How to Become a Food Photographer: Q&A Series
I get a bunch of questions on Instagram that range from "how did you leave law to work in food?" and "how did you find your passion?" to "how did you grow your Instagram account so quickly?" to "how are you so freakin cool?" J/k about that last one. No one has ever asked me that, though I'm still waiting if anyone wants to ask.
I try to respond to most questions, but it can be a bit too time-consuming and challenging to answer big picture questions in the format of an Instagram direct message, so I thought I would put start a blog post series with answers to some of the most common questions I get. Let's start with one of the most common questions: How did I become a food photographer?
How to become a food photographer
The short answer is be determined and don't give up!
And for the long answer...
I started experimenting with food photography nearly two years ago in the spring of 2016. At the time, I was working as a lawyer at a nonprofit, and compared to my last job as a BigLaw firm litigator, I had considerable free time on my hands, which I began filling with binge marathons of shockingly bad TV. After months of this, I decided it was time to find a new hobby.
My first new hobby was computer programming. For real. I naively thought I could easily become a badass female computer programmer, so I started teaching myself some basic coding online. This endeavor lasted for several months until I admitted to myself that, one, I frankly didn't enjoy coding all that much, and two, my brain wasn't wired in a way that coding made intuitive sense.
My next new hobby was gardening. At the time, I had a sizable backyard, a rarity in New York City. I had high hopes of turning the rotting waste pit we inherited from the previous tenants into an elegantly curated garden that Martha Stewart would be proud of. However, after one weekend of pulling weeds and patting mulch into the ground on my hands and knees, I decided that I didn't want a hobby that involved so much manual labor. My bone structure just isn't cut out for that.
Finally came a hobby that made a lot more sense: food photography. I had always loved cooking and baking since I was a teenager, and to be honest, those were two of my existing hobbies. Making my food look pretty and photographing it seemed like a logical next step. Except it wasn't easy at first. Not at all.
My initial attempts at food photography were embarrassingly bad. I used my iPhone to take photos, I shot with overhead kitchen lights on, and I got super close in my food's face. To me, my photos looked just fine though, as I didn't have much of a reference point to tell me that my photos looked like horse shit. I didn't know anyone who was a food photographer and I didn't follow any food accounts on Instagram.
Despite my apparent lack of aptitude, my interest in food photography and food styling persisted, so I decided to start an Instagram account showcasing my mediocre work. I started by using an inexpensive mirrorless camera that I already had, which took decent but not great photos. And even if it did take great photos, I had no idea how to use it outside of Automatic Mode.
I started by taking photos primarily of smoothie bowls because those were easy enough and seemed to be a novelty on Instagram at the time. I remember feeling quite proud of my colorful creations, though in retrospect, my photos were flat and lacked any dimension or dynamic quality. And my use of props was noticeably awkward and haphazard.
Eventually, I graduated to an introductory, crop-sensor DSLR camera, the Nikon D3300. This helped improve the quality of my photos, but not nearly as much as learning about the fundamentals of food photography did. Like light and the importance of using indirect natural light.
Luckily, I stopped using my kitchen lights before I started my Instagram account. And after months of taking photos in my garden, I learned that food photos taken indoors, even if in a low-lit room, almost always produce a better result than food photos taken outdoors (unless they're taken on an overcast day in the early morning or late afternoon and in a shady spot).
Then, I started learning how to use my camera outside of Auto Mode, which made a huge difference. I started to become comfortable with the concepts of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO and how they contribute to the brightness or darkness of an image.
My adeptness at food styling also evolved over time. When I first started out, I bought inexpensive brightly colored napkins and bowls because I was attracted to color, but along the way, I realized that very colorful props are hard to style and lent my photos an amateur, almost childlike quality. Eventually I became familiar with the tried-and-tested proverb "quality over quantity." I donated dozens of cheap dishes and linens and started putting my money towards a few quality props.
After six months, my photography had markedly improved, and then six months after that, even more so. During that time, my appetite for learning about food photography and styling was insatiable. I would excitedly try out new settings on my camera, beaming with pride when I discovered something new. I would scour the internet looking for tutorials and free blog resources on photography.
About 9 months after starting my foray into food photography, I had a new job. Well, a new career, to be honest. In January 2017, I was hired as a content marketing manager at Hungryroot, a vegan and gluten-free meal delivery startup in NYC. Fast forward a year later, and I'm now the director of content there! I am responsible for all of the recipe testing, food photography, and food styling, along with other forms of content creation and strategy. And when I'm not working there, you can usually find me with a camera taking photos and videos of food for Instagram or Youtube.
My favorite part of being a food photographer is the continual growth and learning. While my food photography and styling have exponentially improved since I started, I still have a very long way to go. And I'm okay with that. I love the process of learning new tricks, refining my style, and watching my work evolve along the way.
To give you an example, last spring (10-12 months ago), I published a four-part series on my blog on food photography tips for the beginner. While I am still very proud of this series and definitely recommend checking it out, I have learned SO much since then. I've had "update food photography tips on blog" on my to-do list for the last three months and hope to one day actually cross that off my list so that I can include all of the new insights and tips I've learned since I first wrote those articles.
So, if you're looking to become a food photographer, here is my advice:
1. Develop a "growth mindset." This basically means believing that you can develop the skills and abilities it takes to become a photographer, even if you know nothing right now. If you believe that you will never be able to take professional quality photos or that your work will never be as good as someone else's on Instagram, your negative thoughts will manifest themselves.
2. Acknowledge that you will never be perfect at this job. Even veteran photographers are constantly learning and improving their photography, so don't get discouraged if you've just started out and your photos aren't up to your standards. One of the most rewarding things about being a photographer is looking at your past work and realizing how much you've learned, grown, and evolved.
3. Learn as much about light as you can. Understanding light is essential to becoming a good photographer. Study light wherever you are and whenever you can. Observe how the sunlight is low to the horizon during winter and casts long shadows, how the sunlight at high noon is intensely bright and produces high contrast images, how the sunlight on a cloudy day appears softer and less yellow than on a sunny day. Observe the way light hits food at different angles and how dark shadows can be filled in with reflectors. If you have a good grasp of how light impacts your food, you're on your way to becoming a great food photographer.
4. Practice whenever possible. Even if you don't have time to elaborately style a dish and take a bunch of photos, take out your camera whenever you can while food is around. Play around with your camera settings, the angles, and lighting and you'll learn something new each time.
5. Invest in a DSLR camera. If you're just starting out, you might be hesitant to buy a brand new DSLR camera. And that's totally fine. But if you want to practice experimenting with aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and other camera settings, it's helpful to practice on such a camera. Instead of buying a brand new camera, consider buying a refurbished, used, or older model camera. For more info on each of those, check out this article. Alternatively, if you have a family member or friend who owns a camera, ask if you can borrow theirs or check your local area to see if there are any stores that rent out cameras. Here, in NYC, there are plenty of shops for camera rentals, such as Adorama and CSI Rentals.
I hope you found this post informative and useful!