Leaning over tabletops on your tiptoes. Trying to peek at a phone screen that you’re holding flat above actual eye level. Enduring a chorus of groans as you tell everyone around the table not to. Touch. A. Thing. Because, if you didn’t catch it on camera, did you even eat it? These are scenes that we’re all rather used to by now – whether we’re the person holding the screen or a member of the chorus.
Encouraged by our camera-enabled phones – not to mention the bragging opportunities of social media – we have become a society of amateur (in both senses of the word) food photographers. But the niche is booming in the professional world, too. Not simply used to illustrate recipes or magazine articles any more, hunger-inducing images are employed by marketing, websites and branding; we see examples of food photography everywhere, from t’internet to magazines, billboards to books.
“People are valuing food photography a lot more than they once did,” says Paolo Ferla, a well-established food and restaurant snapper who’s been in the biz for a decade. “And the bar keeps getting higher and higher.”
This is, no doubt in part, a result of the proliferation of online sharing, something that Bristol-based Nicci Peet notes has also shaped the briefs she gets from her clients. “Instagram has changed what people are looking for,” she says. “The bird’s eye view of a dish is something people ask for a lot now, especially as social media becomes more and more essential for clients.”
So, what about getting into the industry? Of course, as with so many careers, there isn’t one single way into food photography. But it is a booming trade; as the demand for great quality food photography grows (think of how many cookbooks are published these days, then there are advertising campaigns and business’s need for content for their social channels, as Nicci points out), so does the number of people sacking off the day job to take their hobby fulltime. Dominika Scheibinger did just that, quitting her office job to become a photographer. Two years later, she still loves the challenges and variety of her new career.
“Photographing food is never boring, largely because it can be very challenging,” she says. “From things going cold and losing their colour to cake not quite rising, there are all kinds of pitfalls that every food photographer must navigate. It’s this creativity and sense of challenge which I like the most about shooting food.”
(Image: Edward Fury)
Conversely, Nicci Peet entered the field after graduating with a degree in the subject, and says her studies not only helped her find a specific kind of enjoyment in working with food and drink, but also informed the way she shoots.
“Studying photojournalism really installed the love of finding and shooting a good story – and there’s always a story behind food, whether that be its history or how someone came to open this restaurant or start that company,” she says. “ Food is so integral to communities and cultures, and has a different meaning to everyone. I think you can tell a lot about a person by what and how they eat.”
And, while the focus may be food, the folk behind it are just as important to that story, Nicci thinks: “The people involved are so varied and always passionate, which means that no two jobs are the same and you get to meet some extraordinary characters.”
Pete Axford – hospitality pro turned food and drink photographer – also cites the crowd he gets to mix with as one of the best things about his job, as well as the exciting scene in our South West patch.
“I’m constantly impressed by the passion and ingenuity of chefs and proprietors,” he says. “The West Country is such a hotbed for foodies – we have amazing growers and makers, as well as some of the best restaurants in the country, right here on our doorstep.”
Having come from the food and drink industry itself, Pete has another unique take on what makes a successful food photograph. “Shooting food requires you to communicate so much more than just the look of the dish. Great food stimulates all the senses and can trigger memories. You need to be able to express all these elements, as well as the atmosphere, in the final image.”
A photographer’s background, then, can really shape the way they shoot, meaning the infinite routes available into the industry can only be a positive thing for the growing talent pool.
(Image: Pete Axford)
Top tips from the pros
Dominika Scheibinger says… “I always try to find a big window where I can place a table with food and just use natural light. Always look at your shadow, as this will tell you what the light is doing. If the light is too harsh, use a diffusion material – a shower curtain is a good (and cheap) option! It works amazingly well, especially when you are at the beginning of your photography journey and can’t afford to buy specific equipment.”
Edward Fury says… “Most of the time this is down to the client. A fine dining establishment will probably want minimal amounts with the focus really remaining on the food. For editorial, however, the style is generally a little looser, sometimes with multiple dishes that help make up a table of food.
The one thing I’ve found helpful to have is a collection of cutlery. Sometimes, if a restaurant has their own, it can look huge and dominating, so it’s always good to have back ups.
Fake ice is also a good one, as it helps the lifespan of any drinks in frame. Timescales can be tight – food’s appearance degrades over time, so being quick and efficient is helpful!”
Paolo Ferla says… “Composition is key, and it has two parts. First, the ‘stack’, with the bottom layer being the background. A surface like a wooden tabletop or stone works well, just make sure its colour suits what you have in mind and that the lighting conditions are good. The next layer will be a napkin or a board, which helps to frame the dish.
Then, layer up the dishes. A rustic scene often uses small dishes that are overflowing, while a fine dining scene leaves a lot of breathing space. Then there’s the food itself (which can also be made up of layers), with the final layer being a garnish – like a sprinkle of seeds, fresh herb or edible flowers.
“Then think about the ‘corners’. Once the stack is complete, fill the rest of the frame with elements that convey the right mood and flavour. It could be the table surface itself, the tableware, cookery tools or even spare ingredients like lemon halves or a bulb of garlic.”
Working on location
Pete Axford says… “Being able to work around new locations and fix things on the spot is a vital skill for all photographers, but in busy restaurants, this is especially important.
One of my most important bags to pack on shoot day is full of things you might not expect to see: funnels, cotton buds, wooden spoons, electrical tape and all manner of clips! Getting the right angle is really important with all photography, so having a way to get a different vantage point can help your images shine – a set of steps is really handy, whether you’re trying to shoot an overhead image or get a fresh perspective for an interior scene.
Don’t spend too long drooling over kit (save it for the food!) and remember, good lighting will never go out of fashion, so consider investing your time and money in creating decent lighting options, instead of buying the latest gadget.”
Nicci Peet says… “As I work a lot with natural light, I’d say that kit-wise, investing in a good camera body and a couple of decent lenses is a good start. Think about what kind of photography you want to do and research which lenses are best. If you are just starting out and can’t necessarily afford top of the range stuff, I advise at least going for a camera that shoots RAW files, as it’ll be useful when it comes to editing and quality.
I’m a firm believer that it’s not always about the equipment you have but the person behind the camera, and the eye you have for a good image. Take time to learn about your camera and how it works, too. It’s important to understand shutter speed, ISO and aperture.”