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Terry McNamara: Delicious Food Photography

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Terry McNamara is a freelance photographer based in Manchester, UK. Having started as an enthusiast, he's gone from photography student to photography tutor, Only recently a professional, he has built up a great reputation from sheer hard work. We caught up with him recently to quiz him on his journey into photography and why he enjoys capturing food!

Q Hey Terry, how did you start out taking photographs?

Like most photographers I started as a hobbyist. I did film photography for years and never went anywhere without a camera. Then, when a wife and children came along, I said goodbye to the home darkroom and stopped taking the camera bag out with me when I had a pram, a child and a changing bag to lug around.

I actually had a break of several years where I didn’t do any serious photography at all. While I was taking that break, digital technology developed and became a realistic contender for the old film cameras. I treated myself to a digital SLR and immediately fell in love with the art again.

My wife convinced me that I should go to college and get a qualification in photography (which I did) and towards the end of the course I had the opportunity to apply for a teaching job at the college. I was successful in getting the job and as a result of my teaching and other work I was doing, photography jobs started to find me.

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Q What is it about food photography that gets you excited?

I am a foodie! I love food. A good chef will create something that appeals to all the senses at the same time. We probably see a dish before we smell it or taste it and therefore the visual aspect is very important.

From that point on it’s just like photographing anything else – you have to get the lighting, angle, and depth of field right. So, at some stage it stops being a plate of food and becomes a piece of art or a still life.

If I can look at a picture of food and start to experience the smell or the taste, then the photographer has done the job right. If a picture gets your mouth watering it’s a good image.

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Q Are there any particular photographers that you take influence from?

I haven’t particularly studied any specific food photographers. In fact, I don’t think I could name any. However, before a shoot I do look at lots of pictures of food and try and identify what I like about them. I then use that as inspiration for the shots I’m about to take. I don’t necessarily try to recreate another photographer’s work, but I do look for elements that I can use; such as lighting direction.

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Q What specific techniques would you say are required for food photography?

Photographing food is just like photographing anything else. You have to get the basics right. So, focus, composition, balance, light metering, angle all have to be taken into consideration. It still has to work as a photograph in its own right.

One thing I am particularly keen on is "filling the frame." I try to keep the main thing the main thing. So, if I am taking a picture of food I try to fill the frame with that food. I don’t always try to get the whole plate into the picture and I don’t always try to get the surroundings in.

The shooting angle is also important to me. I like to get down to a similar level to the food and look across it. Looking down on a plate of food and shooting from above just doesn’t work for me.

I think the most important thing is light – lots of it and controllability. The positioning of the lights is very important. Some say that first rule of photography is always shoot with the light on your back.

I would say that this is the first rule you should break. By shooting with the light behind you (frontal lighting) your image will look flat and lifeless. If you can, position your light source to one side. That way you will see texture rather than hide it.

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Q What types of things do you look to represent in a plate of food?

It all depends what I’m photographing. For example, if I’m photographing cake then I want to show the texture. By revealing the texture the cake gives the impression of being light and fluffy.

If I’m photographing something that should be wet or moist (a toffee sauce for example), I try to get light reflections glistening off the surface to show that it is wet. If I can get little specular highlights in the image then the viewer can see that something is sticky or runny.

I do look for balance in an image and that could come from the composition, the arrangement of the food on the plate or even the colours used in the dish. The whole thing has to be aesthetically pleasing or people just won’t spend time looking at it.

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Q How do you go about finding work and making contacts in the food industry?

That is something that I have not had to do, really. So far work has found me. Once you start to get a reputation for doing something, like-minded people will get to know about you and make contact.

I suppose if I was starting out now I would contact a couple of restaurants and discuss the possibility of doing a free shoot to build up my portfolio. A lot of photographers think that ‘freebie’ is a dirty word, but it gets you experience, a sample for your portfolio and helps you gain contacts.

Those contacts will have other contacts and if you have done a good job they will be only too pleased to show your work off for you. It makes them look good too.

You do have to decide on a cut-off point for the freebies though or else you will get a reputation for working for free and that is not what you want to be known for.

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Q Do you have a favourite meal or food item that you’ve photographed?

I can’t say that I have one specific food item that has been my favourite, but I did photograph some food created by a chef that had trained under Heston Blumenthal.

His work was not only visually amazing but it also smelled incredible and the taste was out of this world! I stand by my earlier comment that good food should attack all the senses. This meal definitely ticked all the boxes.

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Q Do you ever get to sample the food?

Yes! Not all the time though. Some food has been created purely for the photograph and in all honesty you wouldn’t want to eat it. One thing that’s worth bearing in mind if you are preparing food to be photographed is that flavour doesn’t have a visual representation.

I was once presented with two identical desserts to photograph. When I questioned why they had made two I was told that one had Amaretto liqueur in and the other had Cointreau. To this day I still don’t know which is which.

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Q Do you travel with a specific lighting and camera set up for food photography?

Funnily enough, I go everywhere with a full lighting kit in my car just in case an emergency food photography situation arises. I vary my kit depending on what I am photographing and where I am doing it. Sometimes I use three flash heads with various modifiers and sometimes I use a constant lighting kit.

Where possible I try to use more than one light source. If that isn’t possible I will opt for a single light source and a reflector. Getting different strengths of light coming from different directions is critical to being able to control areas of light and shade.

Sometimes I have had to photograph the food in-situ during an event or dinner. In that case I use just a single camera-mounted flash and try to bounce the light off a white surface to diffuse it and give it direction.

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Q What advice could you give to aspiring photographers looking to get started with food photography?

Just do it. Make a meal and photograph it. Take lots of images. Change angles and find out what works and what doesn’t work. Play with the lighting – direction, and balance. Try different arrangements on the plate. You learn more by doing things badly and analyzing why it doesn’t work than you will by getting it right first time.

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Q If you could only photograph one more plate of food, what would it be?

I don’t care what it is as long as it’s prepared by the chef who trained under Heston Blumenthal. And as long as I can eat it afterwards.

Q Where can we see more of your work?

On my website: TerryMcPhotography.co.uk

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