When Life Gives You Lemons: 5 Food Photographers Share Their Tips for Improvising on Set

When Life Gives You Lemons: 5 Food Photographers Share Their Tips for Improvising on Set

We talk a lot about the business side of photography as a crucial addition to your photo skills and creativity. But what about the soft skills that are just as important?

A photographer’s ability to improvise is one of those unspoken but necessary traits you must have to succeed in the photo industry. It’s also one of those traits that is best developed through practice, and if anyone is well acquainted with the art of navigating the unexpected – it’s food photographers. They’re the ones that can make hair conditioner look like the perfect scoop of ice cream so it doesn’t melt under hot studio lights, or rig lights to create rays of sunshine when a shoot day suddenly turns cloudy.

We asked 5 food photographers from The List for their best improvisation tips. Here’s what they said.


Feature photo by James Ransom


Christina Peters

Primary location: Los Angeles, CA
Instagram  |  Facebook

“I‘ve been a professional commercial food photographer for 25 years. I’ve shot almost every kind of food you can imagine and have  extensive experience producing jobs of all sizes. I also have shot for all kinds of clients and jobs – small clients, cookbook publishers,  magazines and ad agencies big and small.”

Do you have any advice for improvising or what to do when things don’t go as planned?

“One thing that happens a lot with some agency clients of mine is during the shoot there will be personality conflicts between the creative director and the art director. When they don’t agree on the approach, it can really slow down the shoot. What I usually do when this happens is I will suggest we add a variation shot where the first shot is done one way and the other is done a different way. Sometimes just doing that exercise will prove that one way just won’t work. Other times they both work, with the caveat that they can only use one of those two shots for the price we agreed to originally.

The photographer often has to be the mediator between clients that are butting heads. Sometimes this is just a power play. Other times it’s a genuine concern about getting the creative to work properly in the layout. If you can help a dispute by a simple variation suggestion, they really appreciate it, and many times, I’ve ended up selling them that extra variation as well. So everyone wins, and it becomes fun again, instead of getting a little stressful.”

Photo by Christina Peters


Darina Kopcok

Primary location: Vancouver, Canada
Instagram  |  Blog

“Communication and organization are key to building trust and a sustainable relationship. I’m always asking myself how I can help my clients solve their problem and execute the vision they have for their brand, whether it be an editorial or images for product packaging.”

Do you have any advice for improvising or what to do when things don’t go as planned?

“Being a food photographer means improvising on set a lot of the time. Food has a habit of melting, turning brown, or looking very unappetizing in a very short amount of time. It’s a constant challenge to work with, and you don’t always know how a certain dish or ingredient will behave in front of the camera. Some items, like ice cream, can be so notoriously hard to work with that some food stylists won’t even take on shoots that involve it. These days, most food styling involves natural ingredients, but sometimes you need to fake it. One time my assistant and I decided to make fake ice cream with cornstarch and hair conditioner. This recipe makes a surprisingly good substitute for the real thing, but in this case my assistant bought an extra silky conditioner from the dollar store. Our strawberry ice cream ended up with the texture of a big wad of chewed up pink gum. Thank goodness we were practicing before using it on a job, and were able to try again with a more suitable product. It was a good reminder that the key to a successful food shoot is to be as prepared as possible, as assumptions and oversights can easily lead to a disaster on set.”

Photo by Darina Kopcok


Marianna Massey

Primary location: New Orleans, LA
Instagram  |  Twitter

“I have covered many subjects in my career and now that I have started photographing food I like to bring the same techniques I would  use to shoot a fashion model or a pro athlete to my food subjects. I think my distinct style is something that clients would remember. Bright and enigmatic with an artistic edge.”

Do you have any advice for improvising or what to do when things don’t go as planned?

“I had to shoot a fried chicken feature for New Orleans Magazine, and we had 12 chicken restaurants to shoot. Making each one different was a challenge. I thought I might never be able to look at a plate of fried chicken again, but it turned out to be one of my most favorite spreads. Staying clear in your focus and persevering when things seem redundant or muddled is key, and being creative with the styling will help you carry out the vision.”

Photo by Marianna Massey


Tyler Darden

Primary location: Richmond, VA
Instagram  |  Twitter  |  Vimeo

“I wish I could say I have tasted every dish I shot. People may not agree on politics, taxes or even the weather, but we surely drop our differences and come together over food. Time spent at the table with others is one of the best ways to get to know them. Photography is much the same. Spending most of my fifteen year career as a magazine art director and photographer, I have worked with a wide variety of subjects from senators and beauty queens to chefs and turkeys. I enjoy the time with the personalities I photograph and the gratifying part is hearing their story and capturing the moment in time. My work has been recognized in the creative industry’s leading publications: Art Director’s Club of New York Annual, the Communication Arts Design Annual, Print magazine’s Regional Design annual, Creative Quarterly, Photo District News, Society of Publication Design Annuals and SPOTS competition.”

Photo by Tyler Darden


James Ransom

Primary location: New York, NY

“I bring a distinct look through the use of light, color, and mood. I’m passionate about my work and the results I deliver, and I love having fun on set.”

Do you have any advice for improvising or what to do when things don’t go as planned?

“I find that things rarely go as planned. Either the weather doesn’t cooperate or the oven breaks down. Part of the fun of being a photographer is using what you have in the moment to create a beautiful image. Often times a client will request a ray of sunshine on a cloudy, wintery day. It feels great to figure out how to rig a light just perfectly to give the illusion that the food was shot on a sunny day, or use some object laying around to create the perfect shadow.”

Photo by James Ransom


Check out our Instagram for more incredible shots from these photographers.


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