When I started my culinary arts program earlier this year, I invested in a camera and photo editing software, intending to photograph my food for personal and potentially future professional use. While most people outside of the culinary world (and regrettably some within it) rely on instagram or other smart phone photo apps to capture their food imagery, having a good camera and the knowledge of what it takes to produce a powerful food shot can not only be a valuable skill for a chef but also a potential new career avenue!
I had the privilege of meeting Melissa Skorpil, a commercial food photographer based in Austin, Texas at a recent food photography class that I took at a local photography store. Melissa works with restaurants, catering companies, and ad agencies to create delectable food imagery to help them promote their businesses. She acts as Photo Editor for the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance cookbook, teaches regularly held workshops and has lectured at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts Austin campus.
I sat down with Melissa over coffee to pick her brain about what suggestions she has for recent culinary school grads, food bloggers or anyone with a passion for food photography that wants to break into the business.
AESCA: What is the difference between a food photographer and a food stylist?
MS: The food photographer is like the food stylist’s sous chef. While the food photographer should have a basic understanding of food, she does not need to know how food works. This is the job of the food stylist. They are the scientist who needs to use what they learned in culinary school to sculpt a tempting plate for the camera. Ultimately people eat with their eyes so the photographer and the stylist need to work together leveraging their specific skills.
AESCA: What skills do you need to be a good food photographer?
MS: For starters you need to have a basic photography education, a good camera and good business skills. You must be professional and know how to talk to your clients to best meet their needs. I rely heavily on word of mouth referrals from past clients, fellow photographers and food stylists so professional client relations is very important to me. From a logistical perspective, you need to know how to create good light whether you are inside a studio or outdoors. Good lighting is the key to good food photography.
AESCA: Tell me about a typical food photo shoot for a client.
MS: I start by having my clients complete a Q&A and FAQ sheet to provide me with the information that I need to present them with an accurate bid. Once the bid has been accepted, we have a pre-production meeting on site where the food stylist is involved along with the Chef to decide on our shot list. On the day of the shoot, my assistant and I set up our lighting and camera while the food stylist sets up her equipment. We use a stand in item while setting up lighting and then the food stylist switches it out at the last minute with the hero item to ensure that it looks just perfect. It can take two to three hours per shot when using a food stylist and about an hour per item without one so it’s critical that everyone be well organized to ensure that all of the shots on the list are completed within the designated time. I typically plan on eight shots in an eight-hour period with each one getting client approval prior to moving to the next. At the end of the shoot, we tear everything down; I edit the images in my software and send the final images to the client.
AESCA: How would you recommend a recent culinary school graduate get started?
MS: A good way to break into this business is to connect with a budding photographer who is just getting started. If photography is your interest, see if you can accompany them on shoots as their assistant and if it’s food styling you want to pursue, offer your services at a complimentary or discounted rate in exchange for the experience until you can build your portfolio and prove yourself. Establishing a good partnership with a food photographer can be invaluable in launching your career. Once you have proprietary photos, you can create a simple website to showcase them. Also, don’t forget to check out the local competition too and the going rate in the market.
AESCA: What resources can you recommend?
MS: My favorite book on commercial food photography is by Teri Campbell http://www.amazon.com/Food-Photography-Lighting-Photographers-Irresistible/dp/0321840739. He has had a prolific career in commercial food photography, food packaging and advertising photography and shows behind the scenes of food shoot, a tour of his extensive studio and explains business practices.
My favorite food styling book: http://www.amazon.com/Food-Styling-The-Preparing-Camera/dp/0470080191
This is the bible on food styling, pretty much every topic from styling any food item you can imagine to business practices for breaking into food styling.
One of my blog posts with specific tips for food photography:
One of food stylist Kristina Wolter’s blog posts on food styling where she describes a typical day, some of the tasks she’s involved in (like the preproduction meetings, prop shopping, food purchasing, etc.)
Melissa also advises that there are a plethora of groups on social media that anyone can join that are helpful in becoming part of the professional dialogue and to understand the current market place.