How I Started Food Photography: A Food Photographer’s Diary #1

Food Photographers Diary This is a guest post series by photographer Evi Abeler. If you would like to write for learn food photography, visit guest post page to learn more.

Today we are introducing a new weekly series – journey of a photographer who started photographing food few months ago. Evi Abeler had been photographing for a NY museum for past couple of years and fell in love with food photography this winter.

As part of this weekly series, Evi will be sharing her activities, her progress and what she learned in the week. I have seen next few posts and potential topics and am really excited for this series.

Take it away Evi.

Discovering the Love for Food Photography

Last December my friend, pastry chef Albane, asked me if I could photograph her creations… and wow, I fell in love with photography all over again, quit my job (I had been a staff photographer and designer for the past 6 years) and decided to work as a freelance photographer specializing in food and still life.

Chocolate Cake with Merengue Flutes

Food Photography is a perfect combination of my passions: photography, art, design, cooking, nature and family. I can’t believe that it took me so long to find it. Now it seems so obvious. I am dreaming about days spend in my studio photographing, cooking, laughing, eating and producing an amazing cookbook with a team. You can tell I am still in the very beginnings of this relationship!

 

Food Photography Crash Course

Since I am a photographer but really new to food photography I decided to take a crash course. My first stop was Christopher’s magazine store: Food & Wine, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Vegetarian Times, Real Simple, Martha’s and Oprah’s magazines…about $60 later I went into Kitchen Arts and Letters, a cookbook store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was absolute bliss! The employees were so sweet. One walked me through the history of food photography, pulling out examples from the past 60 years and introducing me to the work of his favorites: Ditte Isager, Christopher Hirsheimer, Johnny Miller, Con Poulos, Landon Nordman, Penny De Los Santos…another $120 later I went home and studied their images and tried to copy a bunch of them to practice. Soon I came up with my own arrangements and started shooting for my portfolio. I try to keep up with the Wine & Dine section in the New York Times since it is  important to be aware of the current politics of food. Right now the trend seems to be organic & local & seasonal, real & a bit messy.

Food magazines and cookbooks on sofa

Every day I perused the internet for food blogs and became a great fan of: What Katie Ate, Cannelle et Vannille, Tartine Gourmande, Tartelette…and hold on a minute what is that…an interview with Charlotte and John Autry on a blog called Learn Food Photography. I submitted a photo of an avocado for critique and the feedback was so helpful that I thought it would be fantastic to share my journey with LFP readers every week and learn with and from you all.

Getting Work Out There

But now what, where are my clients? I thought if I put up great  images on my website and let my friends know about it, I would be shooting for Food & Wine in no time…mmmmh. In a panic I signed up with an email list service in January and send out 1000 emails and 500 postcards to art directors and photo editors. Not much happened after that and now I feel a little weird about sending out these promos. They will be spam to a lot of people and that does not sound like a good introduction. I also feel ripped off by the email list service. It is a lot of money every month and the contract runs for a year. I wonder if I should have found the contacts through the magazine mastheads and publishing houses’ websites myself. How do you guys find your contacts? Email, mailings, or (brrrrrrr..) cold calling? I don’t think I can call somebody up with no connection at all.

My next mailing I am approaching differently: It will be all about quality and a small select group of recipients. A collection of my best photographs is taped to the wall of the studio and this week I am working on designing a mini portfolio: a set of 10 cards with different images on the front and my contact info on the back.

food photographs taped to wall

APA’s portfolio review on April 9th will be the testing ground. I am planning to take 20 prototype cards to the event and have the reviewers pick their 10 favorites. Those 10 will then be send in a nice package to my 10 dream clients. I will post photos of the mini-portfolio and what the reviewers had to say about it next weekend.

So long,
Evi

Readers, What Do You Think?

What do you think about this post? How did you start your food photography journey? How did you discover your love to food photography? Share it with us in the comments section below.

Diary photo courtesy of gato-gato-gato

  • This looks like the beginning of a great series.

    • Thank you for your comments Tunde.

  • Mark L

    Potentially a fantastic journey both photographic wise and business wise. I too want to be a food photographer and will read this series with a great deal of interest. Thx guys

  • I really like the idea of these series because I am at the same point myself – learning food photography on my own (except I don’t have previous background in photography). I will stay tuned for the next posts!

  • Laurence Perfecto

    I cant wait for the next entry! 😛

  • Really interesting post, love it. Can’t wait for next ones ! Mélody

  • Evi

    Thank you guys…I am looking forward to sharing my adventures.

    I just wanted to quickly share with you that today I walked by the Red Rooster in Harlem (yes the restaurant were the president dined last week) and dropped of a couple of cards with Marcus Samuelson’s manager Derek. One of my goals this months is to drop off portfolios at all of my favorite neighborhood restaurants. It is pretty hard for me since I am a bit shy…but I think starting with the “big fish” (or big “Swedish meatball” 😉 makes it easier.

    [img]http://eabeler.squarespace.com/storage/Evi-AbelerIMG_1136.jpg[/img]

  • Thank you for sharing on this awesome website, I am learning so much! Good luck on your journey, I loved your avocado shot. Your composition was very enticing. Looking forward to seeing and hearing more!

  • I am so excited to follow your journey, learn from and with you all about food photography! I am also a semi-newbie in the food photography field, and loving it more and more every day. Best of luck and keep it up!
    Thanks!

  • This has the makings of a great series. I’m looking forward to more.

    Marketing commercial photography of any kind is a challenge. It sounds to me like you are jumping in with no real plan: having sent out one email to a supplied list, you don’t know what to do next. I’ve felt like that too. I’ve read all kinds of photography marketing advice over my 2+ decades as a pro and most of it is incomplete, misleading, inappropriate or otherwise useless. I met Selina Maitreya two years ago. She is a consultant who specializes in helping commercial photographers market themselves. You can read her blog at http://selinamaitreya.com/ and contact her through that if you wish. I listened to her Clarion Call series when it was originally broadcast February 11 & 12 and it was worth my time. I think she’s still selling mp3 copies of that and I highly recommend it if you can get it.

    Good luck.

    • Evi

      Hi Les, thank you for your comment!
      You are right, I did not have much of a plan. I just loved food photography so much that I jumped in. One plan I had was to spend the first half of 2011 on learning, portfolio and network building and marketing. And by the second half of 2011 I was hoping to see some jobs coming along. After my rushed email marketing campaign I decided to take a few steps back and learn a little more about marketing. After attending ASMP’s Strictly Business in Philadelphia I felt much better. I have been following a few consultants, Selina Maitreya Louise Courtis are among them. What I learned is that it is all about high QUALITY work, TARGETED marketing and PERSONAL referrals. Right now I am perusing linkedIn to see whom my connections are connected with that I would like to work for: magazine/publishing/food professionals and ask them for an introduction. I am also looking around in my community, and are starting to introduce myself to local restaurants and food professional. (Which does take a bit of courage…) The chamber of commerce or small business associations meetings are on my list too.

      It is amazing how much time I spend on my business instead of shooting…I have to clearly mark my calendar 2 days for shooting 2 days for paperwork/marketing and 1 day for all the other life stuff. I wonder how much other folks are spending “on” their business and how much “in” their business?

      • Evi, it sounds like you’re on the right track now. I had intended to mention ASMP – the American Society of Media Photographers (http://asmp.org/) as well. Selina often speaks at their meetings.

        At this point, sorry to say, you’ll probably need to spend about 80% of your time marketing and the other 20% building a strong portfolio. Once you’ve established a marketing workflow that is bringing in a somewhat steady flow of business, you may be able to cut that back a bit. Or not.

  • Cheryl

    Thank you for writing this post. I found it very informative. Much like the previous comments, I am a newbie and reading your story is giving me the courage to shoot more and try to network better. I’m looking forward to see how it works out for you.

  • Good post, especially for those who want to think about going commercial with their food photography.
    My food photography started with my food blog. It was pretty funny, I didn’t even have a P&S, and when I got it I didn’t even know how to use it! 🙂
    Its been a long journey and I’m probably about half way to a destination I can’t see.

  • Evi

    Hi Les,
    I just looked around the internet to see what the \marketing mix\ and time is these days and came a across this article on Photoshelter:
    http://blog.photoshelter.com/2010/04/the-mix-the-marketing-strategies-of-successful-pho.html

    Here is their formula:
    ___________________

    1. A talent based body of work ready to sell, (this means a defined visual approach around a specific subject with enough samples to build trust in potential clients.)

    2. A deep database of appropriate contacts (and a smaller more researched group of contacts for in person visits)

    3. 4-5 different marketing/sales channels including direct sales: Website, LinkedIn, Facebook, In Person Networking, Direct Mail, Sales Visits, Flicker, Emailer, Twitter, Portals (eg. Behance/FoundFolios)

    4. Marketing materials that are visually branded to move the visual message forward

    5. Perseverance

    6. Faith

    7. Patience (allowing for a 2-4 year timeline before seeing consistent results)

    ____________________

    …now after reading this I am a bit overwhelmed…2-4 YEARS…and for all this to work I need 5 assistants (unpaid)…

    One step at a time, I guess!

  • Great series. I cant wait to hear more. I dedicated this year to getting to a professional level with my photography. I hope your series will help me with that!

  • It is so refreshing and encouraging that I am not alone in my endeavors. I am also starting on my own and approaching restaurants to introduce myself takes a whole lot of inhale-exhale moments outside the restaurant before I walk in. How do you go about introducing yourself to a manager/owner? Do you always book the appointment or do you just drop in?

    Again, thanks so much for sharing. Goodluck to your new business :)))

    • Evi

      Hi Ann,

      I don’t like to “cold call” or just walk into a restaurant. I first asked all my facebook, twitter, real life friends if they know restaurant owners or managers and would like to make a connection for me. You would be surprised how many folks are willing to help. Whenever I do meet with restaurant owners I ask them for referrals or recommendations. Another way to get introduced is to join a restaurant association, local business association and don’t forget about your local places, they might have great connections too.

      Once I have an “in” I call or email and make an appointment, or just walk by and drop of a couple of cards, add them to my mailing list and drop by every once in a while.

      • hi Evi,

        Thanks for the advise. I’ll certainly give it a try to do it thru LinkedIn. Goodluck to your future endeavours!

        Ann

  • Great advice! Direct mailing usually works very well. And it’s also good to send nicely designed E-mails (EDM) to more clients.

  • Evie, I enjoyed reading your blog. I’m a food enthusiast and photograper, so I wish you the best and thank you for your encouragement and I too will pursue culinary giants in the industry. Good Luck and do your thang….

  • Hi Evi,

    Greetings from Manila, the Philippines!

    I’m also switching on food photography, after 15 years of doing graphic design. Manila is vibrating with a lot of new restaurants, upcoming celebrity chefs and tv shows featuring food; so there’s a lot of work to be done. Thank you for your post; it’s great to hear your stories–the struggles, the doubts…but you keep on going. Thank you for the inspiration. I’m still building my portfolio and website, ill be glad to share them to you for comments. 🙂 More power and success to you.

    Raf Jamolangue

  • Rod Alexander

    Good evening everyone,

    I’m just getting started in food photography, can anyone please help me find a Sample of standard contract for food photography? I appreciate your help.

    Rod

  • andrew

    Hey, nice blog. i was wondering if you could give me some tips on how to work with artificial light, what type and wattage is best for indoor lighting, and what settings on a camera would work best? i got a dslr (nikon d3100) for xmas and while im learning, my food pics are still the quality of a point and shoot…over exposed and just bleh. if you got any tips or sites that can help me learn how to take better pics would be appreciated. i want to make so many good foods but i feel photographing them at my level would be a waste.

    • AtlantaTerry

      Andrew,

      For artificial light, first of all you don’t want a mixture because it will be difficult to set a white balance. To give an extreme example, you would not want one LED light and one 100 watt light bulb to be illuminating your subject because one would appear too blue and the other too yellow.

      Learn from your camera’s manual and web tutorials how to set the white balance of your camera when you are ready to take the photos. Generally a white or grey card is used to set the white balance.

      When you take the photos have your digital camera set to RAW, not JPG. This is because the very definition of JPG is to throw away information which means loss of detail. Not only that but every time you save that JPG you will be throwing away detail. Your Nikon camera’s RAW files will have the three letter extension “NEF”. Canon, Sony, Panasonic, etc. all use different RAW file three letter extensions. Be sure your image editor will be able to handle RAW files; most do these days.

      Since you said you were going to use indoor lighting, you will need a couple other tools: a sturdy tripod and a way to remotely trigger the shutter. The tripod needs to be sturdy so your photos will be sharp. The remote trigger will allow you to trip the shutter without using your finger thereby allowing for a sharp image. Read your camera manual to see if there is a way to flip up the mirror prior to the shutter going off. With the mirror up allow a couple seconds for any vibrations to stop then when the shutter opens the camera will be stable.

      You will generally want to place your light source behind the food then use reflectors on the sides and front to fill in the shadows. Lighting this way gives depth and color to the food. If your lighting was from the front or (the worst) on camera flash, it would be flat and boring. Reflectors can be white foam boards from stores such as hobby, discount or arts & crafts. Here in Atlanta, I get mine at Dollar Tree for US $1. Also while you are shopping pick up a couple small mirrors and some craft clay. You can position the mirrors using the clay to fill in shadows or create highlights. Cover some of the foam boards with aluminum foil from the kitchen. Smear white craft glue on the boards then lay on sheets of foil, some with the dull side out and some with the shiny side out. These make very useful reflector tools.

      With your camera atop a tripod and your lighting set, put the camera on the Manual exposure setting, not P or A or any other. Learn how to set the lens aperture and camera shutter to make a proper exposure.

      You didn’t mention what lens you were using so let me say in food photography we often work very close to the “hero” (food). So a lens with macro capabilities is a very useful tool. Yes, you can use screw-in close-up filters but the end quality is not optimal.

      If you have any other questions, please ask.

      Terry Thomas…
      the photographer
      Atlanta, Georgia
      Skype: AtlantaTerry

  • Evi

    Hi Andrew,
    there are so many things to think about. If I were you I would take a look at some of these books:
    http://www.learnfoodphotography.com/food-photography-books/

    They cover a lot of information about artificial lighting!

    Good Luck

  • Hi Evi..so glad I have subscribed to you now. I am a lover of food photography and also have been following What Katie Ate for the past 6 months…I have been practicing photography/food/product/ lifestyle for about 2 years now. I am trying to get the nerve to launch a business, and really enjoyed this article.

    My biggest obstacle right now is figuring out how to find the jobs. I have written several local bakeries and restaurants with no reply, so it looks like I’ll have to go visit these places in person. I should have a body of work to show them…like a photo book? or should I do the cards as you did? I just don’t know how to get this thing started.
    I can’t wait to learn more from you. I admire your work.

    • Evi

      Hi Stephanie,
      I think going in person is a great idea. Sometimes restaurants are so busy that they absolutely have to chance to respond. Also ask all your friends, family members, neighbors etc if they have any kind of connection a bakery or restaurant and could help you get a meeting.

      Good Luck!

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  • Kristen Dunigan Scarbrough

    Great images!! I, too, am a photographer with a new love for food photography. It’s a whole new world and I am still trying to learn and gain experience. I have the same struggle as you with finding work/making connections in this industry, it’s hard!! I just ordered business cards and am planning to have friends help me get those into the right hands and I have even emailed local businesses/restaurants asking if I can shoot for them and will give them images in exchange since I am still building a portfolio.