Photographer Alex Lau started shooting when he was 16, first in sports and then photojournalism. While he didn’t study photography in college, he interned for Bon Appétit’s photo department while he was a junior at Emerson College and landed a coveted job as the magazine’s in-house photographer shortly after graduation, just over a year ago. We asked Alex about his experience at the magazine, including his day-to-day responsibilities, the pros and cons of being a staff photographer, plus advice for aspiring food photographers.
How did you originally get into food photography? And how did you land the job at Bon Appétit?
Prior to interning at Bon Appétit, I had no experience with food photography. It wasn’t until I met Alex Pollack, our Photo Director, that I discovered all of the intricacies of what goes into making food look good on camera.
As for how I landed the job at BA, it was sheer luck and good timing. I never had plans to pursue photography as a career, and never majored in it. I was actually in the final stages of interviewing for a media fellowship with The Atlantic and a position at Teach For America, when Alex Pollack shot me an email asking if I was interested in a photo and video position at the magazine. Naturally, I said yes and hopped on a bus to New York to interview for the gig. Three days later, I was offered the job. I wouldn’t be where I am now without Pollack, and am forever grateful for that.
What are your day-to-day responsibilities for Bon Appétit? What types of shoots do you get to do?
One of the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most is the unpredictability of my schedule. A regular week can include shooting in the office studio, flying out to California for a travel story, and covering a dinner by a visiting chef. The types of shoots that I do are mainly food, but I am occasionally asked to shoot portraits or travel pieces as well.
Are you also commissioning work from other photographers for the magazine?
That’s more along the lines of something our photo editors would do, but I have set up and produced shoots for our website. Although it’s a little out of my element, it’s always good to get a grasp of how photo editors think and just what goes into a producing a story.
What is your relationship to the creative director, and how do you two work together to create great photos?
Alex Grossman has been an amazing influence and mentor in terms of helping me become a better photographer. He knows how to play to my strengths while improving my weaknesses as a photographer. Our process includes weekly meetings where we review past shoots and conceptualize future shoots. When I’m in the studio, I send photographs to him as I shoot, and he replies with comments.
Do you work with a food stylist? If so, what are your tips for working with a stylist?
For most of my shoots, I work with Dawn Perry, our Digital Food Editor. She’s a lovely person to work with, and helps my photographs look much better than they are. When working with a stylist, think of them as your teammate. You’re in this together. There’s going to some compromise on both ends, but both of you should be striving to create something beautiful and fun.
What are you tips for styling when you don’t have access to a stylist?
Well, my styling skills are close to nonexistent, so take my advice with a grain of salt. If you’re shooting in a restaurant, let the chef do the plating. The way they plate is just as much their voice as is the way the food tastes. If shooting on set without a stylist, pull some reference photos of similar looking food that visually appeals to you and use that as inspiration.
What are the pros and cons of being a staff photographer? Are you able to fit in personal work or work for other clients?
The pros are that I get to eat, travel and photograph for a living without having to worry about not having insurance or when my next paycheck is coming in. A con of being the staff photographer is that my schedule is constantly booked, which can result in working late or on weekends, but that’s just one of the few pitfalls of having a fun job. I am fortunate enough to be able to shoot for myself or freelance.
What advice would you give to aspiring food photographers?
Either intern for a food publication’s photo department or assist for any photographer that has shot for the more well known food magazines. Shoot as often as you can.
How can they build their food photography skills?
Collaborating with prop stylists and food stylists is incredibly beneficial to a photographer. Freelance stylists are always looking to build their portfolios, so I would suggest reaching out to them to work on a couple of shoots to get a grasp of what it’s like to work with a stylist. But I would say that the most important way to build food photography skills is to assist for a prominent photographer. The amount of knowledge someone can accumulate on set is way more effective than anything you can teach yourself.
What do food magazines look for in a photographer?
Somebody who knows how to make food look good, can shoot things beyond food (people, interiors, travel), and most importantly is easy to work with on set. I know of many photographers that have been blacklisted from working for publications simply because they don’t work well with editors. There are an unlimited number of good photographers out there, and what makes you get hired again is if you are likable.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned about food photography so far at Bon Appétit?
Working at Bon Appétit has taught me that truly great food photography tells a story. Everything from the props, the lighting, and food should be able to evoke a certain lifestyle and feeling just by looking at the photograph.
For tips to leverage your food photography skills, check out The Professional’s Guide to Food Photography.