I have always had an interest in photography but had never considered it as a career. When I was younger my father was a wedding photographer and I assisted him, so I obviously picked things up and a seed was planted.
I went to University with the intention of moving into TV production, but towards the end of the course I became increasingly interested in photography. After working for a year I decided to take an evening class which taught me the basics about shooting with and processing film. I loved it and decided I really wanted to have a career in photography rather than keep it as a hobby.
It was during the first year of my photography degree at Newcastle College that I decided to move into the food side of the industry. I have always loved to cook and loved to eat so it was a natural progression for me. I started working freelance about six months after graduating.
My food blog, Fish Chips Mushy Peas, is more of a recent development, it came from wanting to have a continuous online portfolio of work and my desire to get published. It’s intentionally photo led rather than being too heavy on words. I use it to publish personal work, but also to publish my professional food work and to help my clients gain a bit of publicity.
In an ideal world I’d have loved to have assisted a professional food photographer for a couple of years whilst maintaining a sensible job until I was ready to make the leap, but I was made redundant not long after leaving college and ended up starting out on my own. Luckily I had a few photographer contacts through whom I gained PR and press work and I began to shoot a few weddings. I also started working with the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation which gave me great exposure.
As the financial crisis began to bite the PR jobs became few and far between as companies looked to save money. I had various part time jobs to try and keep a reliable income, but trying to keep a balance between the two was very difficult. I made the decision to put all of my effort into food photography and it slowly began to pay off.
Everything in my career so far has happened gradually, but towards the end of 2010 the phone began to ring a lot more and I felt I was finally getting somewhere. I started to gain bigger jobs more in line with what I wanted to shoot and that reflected my style, and often one job led to another through recommendation. As much as my career has developed over the last few years, though, there is still much I want to achieve.
Above all, I love to work with passionate people whether they are professional chefs, cooks, writers or producers. I prefer to shoot stories rather than individual images and I think it’s important to show the people as well as the food. Generally I like jobs where I get to talk with like-minded people and taste delicious food. If I’m eating I’m happy.
I like to start a photoshoot day quite early to make the most of the daylight. I have a coffee with the client and talk through the plan for the day. I usually work alone but if I have a stylist with me they’ll talk through their ideas and props and how it’ll work with the food. We discuss each dish and how it will be plated up so there are no surprises when they are brought out. The shot is set up and the food is photographed as soon as it is cooked so it looks fresh. If there’s time I like to taste the food before moving onto the next shot.
My main ambition is to shoot for a full book so I’d like to work with publishers a lot more. At the moment much of my work is for digital use but I much prefer to see my photographs in print. I love to travel too so my aim for the next few years is to work with food and travel magazines.
There are many photographers who have influenced me in different ways but I’d say the first photographer that inspired me to shoot food was David Loftus. I love photographers who have a very natural style such as Andrew Montgomery, Tara Fisher, Anders Schonnemann…there are too many to mention! All have influenced me along the way.
My biggest influences from the world of blogging are Katie Quinn Davies (of the Blog What Katie Ate) and the Irish food writer Donal Skehan. I was inspired to start my own blog after photographing Donal, and he really helped me to get it going. He’s developing as a great food photographer too so it was great to exchange a few tips and practical knowledge.
I live in Northumberland with my wife Laura and dog Izzy, a Bedlington Terrior. I’m originally from Birmingham and my family still live there so I’m used to travelling. Much of my work has been within a drivable distance so I don’t work away from home very often, but when I do it’s for a few days at a time. I’d say the hardest thing about working away is making sure you have everything with you. Making a plan and listing everything I’ll need is essential but there’s always something I forget, usually my phone charger.
The only food I grow are herbs, anything else I plant doesn’t seem to grow. The North East is an amazing place to live with an abundance of local markets and producers and some amazing restaurants. The Grainger Market in Newcastle is one of my favourite places to visit and is full of butchers, fish mongers, green grocers and great foodie shops. I cook a lot and this year I’ve started to bake my own bread although it’s a bit hit and miss.
At the moment and probably for the next couple of years magazines are focusing on affordable food and I think the photography will reflect this. I can see the trend in food photography being more home based and natural with a greater focus on the ingredients. There is already a trend for buying locally sourced food and I think this will continue, partly to help the local economy, but also because of the interest in where our food is coming from. I think the photography will focus on the people involved as well as the produce.
Further in the future, as more people began to read magazines on their iPads and other tablets, it’ll be interesting to see how video will be integrated and how photographers can use their skills in this way.
If I had to give advice to anyone interested in becoming a food photographer I would say that you need to be prepared to give yourself time. It takes years to develop the skills, the experience and the necessary contacts and you’ll need to consider the considerable upfront financial investment.
Talk to people. Twitter is great for this and gives you access to a wide range of people, but you should also be prepared to pick up the phone and knock on doors. I would suggest going out and meeting as many people as possible, chefs, food producers, food stylists, introduce yourself and ask if you can photograph them and what they do. Shoot as much as possible and set yourself personal projects.
If you have the passion and are prepared to put in the time and effort you will succeed. You only fail when you stop trying.
James Byrne’s Website: www.jamesbyrnephoto.com
Follow James on Twitter @jamesbyrnephoto