An Interview with Iris Richardson, Food Photographer

An Interview with Iris Richardson, Food Photographer

April 19, 2002

Iris Richardson is a Philadelphia-based photographer specializing in food photography, still life photography, and product photography. With over ten years of culinary experience, Ms. Richardson has combined her knowledge of photography and food into a successful career as a food photographer for both editorial and advertising purposes.

Ms. Richardson operates her own photography studio, Iris Richardson Photography, which is complemented by her on-line business, She says that her background in culinary was integral to her success as a food photographer because whe understands "what it takes to make food look as fresh and delicious on print and film as you expect it to look on your plate when it's served."

She graduated in 1984 with a culinary degree from a state-run hotel business school in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, where she served a three-year apprenticeship and worked as a Chef for 10 years at four- and five-star hotels in Switzerland, Germany and the United States. In the US, she then attended the Antonelli Institute of Photography in Philadelphia.

Iris Richardson & Her Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Career / Job Info. & Advice   |   Education Info. & Advice   |   Industry Trends   |   Closing Remarks



How and why did you become involved in culinary? How and why did you switch to food photography?

My mother came from a long line of restaurant owners. To this day my parents own a restaurant in the Cologne area of Germany. My sisters and I where encouraged to enter the field at an early age. Three out of five sisters graduated with a culinary degree.

I switched to photography after working in the restaurant field over 10 years. I served my first restaurant customer before age five. I felt it was time to explore my other interests and talents. Entering the food photography business allowed me to use my experience as a chef as well as be my own boss. Food photography is keeping me in close contact with my former profession. The knowledge and understanding I gained as a chef are a great resource in my new business.

You started your career as a chef. How important has your background in culinary been to the successful career you now have?

Very important. I understand food and food chemistry. I know what it takes to make food look as fresh and delicious on print and film as you expect it to look on your plate when it's served. Photography can not replace the aromas, which entice the consumer. I have to be able to make the food look so good the consumer think he or she can smell and taste it. If the food image makes the consumer's mouth water, I as the photographer succeeded with my job.

What was the most difficult part of making the transition from your career in the kitchen to photography?

The lack of business education and organization in the art industry. As a chef, one must be organized and quality and budget-oriented. It can be difficult to run a business having competitors who do not understand the economics of running a business. It is difficult to compete with businesses that might charge little to nothing for their services. It would be like a multiple vendors standing in front of your restaurant giving out lobster dinners for $5 or free. One can not compete on price and expect to survive.

What have been your favorite projects that you've worked on in your career and why?

Cookbooks and magazine projects allow me to be more creative. I can most likely use my own chef skills and touch to make the food jump off the pages. Commercial projects often do not provide such freedom.

What has been your greatest professional success and biggest setback?

Every new project and client is a new success for me. Each assignment is a new challenge and discovery. The artist in me is always searching for more perfection. We are our worst critics and will always find a way to improve a former project.

I never viewed my life in the way of setbacks. Every experience, negative or positive, is also an opportunity to learn. The economic setbacks are mostly out of my hand. I simply try to go with the flow and see what works.



What are your day-to-day responsibilities as food photographer and business owner?

To the surprise of many people, 75% of a photographers work is promoting, billing, organizing, and running a business. The other 25% are actual shooting assignments.

An average day might consist of: 1) Checking e-mails and phone calls 2) Returning e-mail and phones calls 3) Billing and paying bills 4) Hiring assistant 5) Researching new clients 6) Setting up for a shoot 8) Getting ready for a location shoot 9) Talking to clients and art director about upcoming assignments 10) Confirming job details 11) Writing estimates 12) Negotiating fees 13) Filling stock request 14) Ordering supplies 15) Trying to collect late payments from clients 16) Preparing copyright registration 17) Bookkeeping and taxes Etc.

Are there any tricks to making the food look great? Do you ever work with food stylists?

Yes, there are many tricks and skills. Food stylists are highly trained professionals. Some have a culinary degree and others are home economists. All have to have extensive hands-on training to become good at their skills. Most good food stylists assist for years with a more experienced food stylist.

I have the skills of a food stylist. However, I need to be able to concentrate on lighting and photographing the food first. Therefore, I will use a food stylist on my shoots. The end product, the food image has to be a complete success. Trying to do the work all myself is not wise and will do no justice to the food image. Some clients try to cut costs by by-passing the food stylist. I always recommend against that decision. Creating a food image right the first time around will cost less in the long run. Clients spend a great deal of money on promoting their product. The image of that promotion is what sells the product. It has to be the strongest part of the advertising piece. Quality sells.

Why do chef's need a food stylist for food photography? Can't they style their own food?

Just like you would not use your line cook to make a wedding cake for your best customer (unless he or she has done them before). If you have worked with a photographer before and learned what to look for you might just do fine. However, a good food stylist has developed a good eye and skill to make your food look it's best.

Editor's Note: The food stylist for the cheese cake and lemon square image below is Katrina Tekavek,

Other than your camera, what are the tools of the trade that you use the most to make the photographs work? Do you do any digital altering?

The camera is like your eye. A simple flower on a beautiful day might look okay; the same flower at sunset might look breathtaking. A photographer uses many tools to create the illusion of mood and feel. I might use the natural resources of the sun to achieve that goal or I might use commercial lighting to imitate nature. Other items, such as mirrors or glass pieces, help me create additional effects. We often say photographers paint with light. Objects and tools are used to bring out the best in our subjects such as food. I might add a silver card to make that spun caramel basket glow. A wooden block might add a shadow to create that evening candle light mood. Tools range from the high tech light hose, computer, and turbo filter to the very low-tech glass bottle or brick.

Who are your most frequent clients (i.e. food manufacturers, restaurants, chef personalities, etc.) and how are your pictures most commonly used?

Currently, I serve mostly magazines, cookbooks and commercial clients such as food manufactures. Chefs and restaurants that produce cookbooks often will work with a publisher who in return works with the photographer. At times, a chef publishes his or her own book and will work with a photographer directly.

Pictures are used for print advertisement in magazines and brochures, cookbooks, and on company web sites. Some might be used for restaurant displays. Food industry clients use their images on the product packaging, sell sheets and direct marketing brochures.

Why hire a professional photographer to shoot food? What's so special about food photography?

It would take the average person about $30,000 in equipment or a large rental fee to create close to the quality of a pro photographer. That if one can gain the photography skills with the equipment. Photographing food is not about what camera you have. It is about what skills and knowledge you have to make the food look breathtaking on film.

One would not credit the cooking tools to a great meal, nor should one credit a camera for good photography.

What's the funniest thing that's ever happened to you on the job in food photography?

We always try to have fun on a shoot. It creates a better creative flow. We once had to shoot a whole fried chicken, which was cut in a butterfly fashion. The food stylist and I just could not help our self and after initially shooting the chicken we dressed it up with a lemon as a head, a bow tie noodle and a lemon slice as pants. Photography is a high-end investment for most clients so we do not have much opportunity for funny thinks to happen. Things are planned out to the very tinniest detail. We try to anticipate every possible problem.



What are the best ways for graduating students to find a job in food photography? How can they break into the field?

Find a food stylist or call a photographer and assist with them. Go to convention and courses to learn the craft. Food on Film is a good convention to attend. Many culinary schools offer a basic food styling course to get one started. Take art classes and be creative.

What's your advice with regard to how to start and build a successful business in food photography?

  1. Save a lot of money for equipment and a five-year start up time. If you do not have your own capital it is difficult to get started. You might have to get family and friends to supply you with startup capital. Most financial institution will find this business too high risk to give a commercial loan.
  2. Work and assist with several photographers for several years
  3. Watch and learn the business and take business classes
  4. Build your portfolio and keep working on your style
  5. Write a business and promotion/advertising plan for the first five years of your business
  6. Create a client wish list
  7. Be persistent

How does one find a qualified Food Photographer? What do clients look for in a food photographer?

Talk to people who have done food photography with photographers. Call professional photography organization. Many have web sites where one can search for photographer in your area. Ask other photographers whom they can recommend. The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) is a good resource.

View web sites and portfolios from photographers. Make sure they have done food photography. A people photographer might not have the skill to photograph food well. Lastly make sure you like the style of photography. If you do not like the images in a photographer's portfolio you are more likely not to like the images he or she creates for you. Do not shop for price when it comes to photography. You do get what you pay for. If you compare prices and fees be fair to yourself and the photographer and compare by quality as well.

How is the job market right now? How do you think it will be in the next five years? 10 years?

The economy right now is not favorable. Businesses are reevaluating their advertising strategies in 2002. Many companies have reduced their budgets allocated to advertising. The result is less assignment work. Stock (use of pre-existing images) is more often the preferred choice for images. However, other companies have returned to shooting assignments, again seeking for the uniqueness of custom images rather than a cookie-cutter image. I do believe the food industry will be improving. Food is an important part of our society. It tells us how we are doing and what we are feeling. 2002 has been certainly an economic fall back for our industry. However, a good photographer and businessperson will be able to survive the storm.



Tell us about your education related to culinary and photography. What did you like and dislike about your education?

I started my culinary education at a very tender age of 16. The European training was like a military boot camp. We do not call it hazing in Europe, but young apprentices are put through a testing period for at least the first three months of a three year apprenticeship. It is more likely up to a year. Depending where you work and with whom you work, that can be a very trying time.

Having gotten my photography education in the USA, I am not sure if the same would be true for a photographer apprentice in Europe. The largest problem I have witnessed with photography education here in the USA is the lack of business education and preparation. Many young photographers are completely unprepared to the point that they never enter the industry after graduation. I am the only one from my graduating class still photographing as a professional.

Do you think that a degree in both culinary and photography is a "must" for those interested in the field? Would you follow the same educational path, if you could do it again?

No, it does not always take a degree to be good at what one does for a living. I know of many self trained chefs and photographers who are excellent. I know just as many that completed a degree and just do not have what it takes. I do believe that the education can make your job easier. Many skills taught at schools are difficult to learn on your own unless you are in an apprenticeship.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school?

The school's program and reputation in the industry. Check with businesses and ask from which school they hire students? What kind of quality students is graduating? Are they industry-ready?

Do you have any advice for prospective students thinking about an education and career in food photography?

Evaluate what you would like out of the profession. Do you want to be your own boss? Do you have what it takes to run a business and survive five years or longer with no or little income. What kind of income expectation do you have?

Are there schools that offer degrees or specialties in Food Photography? From what you hear in the industry, which ones are the best?

Most schools focus on portrait and fine art photography. Most new photographers learn their specialty skills working with more seasoned photographers.



What are some trends that you see in the field of food photography that might help prospective students?

Food is illustrated down to earth, as well as in a fine art fashion. It used to be that food was over-styled and fake. The trend now is natural and realistic. At times, purposely over- styled food is created for a more visually-stimulating impact to the consumer. The food presentation hits your senses visually before it does your pallet.

How have digital photography and the Internet affected the food photography business?

Our business has not been affected much. Many of the digital cameras from the past five years did not really provide the quality for food photography. Food is alive and moves. Digital cameras needed to take four frames to create one good quality file. Most foods would have moved by the time the file was created, with undesirable results. New better digital cameras and systems are on the market now and deserve another evaluation. The most obvious difference is that client and photographers are more inclined to shoot an image faster. A stand-in (temporary food) now has to look as good as the final food. A stand-in used to be the less desired food choices until the photographer was ready for the hero or the beauty and final dish. For the food stylist, this can be a blessing and a curse. To compensate, a stylist might have to work with an assistant to make up for the shorter time he or she has to create the hero dish.

How important is it for those entering the field to be well-versed with photography-related computer programs? Which are the most popular?

Very, photography is high tech. PhotoShop, Illustrator and page layout programs are a must-know skill. Today, there is really little one can say to excuse lack of computer skills.



Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in food photography?

I know the restaurant industry has played a great role in my being able to enter the photography industry. Both industries have issues a person must master. Both industries are extremely difficult to enter into as a business. The failure rates are probably comparable. The restaurant business taught me the discipline, patience and resilience to overcome obstacles in the photography industry. I got the opportunity to view the photography business from another angle. I would not have had those benefits had I only attended photography school.

If you have any questions for Ms. Richardson related to this interview, please contact her directly at

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