How to be a food photographer: Stuart Ovenden
Want to get work as a professional food photographer? Stuart Ovenden explains how to get started, talking everything from the value of first-hand experience to how much to invest in a camera...
If your Instagram is full of foodie snaps, it's worth considering whether you could turn your creativity into a career. With years of experience in the industry, we asked London-based photographer Stuart Ovenden what it’s like to make a living out of photographing food and why he doesn’t use hairspray or plastic props on his sets…
How did you start out as a food photographer?
After graduating, I spent ten years as a designer and art director commissioning, briefing and working with food and lifestyle photographers. I’d always been interested in photography and wanted to move on creatively. Taking the photographs myself just seemed to be a natural progression from what I was already doing. I was fortunate to have some lucky breaks when I started shooting my own food photos.
What's an average working day like for you?
I get in around 8am and get the studio ready for the shoot day. Quite often there's a food stylist, prop stylist, art director, food editor and assistants on a shoot so you need a fair bit of space. The studio has a fully-equipped kitchen too. We go through the day's shot list and props and then get to work. I'll finish processing the shots once everyone has gone. There's never too much retouching though, as you can easily overwork a photo.
What do you like most about your job?
I like working with lots of different people and the variety. You might be shooting mushrooms in a forest one day, Faberge tea caddies in the studio the next and a Christmas feast on location the following. It's always different.
Is there anything you dislike about your job?
It's easy to underestimate the importance of keeping up to date with general admin and invoicing. It's pretty tiresome at times but it'll always be an integral part of running your business.
What would your advice be to young people looking to get into food photography?
Food photography is very much in vogue these days. The technology is far more readily available than back in the day and there's a lot of competition. I don't think there's ever been a time when the importance of good, strong ideas and creativity has been so integral. You need to stand out in a world where millions of people take decent food photos on their phones every day and upload them onto Instagram.
Are there any relevant courses or qualifications that you would recommend pursuing or would you say that experience is more important?
I followed a slightly unorthodox path into food photography but most people tend to assist professionals after graduating with a photography-related degree. There'll never be a substitute for first-hand experience though, so just keep shooting and getting ideas down.
We hear rumours that all sorts of secret tricks that are used to make food look more appetising, such as pouring glue into cereal instead of milk and using hairspray to add shine – are these true? If so, what’s the craziest thing that you’ve ever seen on a shoot?
I get asked this question all the time and in terms of my day-to-day shooting it couldn't be further from the truth. I'm very fortunate to work with some of the best food stylists and chefs in the country. We shoot the recipe naturally, style it beautifully and then eat it for lunch afterwards.
Do you think that it’s necessary to have expensive equipment to take good photos of food?
It's a myth that you need a super-wow camera to take nice food photographs. Entry-level DSLRs are quite reasonably priced these days and if you're shooting for a blog, the picture quality will be more than adequate. It's worth investing in a nice lens if you're feeling flush, but I honestly think it's how you apply the technology you have that really matters.
What would be your top tips for amateurs looking to improve their food photography?
Keep practicing, never repeat yourself and try and carve out your own unique photographic style.
What’s your favourite meal of the day, and what do you like to eat for it?
I'm probably a lunch chap. I'd forgotten about it for a while but marinated artichoke hearts, taleggio and rocket on toasted ciabatta is currently back at the top of the Studio Sandwich Chart.
What is the biggest misconception that people have about your job?
That it's all hairspray and plastic chicken drumsticks.
Feeling inspired? Whatever your skill set, we've got plenty of insight into kick-starting a career in the food industry:
Fancy working as a food photographer, or just keen to improve your amateur photography skills? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below...