Thinking on the hoof

Many people assume that food photographers spend most of their time in a cosy studio where they’re able to control light and a whole manner of other variables. Not me!

catch of the day, hythe

Most of my working time is spent out on location – in kitchens, restaurants, on the seashore and in muddy fields.

home-reared pigs, the plough

Of course it makes for an interesting day but it also presents a load of challenges – once the client has booked me, we have to work with available light, people and produce. If it’s snowing hard and the client wants an outdoor shot of their newly created chocolate pudding, I have to go with the flow (I always keep a shovel and a spare pair of gloves in the car!).

chocolate pudding in snow

Working in professional kitchens is often a particular challenge. Most are hidden away in the bowels of the building with no natural light but plenty of steam and hot surfaces (not great for expensive digital cameras or fingers).

chef in professional kitchen

On my first couple of kitchen shoots I struggled to get the lighting right. Fluorescent strip lights, and even worse, food warming lamps, can play havoc with the sensor and the results often came out with a nasty looking grey/blue cast.

However, with time I learned to trust my Nikon’s auto white balance feature and to use the low light conditions to my advantage. Blurred shots of chefs in action generally look great and converting the images to black and white gets around many of the colour cast problems.

paul webbe cookery school

As for the food the kitchens produce, I’ve given up trying to shoot it in situ. I always insist on taking it into the restaurant (or, in the case of a very posh London hotel into a private suite). Of course this means that my working hours are limited, particularly in winter – I never use flash – but I can at least shoot the kitchen images when the outside light is poor.

crispy crab cakes, the berkeley

And if ever a client does want something more dramatic, a bit stylised, I’ll work with the food in my home studio. But even here, some lateral thinking is often required. For these sushi images I needed a really reflective, high gloss surface.


After a while, I managed to source some acrylic sheets (otherwise known as Perspex) which did a fine job. Light is the single biggest variable and it’s the one thing I have practically no control over. On a recent shoot for a producer of high-end frozen ready-meals the art director wanted shots of their products in a low winter sunlight.

slow-cooked lamb

So then it was just a question of waiting for the sun to appear from behind the clouds (and coordinating with the chef, food stylist etc.). Whilst we waited we were able to shoot all the other products in a more traditional way using diffused light.

On a restaurant shoot on Valentine’s Day, the chef/owner wanted me to take some images of his latest fine dining creations. Of course I was happy to oblige but on Valentine’s Day? Anyway, I set up all my kit on a small table adjacent to the only decent window in the restaurant.

I needn’t have worried about distracting anyone while they ate – the loved-up diners only had eyes for each other. But I felt something of a gooseberry that day!

I guess the more of this kind of work I do, the more I’m able to adapt to the ever-changing situations and suggest solutions. It helps to be able to get along with people and to have a large car!

On a typical location shoot I’ll take two cameras and a variety of lenses, tripods, stands, backdrops, mirrors, diffusers, reflectors, two different table tops, 10 metres of net curtain (to act as a diffuser), glycerin, a daylight lamp, crockery and cutlery, a laptop, loads of memory, clamps and, if it’s in December, a partridge in a pear tree.