A lot of people with no qualifications aside from a working smartphone consider themselves food photographers. They even contributed to creating a new genre within food photography: food porn. Talented, self-taught food bloggers are flooding internet with extremely appetizing and eye-pleasing images of food. Often, they offer tutorials and tips. Some of them even organize workshops, trying to teach others to become better food photographers.
Over time, the aesthetics and creativity of food blogs have influenced food magazines and publications into more visual creative and diverse looks in their own culinary editorials. But are food bloggers and Instagram super-stars really equipped to take on a professional food photographer’s job?
The internet offers quite a lot of information for those who want to learn the trade of food photography. However, the majority of content is intended for beginners and food bloggers. While this is a good starting point and teaches the fundamentals of certain aesthetics, it doesn’t really have anything to do with a professional food photographer’s job. Few online sources tell you exactly what the job of being a professional photographer really entails.
So what are the most important insights of a professional food photographer’s job that you hardly ever hear about online?
1. There is no specific model of camera nor piece of photo gear that makes you a professional.
Just like there isn’t a “best” typewriter that will write Pulitzer Prize winning novels, there is no camera that will make a “perfect” picture. The food photographer behind the camera is the one in charge.
This misconception is orchestrated by gear selling and gear reviewing websites. These sites are designed to make beginners spend a lot of money on things that they don’t really need and make them believe that without this or that particular piece of gear, they won’t be able to take the right picture. That might be true to certain extent. But the truth is that the gear that a professional food photographer’s job entails depends on the task at hand. Gear choices are usually based on personal preferences of the photographer and the end product of the images. Believe it or not, I know some commercial photographers that would still shoot with film if that were the most cost or time efficient option.
If you are shooting freelance content for Instagram of some small local brand, you don’t necessarily need a full frame camera. A crop sensor might work just as well, provided that you understand principals of photography. Projects like that might not require lighting consistency and look great with a little natural window light. In that case you won’t need the expensive Profoto strobes that the photography gear blog or forums tempt you with. Your role as a professional food photographer is to determine the needs of a project and make the most out of what you have at your disposal. On another note, lot of professional high end photographers often don’t own certain pieces of gear or equipment. Instead, they rent it if the job requires them. They have to know how to use it, but not necessarily own it.
Advertising print jobs will always demand more advanced gear like medium/large format camera. The bigger the client, production and end use (beyond social media content), the more need for sophisticated cameras and lenses and lighting.
2. A professional food photographer is deliberate and consistent in his or her photographic efforts.
Professionalism in the world of photography means that creating images through a deliberate and consistent process. It means that the photographers can control the production process from A to Z and will deliver consistent quality images under any circumstances. That means he fully understand physics of light. Professional photographers are usually hired because they are known and trusted for their skills.
Some professional photographers are more specialized and want to be recognized for their own particular style. Others enjoy adopting a variety of approaches to deliver different styles. If you are a food blogger who is known for a very particular style and you’re hired to deliver images, you have to be aware that a serious commercial client will be looking for consistency in the look and quality of images. If you want to climb up to the top, you have learn to understand how to play with light. You won’t just have to create elaborate setups depending on a client’s need. You’ll also have to have the skills to replicate a setup at a moment’s notice.
3. Outlining project ahead of time is part of a professional food photographer’s job.
Being a pro means having details figured out before anyone even considers hiring you. Experienced photographers might be requested by potential client to prepare so called treatment. It’s a brief outline of project specs prepared ahead of time that allows to visualize project and plan things out. Things that you might have to figure out before heading into the studio include:
- The story you want to tell with you’re images
- Set design
- Props and possible product placement
- Casting hand, lip, or full body models
- Special effects involved (SFX)
- Camera and lens specs
- Post-production needs
4. Professional food photographer’s job doesn’t require a college degree
Reading handbooks or taking online photography classes for food photographers will take you so far – especially if you have a thirst for knowledge, you will get bored very fast. If you are looking to learn more, you don’t necessarily need to enroll into some general photography classes or go get a degree from a college or university.
Most colleges don’t really offer specialty classes in food photography, and good photography schools and programs aren’t available in many parts of the world. A lot of schools approach photography as an art, and that doesn’t help in becoming commercially successful. In fact, it often stands in the way of becoming successful. If you’ve exhausted all your online educational resources, the route to take is to find an apprenticeship with a professional photography studio. This is the best (and cheapest) way to gain hands-on experience and see real life food photography.
Some of the most recognized photographers never went to college. However, they had passion for their subject of choice and spent countless hours practicing and collaborating (which leads us to out next point).
5. Creative collaboration with other creatives is a must.
This is, in my opinion, the key aspect to successful creative commercial career – but I’ve noticed that aspiring photographers in developing markets don’t know or understand the full value of it. Many tend to be competitive and secretive in an unhealthy way. Seeking out collaborative opportunities with fellow photographers, stylists, and creative directors both teaches the spirit of the teamwork and inspires. Your education doesn’t stop with a degree, certificate or once you’ve mastered working with cameras and lights. You’ll need to be innovative and capable of coming up with fresh ideas in order to snag an agent or serious client. By working alongside others (or even just chatting with them), you’ll pick up on market trends and be able to find new influences.
6. The best food photographers have an emotional connection with their food.
You’re unlikely to become a great food photographer if you don’t care about cooking, eating, or the beauty that food has to offer.
I once had a guy emailed me wanting to assist and learn. He mentioned the expensive camera model he had, but not much about his experience. So, I asked him if he tried to shoot food on his own? He said, “I would love to, but I don’t have that much money to spend for shooting food”. When I questioned what he did for a living, he mentioned that he worked in a restaurant. Immediately, it puzzled me how someone could be around food and food waste all day long without seeing an opportunity or subject to take a shot at.
Of course, different aesthetics and situations trigger every individual artist. Some prefer flying burger cooking action shots under speedlights. Others will opt for quiet, rustic table settings. But, if you’re truly food photographer material, you’ll likely find something interesting in subjects as humble as breadcrumbs.
7. Professional food photographers have other skills outside of photography.
Getting to the top of the food chains means expanding beyond technical and creative skills. Business skills, diligence, and strong communication and organizational skills are necessities. If you are really good, you might get an agent that will take care of this part of the professional food photographer’s job for you. But reaching that points involves developing some of those traits yourself.
Top notch food photographers don’t work alone. The higher end food photography jobs being booked, the more team effort involved. You have to be able to find right people to build your own creative team consisting of digitech, prop, food stylists, and various assistants. You’ll also have to cooperate with member’s of a client’s team, which may include producers, marketing managers, and even investors. Most of the time, the creative direction of a food project won’t necessarily be in line with your own taste. Instead, you’ll have abide to the existing creative direction of the brand or product being featured. If you have too much ego or you’re too cynical, food photography might not be career for you. If you can’t deal with irritating client concepts, pursue blogging or fine arts instead…
8. Food photography is much broader than you think.
Food photo isn’t limited to images for cookbooks, food magazines and advertising banners. There are countless ways to work with food in photography. Specialize in subjects that are graphic or conceptual if you’re bored with plated foods and pretty cakes. Still life photography is currently experiencing revival, and a lot of clients are looking for still lives with food elements in it. Stop-motion animations allow marketers to mix food photography with a creative sense of humor to engage audiences. Food sells just as well as sex – get creative and use your subject of choice to your advantage.
9. Professional food photographer’s job isn’t as glamorous as you’d imagine
The end images might be pretty, but a professional food photographer’s job is actually quite hard and physically draining. Food (as oppose to models) is a stationary object and requires constant human intervention in order to be photogenic. While professional food photographer’s job usually involves working with food stylists, they also have to move around a lot and constantly adjust things on set. Climbing up on the ladder is a norm. Being physically in shape helps with the job tremendously.
It’s tempting to take on food photography. From the outside looking in, it may seem as though there’s little to it than snapping a shot or two of pastries perfected by a chef behind the scenes. It’s always easy to admire the neat, clean end product. In reality, that “perfect” pastry likely involved teamwork, physical labor, and a whole lot of patience to nail down in photographic form. The crux of a professional food photographer’s job lies in the not-so-spectacular details that never seem to make for viral blog posts or Youtube tutorials.