A Tale of Two Food Photographers

Recently when preparing a quote for a food photoshoot, I started searching the web to see if I could get a feel for where the competition was pricing the work.  What I found left me a little surprised and angry.  I also marveled at how difficult it must be for an art director to plow through all the noise to find a real professional.

I’ll start with the good.  In my searches, I stumbled across the blog of a photographer in the Great Lakes region named Michael Ray who specializes in food photography.  In addition to all of the usual gear expected in a photo studio, his facility features a full industrial kitchen.  His food images feature the most delicately balanced highlights, shadows, and perfection in the arrangement of elements on the set.  It left me feeling I needed to up my game.

In one post entitled The Food Photography Process, he details how he created a shot that appeared to have been taken on a beautiful summer day on a luxurious outdoor patio.  But they weren’t.  Beautiful “natural” light such as you see in the final image is never be found in nature.  It has to be created.  The camera is not as capable of blending shadow and highlight as the eye.  His post details how first the set is roughed in, the main light placed and tested with shots, more light brought in to highlight, accent and dazzle.  More test shots, more adjustments.  Props moved, added, removed.  Finally with the light and set right, fake food is added and more test shots and “final” adjustments are made.  Now that is is all perfect, the freshly prepared real food is used to replace the fake food, more shots taken, more adjustments, and finally the finished picture.

It is worth taking a moment to go to the link above to see the final image.  And to learn that images like that don’t “just happen.”

Now the sad news.  On the way to finding that post, I encountered hundreds of “professional food photographer” blogs who probably should have kept their mouths shut until they finished unpacking their cameras.  One described how he would rest his camera on the table at Burger King so it would stay steady until he finished getting a shot of his burger and fries before eating.  Another  “professional”  stated “everyone agrees that the modern professional food photographer uses only natural light”.  He included a shot of his set up which showed his camera on a tripod near the kitchen table and a window in the distance as the light source (this should be compared to a photo of Michael Ray’s set up where dozens of lights are used along with even more elements set up to throw shadows in exactly the right places).  He followed with the statement that “the most important thing in food photography is to work fast so you can eat your food before it gets cold.”

Still another “professional” was advising his readers to use only the light from the overhead light fixture in the room “using flash or strobe units creates glaring highlights on your food and must be avoided”.

Did I really read that???????

It’s the shadowing and highlights that sculpt the food, reveal its texture and make it look soooo mouthwatering.  Without them it looks about as appetizing as sushi that has been left out for several days.

The digital age has made it easy for anyone to go out and buy a point and shoot camera and set up a blog or template website as a professional for next to nothing.  That doesn’t make them professionals and many amateurs don’t know enough yet to know that they don’t know what they are doing.  From being a guy with a camera who gets a few great shots, to that of a true professional is a quantum leap.  The first step I had to take was realizing my “great” pictures were not all that great and learning that I had a lot to learn.  That was in 1984 and I have been learning how much I don’t know ever since.

The sad part is that those who follow the advice of “professionals” who believe you must shoot your food fast so you can eat it before it gets cold will never make it.  The cheap price and bad advice offered by the growing ranks of such “professionals” muddy the water.  But any experienced art director or client know the high cost of using cheap, lifeless photography in a marketing campaign and will not make the mistake of using a bargain basement photographer who has not bothered to learn true professional standards.

Success comes by learning how to be the best, and then becoming better still.

Denver Food Photographer

Denver Food Photographer

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