In this episode I have an awesome conversation with Los Angeles based Food Photographer Christina Peters.
Christina has shot thousands of food images for her clients. Her client list includes such brands as: Arby’s, Baja Fresh, Bath and Body Works, Brookside Chocolates, Bumble Bee Tuna, Burger King, Campbell’s Soups, Cesar Pet Food, Chipotle, Cici’s Pizza, Country Crock, Domino’s Pizza, Gloria Jeans Coffee, Good Life Dog Food, Herbalife, King’s Hawaiian, Kraft, Libby’s, Marriott Hotels, McDonald’s, Nestle, Pedigree Pet Food, Pinkberry Frozen Yogurt, Rubio’s Grill, Taco Bell, Tyson Chicken, Whole Foods Markets, Walmart, Weight Watchers, Wrigley’s and that is just a small portion of the list. She has worked with ad agencies in the US and Europe as well as national magazines and book publishers and… well let’s just get into the conversation.
Christina’s Food Photography Blog
The Food Photography Club
Be sure to download Christina’s FREE PDF called the Four Figure Day Rate plan. This talks about the steps you need to take to get decent paying clients instead of shooting for a bag of potatoes or a very low fee – and the best part… it contains GREAT advice for photographers of all genres!
Food Photographer – Christina Peters, Creator of Delicious Images
This week, I had an absolutely delicious chat with a Los Angeles based food photographer who creates those food photos that make you want to drop your diet. Instantly. Christina Peters is my guest, and she shares some excellent photography advice, career advice, and marketing advice for photographers of all genres. Stay tuned.
You’re listening to the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast, the only podcast dedicated to the HOWS and WHYS, behind creating consistently great photographs. Here’s your host, Joe Edelman.
Hey gang. This is episode number 244 of the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast. I am Joe Edelman and my mission is to help photographers like you to develop a better understanding of the HOWS and WHYS behind great photography. A few quick notes before we dive in, I’m hoping that you subscribe to my YouTube channel and that you’ve seen my new series called the LAST FRAME LIVE.
The LAST FRAME is a one-hour live stream that happens every Wednesday evening at 6:00 PM. Eastern time in the U.S. each week. The LAST FRAME focuses on a different topic with no scripts. No, razzle-dazzle no canned presentations. I do my best to give you a lesson or demo or series of tips based strictly on my experience.
In other words, how I do it? No rules, no bullet points, no top five ways. I share my ways of doing it so that you can get an inside understanding of how another photographer works. The response to this new series has been excellent. And I think you will be able to learn quite a bit from it. You can find the link in the show notes.
I hope you’ll check it out. And if you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel yet, please do. You can find the link to the channel and all of my social profiles. In the show notes or visit my website, www.joeedelman.com. And if you’re listening on iTunes or any other platform that allows reviews, please do a guy, a favor, leave a few positive notes to help other photographers find out about the show.
Honestly gang, the reviews helped to attract sponsors, which helped me to continue providing you with access to all of these amazing photographers. I also wanted to share a great piece of advice for those of you with kids, be sure to teach them about photography and help them develop a sincere interest that way. They will never have money to buy drugs.
Next up is a TOGCHAT exclusive interview.
I am really excited for this conversation. Christina Peters grew up in Newark, Delaware and moved to California to attend the Art Center College of Design, where she earned her second degree in photography in 1993. And she’s been shooting ever since over the years, she has shot thousands of food images for her clients.
And that client list includes such brands as Arby’s Baja Fresh, Bath and Bodyworks, Brookside Chocolates, Bumblebee Tuna, Burger King, Campbell Soups, Cesar Pet Food, Chipotle, CiCi’s Pizza, Country Crock, Domino’s Pizza, glory. Jean’s Coffee, Good Life Dog Food, Herbalife, King’s Hawaiian, Kraft, Libby’s, Marriott Hotels, McDonald’s, Nestle, Pedigree Pet Food, Pinkberry Frozen Yogurt, Rubio’s Grill, Taco Bell, Tyson Chicken, Whole Foods Market, Walmart, Weight Watchers, Wrigley’s hang on… I need a drink. That’s just a small portion of that list. She has worked with ad agencies in the US and Europe. As well as national magazines and book publishers and well, you know what? Let’s just get into the conversation, but be sure to stay tuned until the end,
Christina has some excellent learning resources that I want to share with you, including a free download for you. Christina Peters, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me on TOGCHAT.
Oh, thanks, Joe. I’m so excited to be here.
Well, honestly, it is my pleasure. And I gotta tell you I was getting ready for the interview.
Obviously you have an incredibly impressive portfolio and that’s not just because it looks really delicious, but the photography is amazing. And I gotta say you also have a really, really impressive client list that obviously you have worked very hard for. So can I get you to start out and maybe just kind of give me the overview, the 30,000-foot view of your career?
Like how has it developed to where it is today?
Sure. So I basically, I’ve been taking pictures since I was a child, cut to in high school. When people were deciding what type of profession they were going to go into, it was really all that I knew and was familiar with. And I thought, well, okay, I’m just going to do this.
My dad was a corporate guy and I learned at the dinner table, how much he didn’t like working for the corporation. So I just thought, Was a teenager. Like I’ll just work for myself. It’s like so easy. Right. That kind of started that entrepreneurial path. So then I went to college, a couple of different places and got a few degrees and photography.
And, but always focusing on commercial photography, I had been doing fine art, but always had that whole stigma of like, Oh, I don’t want to be a starving artist kind of thing. Right. My parents were definitely putting that in my head, so I thought, okay, “I’m gonna do advertising work.” And I really enjoyed that process of working with a client with an ad agency or a design firm, creating an image that maybe is in their head.
And I have to sort of pull that out of them and figure out what that is, and then produce exactly what they want. So after school, I actually assisted. As many photographers as I could handle in a two-year period, I gave myself two years. So I was assisting full-time in the Los Angeles area. And I worked for about 35 different photographers and learned so much about the business side.
And sort of really, I’ve learned a lot about what not to do because photographers aren’t really well known for running a business, successfully. So, it was amazing to get that experience. And it also gave me the confidence that like, you know what, I technically I’m good to go. I now know some business stuff and some marketing things, and I think I’m ready to start getting my own clients.
And so it just sort of. Happened that way. And it really was all who, who you meet. And, I accidentally met someone who was starting his own ad agency. And his, one of his first accounts was a high-end grocery store in LA. And so he, was like, well, this is a regular gig. We got to have someone every other week. And I ended up shooting, for them for like over five years. And so that’s kind of how things started. So.
Awesome. So you mentioned two degrees in photography. Did I hear that right?
Yeah. So I have an associates degree that I got at a tiny little community college back East here. And, uh, and then I went out to Art Center, College of Design.
I tried to transfer in. And they were like, Nope, you got to learn our way. So they made me start all over again. So.
It was fine. It’s like the first term was people didn’t even know how to look through a 4×5 camera and I’d already been running a 4×5 camera for two and a half years at that point.
But. After that, it was definitely hardcore technical stuff. I really enjoyed dark room work and things. And we’re talking, a long time ago it was like 1989. Right. But yeah, it was a good school technically. But you know, at that time there was just nothing about business. There was maybe two business classes.
That was it. One was about accounting and then the other one. Was about estimating or didn’t prepare me for what I really needed to know. So that’s why I thought, it was a natural progression. This is really before the Internet and things and social media and stuff. So I wanted to see how other shooters did stuff. That’s why I’m like, okay, I’m going to work for as many shooters as I can of all different disciplines. And that’s really when I found food because I assisted a couple of food shooters.
So I am curious, you don’t have to give me any names, but what genres did you work in that you kind of had that realization of like, Oh, this is definitely not me.
So I worked for car shooters. I did fashion stuff, travel work you name it, product, lots of products. I wanted to learn as much technically as I could as well. So I basically just went through, they’re still around, they’re called the workbook. And so there’s a workbook directory. I went through there and picked a bunch of photographers
Who’s technical, like their work. I was really impressed by with lighting and what they did and what they pulled off this was the days of film. So you really had to know your stuff. And so yeah, so a bunch of cars. So I really learned a lot about lighting, shooting cars. You get a big piece of shiny round metal.
That’s hard to light and if you work with somebody who knows how to do that, and you just learn all types of tricks that you can apply to any discipline. So, yeah, it was awesome.
Very cool. So now were these like paid assistant gigs or were these internships you were doing.
Yeah, I treated it like a business.
I made self promotional material. I printed it myself in my home darkroom and I, that was bragging rights. And I ended up printing for a lot of photographers. I made a little set up in my living room of myself, rigging a bunch of boxes and things like that. And holding rhubarb, the cat. And I actually assisted some photographers that work with animals and advertising.
So I was like a bunny wrangler, a kitten wrangler. A dog wrangler, so I was pulled in on jobs like that and I printed 50 promos. I mailed it out to about 20 photographers and immediately, as soon as they got promos, I was just booked solid. And at that time, it was $125 a day. That was the rate.
Yeah. Sadly, I remember those, those rates and those days, and you literally, you just triggered a whole memory with me because I actually had printed my own promo pieces, even down to the point of getting line negatives made of my logo, taping it with red tape to a piece of glass as a mask. Yeah. I, gosh, I think maybe it was PTSD that I forgot about that.
Exactly you want to shut that one down.
Exactly. It’s been so long since I’ve thought of that. Indeed. Oh, for Photoshop, right?
Yeah. So, and no one, no one was doing that. No assistants were making promos. They still aren’t now they just send out an email, and even photographers don’t print promos now, which is that’s, that’s a whole other conversation. I still do that.
That’s awesome. So, I am curious, and I don’t mean this to be like any kind of hit on your school, but I think every photographer has one of these lessons. What’s the biggest photography lesson that your career has taught you, that you didn’t learn in school.
Really? Let’s see. So we’re not business necessarily.
Yeah, so maybe it, maybe it was a technique. Maybe it was some kind of methodology that you never really got into in school, but it wound up becoming important to you down the road.
Yeah, it really was. I’d have to say learning how to light metal and, seeing how light and the whole angle of incidence, the way light reflects off of things, how light refracts, and how to physically see light in a space.
I mean, it sounds cliché, but seeing subtleties in light, That really, really happened after school. I think that just takes time to see as well and to recognize, Oh, we just lost a bit of light. It’s like a half a stop. A lot of people wouldn’t even notice that, but if you’re working in an environment with a white set, all of a sudden you’re like, okay, one of the lights just went down and my assistants are like, what are you talking about?
And I’m like, something has changed. Sure enough, we lost one of the bulbs and one of the lights in the background or something like that. So. Seeing lights, seeing how it reacts to things. I’m still fascinated by that. I think it’s still a challenge.
It, it helps to be a bit of a lighting nerd in this business. It really does.
Oh, it really does. I mean, that puts you ahead of the pack. Let’s be honest.
So you have a friend in LA who is starting an agency, he gets you a gig doing the work for the supermarket. That becomes kind of your first steady gig. What’s the tipping point where you realize like I’m really enjoying this food stuff.
I want more of it. Did more of it come to you at first. Or did you, while you were doing the supermarket stuff, say, let me see if I can parlay this into more food gigs.
Yeah. So at that time I was doing a lot of product work. One of my first clients was Panavision. They make the movie cameras. So I was shooting their catalogs for several years.
But with food, it’s just so different where this object is temporary and sometimes it’s fading while we’re working on it. You only have a short amount of time with it. And for some reason, I just, I felt it was easier to light food than it was products. I used some sort of aspects of product photography on food, but I would shift it a bit. So when I was working for the grocery store, I got to photograph every type of food there is. And certain foods had weird little tricks and I always worked with a food stylist by the way. So I’m not making the food. So the food stylist was doing all this weird trickery and I just thought that was always fascinating, and so that’s when I thought, all right, well, I’m going to start marketing to other ad agencies and design firms. In the area for doing food photography and to see what I can drum up in Los Angeles, there was a lot of food shooting going on there. The grocery store client let me feel comfortable with many types of food.
That was a huge advantage. Right. I shot everything, even something called a turducken, which I don’t recommend eating that, but it’s a weird thing. It’s like turkey stuffed with the chicken and stuff with a duck or something like that.
So I’m curious, is food as a market, is it kind of like, fashion? The fashion capital is New York, but LA is certainly like a smaller West coast hot-spot and then there’s Chicago for catalogs. Is there like a primary or a dominant market for food photography in the country or has that kind of leveled out given the internet and the changes in the industry?
I started remote shooting over 15 years ago. When all these technologies became a thing that did bring us a lot closer to our clients, globally. But I would say food shooting is heaviest in New York and then Chicago, and then LA, just like how you listed them. I’ve done a lot of work in all of those cities. Atlanta has some food shooting. Dallas I’ve shot there a lot, but I think biggest would be New York and then Chicago and then LA and San Francisco. Okay like that. And I think they’re pretty equal.
In looking through your portfolio and by the way, I really appreciate your openness about all this. I think this kind of information helps photographers so much just in really, yeah. Getting an understanding of kind of, shall we say how things really work and what it really takes. So thank you.
You’re welcome. I wish I had been told things like we’re starting.
So as I looked through your portfolio, one thing that jumps out at me in almost all of your categories, and you’ve got like, you could spend hours looking through your portfolio on your website, but Oh wow.
You have a very kind of light and airy style, to so much of your photography, your location stuff, your studio, stuff that you do, is that a very clear choice that you’ve made? Is that just kind of how you see things or is that based on market demand or how the market has evolved?
So I definitely focused on creating a portfolio of light and bright. It’s a particular style in the food world. And I’m doing a Facebook challenge next week, all about the light and bright style actually in photography. It’s a very, honestly, I think really it’s I started seeing it a lot in the fashion world. And then I started coming into the food world many years ago.
This isn’t a new technique, but I. Really love the light and bright look because it’s about the food and the image, as opposed to the entire environment as a story. So my goal is so that when you look at the images, all you’re going to be focusing on is the food. And a lot of clients really love that.
There are some styles that use a lot of props and a lot of stuff in the environment, and they’re beautiful, and they’re great. They’re more of an editorial story and there’s more sort of going on to the image. So I tend to use fewer props. It’s all about the color of the food. And if the food doesn’t have a lot of color, then what can I do to sort of supplement that and add things that might be able to bring that out?
So it’s definitely a conscious thing. And then dark and moody images started becoming hip and trendy. So I put a few of those in there and just let clients, and they were like, yeah, yeah, yeah, I can do that.
You mentioned working with a stylist a few times. And I frequently tell the story of my extremely brief food career, where I had the good fortune of working with a great stylist, but just so that everyone really understands what a stylist is and what they do and what the importance of their work is. Can you give us a bit more information about that?
With many disciplines in photography we have different stylists that we use, right? So in your world you would have a hair and makeup person, maybe a separate wardrobe and things like that.
In my world, It’s exactly the same, but we’re just doing that with food. So you can sort of think of the food stylist as a little hair and makeup artist for the food, for the Chicken or the Turkey or whatever. And at the same time, when you are working with clients and you’re lighting it and you’re controlling all of that stuff, we really don’t have time to style our own stuff.
A lot of food bloggers take this all on themselves. They’re the food stylist. They’re the prop stylist. They’re doing everything, and they sort of promote themselves in that way. And then they want to get bigger jobs, but then they say, well, I don’t work with stylists. I’m like, okay, that’s going to really limit you because some brands have specific stylists that have been trained on their food product and you have to use their stylist.
And that’s great for me, like, okay, great, you got someone that knows your product. Awesome. That’ll save time on set. And then I have, a whole group of stylists that I work with. Some of them specialize in certain things and others are more general, and they’re like my crew family. I mean, I can’t do this job without them.
It’s usually myself, a food stylist and a prop stylist as a bare minimum thing. And then an assistant and without my crew family, Sure. I could probably do it. It’s not going to look anything like with the three of us could do together. And so, when, when we all come together like that, it’s just like amazing.
It’s so fantastic. It’s a great, huge collaboration. I love it so much. I give my crew family like I give them full range, cart, like big, and I’m not as boss and very different. They tell me all the time. I’m not in their hair. I’m not restyling their stuff. When you put it on set, a lot of photographers tend to do that and it really pisses off their crew.
But, they’ll put it down and up. That’s how I’ll shoot it. They’ll put it on set. We look at it together, and we’re shooting tethered, which means it’s on the computer while we’re shooting, and we’ll look at it together and the integrity of how they styled the dish. I try to capture and bring through!
I think you make a great point there and it’s a point that I make in my world, when I talk to photographers, the first test for me, if I am working with a new makeup artist or a new hairstylist, if they finish work on the subject and the subject comes on the set, and they sit down in the makeup chair and check their phone. They’ll never be back at my studio.
[00:20:44]I look at them as a collaborator. I want them on the set. I want them looking at my images. So I’m with you there. So, and I love that fact that obviously, you’re describing a relationship with these people where you do have that trust and your final output is the result of that. So with your bigger clients and, and I’m sure this probably varies to some degree, but I’m curious, how much do you find yourself working with an art director scenario where they’ve essentially handed you and the stylist a sketch and the ideas recreate this or are you at a point in your career now where your reputation kind of proceeds you and you’re being asked, Hey, this is the concept that we’re trying to communicate. This is what we want people to see and understand about our food or our products. So do your thing, how where’s the balance there?
So it depends on the client and I’m finding these days, the experience of the client. So there’s kind of two generations of ad agencies or internal marketing folks for brands these days. Some of them, have no idea how to conceptualize doing photography. They have no idea what they want. They don’t even know what a shot list means.
And a shot list is listing all the images we’re going to be doing on our job. And so I have to help them create that. And of course I charge for that’s pre-production time. Then the polar opposite where it’s an ad agency, they have seasoned folks in there, and they know exactly what they want. I get beautiful sketches sometimes. And they know the lighting. They’ll pick out images in my portfolio and signal at this exact lighting style, but this is on our product. They’ll tell me colors that they need to have colors to avoid. And creativity wise, I am not doing anything to the aesthetic of the image except the lighting.
So it kind of becomes like a technical exercise for me to match exactly the light that they want and which I’m really good at. It’s super fun for me to do. And then they’re the ones sort of picking the colors and stuff like that. So all extremes really. And then, in between that. So when it’s more creative, it’s a little more challenging because they’re waiting on me to help them come up with ideas.
And so when everything is dictated for you, then it’s more of a production process. You know what I mean?
Definitely. I don’t ask these next few questions, my listeners get upset at me. I’m not a guy that gets all hung up in gear, but let’s go ahead and get that out of the way, because I noticed in looking through some of your pictures and videos, I noticed a couple of different formats of cameras, which may have been over time.
So what formats do you usually work in and what kind of cameras? And you mentioned already that you shoot tethered, which I’m assuming then also given the type you almost always, if not always shoot on a tripod?
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Oh, yeah. I shoot on tripod whenever possible. Except if I’m out in the field, like at a farm doing something like that. So I do editorial work and commercial work. My editorial work I’m using, I always mix up the name of it. It’s the largest Canon chip. So was it F uh, 5g Sr or RS?
Oh God, I’d be the wrong one to ask, but cool. Okay. So you’re working with a full-frame Canon right?
I’m working with a full frame camera that’s the biggest sensor I can get out of them because all magazines crop, it doesn’t matter what you do. They want to crop into something. So I give them really huge files. And so for the advertising world, they also want massive files.
And, so I’ll use a PhaseOne digital back. And I own a P45+, which is an older back now. So I’ll use that usually on a secondary set when it might be some social media work or something like that. And then on the main set, depending on what we’re doing it with, I might rent one of the big boys, like one of the hundred megapixel backs.
And I’m actually, I’m old school girl. So I still have a Fuji 680 camera system, which they haven’t made since like the nineties, but I get lens control and perspective control with the backs. And when necessary, when I’m photographing like a chocolate bar at a severe 45-degree angle, I bring out the 4×5 camera and I have adapter plates that put the digital back on the large format camera, so I can get all my angles and tails and perspective control. So very rarely will I use a 35mm for the advertising work.
Makes sense completely. So I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this, but given your educational background, also, given your focus on business, I’m going to lump them both together. I am assuming that you shoot such that you do not have to do a lot of post-processing other than your normal, shall we say developing of the digital file, but you’re not doing a lot of corrections and fixing stuff afterwards and that correct?
Exactly. I’m a straight through the camera girl. However, with certain clients, they, there’s just certain things that they want retouch. So I have some resources for great retouchers that I’ve worked with over the years, just for like for the high-end stuff. Some ad agencies now have really great internal retouchers. And so I’ll process the files out. I do what’s called minor cleanup. I’ll include that in my post-processing fees that I’m charging. Cause it does take time obviously, but I’m not like if they want the burger bun to look like a baby’s face, like some of them want. I call that photo illustration at that point, I am not doing that.
Some photographers do I, it’s just not something I really enjoy doing, so I will, of course, a separate line item in that estimate, I will put in a retouching for that and the ad agencies that I work with that request that they’re totally used to, that, you know. So, I try to get things as close to where, where our goal is through camera if possible first, sometimes I might do some little quickie composites, if it actually will save time on set and it’s as quicker for me to do a composite, I’ll do that. And then I’ll hand that file over to the retoucher. So an example would be like, if I’m photographing beer and there’s four glasses of beer that have to have the perfect foam head on there. I’ll just do one at a time and then I’ll composite them together.
Back in the day, when I had my very, very brief interlude with food photography, myself and a stylist, we would essentially spend a day to get one shot. We would come in the morning with a sketch, and she would begin all of her prep, put it all together.
I would set up based on how I anticipated, we were going to shoot. And when she was done, we put it under the camera. I tweak my lighting, do my Polaroids. But by that time, the food was starting to essentially expire. So she’d go back and recreate it again. And we would shoot the film. For some of your more elaborate sets I mean, obviously you’ve got these great sets with, with all kinds of fresh fruit that’s sliced and things like that. Even today in the digital world, is it a similar scenario when you’re working with your stylist or have you got it down to a point where the stylist can put something together and you’re kind of ready to go with it? What’s your workflow?
We usually work with stand-in foods still. It depends on what it is. Some products hold just fine. So like, if it’s a cooked Turkey, scarily that thing can sit on set for a while. It’ll kill you if you touch it and eat it, but it can sit around on set for a while.
Other foods like salads and things that are really living and, they, they wilt and fade over time. So I will do my lighting off of a stand-in and then while the stylist is prepping the hero and the hero is the final dish that we’re going to be working on. So I’m working on stand-in.
The stylist is working on the hero. And then once I get everything ready to go, I’ll let the stylist know, Hey, I’m going to be ready in about 10 minutes and see where she’s at. If she needs more time. Totally fine. If she’s ready to go. And it’s something that, could like fade quickly on set.
Then I have to hurry up my business and, make sure I can, get our food in as fresh as we can. And then we put it on set. I start taking shots. We tweak, shoot tweak, shoot tweak, tweak shoot, tweak, and some shots might have 50 frames to get to the final thing.
Awesome. And it sounds so much sexier with the hero and the stand-in concept, right? I’m unfortunately old enough to remember when we went through the transition in this country where I think it was the Federal Trade Commission got involved with truth in advertising. And one of the big targets at the time was Campbell Soups. They got in a lot of trouble for the very simple and brilliant concept of put a bunch of marbles in the bottom of the bowl and that way, all the vegetables are, sticking out of the top of the soup. So I realized, obviously you can’t do that anymore, but, I’m pretty sure there’s probably still some, shall we say legal tricks that you can do? Can you share any of those kinds of things? Like you talked about like living food, lettuce. I know from experience lettuce starts to look dry and very matte really quickly.
Now back in the day, I don’t know if they’re still allowed to do this, but back in the day, we would actually use glycerin.
We put glycerin drops to make the fresh water drops. Can you still do that or are there other techniques you use?
I absolutely can. And so it’s important to pull out here though, is that every country has their own truth in advertising laws. Surprisingly, a bit lax in the laws.
We’re not as strict as some countries are. So Australia and Greece are extremely really rigid. You have to, you can’t alter the product. You can’t put anything on it. Even if you can’t physically see it, you, in some countries, you can’t even do that.
But in the U.S., you can sort of doctor up something. So for example, with a chicken client that I had for many years, we would partially cook the chicken just enough to tighten the skin, which only takes about 10 minutes. And then from there you pull it out, and then they would use a kitchen, bouquet, water, and dish soap concoction. And to paint it on the poultry, to give it that roasted look, and then they’d use a torch and finish it in certain parts. So it looks like a cooked chicken, but it’s really not. It’s like part cooked and it would kill you, but for frozen foods, vegetables often oxidized when you freeze them.
And so when we’re photographing frozen food, we have to weigh out. Every single component that we can pull out. Of that. I let’s pretend we’re doing like a beef stew. We would get cases of the product from the client. We would then separate. And we meaning my stylist, right? I’m not doing this work. They would have a crew of stylists doing this cause it’s so tedious. They would go through, and they would break down the stew and figure out, okay, how many pieces of potato are in there. Carrots. Celery meat, whatever, they would segregate it, separate it and weigh it. And so then we are allowed to and save the juice, and then we are allowed to substitute fresh vegetables for what we pulled out that was frozen, but they have to cut it and style it exactly the same way that the manufacturing process created those. It’s very tedious. So we have like prep days for doing certain jobs like that. And so legally it weighs exactly the same, so we’re not over promising. So that was what Campbell’s got stuck with is they were over promising how much content, how much product was in that bowl of soup.
So we have to be very careful if we are using a bowl. How many ounces is that bowl made for? Right, since there’s a ratio proportion. So certain bowls, if you’re photographing a stew, you, have big pieces of potato. If you’re photographing a small bowl, that ratio is going to look a little off.
It’s going to look like it’s a big bowl. So there’re things like that, that you just have to be very careful of. And in my estimates and in my contracts, in terms and conditions, I always have a disclaimer that if the client asks me to do something a little funny, little funny business like that, I’m not going to be held responsible for that. What they are wanting me to switch stuff out and that’s like, technically not truthful, then I’ll just say, all right, yeah, I’m making you sign this to say that you’re asking me to do this and I won’t be held responsible for that if someone has an image problem with the image. So.
So yeah that’s a long-winded answer to that question, but yeah.
That’s great. That’s fascinating. So one last question about your process, and then I do want to get into some business things, but you mentioned the time that you spent working as an assistant to learn as much as you can on the practical side.
And you’ve mentioned that you use assistants now, so what makes, for anybody that might be interested in becoming an assistant… I’m not so much worried about the process, but for you as someone who would hire an assistant, what makes a great assistant that you’re going to want to have come back and come back again?
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A great assistant is someone who is there genuinely to help you on set. There are a lot of people who contact me, who want to shadow me. I get really offended by that. That means you want to be on set for free, but you don’t want to do anything, you don’t want to help. And I don’t have free interns or anything like that. That’s actually not legal in a lot of States anymore. So I’m all of my assistants are paid. And generally speaking with a lot of the work that I do, it’s non-disclosure they really are very careful who is on set. So I’m very careful who I actually bring on set with me.
And it’s usually referrals from other assistants, but a good assistant is someone who is watching what’s happening on set and anticipating what you’re going to need next. So if another shot is coming up, and we’re finished with this shot. A great assistant will say, “Hey, can I clear off the set for you?” or What, what do you need me to get in your props?” Or something like that? And that, that type of thing, they’re going to be doing a lot of running around. If I run out of something, you’re going to have to go to the store and get it. They have to be willing and okay to help in and do dishes.
If the stylist doesn’t have an assistant and gets behind someone has to do the dishes. Can’t be me, I’m shooting, some assistants get real uppity about that. So it’s like on my sets, we are all helping each other and pitching in where possible. So really being willing to do whatever it takes to help get the job.
Very cool. I do want to change gears into business a bit and in part, because you actually create a lot of resources for that, which we’re going to tell people about, but there’s a phrase that I learned. Probably seven or eight years ago from a food photographer up in Seattle. And he was an older gentleman that was kind of experiencing the pains of the growing internet world, but he, he was venting to me about the onslaught of dirty food in the food industry.
And of course, referencing. People that were making money, photographing plates of food for restaurants, even some rather high-end restaurants, but basically to be able to put pictures on like Yelp and now Uber eats and those kinds of places is, is dirty food, still a thing. And how has this peripheration of these websites and the internet? How has that really impacted your world? My perception is you’re working at a much higher echelon, so there’s not. As much impact, but I may be wrong.
So yeah, you, mentioned dirty food. So I call it ugly food and that’s where really there hasn’t been a lot of thought into plating that item and making it look as nice as it could.
And so many years ago there was a really big magazine who made it really popular, this ugly food. And I remember I had an agent at the time, and she was just like, “Hey, you got to shoot some stuff like this.” And I was like, Nope, not doing it. No, I’m not doing ugly food. I don’t care. I’m not doing it.
And I never did. And so, and look, I was never asked, because I never put it in my portfolio either, but it became this whole, this particular magazine was actually hiring product shooters to do food stuff. And it was really obvious and just, it looked like somebody just took dishes and just threw it down on the table and forks and dishes everywhere and, looked like somebody had a food fight. I just didn’t understand it. And it held around for a long time and magazine loss, a lot of readerships. It really put them in trouble, but it took them years to like, it’s not going to become a thing. So it, there still is a lot of sorts of ugly food where people don’t care what it looks like.
It’s all over social media and stuff like that. And, It’s a horrible image of a steak or something. And everyone’s like, that’s amazing. So honestly, and I think some people just can’t see the difference between a good shot and a bad shot. They just, just look at the title of what it’s called and just like, Oh yeah, I would love it. Peppered steak. That’d be great. I don’t know. So I’m definitely a snob when it comes to that,
Understandable, especially looking at the quality of your work. So on the business side of things for somebody that’s just starting out and let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they have, got a skill set behind them because obviously you need the skill set and maybe they’re already doing some assisting, but they’re at that point where they want to start to market themselves as food photographers. What advice would you give? And, especially as the world’s evolved and your businesses evolved, what advice would you give to, uh, we’ll use the word new and young interchangeably, okay, but to a new food photographer who is, is trying to kind of get off on the right foot with their, their business?
I coach a lot of photographers who want to do food photography too. And the challenge that a lot of them have is they’re not identifying their clients that they want to work for. It’s imperative with any discipline. This isn’t just food. If you want to be successful and make money at it, you have to identify prospects that will be willing to pay what you’re worth and are in line with the type of photography and the style that you do. So as soon as you do that and start thinking of it from through that lens, so to speak, it’ll help you narrow down your focus on whom you really want to go after. And so if they’re a food shooter, go to your local grocery store, walk down the frozen food aisle.
You have to see who is in your area because a lot of stores are sourcing locally now. So we’re bombarded by images every day. When you walk through a grocery store, you don’t even realize there’re millions of photos in there all the time. And so for somebody who doesn’t shoot food, if you want to do like lifestyle or something like that, or portraiture work, where it’s a more commercial, you could just go to Target or go to REI and look at every single product that involves a photographic image.
On their packaging, packaging pays huge. That’s a really, really awesome market to get into. I find there are brands that gravitate towards using a lot of photography and then other brands gravitate towards more graphic design work. So you need to pinpoint and really target your prospect.
And then you got to stalk them and you got to look at their website, sign up for all of their email content. So you have to see what they’re promoting, how they’re promoting themselves, and then you, you have to go follow them on all their social media channels. See everything that they’re doing and is their style is their message in alignment with you as a photographer and what you want to do.
[00:40:55]Kind of start from there.
That’s great advice. And there’s one more thing that I stumbled on your website right before we talked. And I just have to get people to look at this. Because I talk about business in general with photographers a lot, because as you mentioned before, schools don’t teach enough of it.
And the sad news is they still don’t teach enough of it. Right. Indeed. I’ve never met the photographer, probably yourself included who bought their very first camera with the idea of making money. This money thing comes later, and that’s when we’re all kind of shocked at what it’s going to take, but you have on your website and I’m going to share the link with people in the show notes, but you have an estimate request form for potential new clients.
And what I found was absolutely brilliant on this form is you don’t have a lot of text, but you have just enough text before you get to the form that basically starts out with a real simple statement. Every job is different, but then what you do is you actually educate these potential clients. There are some basic expenses that are involved with most shoots and you go through things like an assistant and a food stylist and, possibly the need for a digital tech, if it’s a bigger job.
And then you actually have a very simple statement. For example, if your budget is under a thousand dollars, you will need to consider working with a student or with a food blogger who is just starting out. And I thought this was outstanding for a lot of reasons, because number one, I completely understand it helps you avoid the tire kickers.
That really don’t know what they are getting into, but it also really gives people better clients, bigger clients that maybe are just learning about you. It really gives them a sense at the level of which you work and the detail of which you work. So tell me a little more about it and the way you perceive it. I think it’s one of the best kind of contact forms that I’ve seen in ages.
Well, thank you. Yes, that was definitely a work in progress. I initially had a contact form on my site without the text on the top, and I don’t know what it is, but out of the woodwork, people were just like, hi, I’ve got 200 images and $200. Can you do that? And it’s like, no, but I have felt I have to respond to them at some point. So it’s like, okay. So now what I’m going to do is have this contact form estimate form on my website. And then before they even fill the thing out, this is going to be qualifying if it’s a prospect for me and that way.
And as soon as I sort of added that language, cause before I didn’t have pricing in there, I said, I worked with the food stylist. I worked with a prop stylist. I worked with an assistant. How on God’s earth could they actually think that would be $200? They still did. So then it’s 200 shots. I mean, that’s a horrendous amount of shooting.
I don’t care what it is. Right? And there’s like, yeah. We think you can do in a few hours, like, Oh no, that’s not me. And I don’t know who could do that. So I was like, okay, the phone calls have got to stop. And the emails have got to stop. So the only way I’m just going to warn them listen more than a thousand dollars and it worked great.
It is brilliant. And folks, if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking about starting a business as a photographer, and I don’t care if it’s portraits, weddings, I don’t care what it is. Make sure you look at this page that Christina has, because the other thing that’s important to note, there is no terse language in there. There are no stop words like warning, or I won’t do this or can’t do this. It’s actually written in a very positive, very informative way. And even the final catch line of like, look, I’m not working for a thousand dollars is still written in a very positive way. And it offers a solution to the person who may only have that $200 for 200 shots.
So, really, really brilliantly done. I think there’s a lot of genres that could benefit.
Thank you. I mean, sometimes I’ll still get phone calls, thinking that their product will be an exception to that rule. That’s few and far between.
And then that’s when, I’m telling them like, no, you need to call the local college because you have to understand if you want it to look like the way it does on my website. There was a food stylist. There was a prop stylist and a studio and things like that. So we’re not doing that for $200. My assistant gets $350 a day. You have to do the math on that. Plus I payroll her, which means she ends up being $430 a day.
Right. Excellent advice. So gosh Christina, I could talk to you for the next couple of hours. This is great, but two things. I want to make sure that we let people know about here. Folks, number one, if you are interested in fooding or finding any of this conversation is kind of raising your curiosity about food. You guys know that I’m all about educational resources. Christina has an amazing website with a ton of tutorials, articles about, lighting, just anything and everything gear to use, all of it with food. It’s called the foodphotographyblog.com. I will make sure that that URL of course is in the show notes. But Christina, tell me a little about your Food Photography Club.
Oh, sure. And thanks for bringing it up actually. So, over the years. I really was doing a lot of workshops in person, but they were always limited.
We could only fit about 16 people in my studio and was actually really a lot of people at that time. And then we had people traveling from all over the world to take the workshops with us. So I decided, okay. The easiest way. And this, this is several years ago where it’s like, memberships were just becoming a thing.
And so it was like, all right, I think I can do some online educational content. So I’ve been blogging for 10 years and that’s how a lot of my followers found me. So with the food photography club membership site, I have over 20 courses in there that address. Every type of aspect of food photography, and I’m also adding a product course, and I have a whole section on doing portraits, like chef shots and things like that.
So there are a few other disciplines in there. Talk about the business of photography, building your portfolio, finding clients. And so every month I go live. Using zoom, we all get together on a zoom call. I do two live webinars a month about various topics that my members are struggling with. And then I add content each month, all of that.
And it’s, it’s been amazing. They have become a huge foodie family. And, I know most of them by name and I mean, I’ve got hundreds of members in there and it’s just so much fun, but the ones that are really active, I just feel like. We’re just all colleagues in this together, so it’s, it’s really, really been fun.
That’s awesome. And you mentioned you have a new class that’s opening up on March 26th. Is that right?
Yeah, so the doors are going to be opening up on the 26th and I’m doing a little Facebook challenge for the light and bright style of food photography. It’s a free challenge. So I invite people to come into my Facebook group starting this week and next week, but we’re going to start the challenge next week.
And so it’s an opportunity for people to learn a new lighting style or try to finesse it if they’re having troubles with it and also see how I am as a teacher and maybe I might be a good fit for them, for the club. So, yeah, sure.
And so, and then you’ll be judging the challenge in the end?
So I don’t make it actually as a contest, however, all we do, I have everybody share their images.
And then what ends up happening is really the most beautiful images become our Facebook banner page. It sort of is like a contest, but I don’t want people to be intimidated. I’m trying it out. So, yeah.
And that’s great. Actually, the reason I asked is I was just going to tell everybody if you, if you really want to do well in that challenge, just spend a couple of hours on Christina’s website and take a really close look at her work, dissect it, pay attention to it because it’s about as good as you’re going to get right there. It really is.
Christina. Seriously, I have to thank you so much. Number one again, I said it before, but I’m going to say it again. I really. Respect your openness. It’s something that, that I try to do when we’re done, and we go away. We don’t really get to take this information with us. We’ve both been blessed to have such long careers and, and, enjoy this business.
So kudos to you for that.
Thank you so much for spending this time with me. I do hope that, post pandemic, when we get out and about in the world again, that we get to cross paths, but thank you again so much.
And that would be awesome. I would love that. Thank you so much, Joe.
Take care. Bye now.
Wow. I have to say I am in awe of Christina’s career and her focus on running a good solid business, like many photographers. My Achilles heel throughout the first half of my career was separating photography for fun and photography for profit. It took me a long time to learn that if I ran a good business. I could have a lot of fun with my photography. Be sure to check out the links to Christina’s website, her food photography blog, and her food photography club in the show notes. And let her know that you heard her interview here on TOGCHAT.
Also, for those of you who are trying to make a buck with your cameras, Christina has shared a link to a free PDF called The Four Figure Day Rate Plan. This talks about the steps that you need to take to get decent paying clients instead of shooting for a bag of potatoes for a low fee. The link is in the show notes, and I assure you that the advice applies to more than just food photography.
Did you know that you can have Joe as your personal photography mentor? I’m talking about direct access to ask him questions and get advice. You can also attend weekly video meetups for members to share and help each other with Joe’s guidance. Be sure to check out the link in the show notes.
Okay. Folks that will do it for another episode of the TOGCHAT Photography Podcast.
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