One of the challenges in photography is to make enough to keep eating. In that light it may be somewhat ironic that one of the fastest growing specialty fields is food photography.
The field of food photography has undergone changes since the introduction of the cell phone camera. The rise of sites like GrubStreet and Tastespotting where users are posting their culinary adventures, complete with photos.
The rise of food blogs has in turn put pressure on restaurateurs to raise their visual game on both the food they serve and the visual environment on their menus and web sites. That creates a growth environment for food photographers.
Just like any other field of photography, it’s a tough slog to get established. You can’t expect to post a food portfolio online and have work rolling in. Even if you did, you run the risk of pitching a big time client when you lack depth in the industry.
Lighting, Lighting, Lighting
You’ve heard the old saying in real estate that a home’s value is related to location, location, location. In food photography the corollary would be lighting. The best food photographers are lighting freaks and happened to find a home in food photography because their passion for lighting combined with a field of photography that requires a slavish dedication to detail.
Many food photographers work alone, but some bigger shoots might have an assistant, a food stylist, an assistant food stylist, and prop stylist. Most prefer to work in their own studio due to the difficulty of hauling all their gear to locations, though sometimes that can’t be avoided.
The food photography studios I’ve visited look more like industrial machine shops and the really good ones are booked for weeks in advance.
While there is a lot of lighting, none of it is particularly big. Surprisingly, I saw one big floor flash and the rest were smaller, point source lights and a lot of articulated arms holding mirrors, scrims, and reflectors. There were none of the big softboxes, umbrellas and lighting kits you’d find in a portrait studio. It’s a different kind of lighting, more directional, more sharp shadows than you find in portrait photography.
While the market for many types of photography is changing and for most that change is toward fewer opportunities and less income, food photography is showing surprising growth. One of those reasons is stock photography is not terribly useful in this application. Most food shots are of unique creations specific to the client, a work of art you can eat.
Some large customers, like restaurant chains and some hotels, are creating master image libraries for their food pictures, but other than that there are few ways to cut corners. The market for food photography is likely to stay healthy for quite some time.