Get The Right Kit
Telling you what camera to get is pretty pointless. Ultimately the quality of your camera is going to be defined by your budget and any variations within that, Canon or Nikon etc, are simply a case of preference or how many Nikon users you have in your ear telling you it’s the superior camera manufacturer. For someone trying to make the progression from amateur to professional, I would say the Canon Mrk 3 is realistically the lower end of the spectrum.
What really matters are three things, having a good quality tripod, a diffuser, which I shall discuss in my next tip, and having a great lens. That doesn’t necessarily mean having to spend £1k plus on a prime lens, in fact, the lens I used for the majority of my food photography up until a recent camera upgrade was a £300 canon macro lens. The two key features of the lens should that it’s fixed and that you can shoot macro beyond that it’s just whatever you feel works best for you. But I would stress that whatever you do, do not buy two mediocre lenses over one good one. The lens is perhaps your best friend in food photography.
Practice with natural light
I’m going to immediately backtrack here and demoted the lens to a good friend. Your true best friend is natural light. Unless you have £10k to blow on industrial film lights, which only a handful of photographers in the world do, none of which are food photographers, then you simply can’t replace natural light. Diffused sunlight is the perfect partner to a beautiful plate of food, it will bring out the colour and clarity and provide vivid yet subtle depth that is unachievable with flash or constant artificial light.
Once you have your camera and tripod setup simple place a plate of anything, as long as it has colour and texture, next to a window. Place a diffuser next to the plate but just out of shot if there is direct sunlight. Take the shot then move your camera around the plate, continuously taking photos from different positions. This is a brilliantly simple way of understanding how back, front and side light effects your well-behaved subjects (an apple, unlike a bored and hot wedding guest in a group shot, won’t have any issue with you taking your time to take dozens of photographs of it). Now do the same thing but use a white polyboard, reflector or simply a piece of paper on the other side of the frame from where the sunlight is coming from to see how bouncing light back into shot will affect the subject.
I can’t stress enough how important mastering the basics of natural light is. Once you nail that skill you have the foundations of being a capable food photographer
Find a stylist
It’s fair to say that a food photographer is only as good as the food they are shooting unless you’re a conceptual photographer who takes photos of Friday night kebabs for a Vice magazine picture story. Most food photographers I know ended up specialising because of their passion food, and everyone one of them would say that they are capable cooks. But no matter how good you are, when starting out, do not make the food you shoot. I’m not suggesting that you can’t do this at a later stage, after all, Jamie Oliver now shoots his food, but when your starting out your focus should be on lighting, composition and styling; add cooking into the mix and you’ll quickly find yourself overwhelmed and your images will suffer for it.
Just as there are thousands of aspiring food photographers, there are thousands of aspiring food stylists. I can’t personally give an exact method of finding yourself one, but just be creative and proactive and you should find one pretty quick. Social media is perhaps the best way to start. Once you find one you’ll find yourself reaching a new level of excitement for projects as you’ll not only have someone to bounce ideas off, but someone who is as eager as you do get beautiful shots.
Start test shooting
Once you have your kit, you’re comfortable with natural light and you have yourself a stylist it’s time to start test shooting. When you have no brief to guide you it can be quite intimidating but try using this to your advantage. You can shoot anything you like, however you like. Some nice ways to approach it are:
– Create a Pinterest board of shots you like. Go over your choices with a stylist and narrow it down to four. Don’t flat out plagiarise them (unless they’re for your eyes only) but try and imitate them then tweak them.
– Create an editorial brief and be imaginative. Perhaps pretend Observer food monthly have commissioned you to shoot 6 images using wild garlic, then work with your stylist to create or find recipes and put together a mood board for each recipe. Again I would use Pinterest for this
– As good background and props can make a shot, think about what surfaces you have at your disposal, pull together your favourite ceramics and decide what recipes would match your hull
Once you have built up your confidence, abilities and most importantly your portfolio you need to start sharing it. It doesn’t matter how good your work is, if its just sitting on your computer you won’t get anywhere. It’s important to make clear this next point is subjective but unless you have 100,000 Instagram followers social media is at best a confidence booster and means of potential clients instantly seeing your work and at worst a creator of a false sense of success. I know many people obsessed with chasing followers but you have to ask yourself, how does a follow and a dozen likes from Hank Matthews from Ramley, South Dakota, translate to paid work. It’s all about the quality of your reach, not the quantity.
Going back to previous points of food photography being only as good as the food you shoot as well as the principle of active shooting, contact brands, restaurants and chefs you like. In the early stages of your career, you haven’t got much to offer so consider offering your services for free. I’m aware that free work is a faux pas and I don’t usually encourage this but consider two things
1. It’s not free work, your payment is the opportunity to develop your portfolio. Although I would stress that this is only relevant if you truly believe it will be. It’s still fucking irritating when potential clients ask for free work, stating it will be great for your portfolio. This is for you to decide, not them
2. Approach people who would otherwise not have profession photographs taken. This primarily protects the industry you want to be part of by not undercutting your peers and driving standardised rates down. It also means they will usually be very grateful for your time and thus award you more creative freedom and be inclined to promote your work
Whilst most things should be about quality over quantity, the initial stages of your food photography should be all about being active, experimenting and getting yourself out there. I’ve always found learning from your mistakes is a great way to learn and photography is no exception. Of course when you establish yourself drop your output and concentrate on getting those single brilliant shots over a gigabytes of mediocrity