Louise can probably thank her Father, a keen photographer, for getting her in to photography. She received her first camera at 8 years of age and was encouraged to take photos, embracing it immediately. The interest only grew through school and university and reached a point where Louise wanted to make her living with photography. Now having achieved her ambition she works with newspapers, chefs and book publishers who commission her to shoot their food imagery. In our interview Louise tells us about her career.
How did you get in to photography?
My parents gave me a camera when I was about 8 and encouraged me to take photos. My dad documented our family life with a camera when I was growing up, so there was always a mountain of photo albums around to look through. I liked adding to the albums of family holidays. Then when I was at school, I really enjoyed art classes and built installations that had photographic elements. I planned to study Fine Art, but I fell in love with the photography process during my Art Foundation and pursued that instead. In my final year of uni I pretty much spent the entire time in dark rooms developing photos that I turned into books about my home life. I think my interest in still life and using photography as a way to communicate ideas really started there.
Whatís your photography education?
I did GCSE Photography, then went on to get a BTEC Diploma Art & Design Foundation, and a 1st Class BA Hons. Photographic Arts. I learned a lot from doing these formal qualifications and got to indulge myself in my ideas. But the best education Iíve had is on the job experience working with other photographers in studios and on shoots when I started out assisting.
Why did you decide to become a commercial photographer?
I wanted to earn my living from being a photographer. I like the variety of working with different teams and briefs. To have a creative input in communicating an idea. Working commercially also helps to fund personal projects.
How did your career pan out?
After uni I got a full time job as a studio assistant in an in-house photographic studio shooting a large variety of products. I was taught how to light, the different professional softwares and trained up to be a photographer, which then expanded from shooting still life to photographing models. After doing this in different studios for about 6 years, I went travelling and then tried freelancing. I wanted to learn about the different types of photography and see where I would fit. I assisted a variety of photographers, and learned lots on shoots. But it was assisting a food photographer on some cookbooks which really opened my eyes to what I wanted to pursue as a career. I was testing my own still life ideas which featured food as beautiful object rather than just something to eat. I started testing with food stylistsí assistants to build up more of a ĒclassicĒ food portfolio and then started to make appointments to show my work to magazines and publishers. Wanting to shoot my own work and submitting shoots meant I had to stop assisting, which pushed me to make a living from taking photos. I contacted photography agents which led to representation and bigger commercial commissions. My agent (Burnham Niker) has been a fantastic support and really encouraged me to develop my work.
How does a food photographer develop a style?
I donít think I was fully aware of having a style when I first started out. I was just producing photos that I liked. Testing regularly helps develop ideas and allows you to photograph what youíre interested in. The more you shoot, the more you discover what you like and what youíd like to develop further. I try to always be looking, observing, being curious for new ideas. I keep an ideas book to note down ideas for new shoots. Since school Iíve pulled out tear sheets from magazines, visited exhibitions, talks, travelled, looking at difference sources for inspiration. There isnít enough time in the day to scroll through the mass of visual stimulus on Instagram and Pinterest, which are great sources to spark ideas and see what people from all over the world are interested in. Especially because you can contact people who you might not even know, but you love something they also think is cool too, and you can start a conversation. I love that!
How important is a style to you?
Itís very important. Itís what will make you stand out from other photographersí work. My still life background influences me a lot in terms of how I think about a shot. I like the control of using lighting when shooting, and having a greater depth of focus through the image. My preference is also to shoot overhead, so the food is the focus. I also like using colour, pattern and textures in my work - and having good ďmessĒ, so things are eaten in to, not looking too perfect. Itís great when a personal project has been seen and then the client commissions something inspired by that.
Why do you specialise in food?
I LOVE IT! Something clicked when I was assisting on those cookbooks and being on other food shoots. I couldnít believe that this was an actual job, to take beautiful photographs, to work with such lovely small teams, (who you get to know really well because youíre shooting for more than 2 days), to get to try all the delicious food! And to have this beautiful tangible object as a record of that project. Seeing books Iíve worked on the shelf still gives me a buzz, especially in this digital age. And to see them in bookshops in other countries is fab!
I guess it has always been a natural fit too. I grew up in a home where eating around the dinner table was very important. My mum is Chinese so as soon as you walk through the door you get asked ďHave you eaten?í Are you hungry?Ē Iíve grown up talking, thinking about food, and I like that itís something that everyone can relate to. Genuinely Iím mostly thinking about food in some way Ö planning to go and try somewhere new, watching food programmes like Chefís Table, talking to people about food, looking at books/magazines, planning what to eat next, what to shoot next.
How do you refresh your creativity?
I do as many test shoots and experiments as I can. Thereís a few friends who I love working with and they always trigger ideas when weíre shooting together. But I also contact people Iíd like to collaborate with, who I see on Instagram or wherever, and meet them for a chat to see if theyíd like to work together. Itís good to go to exhibitions and talks, and read books, magazines, but you also need to take time off, just to have a bit of distance from things. To think and come back with fresher eyes.
What work inspires you?
Thereís so many! Photography-wise at uni I really liked the diaristic style of Larry Sultan, Nan Goldin, Corinne Day, Rinko Kawauchi. They made me love the photo book and that intimate relationship between the work and the viewer. I love the details and rich colours captured by William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Grant Cornett and Gather Journal. Daliís cookbook. The recent Hockney show at the Tate was stunning; the tones in Wes Anderson films and 70s/80s cookbooks; looking at the detailing of shrines. Itís an endless list! I also love Old Masters paintings and a lot of my personal work explores the lighting or the subject matter in the still life compositions, and how to add my own twist, by adding plastic bags or modern day food items. Iím also hugely inspired by my friendsí work and how they use their medium will often create an idea for a future shoot.
Composition and lighting contributes greatly to a successful food photograph, how do develop an eye for this?
Observing, researching, testing, experimenting. Constantly.
"Itís about elevating what weíre shooting in importance, to look beautiful, interesting and thought provoking" What do you think makes for a great food image?
It depends on your audience and who youíre targeting. For it to be memorable and impactful is important. For more foodie photos, I want it look appetising and delicious. For my shots that involve food as more as an object, not to eat, then itís about elevating what weíre shooting in importance, to look beautiful, interesting and thought provoking.
Can you describe a typical food photography shoot?
First I look over the recipes/brief and have a plan before the shoot, in terms of mood, lighting, and a shoot list. Mostly weíll shoot in the order that works best for the food, when things will be ready to make the most of the day. I set up my equipment. Or if I have an assistant, weíll discuss the set up and theyíll get everything ready while I look over props and have any discussions about the shoot. Usually for editorial weíll shoot 6-8 recipes in a day, advertising will be less shots but more variation on those shots. Lighting may change depending on the brief. Iíll set up with the props and some ďstunt foodĒ to test the lighting and composition. The props on set will be marked then given to the food stylist to plate up and style the food, which then gets put back on set to shoot. Usually thereís an art director on set. Sometimes the client will be there and on larger jobs, my agent, the ad agency team, a designer and retoucher to check things work for the layout, copy etc. I tag the chosen shots as we go, so thereís less to edit at the end of the day. For editorial jobs, Iíll work on the images and send the high res onto the commissioner, for advertising the shoot will be sent onto the retouching team who Iíll liaise with during the process.
Is there anything you would like to photograph?
Thereís a lot of brands that Iíd love to collaborate with. I love photographing books so Iíd really like to work on more cookbooks in the future, and also work with more artists and chefs around the world. The list is endless but someone who I think is doing really interesting work is Restaurant AT in Paris.
Do you experiment with ideas when youíre not working on commissions?
Yes! I love testing and think itís really important to do it as often as possible Ö to collaborate with people, and explore ideas. Itís an opportunity to experiment when you donít have to follow a brief and can really have a play with no pressure. Itís so much fun and a good reason to contact new people to work with, and then share new shots with your network. Itís great when a personal project has been seen and then the client commissions something inspired by that.
Have you been given any inspiring advice that helped your career?
Growing up my dad said make sure you do a job that you enjoy and then it wonít feel like work. Keep your standards high, to take care over every photo. And to believe in yourself and have confidence in your ability. Iíve been really lucky to have such supportive people around me who have given me the confidence to try. I think trying to put yourself and your work out there can be a daunting sometimes, but doing the test shoots and having fun, actually enjoying taking photos will remind you why you want to be a photographer, because you love taking photos! Contacting people to meet up for a chat and discuss your work and what youíre interested in, which is what youíre passionate about, will always show through, and maintain your enthusiasm for your practice. Having a good support network is also invaluable.
What advice would you give to anyone wishing to pursue a commercial photography career?
Take lots of photos and shoot personal work. If you want to shoot for a specific job then try doing a shoot with that brief in mind and make appointments to see people to show your work. Assisting and working with good people is really important to learn, ask lots of questions and experiment. Make appointments to see agents, picture editors, and other relevant people in the industry for feedback on your portfolio. Be polite and professional, knowledgable, thoughtful and respectful to everyone. Itís team-work that creates the best results. Keep contacting people in a friendly and preserving way to update them about your current projects and new work. Enter competitions to raise your profile, promote your work through your website and social media. Take photos of what you enjoy. The creative industry is changing and photography is a competitive one, but if you love it and want to do it enough, then youíll persevere.
All images are © Louise Hagger or their respective owners and are used with permission.
Additional Image Information:
Ottolenghi image - With thanks to Guardian Weekend. Food styling by Emily Kydd. Prop styling by Jennifer Kay.
Carved Bird - Styling by Victoria Tunstall.
Frida's Bar - Styling by Olivia Bennett.
Sainsbury's image - Food styling by Katie Giovanni (assisted by Megan Rogers) - Prop styling by Jennifer Kay - Digi Op: Sheila Udeagu - Photo assistant: Terry Graham - Ad Agency: Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
Louise's website: www.louisehagger.co.uk
Louise on Twitter: twitter.com/LouiseHagger
In the final article from our series looking at Burnham Niker, owner Katy Niker tells us about the work of the photographers' agent.
Our interview with the ex-photography director of The Telegraph Magazine who tells us about her career and what it's like to work on a busy picture desk.
Trainer Marc Blank-Settle tells us about how the BBC are using mobile journalism to report the news.