“How I use Street Photography to become a better Food Photographer”

This article was written for and published at The Phoblographer on January 2017

Hi, I’m Xavier, a food photographer based in Brighton, U.K. This will be my third year as a full-time professional photographer. I’m a freelancer which means I work for and with many different clients on all sorts of projects. Oh, and I got here all by myself with a little help from my friends and the unconditional support from my wife.

My specialty lies in the catering industry as most of my work comes from restaurants, hotels, and chefs. My job is to photograph the dishes and drinks for the new or current menus and create content for their digital and printed marketing, editorials, articles, Instagram accounts… you name it. Often I have to document a busy service, take portraits of owners and staff and even shoot the interior space which also makes me a portrait, interior, and documentary photographer… I love it!

At times I take other commissions like portrait sessions, documenting events, or photographing jewelry. I pick my battles very carefully based on the quality and style of the shoot, how I feel about it and most importantly, how I get along with the client. I like to shoot for people and work with people; money is not what drives me.

My style is a mix of things I’ve learned along the way; first during my childhood looking at grandpa’s collection of Life Magazines, then at art school painting and sketching and a lifelong passion for photography. I love art and design so those two combined with a deep understanding of food and natural light allow me to photograph the way I do. I use natural light most of the time and I don’t stage any of the food or situations that I photograph.

I’ve been very lucky to have followed my dream and turned my passion into a business. In my case, there are no manuals, instructions, or Youtube channels on how to achieve this; it has been tons of hard work and some luck, a few people helping out, a bit of talent and a burning passion for food and photography.

Every single day I reflect on how I managed to get here. I chose to shoot for money because of my rejection to blind obedience and my individual nature, I’m naturally curious and question everything, plus I don’t like to be told what to do. For the challenge of doing something for myself; the challenge of running a business and all that comes with it and most important, for the personal challenge of succeeding before it was too late.

Here’s a bit of personal history:

I come from the food industry. I studied food and beverage management at university and worked in hospitality for about 15 years (I’m 34 now), first as a chef, then as a sommelier after finishing my studies. I’m not gonna get into any details but the industry, at times, can be very hostile and it sucks the life out of you. Being on your feet, in a confined space for 15 plus hours a day can’t be good for anyone and has to have some side effects. The only thing that keeps you going is that passion for food and wine but when your personality starts changing because of work, it’s time to move on.

When I turned 30 I felt that the industry wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I started questioning the purpose for getting out of bed every morning. I’ve given it all in the five years prior and felt that at a personal and spiritual level I didn’t gain absolutely anything from it. Slowly I lost my interest and wanted to do something more gratifying.

I can’t remember how, but I found myself more interested in taking pictures than in running restaurants so the idea of making photography a profession started to become a reality. I got myself a DSLR kit (Nikon D90 with an 18-105mm) and hit the streets to take pictures. There I discovered my other passion: street photography.

Long story short, I convinced my wife I would do everything to make it as a photographer and if nothing happened, I would get back to having a “normal” job. She wasn’t sure at first so I knew I had a lot to prove for her to trust and support my decision. I went part time on my restaurant job and focused all time and energy into my dream.

The process has been very slow and painful: I see it as a leap of faith and my first step to conquer a mountain. What followed next were two years of learning the craft; through street photography, I learnt most of the technical aspects of photography, while the free shoots taught me the basics of business.

That beginning looked like a staircase: a steep climb of technical knowledge and business insights followed by long periods of nothingness. This is very frustrating but taught me patience and perseverance. Giving up wasn’t in my business plan.

The defining moment was when I took a degree in professional photography. That upped my game, made me mature and gave me all the necessary tools to position myself as a professional photographer. By accident I found that my niche was in food photography but having had an extensive background in hospitality, looking at it now, it was a logical step. It also helped me regain my passion for food and wine.

Winning an award at an international competition during my first year of trade gave me the credibility I needed to position myself as professional. Since then, work has grown steadily and I was busy enough to quit my part time job and focus 100% on running a business.

Perhaps another time I can tell you my day to day life and what it takes to be a freelancer but I can say I learned a lot by looking at two guys who have inspired me since day one: Nicholas Godden and Eric Kim.

Now, running your own photography business can be as stressful as working in a kitchen (without the angry chef shouting at you), so to avoid getting into the same situation with photography, I adopted street photography as a hobby. I do it simply for pleasure and the benefits of doing so are incredible:

-It keeps me shooting (practice and knowledge)

-It helps me clear my mind (meditation)

-It keeps me out and moving (exercise)

-It’s equally challenging (creativity)

-I meet all sorts of people (social skills)

I guess what attracts me so much to street photography is my natural curiosity, and my interest in humans and how we interact with our physical world. The creative possibilities of shooting on the streets are endless and the fact that I’ve learned everything I know about photography from this genre makes it very special in my heart and mind. I just wish I had even half the luck most streettogs have.

Funny enough, I apply many of the skills I’ve learned on the streets into my commercial work but again, the only thing that changes is the mindset, the way I approach each, and the gear I use for each. For my commercial work I use a Nikon D800 body, a Sigma 24-35 f/2 Art lens and an Irix 15mm Firelfly. For Street Photography I use the Fuji X100T and a Nissin i40 flashgun. All my gear is PERFECT and it’s taken me about three years to find what works best for me.

Writing this piece has been a tough challenge but also a good way to finish and start the year. I’ve looked back at how it all started and now I’m looking ahead of the new challenges I have to face. Let’s see how we get on.

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