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Food photography technically a nightmare

Early in his career award-winning Australian photographer, Paul Williams, was warned by mentors to stay away from shooting food. ‘It’s a nightmare,’ they said. Food photography is notoriously technical, and the objects only hold for a few minutes, or even seconds.

Paul often prepares for a shoot by working with ‘stunt’ food or drink to ‘calibrate the lights and get it ready, then once it’s ready you slide in a fresh one and take the shot’.

‘I didn’t listen to advice – something I excel at,’ Paul, now a leading food photographer, told Inside Imaging, and his first food shoot over a decade ago didn’t go quite to plan.

‘The job was shooting a cake, shaped like a licence plate, for the Dubai Road Transport Authority (RTA), a previous client for a regular commercial job,’ he said. ‘It was the RTA’s birthday, and they needed the cake image for a newspaper campaign. It had this white icing, and one centimetre away was this deep chocolatey fruit cake. Trying to balance these very glare-y highlights with incredible lowlights proved incredibly tricky.’

Paul established himself as one of the most sought-after commercial photographers in Dubai, and didn’t spend much time there with food photography. He began to seriously consider professional food shoots after relocating back home to the Gold Coast in 2013 and noticing a lack of competition in the sector.

For about two years, Paul dedicated countless hours learning food-related photography skills, and five years ago he made the jump by launching a standalone food photography website, Gold Coast Food Photographer. In December the Foodelia International Food Photography Awards placed Paul in the top 10 best food photographers of 2020.

Photo: Paul Williams.

‘With commercial photography shooting people, you can create a space where highlights fall off into shadow,’ he said. ‘That’s not the case with food photography, and you need to be more controlled. If you’ve got any grease, glaze or oils on the food you’ve got to be really good at controlling those highlights so they don’t blow out and you lose the detail in those areas.’

Paul mostly shoots with a 50mm lens, as the focal length allows him to capture images up close with a human-eye perspective, and he avoids macro lenses due to the shallow depth of field. For Paul a good food photo is about accurately capturing as much texture as possible, although some food is simply ugly. Beautifying beef jerky, for instance, is a unique challenge and requires perfect lighting techniques to mask its wonderfully hideous appearance.

‘A lot of people get caught up in the gear, and we’re all guilty of it,’ Paul said. ‘Especially people learning. But light is everything for photography. For me, it’s 85 percent of the shot, then 10 percent is the lens and five percent is the camera body.’

Paul will spend over an hour setting up the lighting, sometimes working with six lights or more, and shoots are conducted either in a studio or on location. The best location is where the food product holds. Cold products tend to require quick access to a coolroom, whereas a chef may haul a few steaks to a studio where there is more control.

Photo: Paul Williams.

While Paul’s primary income still comes from non-food-related commercial clients, he’s carved out a nice selection of loyal clients in the hospitality and food industries. Surprisingly, restaurants, cafes and bars don’t represent the majority of his food clients – ‘everybody wants it, but no one wants to pay for it’. It’s food manufacturers and wholesale suppliers, which have better margins than hospitality vendors, contacting Paul to shoot products for major marketing campaigns.

He’s typically hired to shoot just a handful of strong hero images, often as few as five shots, for a client looking for ‘visual legitimacy’ in a competitive market. One client, for instance, is Jack’s Creek, a Tamworth-based meat producer specialising in high-quality Wagyu and Black Angus beef. Paul has done a few jobs for them, including this Wagyu beef burger image:

The lighting here is different to your run-of-the-mill food photo.

‘These guys are an Australian brand, out rural, and we wanted to create a suite of images that was distinctly Australian,’ Paul said. ‘We used some old weathered hardwood fence posts as the table surface, pulled apart by my stylist. We laid down the fence palings and I was scratching my head for a while during the pre-production stage thinking about how to light it. While I was in my backyard sanding back a slab of wood I thought we might use as another surface, I noticed a beautiful pattern of mottled light falling on the bench from the gumtrees.’

Behind the scenes of the Jacks Creek photo shoot.

Paul picked up a corflute panel, carved out an inverted gumtree leaf pattern across it, and then projected the key light through it to emulate the light created by an Australian gumtree canopy.

‘I don’t think anyone would look at this and immediately identify it, but there is something uniquely Australian about this lighting. It’s not your typical football stadium lighting, where everything is just exposed. I was really happy with it.’

Last year retired commercial photographer, Robert Gray, told Inside Imaging that professional photographers are problem solvers. This couldn’t be more evident than in this burger shoot. Although the job couldn’t be done without an essential extra professional – the food stylist.

All hail the food stylist

Paul always insists on working with a food stylist. He is often tasked with the uphill battle of explaining to clients why a stylist is integral to great food photos. Sure, a chef may plate well, but doing it for the camera is different. Food stylists know exactly what needs to be done and how to do it. They have ideas, a robust grasp of modern food trends and colour palettes, and have thousands of props.

‘My old stylist had an entire room in his house, and two big sheds full of props,’ Paul said. ‘He had a client call and ask for an ice cream scoop – an antique looking one. He came back the next day with 32 options. They are endlessly op shopping for beautiful props’

In an effort to curtail the inevitable ‘do-we-need-the-stylist’ conversation, Paul introduced a FAQ section to his website explaining numerous topics, with particular emphasis on the important of a food stylist. If a client remains adamant about styling the food themselves, Paul does what he can to sway their opinion. Every time he’s convinced a reluctant client to bring in a stylist, they’ve left with a newfound appreciation for the stylist’s role.

A food stylist picks props based on the products style and aesthetic, as well as how the colours will blend to compliment the subject.

More hospitality venues than ever before are considering professional food images, partly due to the proliferation of online marketing through websites and social media. Paul said many clients tread along the same long and expensive path before eventually contacting him.

It starts will an attempt to capture high-quality food photos themselves; once they realise it’s not working, they’ll approach a friend who owns a camera; after that doesn’t quite cut it they’ll pay the cheapest semi-pro available; and, yep, after that fails they finally contact Paul. ‘Along the way, they’ll likely learn the value of what food photographers do and become a loyal client, after having seen others and even themselves mess the job up.’

Food photography was smashed by Covid. In a place like the Gold Coast, the tourism sector plays a major part of the hospitality industry. Around October, Paul was surprised when many clients started to return after a long hibernation.

‘I thought my food clients would be the last to come back. They were keen to put their hand in their pocket and market, whereas I thought they may be thrifty. I didn’t really ask why, but I was surprised.’

There’s been enough momentum for Paul to take out a commercial lease for a space in Burleigh Heads.

Check out his food photography here, and his commercial photography here.

One Comment

  1. Paul Williams Paul Williams March 1, 2021

    I really appreciate the exposure (pun intended) here and hope I was able to provide some value to your readers 🙂

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