Howard Shooter on How Food Photography Ought to be Done

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All images by Howard Shooter. Used with permission.

When it comes to food, everyone wants to think that just because they have a phone and filters that they can create amazing images. But photographer Howard Shooter will tell you that it’s all about having a creative vision. Howard has shot for BBC Good Food, KFC, Mars, Twinings, and Weight Watchers amongst many others in his decorated career as a successful food photographer. More importantly though, Howard knew what he wanted at a young age. At 12 years old, Howard made the decision to become a professional photographer–and it drove his education for years to come. But more importantly, Howard believes that good food photography should make you feel hungry.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography?

Profiterole Stack Howard: As a young boy I was always a keen snapper and was absolutely obsessive about art. When I was 12 years old I got a new Zenit 11 Russian SLR with a 50mm lens for my birthday. In a rather naive fashion I decided at that precise moment I was going to be a professional photographer and every educational/academic and creative decision for me was about making my passion for photography my job. By the age of 14 I had my own second hand darkroom and I took night classes to get my grades in photography a year early. I think you could stay I’ve always been driven and single minded! It was a very steep learning curve!

Phoblographer: Tell us about how you finally decided to combine your passion for food with photography.

Howard: I discovered my love of food at University and while others were adding hot water to pot noodles I was roasting chickens and trying out new recipes. When I left University I assisted various genres of photography and stumbled across food photography. At the time it was very uncool to be into food photography but I found it very real, more creative than most other genres in terms of clients letting you get on with it and totally unpretentious. The people involved were lovely (they still are) and I could see myself working with some of the best cooks/chefs in the country.

Phoblographer: Tell us about the gear that you use. Why medium format?

Howard: I use Phase One for all of my studio food shots and Leica and Nikon for the portraits. Phase One allows you to shoot like film. I have a very purist approach to photography and try and shoot so the re-touching is minimised. I use Profoto flashes for most of my advertising work if not shooting daylight. On occasion I’ve had to use about 9 flash heads for a single shot but that’s pretty extreme. I also use Dedo tungsten heads to sometimes add a little warmth.

“I have known people who take a mean Instagram shot and ask me if it means they can become professional food photographers. It is a million miles away from what we do in terms of technique, understanding branding, controlling lighting and creating moods, but I love the immediacy of it; it’s like the newer version of the polaroid camera.”

Phoblographer: Lots of your images seem to give off the look of natural light. This is a very popular look in the food world. Why do you think so?

Indian Contact for web Howard: We like to see food in a similar way to how we eat it. Ultimately a good food shot should make you feel hungry as well as hopefully fulfil the creative needs. Even when I shoot food the ideal is that the light look natural.

Phoblographer: Do you have a favorite type of food to shoot?

Greek Salad final Howard: Certain foods are easy to shoot than others but as long as the food has structure, texture and colour it has the potential to look wonderful. Cakes and desserts are obviously yummy as well as beautiful ingredients.

Phoblographer: What type of food do you think is the most challenging to shoot?

Howard: The worst dishes are the brown structureless food like mince meat based dishes or porridge. Pizzas are a pain as they are flat and red and yellow. The other food shots I hate to see are the ones where the food is too convoluted or where you just don’t know what the food’s meant to be because the shots are too close.

Phoblographer: If you had to give photographers advice on how to create the look of natural lighting in their images, how would you go about instructing them to do so without actually using natural light?

Howard: I was once given a little bit of lighting advice which has pretty much shaped my career when it comes to how I approach flash photography. Flash photography should be logical and represent how real light would be. E.g. in a room you might have a window with the sun shining through it. On a table next to the window might be a plate of food. A large soft box might represent the window and a flash with a reflector and waffle might represent the sun’s rays. A reflector might represent the white wall opposite the window so that would be placed opposite the table. Lighting is the single most neglected part of studio photography nowadays if you ask me. Good lighting should complement good composition and add the all important underrated element: the mood.

Phoblographer: There is a really big trend right now in folks shooting images of their food and putting them on Instagram. Have you ever gotten the urge to do so? If so, how did you resist the urge at all?

19.Union Jack Fry-Up Howard: Instagram is fantastic and I use it mainly for shots of the kids. I love to play with the effects and frames and then publish them to Facebook, Twitter etc. I very rarely use it for food and to be honest, most shots in restaurants that I see are terrible because normally the light in restaurants is terrible for photography. But sometimes people can take fantastic shots of street food or markets, orchards or fields of wheat. Instagram is perfect for capturing those food memories. I have known people who take a mean Instagram shot and ask me if it means they can become professional food photographers. It is a million miles away from what we do in terms of technique, understanding branding, controlling lighting and creating moods, but I love the immediacy of it; it’s like the newer version of the polaroid camera.

Phoblographer: Tell us about the toughest food photography project that you’ve had to accomplish.

Howard: A lot of my projects are tricky and I’ve just finished an advertising campaign for an Ice Tea brand for the US market which involved sets and lots of reflective surfaces. I’ve also been on the Junior Apprentice on the BBC where I had to shoot 10 shots in about 45 minutes which was very manic… but the most tricky in terms of stress was the KFC Pulled Chicken burger, the biggest launch KFC UK have done in 10 years, also filmed for the BBC while I was shooting it. We had more clients in the studio than usual because of the importance of the shoot, all of whom couldn’t have been lovelier, but I was aware that this image was going to be everywhere so we couldn’t afford to get it anything other than 100% perfect. Happily the shot was really well received and it is absolutely all over the place now… but I had a couple of sleepless nights thinking about that one. 15.Rag A3 Prawn Mee

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