A chef “from another angle”: how James Teo helps businesses shoot beautiful food photos
Plating dishes, placing props and fixing errant spaghetti strands are all in a day's work for food photographer James Teo.
When I first meet food photographer James Teo, he hands me his business card. But it’s no ordinary paper business card – his is made of a flexible plastic, and has a magnetic backing.
“It’s for people to stick on their fridge,” he explains. “When they take food from their fridge, they’ll see my business card and be reminded that if they need a food photographer, they can call me.”
James’ affable personality belies his business savvy, which he has honed for almost 4 years from running Jinographstudios – his own studio specialising in food photography, with secondary services in social media management and graphic design.
Developing a food photography passion – and his own studio
James’ interest in photography stems from his background as a Video Production diploma-holder from Temasek Polytechnic. After completing an internship with a small production company specialising in commercials, James found that he didn’t get much satisfaction from working in film productions. Instead, he found himself gravitating towards photography – food photography, in particular.
“Unlike event photography, I have more creative capacity to drive the direction of my food photos,” says James. “I can add props, style the food or add filters to create certain moods for my photos.”
James also describes his role as “being a chef from another angle”, as he gets to choose how to plate the dishes, what ingredients to add and how to arrange the food, all in the name of making the dish look appealing. For example, if a spaghetti dish doesn’t twirl in a direction that is to his liking, James has no qualms fixing the troublesome strands before taking a photo.
“The process is easier than taking videos too, because it’s just one [image] frame!”
While James worked in full-time corporate communications and marketing positions for various companies after graduation, he also found time outside of work to take on freelance work in food photography and social media management. These freelance projects would form the backbone of Jinographstudios one and a half years later, when he decided he had had enough of working for others.
“When I worked for other companies, they had their own sales targets which I had to help meet,” he shares. “I wanted to do photography to feed my own passion, and this was something I couldn’t do if I had to follow others’ creative directions.”
Setting the scene
Currently, James operates Jinographstudios out of his home in the eastern part of Singapore. His clientele is primarily small businesses such as hawkers and cafe owners who respond to his online ads on Gumtree, Carousell and Facebook. His network also refers to him the occasional client.
Once he has secured an assignment, James spends the few days before the shoot understanding the client’s needs. For example, he notes the style of the photos they require and plans his strategy for achieving such a style, referencing visual discovery engine Pinterest or his past portfolio as needed.
James also decides which props and equipment to bring along for the shoot. Props-wise, this could be a wooden backdrop, silver utensils or other props, depending on what fits the client’s aesthetic. “You need to know what to take, so you have what you need on the day itself.”
On shoot day, James wakes up early (“sometimes 8 am but nothing earlier than that”), cabs down to the client’s location and sets up his equipment. The first dish of the day is placed on his backdrop, followed by the props. This process can take up to 2 to 3 hours – and without James taking a single photo yet!
“A lot of adjusting takes place during the first hour because I’m establishing the style of photos that aligns with the client’s expectations. Once I’ve gotten that down, that will be the constant look for the rest of the shoot.”
The duration of the shoot depends on the style of the photos that the client wants, and what food is being photographed.
For example, if the subject is less prone to temperature changes, such as a fruit, James has more time to experiment with getting the best shot. But if the food is meant to be served hot, he has to shoot it from different angles fast before the dish (literally) loses its steam.
James estimates that if the client requires close-up photos with minimal styling, he can shoot 20 to 30 dishes in a full day’s shoot.
A close-up on James’ specialties
Western cuisine is James’ favourite cuisine to shoot. He explains that Western food tends to be “more chunky, more definitive” and also already have a particular direction to be followed.
For example, if James is shooting a steak, he knows that the steak will be on the right of the dish, and the potato and coleslaw side dishes will be on the left. He doesn’t need to think too much about which angle to shoot the dish from.
“It’s not like Chinese cuisine such as char kway teow, which from every direction looks the same!” James says. “You then need to adjust the angle until you find one that makes the dish look nice.”
Shoots are also more enjoyable for James if they involve his favourite food. As an avid durian lover, he was recently treated to the opportunity of taking photos of a durian company’s durians.
During the project, the client was more than happy to share how to differentiate the different durian species, and James has no trouble rattling off what he had learnt.
“For Red Prawn durians, their seeds are smaller and have tighter skin and redder flesh, while Mao Shan Wang durians have a meatier flavour and softer texture,” James shares.
“It’s important for you to know how the food should look like in your photos, so they look right to people looking at the photos. This is something that you will only understand when you’re there at the shoot, as [the ‘correct’ look for the food] will be what the client wants to capture.”
Shooting high for the future
James has been running Jinographstudios solo since its inception, but envisions building a team that will work alongside him to “take business to another level”.
He shares that he is working towards shooting for hotels, which will be a challenge for him to handle by himself. “I will need a lot more resources on different sides, such as food styling, sales, designer and a photo editor. Having a team will help cut down the shoot time because each team member can then specialise in just one skill.”
James describes the food photography industry as “young and vibrant”, and expects that demand for his services will only grow in the future thanks to Facebook and Instagram. These platforms have made it easier for users to view and share food photos, so businesses have a greater need for enticing photos of their dishes to attract customers.
“There will always be a demand for food photographers. Who doesn’t like food?”
Photos courtesy of James Teo. Want to be featured? Get in touch.
Work with James: Leave a message on his website | Email: Jamestzf@hotmail.com