Breaking into the photo business

I get all manner of inquiries regarding how to break into food photography business.
The reality is that choosing to become a photographer is easy, translating that desire into a career that supports you is entirely different. It is difficult.

In my experience, clients hire you based on your past work. A client needs to see that you have intimate knowledge of their particular subject matter to consider you for hire. They also have to have an immediate need for your services.

Photography is one of those professions that requires no formal training or degree. These things can help but are not required. The profession requires that you have an eye, can learn the necessary techniques that enable you to fulfill the job requirements and an understanding of business.

Bidding on jobs is an art unto itself and through much trial and error you can master it but it requires study as well.

So how does one become a food photographer? First and foremost you must be in love with your subject. You must be a foodie or at least have a strong connection to food. Whatever your connection you must translate that into a visual which has to illicit a response from it’s intended audience.

The quickest way to break into the business is to assist food photographers, (Please don’t email me a request to work for me, I have plenty of assistants to choose from). Working for a food photographer you will learn not only techniques but the business side of photography, how to interact with clients, set etiquette and other valuable skills.
Finding a mentor and absorbing knowledge is key to a faster track. There are always exceptions to this but most people don’t innately posses the necessary tools to succeed out of the gate, they have to learn them.

In addition to working with mentors you have to develop your own style and build a portfolio. This can take years. It is much easier now, because of digital technology, to fast track this process. When I started it was really expensive to shoot food. Camera’s and film were expensive and food photography was approachable by an elite few who had the equipment and money to generate a portfolio. There were certain standards you needed to measure up to.

Now anything goes, if you have a digital SLR you can shoot a portfolio is less time and for a lot less money.
What you still need however is experience. Nothing can make up for this part of the process. In order to find your point of view, your voice you have to shoot and discover what is successful and what is not. Happy accidents become less accidental and you will soon be able to create an idea and replicate it. The key to being a professional is not being able to take a great photograph but to be able to consistently take great photographs every time you pick up a camera. A professional knows what the photograph will look like before the picture is taken. There is no guesswork. I am not saying that every situation is going to be easy. I have encountered location jobs where adapting on the fly is necessary to pull off the assignment. What I am saying is that through experience we can overcome the challenges of the job and produce results for a client every time. A pro is prepared for anything and has the necessary skill, experience and knowledge to pull off it off.

Some photographers claim that shooting in natural light is best for food and will only use natural light. All well and good but what happens if you show up to a location and the natural light is not cooperating. Do you tell your client who is paying you and on a deadline that you won’t be able to execute the job because there are no windows. A professional can work around obstacles and create light that looks natural. A pro gets the job done regardless.
Again there are exceptions and some jobs demand that you execute the assignment in a specific manner. If you want to make money and your client won’t pay for extra days and crew expense you need to figure it out quickly.

How do I gain experience? Pick up the camera and start shooting. If you cook, then you can style basic food shots. There is an art to food styling but you can also do a lot on your own. You can also team up budding chefs who are in culinary school. Many would love to have great samples of their work to show. Local restaurants would welcome a photographer to come in and shoot their dishes for free. Working with chefs that can plate food properly can be great. When I shoot editorial assignments the chef usually prepares the food, I rarely use a stylist on those jobs.

Great places to capture interesting food images are farmers markets, street fairs, county fairs etc. You can be inventive and find food to shoot everywhere. I have gotten some great images shooting through windows.

Edit your work. It’s better to show ten great shots than 100 mediocre shots. Show it to people who will give honest critique. FLickr is a great place to showcase your work. Find groups that share common interests and post images to them. Most will not pan your work if it’s not great but you will get feedback when it’s really good.

You must have thick skin. You will take a lot of really bad pictures, people will hate your work, not get your vision, put you down and sometimes deservedly so. There were a lot of photos I should not have shown. Learn to edit the bad stuff. If you feel strongly about a photograph and no one gets it the show it anyway.

When I quit my job in corporate America 20 years ago to become a professional photographer people laughed at me. They told me I was crazy and I would never succeed. I always believed in myself and now command a day rate of $3,000 per day working for clients like Absolut, Walmart and Boars Head. I persisted in the face of all obstacles. You can too.

My evolution as a professional was first I paid to learn, then I worked for free, then I got paid in proportion to my skill and experience. I did not start to really get paid well until I paid my dues through many years of hard work and perseverance.

Become a brand. Everything you do should be reflected in your brand. Develop a brand identity, logo, a great but simple website that showcases your work and style. Use all the tools available today to get your work out and seen by someone who will hire you. Use and exploit all the social media avenues, when I started none of these tools existed. I had to print multiple portfolio, manually find people to show my work and it was a slow process. Network, develop a 45 second elevator pitch, talk yourself up and shoot constantly. You will quickly evolve if you work on all aspects of your career. It’s a 24/7 endeavor. Blog about food, twitter get involved and interject yourself into conversations, you never know who is listening now so you have to remain on point.

I wish you luck but remember, there has never been a greater time, wider audience and easier entry into becoming a food photographer. You just have to want it bad enough, work hard and anything is possible.

Photographer Bill Brady
Food Stylist Brian Preston Campbell
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