“A food photographer tries to capture the essence of a pear, a head of garlic, a completed dish or the noisy vibrancy or hushed luxury inside a restaurant. Each person sees things differently and translates an impression into a unique style,” says my friend and famed food photographer James M. Scherzi.
His advice: “Follow your passion. You have to develop your own ideas in order to stay ahead of the trends in photography. Read everything you can, particularly food and home magazines like Bon Appetit and Gourmet, Architectural Digest and Metropolitan Home and subscribe to many food publications. For the role of the food photographer is to stop the reader long enough to capture his attention and make him want to read the copy and buy the product.”
If you dream to be a food photographer, the best way to get started is to apprentice with a food photographer.
This will help you recognize that it takes a particular skill to capture the real image of food. It is not the same thing as photographing shoes or automobiles or a house on fire.
Check cookbooks and magazines (like FOOD ARTS and FOOD & WINE) to find a photographer whose work you admire and find his website. Ask if you can work for him in his studio. This may mean lugging heavy cameras around or fetching lunch but the experience will enable you to see what the job entails, and give you an idea whether you can make a living at it. It will also offer vital insight about developing the all important portfolio you’ll use for selling your own photographic skills.
A newspaper photographer can earn about $200 a day. Of course this will vary, depending on the circulation and the location of the publication. Magazine assignments are billed at a considerably higher rate, and the fees for food advertisement photography are in an entirely different league.
It is important to bear in mind, though, that the overhead of being a food photographer is also very costly. As a freelancer you may be in a position to earn as much as $100,000 a year, but you may also have expenses of $80,000 or more. The cost of professional equipment can range as high as $25,000 and must constantly be updated.
You must also be familiar with software programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, PageMaker or Quark, Word, Excel, File Maker Pro, and be able to create and maintain your own web site. In addition to your artistry, you need to be a good business person or be able to hire someone to do the job if you’re not good at it.
If you are able to book two assignments a week or about a hundred jobs a year, you’ll need to earn (net, not gross) at least $650 on each shooting day. Your expenses will include the cost of the film, an assistant along with a food and prop stylist. Props for the photo background can be rented and the client customarily pays for the food that is used in the shot. Even so, you may need to rent additional equipment and you must factor in the cost of time, your time—of processing the film and completing the assignment.
A commission that can be billed to the client at $1,200 a day may seem like a hefty fee but there’s not much profit left over. There is also the never-ending task of finding more work, producing estimates and spending (non-billable) time with the client.
The much more positive side of the coin is that a skilled photographer can charge considerably more than $1,200 a day for his work and bill the client for expenses. An established photographer will work five days a week, particularly if he has a big project such as an entire cookbook or a food website, rather than a single image. He may also have several steady clients that require constant images of food products and finished dishes.
Best of all, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing your photograph can be admired more or less forever—even after the meal is gone and the dishes are done.