All images by Xavier De Buendia. Used with permission.
I’m a professional food photographer…let me stop right there. What do you think a professional photographer actually means? Well when it comes to taxes and marking your occupation down for legal reasons, it means that most of my taxable income is made by being a food photographer and getting hired, etc. So in translation, that means I earn my living and pay my bills taking pictures of food, chefs, sommeliers, restaurants, and other things occasionally. Competition is wild but healthy and thankfully not as fierce as that of wedding, portrait, or street photography but it can’t compare to the impact that social media has on our industry, especially Instagram (here’s mine).
I love Instagram, don’t take me wrong. I think it is a very helpful tool to invite people into my world and show what I’m up to and what I can do. It can be a very powerful marketing tool too, but on the other hand it gives people a false sense of what it’s like and what is involved with being a professional food photographer. It makes business and customers alike think that taking pictures of food is a simple thing.
Many businesses nowadays rely on customers taking tasteful pictures and sharing them on Instagram. Kudos to Instagram for making people better picture-takers but that doesn’t make them professional photographers. It’s the same as how having a website doesn’t make someone a professional photographer; especially food photographers. It is not just the camera that makes us food photographers but the skills and experience acquired not just on making a picture but on running a business. See, every now and then I’m being shown pictures taken by foodies shared on Instagram and asked by clients if I can do that. With my trained eye I can pick out technical issues with the pictures immediately. With my business mentality, I answer, “I can do better than that!” Arrogant? maybe, Self-confident? Most definitely! Self-confidence in my skills is what gives my clients the reassurance that they’re working with someone who can produce that and even more.
Just like any other foodie, I shoot for the love of food; there’s no question about it. But on top of that burning passion for photography and food there is a significant amount of knowledge acquired over the years. For starters, I have to run my own marketing, have the right voice, and target the right audience, do a fair amount of networking because people are more likely to hire you if they know the face or have heard about you, arrange meetings, turn up to meetings, negotiate rates and budgets, discuss styles, do tons of research and keep educating myself, and most important – be professional at all times. The people skills required to secure a paid shoot are essential: it’s not enough being savvy with filters and hashtags.
When a shoot is agreed, there’s the planning on how to style the shoot so the images are unique to my client. I make sure no one else gets the same style so I have to look at what’s been done before and what’s the current trend and come up with a visual identity that matches their branding (just like on my previous article for The Phoblographer) while retaining my style. So another difference between a dude with a phone and myself is that my fees are a reflection of what I know, not what I do.
It’s a difficult trade, but educating my clients is part of the job. I started part time six years ago and for the last theee I’ve been doing this full time. All this hard work and nearly obsessive way of thinking I believe is what got me a couple of awards last year at the Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year. It was a very positive recognition for the effort that I’ve put into my business and reassuring to know I made the right decision by going solo and indie. I don’t have the support of any brands, or agencies; I’m still learning by making my own mistakes and keeping loyal clients. To be honest, nothing has changed since then, but having won those awards added credibility to what I do against other food photographers and against the dudes with a phone.
So, talking about being indie, I rely immensely on clients who love my work and will vouch for me; maybe because I speak their language coming from the food industry or because I respect and pay homage to their food through my pictures. I listen to their needs and concerns and offer a solution. I’m always trying to understand their thinking. It is true that taking the pictures is just a small percentage of what being a photographer is. The psychology behind it is just as important as the light in the room.
To finish, I’d like to say that giving my clients that confidence and that quality of work make them book me on a regular basis and recommend my work to their friends. It’s important to me to build that relationship. I’m very comfortable working in this hectic environment and I always aim to transmit that vibe. Wherever theres’s exciting food, difficult lighting, and a crazy busy restaurant, I want to be there! I’m not a studio guy, I did it once and hated the whole experience, the pictures reflected that. I guess it’s the street photographer inside of me liking the spontaneity, the fast paced shoots, finding a glimpse of beauty in a world of chaos, and a quiet spot with good light for the food to shine. Maybe when my back and my eyes give up I’ll move on to studio work.