The art of food and photography
Food and drink photography is a niche that requires a specific skillset and eye for a good photo. Karen Thomas is one photographer who has excelled in that skillset, and been featured on billboards and tv screens across the world with her salivating pictures.
While photography often makes people feel different things, the food category has one goal – to make you hungry. And it’s a lot harder than you think to make food look delicious for an ad campaign, with every single pixel in the spotlight.
Karen discussed what makes a good food photo and how she developed her style, as well as sharing some tips on breaking into the industry.
Finding a style as a foodie and photographer
Photography was something Karen loved both at home and in school – learning the craft in the beginning from her father. “My Dad bought me a camera when I was young, and he taught me the fundamentals of photography.
“He’s not a professional photographer but has always been really into photography and really inspired me. I learned to use the darkroom at school, so I taught him those skills. We were able to enjoy learning together.“
But the move from photographer to food photographer came for Karen through her passion for cooking – despite working in lots of different categories of photography, she felt something special about taking photos of something connected to something she enjoyed so much. “I didn’t know what genre I wanted to specialise in until I started assisting. I worked in lots of areas, fashion, cars, corporate etc but food just struck a chord with me. I love to cook, and that passion then came through in my work.”
Karen’s style has developed into one of creativity and vibrant colours and stories over 20 years of being a professional photographer. In particular, she finds inspiration from the lighting in stage shows. “I love to go to the theatre because I’m fascinated by stage lighting. I especially love to see contemporary dance at Sadler’s Wells.
“I always leave with my head buzzing full of ideas, even if the ideas are totally unrelated to what I’ve seen. The experience somehow unlocks creativity and gets me fired up. Equally this happens when I’m listening to music whilst looking out a train window daydreaming on a long journey!”
And that love of lighting has led to an emphasis on lighting within her shoots as well. “I use various lighting styles according to the job but the common theme is that the work is impactful and beautifully lit.
“It is important for me to be as foodie as possible in most scenarios in order to convey the deliciousness of the food. Every detail counts and I like to ensure the narrative makes sense rather than style over content.”
So what makes a good food photo? It’s as simple as making the viewer salivate. Beautiful lighting is also a must, and a strong narrative.
“When people view my work I hope they come away with a big appetite! If I’ve made you hungry or salivate then I’ve done my job.”
Building on equal representation in the industry
Karen has seen a lot of improvements with equal gender representation over the course of her photography career, but she believes more strides can be made to improve diversity in the industry.
“I’m happy to say that I see more female assistants entering the industry than when I started and there are more women photographers than there used to be.
“However, I don’t see as many women shooting advertising campaigns as men. There are a lot of successful women food photographers that do editorial, packaging and POS but I’d say there are more men shooting food advertising than women. It would be good to level up here.”
She has a lot of hope for the future, explaining: “I believe we need to encourage girls from a young age and make sure the support is there from the beginning. I gave a presentation last year to a photography course at a university and was very happy to see the class was equally gender balanced.
“My hope is that more women will break in to advertising so the balance is equal in all fields, and even more crucially I’d love to see more racial diversity.”
Having female mentors and photographers to look up to is also integral in shaping future generations of female photographers. For Karen, one woman inspired her in a way that helped her develop the style she has today.
“There are many female photographers that I admire and who have inspired me over the years but going back to the start I remember Imogen Cunningham’s work making a big impact. I was at university when I discovered her work and her botanical photographs really moved me, especially Magnolia Blossom 1925.
“It shifted the way I approached subjects and led to a deeper understanding of form and how sculpted light enhances our emotional experience.”
The importance of a consistent influence is also not lost on Karen, and the most consistent women in her life is, of course, her mother. “Where others have been transient inspirations, my Mum’s influence has been consistent. She instilled the belief in me that I could achieve my goals and follow my dreams. For that upbringing and validation, I’ll be eternally grateful.
“Self-belief is crucial to success and even though I have, as many women have, experienced imposter syndrome, I have always pushed through. I feel these tools were given to me by the support of my parents and their belief in me.”
Getting into the industry
Self-belief is so important for any creative field, and in photography putting your work in the public sphere can be incredibly nerve-racking. Karen has some advice for photographers looking to break into the industry.
“Learn as much as you can technically and then just let loose creatively. Find your passion through exploration.”
She also offers some practical advice: “Working as a photographer’s assistant is a brilliant way to learn on the job and understand how the industry works.”
Karen is represented by an agency for her photography, and she explained that there are many benefits to having an agent advocating for your work. “I wasn’t with an agency for many years because the work was coming in already, so I didn’t feel the need at that point.
“However, breaking into advertising is much easier with an agent so I decided it would be a good step. A photographer I knew was retiring and I always admired the agency she was with, Horton-Stephens, so I approached them to see if they’d be interested in working together. We got on really well and I joined up. As a director I’m represented by The Bite Collective.
“One of the producers had seen my work and approached me to see if I’d like to join them. Having representation means I can focus on my shoots and they take care finding the commissions.”
A successful creative is always evolving. Besides working as a specialised food and drink photographer, Karen also does flower photography, video work and directing.
“I’m very passionate about shooting food and drink and I can’t see that ever changing. I’ve also shot many campaigns of flowers over the years too plus some still life work and have really enjoyed these areas. I’m also directing more these days too and I’m looking forward to developing this side of my career further in addition to stills.”
Karen’s food photography is shown in some pretty large-scale sizes, so image quality is incredibly important to her work. Naturally, she ended up turning to Hasselblad. “When I made the switch to digital [from film photography], I tested out various brands including Hasselblad. My tests showed the Hasselblad lens quality was superior to the competitors and so that’s what I purchased. I’ve had many Hasselblads over the years and currently own a H6D-100c and H4D-40.”
She thinks of quality, excellence and resolution when the word Hasselblad comes up, and the resolution in particular is unbeatable for work that has to showcase every last detail. “The resolution of the H6D-100c is outstanding. I’m able to supply my clients with files that are the highest quality and due to the high resolution, be featured on any size billboard they require.”
Of the Hasselblad Heroines program, she said: “It’s an honour to be recognised by the brand as a successful woman in my industry. To be the first featured food photographer is also something I’m very proud of.”