Y’all know that I talk a lot about figuring out photography around here. It’s a maddening hobby, dontchya think? I think what keeps us all going is every now and then you take a photo and are stunned with how well it turned out.
It gives you a little adrenaline shot doesn’t it? I tend to squeal and jump up and down and do a little dance (I’m not lying – I really do that). And then you go back to taking 9 million crappy photos in a row and figure it was all a fluke. And right when you’re about to throw your camera off a bridge into the ocean, you get another stunning photo. It’s juuuuuust enough to keep you going through the next 9 million crappy shots. (9 million is not an exaggeration…I’m very scientific about these things…).
The thing is, as long as I call it a hobby, or refer to myself as an amateur, it seems ok that there are 9 million crappy shots (alright, alright, it’s not 9 million – but there are a lot). Because I’m not a pro.
But then there comes that day when somebody offers you money to take a photo. You take the money. But you don’t ever refer to yourself as a professional because you think it was a fluke – nobody will ever ask you again.
But then, somebody does. And you do it. And it happens a few more times. But you still call yourself an amateur because that word “professional” conjures up all these scary things that freak you out – like being able to deliver the shot every time. Or knowing how to do big scary things with lighting rigs. Or paying all your bills with just a camera in your hand. Or having a photography degree. Or just not being good enough.
Or maybe, maybe it’s that you’re scared that it sounds successful and perhaps conceited and like you’re being pompous.
When does it become real? When do you finally admit that you’re a professional photographer? I’ve been paid for my photographs multiple times over the last 4 years. Yes, if you pay me, I’ll take a photo. But I’m not really a professional.
And then I got a phone call asking me to be… a professional food photographer. It was the type of gig, that if I accepted it, referring to myself as an amateur would no longer work.
I did accept, and I was terrified but excited. And yet still, I resisted. And then a friend referred to me as a professional food photographer and I secretly freaked out – and not in a good way! I replied “no, no… not yet… not until they pay my bill”. Part of me was scared that even after I did all the work, they’d come back and say “oh sorry, we thought you were a real food photographer… and these just aren’t good enough…” (Have I ever mentioned that I’m totally neurotic?).
So, now that we’ve finished discussing my neuroses, let’s move on to something useful, shall we?
I thought it might be interesting to share with you just how different doing a professional shoot is from photographing for your blog. My client, Tree of Life on behalf of Sharwood Foods, has given me permission to blog about the process we went through and man… I learned soooooooo much.
My job was to photograph every product in the Sharwoods line – they just revamped their packaging and launched new products and needed all new photography for their advertising and marketing. There were 22 bottles that need to be photographed solo, and then in family groups (all Indian, all Thai, all Chinese, etc). And then I had to style and photograph a series of lifestyle shots for the different family groups. The non-lifestyle photos had to be artwork ready – which means that the art department needed to be able to drop them directly into artwork with no background.
Lesson #1: Pick The Product Yourself if You Can
I remember reading an article by a food stylist who had spent ages in a bakery pouring over hamburger buns looking for the perfect one. I thought she was crazy. Now I understand. The more perfect it is before you take the photo, the less work you have to do in post processing.
Sometimes, you don’t get a choice – I didn’t. The product was new, we were waiting for samples, some was shipped from the UK and I got what I got. Some of the labels had been torn, scratched and started to peel off in shipping and transit. All of that had to be fixed in Photoshop afterwords. The photoshoot itself was relatively quick and easy in comparison to the hours of retouching work that was required to fix labels. Other things to look for:
- LOT codes those little codes printed on the package that tell the manufacturer when and where the product was made. They’ll need to be removed in Photoshop afterwards if you can’t shoot around them
- UPCs these are the bar codes that the cashier scans when you buy a product. Sometimes they can stay, sometimes they can’t. Ask.
- Ingredient Listings again, ask if these can stay
- Bilingual (or trilingual) packaging In Canada, all packaging must be in English and French. Sometimes they’re on the same side of the package, sometimes they’re on opposite sides. If they’re on opposite sides, find out if you need to photograph both – that’s twice the shot list and twice the retouching
Lesson #2: Food Stylists Are Worth Their Weight in Gold
Styling for a blog, is one thing. Styling for a professional shoot, is something else. I’m not a professional stylist. And I honestly thought this would be the easy part of the shoot. It wasn’t. Fortunately I had three friends who generously helped me out. We shot the lifestyle photos in the gorgeous, magazine ready kitchen of my friends Victor and Melissa, with help from my friend Ethan. Melissa got totally into the whole thing and was searching on-line for ideas, pulling out her dishes for props and tossing out all kinds of suggestions. Plus she brought us all Steveston mini-donuts and made me my favourite strawberry chocolate tea
At one point, we wanted yogurt for a shot but we didn’t have any. So Victor made some by mixing ricotta cheese with milk. Perfect stand-in. Ethan, who’s hands are much steadier than mine, swapped out cilantro leaves from the “yogurt” multiple times to keep them looking fresh and keep the yogurt looking perfect. He was also my second set of eyes, catching so many little details that I missed.
We swapped things around, had to pay attention to angles for reflections, built mini-sets… and basically turned Victor and Melissa’s dining room and kitchen into a war zone.
Every detail needs to be paid attention to – no smudges, no streaks, no crumbs, no wilting… everything in perfect place.
Lesson #3: The Client Doesn’t Care if You Run out of Daylight at 4pm
Yeah… shooting on a deadline means you don’t get to wait for perfect natural light. You better be prepared to deliver regardless. The individual product shots were shot in a light tent – in pitch dark at night. That was actually the best way to do it as it cut down on unwanted reflections and white balance issues.
We aimed to shoot the lifestyle shots at around 2pm but the weather didn’t co-operate. It was a miserable wet, grey November day. So we had no choice but to bring in light sources and use strobes. Using strobe lighting (off camera flashes in this case) is much easier when you have help. Victor has much better strobe skills than I do so he helped with the setup and him and Ethan held up flashes and white boards and we bounced the bejeebers out of light for the latter half of the afternoon. I would never have done that for my blog – it’s time consuming and a lot of work! (oh but what an amazing difference it makes!)
Lesson #4: Be Organized and Make a Checklist
Shooting at home is great because you have everything you need within a few metres of your kitchen. But it’s not always an option. So you need to be organized (this is just as much for my future reference as anything):
- have a shot list – the client should provide this
- discuss the shots with the client if they’re not going to be on set (mine weren’t). I had specific instructions for the lifestyle shots of what could and could not be included and what type of mood they wanted. They were also able to show me some examples of what they liked
- find out if there are specific props the client wants used (mine did)
- understand what’s required of you: does the client want just the RAW files with no touchups and only basic post processing? Or are you required to do full retouching and prep to make the images artwork ready? The second one is a whole different skill set in addition to photography and it will change your approach to how you shoot. Know what file types they want the finals delivered in and what sizes.
- do your food shopping at the last minute (we used a lot of fresh veggies)
- plan out your shots as best you can. Have a good idea of what props you’ll need and pack up items that can do double, triple or quadruple duty
- sketch out your lighting if you can – stage your shots accordingly
- pack up your lenses, tripod, reflectors, diffusers, spare battery, flashes, USB cables, laptop or iPad (or easy preview), scotch tape or duct tape, even a step ladder (ask if there will be one available)
The Equipment List
This is a list of what we used for the entire shoot:
- Canon 5DMKII camera body
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens
- 1 Canon Speedlite 580EX II (trigger only)
- 2 Canon Speedlite 430EX II (off camera)
- 2 pieces of white foam board
- Manfrotto 190XPROB Tripodwith Ball Head
- Optex Studio Light Tent
- step ladder
- a super fancy system of scotch tape and white printer paper to act as additional diffusors in the small light tent
Not a super fancy kit but it worked really hard and performed really well.
The best part of the whole thing was getting to work with some of my favourite people who made an awesome experience even more awesome, and having a wonderful and considerate client.
But you know the biggest lesson I learned from it all? That sometimes, the people around you have way more faith in you than you do. And sometimes, they’re right. And those are the people that are really important.
And to cap off this story, last week I went to the Make it Show in Vancouver. I made one purchase – to be used for props. The artisan who had made them was wrapping them for me and asked me what I was going to do with them. I paused. Instead of just saying “oh I like to take pictures of food” or “I write a food blog” or something along those lines, I gulped and said, for the first time out loud “I’m a food photographer”. She said “what a cool job to have!”.
Yeah…. yeah it kinda is.