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Culinary Photography

If you hate my photograph, I will cry myself to sleep tonight

I say this to my NYC Food Photography clients all the time. All The Time. Learning how to take criticism as a photographer is vitally important. When you shoot professionally you’re not producing work for yourself anymore you’re doing it for other people. And it’s very important that they get the photographs that they want, that speak to them and connect with them on an emotional level. Your client is paying a lot of money to have you there helping them to make their dreams a reality. Communicating that into words isn’t easy. Doing that during a photoshoot when the pressure is on and there’s only a limited amount of time to get this shot before we have to move on to the next is very difficult. Connecting with another human being with the visual language of photography in a short period of time while connecting to a distant childhood memory of that they had of their mom making grilled cheese sandwiches and conveying that in a photograph that helps your clients brand to outsell their competitors? Forget about it. That perfect moment might never exist in the real world but through the magic of photography we can at least get as close as possible. And if you can at least get halfway there your clients will love you forever. The first step to accomplishing that goal is learning how to take criticism.
Restaurant meat dripping with sauce
When I say “If you hate my photograph, I will cry myself to sleep tonight” I’m trying to communicate two very complex ideas in a way that’s playful and friendly. Number One. I won’t be offended. Photographers and artists are notoriously thin skinned hard people to work with. The stereotype is that were troubled emotional souls who need to be coddled with kid gloves. The reality is that artists come in all shapes and sizes from all different kids of backgrounds. Every person is different and we all respond to criticism in different ways. But by sarcastically suggesting that I will be deeply offended by any critique that I will cry myself to sleep I’m inviting criticism. The worst thing that could possibly happen isn’t that bad and the odds are that I’m probably not really going to cry myself to sleep anyways. I take tens of thousands of photographs and if a handful of them aren’t exactly the vision that I imagined I’ll be ok. Please tell me that you don’t like the angle… don’t like the lighting… the props… that the salad makes you want to vomit. Ok maybe don’t tell anybody that you want to vomit but rather try to focus in on what about that salad makes you want to vomit. Do the prunes kind of look like little turds? Let’s talk about it.
Behind the scenes of a photoshoot at O Ya, a high end Japanese restaurant in Manhattan
Number Two. As a New York City Food Photographer it’s important to remember that while it’s not easy to take criticism it’s also not always easy to give it either. Telling somebody else who spent a lot of time working to perfect a creative work of art that, well… it’s not very good, isn’t an easy thing to do. It can be a very hard thing to do. And to do so with the right words isn’t easy. The work sucks try again is not only hard for the person hearing those words it’s not easy for the person saying it either. But often criticism isn’t ‘the work sucks’ but let’s try it from this angle, let’s change the color palette and juxtaposition these two elements. And not everybody went to art school and has years of experience zeroing in on the one compositional element that needs to fall into place to make the work perfect. As a food photographer part of your job is to help facilitate a comfortable creative environment where ideas are welcome and everybody on set feels free to speak up and give suggestions. Your client might not know the individual steps to get to where they want to go but often they know the destination. Help them find it and they’ll keep coming back to you again and again.
Food photography for a modern fine dining restaurant
Early on in my career I did a photoshoot at a health food restaurant in Manhattan for a 3rd party company. And when me and the account manager went down to the office and showed the photographs to the restaurant owner her response was “I don’t like. I just don’t like it.” Stunned we all sat there in the room in silence for a couple seconds until I asked “ok… what about the photographs don’t you like?” And from there we found a dialogue and one of her critiques was that the portion sizes looked too small. I suggested that we try coming from a lower angle to hero the food and make it look more impressive. We reshot everything with her blessing and the crisis was adverted. But in this situation she just needed help finding the words to describe what she wanted.

When people think of professional artists they think of that self portrait that Van Gogh painted of himself with his head bandaged. The story goes that he was so upset that he cut his own ear off. That’s what people think of but try your best to show that NYC Food Photographers have thick skin and can take it.
All of the pasta at Ai Fiori in Manhattan combined onto one plate
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This is an ongoing project with more coming soon.

Have a question? Feel free to ask and I would be happy to help.

will@howtobeafoodphotographer.com
a portrait of Will Engelmann
Will Engelmann is a photographer of all things edible and some things that you can't put in your mouth too. Want to see some of his Restaurant Interiors? You can't eat those but they look pretty good too.

Check out his Food Photography Website
Thirsty? Cocktail Photography Website