Retraining As A Food Photographer

When I was a little girl, aged 9, I had a camera and loved to take photographs. I also really loved cooking sweet things like crepes suzettes – I remember the tedious task of rubbing what felt like hundreds of tiny sugar lumps with orange rind to make the sauce! Looking back, photography and food have always vied for my attention.

At Oxford Polytechnic I studied Hotel Management and gained a distinction in the Chartered Institute of Marketing Diploma.  The degree was modular, however, and as much as I was allowed I used to take photography and art history modules. After graduating I worked in a hotel, a cheese shop, wine P.R. company and I also took night school classes in photography, I went to exhibitions and studied photography books. When I turned 30, photography won and I decided to retrain and become a professional photographer. So I sent off for information about training opportunities.

When the brochure from the London College of Printing arrived I was so excited. The Certificate in Professional Photographic Practice course covered everything I wanted to learn. I inadvertedly missed the deadline for the next intake, so rang up and pleaded to be let in. After taking in a portfolio of my work to show the course leader, I was given a place.

When I first started work I was living with my sister (Cinead McTernan, Deputy Editor of The English Garden magazine) in London, which was the best place to be as there were plenty of assisting jobs. The photographers who gave me assisting work were encouraging. I also used my previous career to support myself financially. Assisting paid £60 a day, and marketing work paid three times that. So balancing the two enabled me to keep assisting and gaining experience at the same time.

Living in London enabled me to assist on a whole range of shoots in a whole variety of locations. Getting used to seeing how shoots actually work gave me confidence to know I could do it too.

My sister Cinead has always been brilliant at encouraging me and introduced me to all the photographers I assisted. She had met them whilst she was working in Interiors PR.  When I was doing some temporary work with a wine PR agency, I met a lady who was prepared to give me a break as a newly qualified photographer.  She started to use me for all her PR shoots. It was a great experience, teaching me to get the shot with maximum speed – the people I photographed were used to being photographed and there were no second chances!

I love to work on food shoots where there is more time. I need to be able to concentrate and check all the details in a shot.  If there is a stylist that is excellent because so often it is the quality and originality of the props that can make a food photograph.

I think that in these cash conscious times the quality of food in photography is very important, stripping away everything, leaving only clean simplicity. I think people respond more positively to photography that reflects the story and origin of food or puts it into some human context as opposed to the starkness of produce on a white background.

I love food, all aspects from field to plate. My husband is a chef so it can be a bit of a fight as to who cooks! Naturally I let him win! When we have been to France I have always been wowed by the smell and flavour of the produce sold on market stalls in the town squares. It seems easy in France to find beautiful shops where the presentation of food is exquisite and the quality excellent.

I ate at Petersham Nurseries a few years ago and I really like Skye Gyngell’s cooking. I also fell in love with the theatre of the restaurant, very romantic and bohemian. As a birthday surprise Paul took me to Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons last month. That was very special and a completely new experience.

I love it when you come across a little place that is unexpected and you realize that the food is good, the ingredients are good and the owner really knows how to cook plus the location and ambience are all perfect too.

The shoot I did with Chef Paul Collins (my husband) and The Foodie Bugle was the kind of shoot I love the most.  We all got on, we were relaxed and it was fun.  Then the work is easy and the results good. The kitchen was very big and there was plenty of natural light.  It was a shoot of the dishes that Paul typically cooks for one of his private dining customers.  There was lots of fresh, seasonal and organic food and the best part of the day was that the three of us sat down to share the food at the end.

I have a beautiful family with two very young children, Ava is 5 and George is 2, and I live in Little Milton in Oxfordshire. Having to work away from home is a real pull. Once I get my camera out of its bag, however, I then focus on the job and absorb myself completely until the shoot is finished.

In the future I would really like to work with anyone who has an interesting and authentic story in food. Photographer Annie Leibovitz has influenced me the most. Her images have always inspired me. As far as food photographers go I like Jason Lowe’s work.  In the next year or so I would, firstly, like to finish and publish the cookbook Paul Collins, my husband, and I are writing. Secondly I would love to be a name that The Foodie Bugle readers recognise as a leading food photographer.

If there are young people reading this article who think they too would like to be a photographer, then my advice to you would be to enrol yourself to study at a respected college, observe and listen carefully. Take lots of photographs and do not be afraid to try out ideas for shoots. It is a very competitive industry and you will have to work very hard, but it is the kind of hard work that is also so much fun! It is who you know, and not always what you know, that gets you the jobs, so networking is also part of the process.

Contact Details

Tory McTernan’s website:

E-mail: [email protected]

Follow Tory on Twitter: @torymct

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