding of powerful visual narratives.

Photo 2023 © Penny De Los Santos | FUJIFILM X100VI, 1/250 sec at F3.2, ISO 500

“One day, my editor gave me an assignment for a new publication. That editor said to me, ‘It’s exactly what you already do, documenting a sense of place – but it’s around food. Bring your skills and just explore it,’” Penny continues. “I was sent to Peru. Walking through this Lima market, I started understanding how ingredients migrate with people, and as I explored, I realized how recipes are passed down from generation to generation. Different families share in different ways, and that’s what influences a culture.

“It was all completely inspiring. I had never really thought about food from a human perspective. I went into people’s homes and saw the way they made and shared meals – and it was moving. From then on, I started asking to cover food stories.”

Penny’s most recent project hit close to home, both geographically and emotionally. Returning to her family haunt of South Texas, she sought out and documented family food traditions on a trio of ranches across the state’s border with Mexico.

“I’ve photographed the Texas borderlands my whole career. There’s so much to cover and it’s very personal to me,” Penny explains. “I heard about these three cattle ranches and knew I had to get access. A ranch like this is something aside from your normal home. This would be a place to farm, barbecue, and spend time with family.

Photo 2023 © Penny De Los Santos | FUJIFILM X100VI, 1/200 sec at F2, ISO 100

“Two of the ranches are historical family properties, passed down through families that applied for the Spanish Land Grant around 1725. The third is just as old, but is now owned by a family that migrated from the neighboring Mexican state a generation ago, bringing their own food traditions, like barbacoa.

“Now, there’s only around 15 of these family-owned ranches left. They’re very significant – we’re talking up to 55,000 acres each. You’ve got to be sensitive to the fact that it’s people’s private property, their livelihood, and also their family history. But, I’ve always wanted to explore this part of Texas culture, so I found a few willing subjects.”

With food always firmly at the heart, Penny builds stories by seizing whatever visuals lend themselves to the telling. In every recipe and shared meal, there is a clear beginning, middle, and end.

“Everything can contribute to a food photography story as a potential moment or emotion,” she muses. “I pull back as far as I can and document everything that relates. You’ve got to get to know your subjects well enough that they trust you to be a part of their life, and that they show real, authentic moments, confident you’ll honor them. Then you have to observe.”

Photo 2023 © Penny De Los Santos | FUJIFILM X100VI, 1/250 sec at F2, ISO 100

The crucial point of observation is where X100VI came into the project like only it could – offering Penny astounding imaging performance in an unintrusive body. With its Advanced Hybrid Viewfinder and fixed FUJINON 23mmF2 lens, this versatile camera is capable of existing in the very center of the documentary process.

“It was incredibly freeing to use only X100VI to experience this entire story,” Penny enthuses. “I found it easy to make pictures quietly. A lot of the best moments I photograph are the ones where I disappear, leaving the subject to do their thing. X100VI was perfect for that. It’s low profile and doesn’t draw attention. There’s something romantic and meditative about that notion as a photographer.

“A fixed focal length is the only way to photograph, if I’m honest. It helps me stay active in my work and allows me to see more because it forces me to physically move around my subject,” she continues. “Changing your perspective is key to finding images that tell a story. Having a fixed focal length is a wonderful way to exercise that skill.”

Photo 2023 © Penny De Los Santos | FUJIFILM X100VI, 1/400 sec at F2, ISO 100

Looking further into the close intertwining of story and visuals, Penny shares a word on X100VI’s impressive 40.2-megapixel X-Trans CMOS 5 HR sensor. Sensor performance is far more important for food documentary photography than many would think – not only when it comes to eventually sharing images, but in their making, too.

“Image quality is an essential part of the detailed stories I tell. Just as importantly, I can be in visually challenging situations and a sensor like X100VI’s will still allow me to document what’s happening perfectly. I don’t have to change an environment when I can push my camera to adapt instead.

“The camera’s file size was incredible, but so was image depth and color. There’s more to X100VI than just huge resolution.”

Photo 2023 © Penny De Los Santos | FUJIFILM X100VI, 1/50 sec at F2, ISO 2500

Memorable as the process was, Penny’s eyes are just as much on the future. From her visit to the Texan borderlands, she takes yet more experience to build upon, along with a new tool that lets her bring visions to life like never before.

“Documentary food photography is a combination of things,” she concludes. “You need to understand composition, color, and light in your DNA – then you have to anticipate a scene. Sometimes, that won’t come together in the image you wanted, but you can’t be disheartened. Eventually, the photo chooses you. But a camera like X100VI is an incredible opportunity for a photographer to communicate as much of a moment as possible.”

Photo 2023 © Penny De Los Santos | FUJIFILM X100VI, 1/25 sec at F2, ISO 5000