There’s a kind of photographer in this world who will make you want to trade your lunchbox sandwich away, sharpen your knives, and book a reservation at Per Se: the food photographer. We’ve all been titillated by this tempter’s stock in trade—glistening sauces, toothsome fruits, crickets encased in glossy lollipop . . . wait, what? Today’s most cutting-edge young culinary shooters are showing us a new angle on tastiness. So we asked one of them what it takes to be in the business of putting deliciousness on the page these days. Polish-born photographer Lucas Zarebinski talked to us about how he got into the business and what helps innovative shooters do their best work in this competitive field, and gave us some insight into what young photographers coming from abroad will find in American work culture.
Photos courtesy of Lucas Zarebinski. You can see more of his work on his website.
Aimee Baldridge: What is your educational background in photography?
Lucas Zarebinski: I got an applied arts degree in photography at Oakland Community College in Michigan. I didn’t go to art school because it was a little expensive, and I didn’t want to have that debt. Community college was just enough to start assisting other photographers. School will teach you only so much. After that, it’s really about what you have to offer.
AB: What did you do after you finished the program?
Lucas Zarebinski: While I was still studying, I started working as an assistant. I saw an ad in the school darkroom. There was a lot of car photography in Detroit, and they posted ads looking for interns. It was a paid position, too. So I just drove up there and told them I wanted to be an intern. I worked for them for about six months, and I met other photographers there. It was completely different from what we were learning in school. It was more commercial. There was a client and you had to deliver the pictures and be on time.
As soon as I got my degree, I went to California and started assisting. Then eventually from assisting I moved on to become a digital tech. I got a job at a food studio in Los Angeles and worked there pretty much full time for about three years. I learned more about food photography clients and stylists. And then they went out of business, and I decided that after five years of being in L.A. it was time to go somewhere else, so I moved to New York.
AB: How did you develop your specialization in food?
Lucas Zarebinski: I always wanted to shoot people, but I was told many times that I was better at still life than people. So I started doing more and more still life. After a while, people noticed and said, "Hey, your food looks original." At the studio, I learned how to Photoshop food, and how to light it, and then I applied my vision to that and it started getting popular.
AB: Does where you're based matter in food photography, or can you do it anywhere?
Lucas Zarebinski: It really depends on whom you want to work for and what kind of people inspire you. All of the photographers that I admired were in New York, as were the food stylists that I liked, who were doing edgy, innovative things. Basically, there wasn’t amazing crew in L.A.—or maybe I just didn’t find them.
I don’t think I’d be able to work as much in California as I can work here. There are jobs in L.A. to shoot food, but not the kind of jobs that I was after or the kind of photography that I was after. It was not as edgy or innovative. It didn’t push the boundaries as much. You have to know what kind of work you want to do and look around and see where you can get hired for it, where people do it, and then move to that area.
AB: So being around colleagues to collaborate with is a key thing for you?
Lucas Zarebinski: You won’t get a good picture unless you have a good team. It’s about teamwork. If you have a good stylist, a good concept, good lighting, good props, it all comes together. If you’re looking to do certain things and you don’t have people to help you make your vision even better, you won’t get those photos, even if you’re capable of doing it. You need to have a good team to help you achieve it.
AB: What kinds of clients are you working with these days?
Lucas Zarebinski: Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Details, Ladies’ Home Journal, The New York Times. There’s some advertising, but it’s mostly editorial.
AB: Can you make a living shooting food for mainly editorial clients?
Lucas Zarebinski: I don’t just shoot food. I shoot jewelry, still life, product. I do a lot of catalog work.
AB: There are so many images of food around these days. Does that affect the professional food photography industry?
Lucas Zarebinski: I don’t think it affects much on the high-end level. If you have your own original way of looking at things, people will come to you for that. Vision is always the most important thing.
AB: What kind of food is hardest to make look good?
Lucas Zarebinski: Polish food. There’s no color and it’s pretty bland-looking. It tastes amazing, but it’s difficult to make it look interesting and tasty.
AB: What is your favorite food to shoot?
Lucas Zarebinski: I like shooting sweets, like cakes and donuts. I like to shoot liquid a lot now too. I like the ability to freeze it in time. You don’t see frozen liquid every day; you’re not used to it, so it’s sort of magical.
AB: Have you ever photographed any really unusual foods?
Lucas Zarebinski: Maggots. They were alive. It was for a fishing story in a hunting magazine. They needed a picture of maggots on a piece of ice. Can you call that food?
AB: I guess it's food for fish. What about for humans?
Lucas Zarebinski: There are the lollipops with bugs in them. They eat them in South and Central America.
AB: Have there been things about American work culture that have surprised you?
Lucas Zarebinski: The United States is a country where there are no limits. Whatever you want to do, if you really want to do it, you are able do it. There’s no segregation because of race or caste or the place where you were born. A lot of people from other countries were limited to certain things in the places they came from. When you come here, you realize that you can do whatever you like.
After a while you also realize that everybody is overworked. People don’t really have time or even want to have time to enjoy what they work for. They’re so busy thinking about working that they forget to enjoy themselves. They put themselves in so much credit card debt that they can’t even think about enjoying anything. They just have to work hard. People from other countries, like in Europe, work a certain amount of time and then enjoy the rest of it. So here, you can be whatever you’d like, but you have to really be careful so you don’t get into that mode where you work too much, especially in New York.
AB: What do you like best about what you do?
Lucas Zarebinski: The freedom, and being my own boss. Creating images and making something out of nothing, making my vision tangible—that’s a very rewarding feeling. If people see it and appreciate it and get excited about it and hire you to do it, then that’s really satisfying.
AB: What do people need to know if they want to get into food photography?
Lucas Zarebinski: First of all, I would tell them not to do it. It’s a very difficult business to be in. You never know what’s going to happen. One year might be good and another might be bad, so you have to be ready for that. You could easily make a living doing something else.
But I also believe that if you tell someone they shouldn’t do something, they should tell you, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m going to do it anyway.” That’s the kind of attitude you need if you want to be successful, because it’s very difficult, and it takes time, and you need to be strong. It takes a long time to be able to make a decent living out of it.
In terms of what people should know, any aspiring photographer needs to find himself through the photos and show himself through his work. It’s about really digging deep and bringing whatever you have in you to your pictures. And hopefully it will be something amazing that, combined with business skills and a type-A personality, can lead to an original style that people will be willing to pay you money for.
Before the Internet, people didn’t see as much. Now they’re used to seeing so many different things that it’s extremely difficult to come up with something new and original so that you have a niche. That said, it’s not impossible. Maybe you need different tools, a different vision, a different approach. That’s true in food, product, or any type of photography. Find what’s original in you, and show it through your work. If you don’t know how to do it, then take more pictures.
AB: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring food photographers?
Lucas Zarebinski: Make it look tasty.
In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo-and video-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.
This article first appeared in Resource Magazine, a quarterly photo and video publication for forward-thinking image makers worldwide. Dedicated to working and aspiring industry professionals, it is a comprehensive photo, video, and lifestyle platform offering readers the latest insight on photography skills, tech news, gear, and marketing techniques, all brought together with awe-inspiring images. Resource offers a unique, fresh perspective on the innovative, quickly evolving photographic world, emphasizing the work, art, and power of imagery.
Resource Magazine is sold at newsstands across the U.S. and Canada, and is available for free in all major photo studios, labs, and equipment rental houses in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, and Chicago.