How to Become a Food Photographer
Learn how to become a food photographer with advice from Flavi J, a published food photographer who talks you through what this profession is really like and how to get into it.
What is food photography?
Working as a food photographer involves more than just taking Instagram shots of lovely things you’ve eaten to impress your friends. A food photographer job features a lot of ‘alone time’ sourcing freelance opportunities beyond stock agency work, getting regular work with publishing houses, and physically battling with culinary blow torches. But the rewards are worth it! An experienced food photographer lets you in on the qualifications, training, challenges and joys of a fun, alternative job that will exist as long for as there’s a food and drinks industry.
What made you become a food photographer?
In my case, it was a gradual process that began with frustration. At my first job, working in the women’s magazines segment, I was entrusted with the food section. I learned that the magazine bought stock photography from an agency and then the editor (me in that case) made up the recipes. (That’s why, when we cook from magazine recipes, the results can vary greatly compared to the illustrating image.) While I was studying for my graphic design degree, I lived alone and had the chance to build a small food photography portfolio and, suddenly, I realized I had something coherent and appealing to offer to the food world.
Photo: Flavi J
What is the pay like?
I am a freelancer and do different kinds of work, so the pay varies greatly. A photo shoot can mean anything from a few hundred euro to a few thousand. Selling your images to stock agencies is disappointingly underpriced, but you do get a fee every time the image is bought. I work with local restaurants, photographing cooking events or photographing their dishes for promotional material and with publishers that give assignments based on their editorial needs. Working out the right way to price your work and time is an issue most of us struggle with. The pay is decent, but in the initial years, it might not be enough to support you, so don’t quit your day job as soon as you’ve bought your professional camera.
What sort of qualifications/training do you need?
The low(er) budget approach: You need an intimate knowledge of your camera and lighting and a huge passion for food that will get you experimenting and creating on a consistent basis. The big budget approach: You need a degree or any kind of training in visual arts and communication (graphic design or photography are a plus), and again, passion for this particular field. In either case, you need to be able to show to your clients that you can stand out in the crowd of professionals in the field.
From personal experience, I would say the most important thing is to grow a thick skin that will help you get through the inevitable rejections in the beginning. You also need to be able to accept criticism and suggestions and to trim your ego down to size. The greatest artists are very humble people and the diva behaviour really is something that only movie characters can get away with.
Job satisfaction? What are the perks of being a food photographer?
As with every other visual profession, it feels great to see your work being published, printed or otherwise reproduced. You get to make a name for yourself, to work with various people who have different projects, and most of all, you get to be more in control of your time and price your work better in relation to the time and effort you invest.
Photo: Flavi J
What are the downsides?
As someone working in a creative job, you can’t have days when you just phone it in; your name and reputation as a professional are always at stake and you have to do your best every time. The responsibility is greater, as you find yourself needing to make a lot of important decisions on your own. Also, there are always going to be people who don’t appreciate artistic professions and wonder why anyone would pay you for pushing a shutter button. The truth is, though, that not everyone with a smartphone and an Instagram account is a photographer.
How physically/mentally demanding is the job?
You need to think fast and come up with original ideas; you cannot go in and take 600 shots and hope there’s going to be a usable image in there. Imagination and the ability to translate it in tangible terms are key, I’d say. The obvious part is that which can be trained, with practice and time: an eye for composition, contrasts and lighting. You must always know how to make the most out of your “actors” (that’s what I call the food that gets photographed). You have to keep on top of visual trends and be aware of what is in demand these days. Photography, while having the reputation of being a very non-physical and static job, can take you up ladders and leave you dangling from the ceiling in a harness or crawling on the floor to get the right angle.
Most glorious career moment to date?
It was definitely getting my book published, having finally found the time and the focus to put some of the best tricks of the trade that I learned into an appealing and accessible form. If you want to become a food photographer either as an interesting hobby or as a profession, this book will help.
Buy Fun with Food Photography by Flavi J for only £4.06 on Amazon.
Most hideous career moment?
I would not call it hideous, but rather daunting, and I would say it was the beginning. Things took off at a really slow pace and there are always those who are trying to exploit someone who is at their starting point. Do not be afraid to stand up for yourself. A fair and reliable business partner or client does not try to bully their way out of contract obligations.
Food photography is a fairly clean and safe line of work, but accidents can still happen: someone can knock down the carefully styled plate just as you’re getting ready to shoot, burn their eyebrows with a badly angled blowtorch, blow hot food vapour in your face by accident… Working with live food such as crab and lobster can be hazardous as well. Planning ahead can prevent unpleasant events from ruining your shoot, and of course there are always personalized insurance plans, for times when things really go south. Insurance and knowing who is responsible is very important, even if you are not working as a freelancer.
The best case scenario is when everyone who is present at a shoot knows what they are doing and what the risks are. A chef or a stylist will always tell you not to touch hot caramel or warn you if cutting the food might squirt hot sauce onto your lens or skin; that is, if common sense doesn’t alert you to these things first.
Sexy uniform? Dating factor?
You can always show up for a shoot looking your sharpest, but high heels and short skirts don’t make for comfortable work clothes. Like I said, there can be a lot of climbing and crawling, so a short-sleeved top, trousers and some sports shoes are a good work outfit. You don’t want to think about your clothing casting unwanted shadows or showing up in the photographs, so it’s good to think your work clothes through. There is also the risk of stains, so it helps to have clothes to change into after you’re done.
As far as dating goes, a job as a food photographer offers opportunities to meet a lot of people and many of them are professionals (brand owners, restaurateurs, mixologists, prop stylists, food stylists etc,). Everyone is incredibly polite and charming, and while there is not that much time to chat and socialize on set, the chances of meeting someone fun are high because 1. you do meet a large number of people and 2. some of those people are going to keep reappearing at events, parties, openings, new shoots and the like. And you can get to know someone you’re interested in at least for a bit before going on a date. This way, if someone cute shows up on the radar, you know you already have a few things in common.
Photo: Flavi J
What advice would you give anyone interested in being a food photographer?
Be passionate and be relentless. Look for the stories behind the dishes, ask, go hunting for tales and experiences. Nowadays everyone can buy a digital camera and take pictures, but not everyone can make images speak directly to viewers’ minds. Be professional and reliable, but also have fun. Infuse your work with your personal style and way of looking at things.
Is it a job for life? How does one progress in this job?
The popularity of this profession might potentially decline in the future, as right now the market is saturated with food-related content. But as long as there is a food and drinks industry, there’s going to be work for food photographers. It’s always a good idea to expand into food and prop styling to set yourself apart from others and to be able to offer more. Marketing your skills and work is vital. That is why I am currently looking for an agent who will help me reach clients from other parts of Europe as well. The goal is to establish yourself as a name in the industry and have regular clients like publishing houses or advertising agencies.
Is there anything we should have asked you but were too selfish to do so?
I would like to take this opportunity to stress how important it is to think ahead and to be an “exalted realist”, as I like to call it. Are you drooling at magazine pictures and want to take nice images of food as well? Great. A workshop might be the first step for you, and this way you will be able to tell if you want to make this into a hobby or a career. Food photography is about getting on the same page with a lot of people, compromise, diplomacy, long work hours that end when the job is done and no sooner. It may seem glamorous and easy from the outside, but it is a lot of work. And most of all, food photography involves a lot of alone time, pondering, sketching, researching and planning, so keep that in mind as the long lonely hours might be distressing for some.
In my book, I reveal a lot of accessible tips to make the most out of your images and I am also available for any additional questions that may arise. You are welcome to have a look at my website and to drop me a line if anything you see tickles your curiosity.
Buy Fun with Food Photography by Flavi J for only £4.06 on Amazon.