Life as a food photographer and how to pick the pictures to enter
We caught up with Hugh Johnson, food photographer with several decades of top-level experience and Finalist in Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year on many occasions.
Tell us about your artistic background - was it always inevitable you’d be a photographer?
From my very early teenage days, I have been extremely lucky always knowing I wanted to be a photographer. No one else at school had a clue what careers to follow. Growing up watching Jacques Cousteau diving in similar countries to where I grew up made me come to England to become a wildlife film maker.
However, without the wildlife contacts I quickly changed direction and assisted Terry Donovan & Jim Cotier in his West End studio opposite Saatchi & Saatchi, which at the time was revolutionising the ad world – I witnessed the real Mad Men! I worked day and night and loved every minute. Assistants were referred to as ‘oily rags’, but that didn’t bother me. I never took a holiday, I was so focused, I worked every weekend shooting tests with the hunger that I would follow my boss’ footsteps in a year. I loved every minute, life is always exciting when you’re doing something you love. Taking a good photo means so much to me, like scoring the winning goal in the world cup and this hasn’t waned during my whole career.
I am eternally grateful for the fun and laughs the industry has given me, the friendships I have made. The people related to the food industry, whether food stylists, chefs, farmers, delivery men are the nicest people.
Finalist - M&S Food Portraiture 2021. Burrata & olive oil. When you have a pure simple idea, the execution is often very quick and simple. This image was made even better because my assistant & food stylist didn’t consider it worth shooting.
How did food feature in your early life? And tell us about your first foray into food photography
My parents knew a lot about food and entertained several times a week. On Sundays we’d go to the beach and eat bbq’d a roasted suckling pig under the palm trees or out for a curry. I never experienced European food until we went to Switzerland on holiday and experienced proper creamy butter. A buttery croissant with butter and apricot jam is still my favourite meal.
Food photography never played a role in my initial photographic career. The standard in the 80s and 90s was very poor, it just wasn’t appetising. It was one area of photography that I never want to pursue. The results were very sterile & clinical. The chefs, food stylists and commissioning art directors results looked as if they were frightened of it, they never took the bull by the horns, until an America photographer, Robert Freson, produced a book, ‘The Taste of France’. He went into people’s homes, used wonderful natural props, captured raw and cooked food making food photography look sexy…
Finalist - Cream of the Crop 2022. Sun-ripened Tuscan vegetables; as a photographer perhaps often better known for my studio work I was determined to use hard sunlight (or as Terry Donovan would say ‘God’s light’). I wanted this picture to really capture the heat of an Italian summer, which creates the sweetness and makes them the best in the world.
How have you seen food photography change over the years? Both in style/fashion and also as an industry?
In the last 20 years the food sector revolutionised photography in so many ways. Not only introducing women into the business, the technical skills were relaxed with smaller formats used rather than rigid 10x8 cameras, the change to digital and daylight allowed young people to operate for free in their bedrooms.
Food photography and restaurants became cool, chefs now owned the restaurants and took centre stage rather than hidden below in the basement. This now was an area of photography I wanted to work in.
i-phones also played a role, some of my best photos have been taken on my smart phones. Food books and magazines became essential items in our homes. It took three years of persuasion before the Association of Photographers agreed to have a category just for Food.
Finalist - Chateau Bagnol 2019. This was shot during a thunderstorm. The chefs were happy to participate as they were allowed to smoke & drink, something they couldn't do in the kitchen. Chefs' whites always attract a smile and good humour.
You’ve been an entrant into Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year for many years and very often shortlisted as well as being a Finalist on multiple occasions.
Share with us how you make the decision of which image to enter each year, when you have an archive of thousands of images.
Talk us through the assessment you make, the consideration of the categories, how you conceive the title and the captions.
Pink Lady® Food Photographer of the Year was introduced, this not only created new categories within the food & drink photography sector, but introduced wonderful new food sponsors (& with Fortnums held the best Awards parties). Along with chefs like Jamie Oliver, Caroline Kenyon’s passion for both Photography and Food was refreshing and helped shake up Food Photography making it international and putting a smile on all of our faces.
When entering awards, it is essential to really look at each category, see who the judges and sponsors are and think what areas they personally would like to see win. Also remember how many wonderful food pictures they will see in an hour of judging – this may become boring & repetitive, so rock the boat and try not to enter ‘yet another beautiful plate of food’. It needs a twist, an X-factor, maybe even more if you want to win the category. Perhaps, a really messy plate of food might be more interesting than another beautiful plate of food? I look for a stand out image to push the boundaries as far as possible within that category.
Judges are spoilt for choice, your picture has really got to stand out, that’s why in previous awards, the eventual winner has used flour, steam to create the extra atmosphere & make a truly memorable image.
I may show people in my team my suggested selection before entering but the final decision is mine. Probably 20% of my 100+ awards were rejected by my team. However, beware of an image that might give you personally a lot of pleasure but few others!! Instagram ‘likes’ can be a good guide too.
Remember, a Gold Award winner from one awards might not be selected in another.
I have never spent much time with titling my photos, although I try to create a nice enthusiastic foodie comment. Possibly having spent an hour looking at the categories and judges, I need to allow more time for this?
2nd - M&S Food Portraiture 2018. Simplicity is the best, not only in Italian food but also in a photograph. Why complicate things when you don't have to?
What does it mean to you to be shortlisted or a Finalist?
I love opening emails from the Awards saying ‘Congratulations, you have been selected as a Finalist’. Even though I want to win the category, the selection as a Finalist is often sufficient. I (& my photographer friends) may not always agree with the final decision as potentially 3 or 4 could be the category winner. The world of photography is so often a silent pursuit. It’s so rewarding the images that I love are being enjoyed by so many from all of around the world who share the same passion for food & photography.
As soon as the awards have been announced, I start the creative process all over again, more determined to better or replicate this year’s success. When this drive stops, I’ll know someone is telling me to pack it all in…
Al Fresco Dining
One of my favourite Finalist images - Food at the Table 2020, titled ‘Only Italians’ taken on my old i-phone. As a lover of Italy and where we live for several months of the year, this image captures Italian eating habits. As food is taken so seriously, there is often no conversation, olive oil, fresh bread & parmesan, pepper, napkins and table clothes are essential even in Carnaby Street, Soho. These two telecom workers had to come from Italy and they did, they were never going to stop and eat a sandwich standing up.
What would you say to your younger self, just starting out? What would be your key words of advice?
Pursue your passion, push the boundaries and never stop looking for the exceptional in the ordinary. When your competitors turn off the lights at 6pm, remember this is a 365day job; when your image is judged, no one knows how long it took. Remember, when you face a steep mountain 95% won’t bother to climb it, make sure you’re one of the 5% and then you stand a much better chance. Good luck, fortune favours the brave.
Finalist - Cream of the Crop 2022. Fresh market cabbages. Isn’t nature so beautiful, a cabbage doesn’t cost £1 and yet to replicate the curves and detail would cost a fortune.
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