If a professional photographer says, "I don't recommend anyone actually become a professional food photographer," and you still want to do it, you may be on the right path. That's how New York City-based studio food photographer Lucas Zarebinski feels.
Like with any art form, taking food photography from "the thing I do for fun" to "the thing that pays my bills" requires your full commitment and passion. Zarebinski has been in the photography field for about ten years—from assisting other photographers to running his own studio—and has an impressive list of clients including Details, Esquire, New York Times, and Everyday with Rachael Ray,, but he still wouldn't call it a steady job. The food photography job market is limited.
Of course, he does it because he loves it—taking photos of food is fun. Sure, there are other ways to play with lighting, angles, and composition, but using stacks of doughnuts, artfully arranged candies, or fresh produce is hard to beat.
If you're just starting out with food photography, Zarebinski emphasizes experimentation: "Put [the food/product] in a different part of your room, try different lighting—have a little fun with it. See what speaks to you." Pick an object that already looks good, and that'll make the process even easier. Invest in different colors fabrics or paper to use as backgrounds. Just be ready to spend hours trying out different positions over and over again, like Zarebinski did to develop his sharp, bold style.
How did he get into food photography? Not on purpose; although he's always had a passion for food, he never planned to shoot it. Initially his photography focused on people, but after assisting 20 photographers in different fields—food, people, and architecture—and building his business, he found his strengths lied in food photography. And he's glad he ended up where he did; he admits food is comparatively easier for him since his personality is better suited for shooting inanimate objects instead of directing models.
Zarebinski finds inspiration for his photographs when he eats out—by watching chefs cook and in the composition of his dishes—and by soaking in local food culture when he's on vacation. But give the choice, he'd rather cook at home; he enjoys the process of cooking, similar to how he enjoys the process of getting that perfect shot.
If you're determined to enter the field of professional food photography, Zarebinski has some advice. Look at photos in current food magazines to see what styles are popular. (This advice also applies to those who aren't aiming to be professionals, but want to improve their photos. Magazines are a great inspiration—take note of how the food is styled, or specifically how ingredients are cut.) Check out photographers' names in the magazines and look at their portfolios.
If your location allows it, intern with food photographers; besides seeing a professional in action, you'll gain the less enjoyable, but important knowledge on the business side of photography, the small everyday errands, how to work with a stylist, and how to research and work with clients. Although he got his degree in Fine Arts and Photography, Zarebinski places more importance on assisting photographers over studying photography in school. "School is important, but it doesn't give you the real experience," he says, "When you assist you see how things get done in a studio."
If, after assisting photographers and taking "millions and millions of pictures," as Zarebinski recommends, you're still in love with food photography, then you may be on the right track.
In the Studio
The video above gives a look into one of Zarebinski's latest food shoots for Prevention magazine.
As for whether Zarebinski eats the food after shooting it, usually not. It depends how much handling the food received. "Sometimes it's old or it's been touched a lot; you don't really want to eat it," he says. But leftovers off-camera? Go for it.
His favorite food to shoot are sweets, like doughnuts or cookies. The most difficult food to shoot is anything that's poured into a glass, but it's a fun challenge.
Depending on the final photo size he needs, Zarebinski uses a few cameras and lenses. He doesn't have a favorite lens; the one he uses depends on the project and what kind of effect he's going for.
- Canon 5D Mark II with 50mm f/1.4 lens, 100mm f/2.8L lens, or 24-70mm f/2.8L lens.
- Hasselblad H1 with 80mm f/2.8 lens or 120 mm f/4 lens
When he's taking photos outside the studio, he uses his Canon G12.
About the author: Robyn Lee is the editor of A Hamburger Today and takes many of the photos for Serious Eats. She'll also doodle cute stuff when necessary. Read more from Robyn at her personal food blog, The Girl Who Ate Everything.