After secondary school, I took basic photography classes in a small studio at Bukit Mertajam, Penang, where I learnt how to use all sorts of different cameras. Then, I graduated to commercial product and portrait photography courses. This was essentially how I started as a photographer.
My first job was as an assistant at a commercial photography studio for a year or two, then a wedding house for six years. Due to the lack of opportunities in Penang, I moved to Kuala Lumpur where I joined Nanyang Press and then after, a fashion magazine which was my dream job then.
At that time, I was using my own analog Nikon camera to shoot concerts, press conferences, fashions shows and interviews. A lot of other photographers laughed at me because they were starting to use digital cameras and here I was, snapping away with my manual camera. Looking back, I am glad I stuck to my manual camera because I believe it makes me who I am now and has contributed to my photography skills. I needed to make sure I had the correct exposure, focus and angle before I take the shot. There was no take two because I only had 36 shots in a roll! I also needed to learn how to visualise because there is no digital screen to view from prior to taking the shot.
I decided to go freelance after many years working in the media. You could say I just went with the flow, and having explored new things and knowing what it’s really like behind the scene, I thought I’d give it a chance.
How did I end up in food photography? It wasn’t by choice. Food was just one of the many things I took pictures off, and a lot of clients liked my food photography so I ended up getting a lot of food-related jobs. I love it now, especially cookbook projects. I’ve done many including A Taste of Batu Gajah, Edible Satire: French Cuisine with a Twist by Isadora Chai, and my latest, The Food of Singapore Malay: Gastronomic Travels through the Archipelago. This last book took 11 years to complete! But it is one of my most memorable experiences. We worked with everyday cooks, your makciks in the kampung – they are so humble and fun to watch; plus they are really good cooks! It’s so amazing to be able to photograph how to cook in such an authentic way and to learn from them; cooking the way they do is just so intelligent and inspiring.
Aside from cookbooks, I also do a lot of photography for food reviews and articles. My most memorable is a food review with Chef Benjamin Halat. His dishes were all such a pleasure to shoot (and eat too!). Watching him work is like watching a waltz. In fact, I respect those who work with food like chefs and food stylists – their passion is just amazing seeing how they go the extra mile to make something look so presentable. I am always amazed by that and am happy to be part of the process.
Being a food photographer has a lot of perks. I get to meet people who are passionate about their food, not just chefs, but the mee goreng uncle who is passionate about his mee goreng and the makciks who can go on and on about food and their knowledge. I also get to explore different cuisine and ingredients that I normally only read about or watch on TV. I suppose you could say I am a messenger in this instance where I pass on their passion to the audience using my photographs. And of course, I get to eat all these amazing food after the job is done!
NOT A PIECE OF CAKE
It may seem like a cushy job to snap photos of food but in reality, it’s hard work! There is a lot of preparation beforehand. Food photography is all about teamwork – the chef, their assistants, the food stylist, the client and then me, the photographer. Sometimes, shooting just one shot can take hours to prep, to style, to shoot and then to get the client’s approval (if it is a commercial shoot). There is also work after the shoot with choosing the right photos, editing… it’s not as simple as click and shoot.
It’s also a competitive market to be in. Unfortunately, not all clients have a budget so they tend to look at what your price is instead of your skills. But you need to have a realistic fee, especially if you have a lot of experience. But some clients don’t understand that and you miss out on opportunities if budget is the main priority. You can earn a decent living as a food photographer if you are hardworking. Sadly, the pandemic impacted my income but it’s picking up. Commercial photography pays well but you have to be willing to wait to be paid because it takes a long time before you see the pay cheque.
Still, I wouldn’t change a thing about being a photographer. I also dabble in other subjects like fashion, travel, interior and product styling because I love photography in all forms. Fashion photography is a great way to be creative because it can be up to your interpretation while travel photography challenges you because you need to have your camera at all times (and it can get heavy!) while also being able to capture a new angle of a famous tourist spot. It’s not easy but I love that challenge!
My tip for venturing into food photography? It’s like any other job – you need to be passionate, be patient, and be very detailed. Sometimes, removing just one sesame seed or maybe putting another in the shot can make all the difference in the end image – that’s what you need to learn and be good at when you are a food photographer. At the end of the day, you need to make the food look “sexy” so it conveys that “eat me” message. Know some basics in food styling so you have a better eye at it. Understand how lighting can make all a difference and finally, don’t be lazy – that applies to everything you do!
Check out Soo Phye’s work at IG @soophye.l