Persistance, Patience and Personality

My career as a food photographer started late in life because I already had another completely different career as an academic. To be honest, my career as a food photographer came as a surprise to me, my family and my friends. I think but that is what happens when you follow the flow of events, you never know what you might find around the corner.

I have always had a thing for challenges: I just can’t refuse a challenge despite being a very non-competitive person. So when a Canadian publisher approached me five years ago about shooting the food photos for a food encyclopedia, I jumped at it and later realised that this was what I wanted to do for a living. That started it all, although it took some time to make a break as a professional full time photographer.

Unlike many professional photographers, I have no formal training and am completely self-taught. I have had to work really hard and there were periods during which I practiced almost fanatically, there is so much to learn. I have always been taking photos.

I remember my parents gave me a Kodak Instamatic when I was twelve and, apart from a period in my twenties, I have always had a camera. Food photography really grew out of my passion for food and cooking. In 2005 I started my Swedish food blog on a whim, using a really basic camera and without any real notion of what shooting food was like. But the blog changed my point of view and after six months I started a food blog in English as well, from being a place to write and share recipes to a means of expressing myself visually, something I had felt the need for a long time but I hadn’t found the right niche for me. I am still learning and evolving. I learn from my mistakes and experiments but I also learn a lot when I work and by looking at and analysing images created by other photographers.

In the beginning, I started slowly and without any real pressure to earn my living solely from photography, but once you start investing in your photographic equipment, computers, software and promotional material, you begin to feel the pressure to earn something back. At a certain point I felt that it was make or break: I didn’t want to look back on my life feeling that I never dared to believe and-or trust in my talent and myself so I decided to invest both the time and money on promoting myself seriously.

I subscribed to a database service, began collecting additional contact information and started sending out promotional emails every five to six weeks. I am usually not a reader of how-to books but when I decided to go for it, I read a very good book on how to promote yourself as a photographer by Elyse Weissberg, which made me understand that there are three fundamental points to remember when you start out as a photographer (apart from producing high quality work, of course).

1. Be persistent in your marketing: if art buyers, creative directors or editors don’t see your work, how are they going to know that they need your images?

2. Be patient: it may take time to make the imprint that one day will make a creative director think about your images when they need a certain style or type of photography.

3. Be yourself: it is you and your personal style that makes you unique and makes you stand out from what others do.

The first time that I felt that I was moving forward was a few years ago when Italy’s biggest advertising  agency contacted me for a job. I felt dazed and amazed but so happy that my work had made an impression on their creative team! That job never came through but a month later they contacted me for another much bigger job with a big client and since then I have worked with them on a regular basis. Another of those moments was when I sent out tentative promotion e-mails to photo reps – this was about six months ago – and one of them phoned me five minutes after receiving my promo and wanted to sign me up straight away. I “collect” these good moments to remember for those days when I have doubts about what I am doing and why!

I live with my husband and two of our three children in the Tuscan countryside which is wonderful but I don’t find any commercial work where I live. Right now I am, for example, in the middle of a huge Christmas job which means that I have to stay in Milan a lot where you find the majority of commercial work. Working away from home has it pros and cons: Milan is a great city to work in and it is fantastic to be able to concentrate completely on what I am working on and work as late as I want for days on end. On the other hand, after a while it can be a bit monotonous to get up early, go to the photo studio, work, work, work and then eat and go to bed early every day. But I am fortunate enough to be able to do my editorial work in my own studio at home in Tuscany so I have a good balance in my life.

I love food and cooking. Living in Italy has enriched my life in so many ways, not least in the kitchen! We rarely eat at restaurants because I find that Italian home cooking is so much better than what you usually get in restaurants. I am always happy when someone invites me to their home for dinner. When I do go to a restaurant here, I always try to take a sneak peek through the windows of the kitchen and if I see an old Italian woman, a grandmother {una nonna}, cooking I feel more confident that the food we are going to eat will be excellent – they are usually a guarantee of good cooking!

Normally I tent to buy my food in smaller food shops, markets and supermarkets and in the summer I’m lucky enough to have a neighbour who generously shares what his vegetable garden and fruit trees produce.Nowadays I love working with a team of studio assistants, food stylists and creative professionals. I do both commercial and editorial work – commercial jobs are team jobs, editorial jobs I do on my own in my studio. This is a nice balance, but it is good to work with other people and I am enjoying it more and more. When I work in my studio for food magazines I do the cooking, food styling and the shooting on my own. This is quite time consuming and needs to be planned in advance, whereas when I do commercial jobs, I only have to think about the outcome of the image: composition, light and the props I want to use.

For the future I would like to continue working more or less as I do now but I would love the challenge of photographing cookbooks as well. And I would love to work with the American food writer Jamie Schler who lives in France, me photographing food and her writing about it. And I would love the opportunity of organising another exhibition: I did a one man show featuring both food and art photographs in 2008 and it would be exciting to do another soon.

Even in my spare time I spend a lot of time looking at photos, both with and without food in them. I love Eugène Atget, André Kertész, August Sander, W. Eugene Smith and Dorothea Lange – I never tire of their photos and their work really shows that photography is and always has been a modern form of art.

My favourite contemporary food photographer is Jean Cazals: I can literally feel the impact of his photos on me physically – they affect me on a visceral and emotional level. And I cannot but admire all the photographers who contribute to Donna Hay magazine, every issue is a visual feast!

If I have been influenced by any of these photographers I would have to say that André Kertész and August Sander inspire me more than another food photographer, primarily concerning composition and light. Especially Kertész, who has an incredible eye for natural composition.

It is obviously difficult to tell which direction food photography will take in the future but I confess that I’m looking forward to saying goodbye to over-propped and messy food photos with too many pieces of food and splashes of liquids all over the place. I like the dark mood trend but I think it probably is reaching its culmination very soon. I often hear that the future in food photography lies in producing video content but I don’t think so, maybe because I personally prefer to look at photos and not videos of food, I just don’t have the time.

My advice to a new food photographer would be: build up a strong portfolio so you have something to show and continually add to it. Never forget the importance of networking and marketing yourself: a lot of time needs to be spent on this, more than you may actually like. When you get a job, forget your ego but not your personality and style – be precise, deliver on time and be easy-going because that will earn you more jobs. And as a firm believer in mentoring, I recommend finding an approachable photographer whose work you admire or someone who has a business strategy that impresses you and ask her/him to mentor you.

Further Information

Ilva Beretta’s portfolio:

Ilva’s Blog:

Follow Ilva on Twitter: @lucullian and also @ilvaberetta

Like Ilva on Facebook at Ilva Beretta

Similar Posts