Getting Back to Work: The Business of Food Photography

The crazy, crazy nights have begun again. I have not shot commercial products for five months, and I was bemused by how easy it is to forget the effective workflow needed to turn out high-quality work. One hero-shot and six catalogue shots took me from 9pm until 2am to complete; part of the time related to the fact that I had not cleaned my sensor and needed to Photoshop out the dust and oil build-up, while the rest was learning to work around only having a 50mm lens at home. For the record, though I absolutely love the Canon 50mm f.1.2 lens for headshots, it is awful in the studio. With a maximum aperture of f.16 it really needs to be coddled in a high sharpness arena. The 24-70mm f.2.8 will be brought back from school for the next session.

Coming back to the work yesterday made me ask all kinds of questions during the actual progress: “do I enjoy this work?”, “is my work as good as the infamous commercial photographers?”, “why not?”, “what are the limitations of working in a tiny space?”, and “what be the path forward, if I wanted more from the work?”. When I awoke, bleary-eyed and sleepy-headed, I decided today’s blog would be about those questions and that I should snap photos of my workspace for readers.

The image above shows what a standard professional product set-up looks like: two lights, white seamless paper, a camera, light meter and the products. Normally, I shoot at night to control the lighting, so the entire area is shrouded in darkness until the modelling lights are turned on. 80% of my commercial work are white background shots for a cookware company. Stainless steel is the most difficult material to shoot in this atmosphere, and glass is a close second. Product photography demands controlling the light so as to control the reflections. To see how strong a photographer’s work is all you need to do is look for his reflection in the spoon or pot. Curved pieces show most of the room, while flat pieces need a fill light added to reduce dull tones in the steel. Glass, however, is super tricky to retain the edges of the product and to keep it from disappearing into the white background.

The next image is every photographer’s obligatory sacrificial offering to gear hounds and those with gear-acquisition-syndrom [G.A.S]: the camera porn photograph. In the past three years of working I have built a complete camera system that I feel reflects my actual needs as a working photographer. While I will never ever be able to use the $3000 Hasselblad SWC for food photography, the photographs that it produced with its 38mm lens are unique and my favourite. The Hasselblad 501 C/M was bought from David Odess 2 years ago, and it my travel workhorse. Almost all of my travel photography is done with this monster, and when a person has the patience to have their portrait actually taken/developed, then the Hasselblad delivers ideal quality and dynamic range on film.
The Leica M3 [circa 1964] was a gift from a colleague, and I recently added a 135mm Hektor lens to the 50mm Summicron and 90mm Elmar lenses that he gave me. The Leica is like a British-Racing Green Jaguar convertible – classy, precise and European in the best of ways. I like it for shooting portraits when the subject is in the groove or for street photography in top-tier cities like New York or Paris.
The Linhof View Camera in the back is a new addition. I have two Schneider-Kreuznach lenses, a 90mm and a 210mm, for V. and I to use for landscapes and portraits with 4×5 sheet film. I have only taken four photographs of the school in B&W with the camera, but it holds infinite potential. I would use this for a client who wants magical portraits that stand out from everyone else’s work. The client would be a patient soul with an understanding that the best work requires a process different from 10 frames per second for 15 seconds.Other than that the photograph shows the LensBaby lenses for artsy experimentation, the four other Hasselblad lenses I own, two macro extension tubes for the Hasselblad lenses, my Canon 135mm lens for events in low light and  my two old Canon 35mm cameras: the EOS 3 and a waterproof SureShot A1 that I  bought as my first travel camera at the age of 21. I use Profoto D1 lights because their light modifiers are over-built and will last me for a career.
My main camera is the EOS-1. I bought this 6 months after my divorce for me. I thought I would try to do something with my free time, and pursue photography because people tended to like my initial photographs I took when travelling. Which brings me back to my original question: where now? Reading Zack Arias’ blog on why he switched to medium-format cameras this month provides a lot of clues where the commercial work is going [although he is not strictly a commercial photographer]. I certainly see the age of my 1DmkIII starting to strain through the cracks, not because it is wearing out, but rather because new technology is changing the look and landscape of what companies/clients expect.
I love my Canon. Actually, as you can see, I love all of my cameras for what they are. The challenge for professional photography as a business is to ensure that your work remains cutting-edge among a horde of amateurs with the latest super dslr.
Zack Arias went with an IQ140 back and 645DF system from Phase One. He is ecstatic with his new purchase that would set a Canadian back about $30,000.
Yep, $30,000 and $4,000 a lens. However, the reality is that he does this work exclusively for a living, whereas I do not. I do not teach workshops, nor do I have a list of label-signed musicians calling for portraits. However, I do have a successful gig shooting work that takes up all of my spare time for 7 months of the year. Could I dare to consider a digital back as an option as a next step? What would have to change to make that feasible?
Ideally, I would want a digital back to replace the Canon, and that would mount on the Hasselblad V mount so that I could use the 501, SWC and Linhof 4×5 cameras. I would be stuck with manual focus and manual exposures, but that is how I prefer to work anyway. For about $16,000 I could probably squeeze together a system from Headshots in Toronto or head to New York to buy one at BH Photo. The problem is…well, it is not a Phase One IQ 140 back, and those run about $22,000. You need to shoot a lot of work to recover your investment that will devalue to null in three years, but if this is what you live for, then the IQ 140 is a brilliant piece of gear.
The reality is that 90% of my work comes from one wonderful client; should they no longer need my services then I would be stuck with a very expensive digital back. Unfortunately, I have all of the work that I can handle while still doing my main career as a teacher. I could pick up another main commercial client, but then would have no time to travel. I could sell gear, but what I own is essential to my work, and was built to not become obsolete in three years. Still, film is is flux with Kodak’s predicament, so will all of my cameras die a slow death because no stores stock film in Toronto?
Big questions…still no answers. I did enjoy the work yesterday, though. I think that my work is as good as the infamous photographers, but that their staff of assistants make their lives easier in a session. My way forward is to keep learning how to improve my abilities and understanding of the tools, and when the opportunity knocks, then I can rent a camera and walk hard. Sadly, the session needs to be re-done as the box needs a square crop image…time to get back to work!

2 responses to “Getting Back to Work: The Business of Food Photography

  1. Rock what ya got. It’s taken me a long time to get that Phase back. It started with a D100. I too have one big commercial client that I shoot products on white for. Thank God above its clothing and not steel!

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