Culinary Optics: Ilva Beretta in the Studio Slideshow

Behind the scenes in a food photographer’s studio


The Daily Meal: How did you get into photography? Do you have a degree or are you self-taught?

Ilva Beretta: I have no formal training in photography; I am self-taught. I have had to work really hard and there were periods during which I practiced almost fanatically, there is so much to learn. I have always been taking photos. I remember my parents giving me a Kodak Instamatic when I was twelve and, apart from a period in my twenties, I have always had a camera. Food photography really grew out of my passion for food and cooking. In 2005 I started a food blog on a whim, using a really crappy camera and without any real notion of what shooting food was like. The blog changed my point of view; from being a place to write and share recipes it became a means of expressing myself visually, something I had felt the need to do for a long time but I hadn’t found the right niche for me. I have been lucky enough to make it my full-time profession, lucky because I can earn my living from it and lucky because I have found the right job for me! But I am still learning and evolving; I learn from my mistakes and experiments but I also learn a lot when I work and by looking at and analyzing images by other photographers, both bad and good.


TDM: A common misconception is that photography is photography, what’s special or different about food photography? How would you differentiate food/tabletop photography from other forms of photography? Do you agree with the above statement?

IB: No, I don't agree because I think that is to simplify photography, reducing it to something that is purely technical. You need to have different talents and passions to be able to do different kinds of photography. It is true that certain things are important to every form of photography, light for example. You need to be interested in people, to see what is special with each person and bring that out in order to be a good portrait photographer; you need to understand composition, colors and textures to be a good food photographer, among many things.

Food Photography

TDM: When you look at an image of food, what is it that holds your vision, that something extra that makes the image extraordinary?

IB: Oh that differs, it is usually the light but it can be the angle it is shot from or the colors used, or the food itself. There are days I see and save lots of photos to my mood boards because they stand out and differ from all the usual images I see. And then there are days when I see the same photos repeated over and over in new photos, unfortunately this seems to be a general practice and I wish people developed their own personal voices and visions more. It is obvious that you have to adapt to what kind of photo you are shooting, whether it is commercial, editorial, or for a website or a blog, but it is important to develop your own style and voice without following trends and fashions too much if you want to last as a photographer.

Commercial vs. Editorial

TDM: You work both in commercial as well as editorial, how are the experiences similar and in what ways are they different?

IB: When I work in my own studio on editorial photos, I do all the cooking, food and prop styling, and shooting on my own. I am allowed to work on my own at my own speed and I depend only on myself and the directions the editor of the magazine has given me. When I am doing a commercial job I am part of a team that consists of creative directors and other people from the advertising agency, one or more food stylists preparing the plates, sometimes a stylist selecting the props and studio assistants. I truly cherish having the opportunity to work in both ways and I learn a lot from both situations, be it the more hectic commercial shoots or the quieter editorial ones.


TDM: What defines you as a photographer and a stylist? What would you call your style?

IB: That is a difficult question. Three words that mean a lot to me as a photographer: growth, light, and harmony. Growth is very important to me, both as a person and as a photographer. I always try to not only evolve, to grow and get better, to try new ways and never sit back and feel complacent about what I am doing, but to move onwards and to challenge myself to do better. I am obsessed with light and I think it can be seen in my photos. Light is so beautiful, be it strong or subtle. I also strive for creating images filled with harmony of some sort, the actual act of creating a photo is one of harmony to me. It is like a visual puzzle, all things have to fall into place and then I can feel in the pit of my stomach that the photo is right. At least for awhile because when I look at photos that I was very happy with once, I see things I would change… As to my style, I think it is probably best called eclectic.


TDM: How do you plan your shoots? Do you style your own food?

IB: I usually start out thinking about them loosely, collecting photos to a mood board (either on Pinterest or on Evernote). Then I either write down how I want the photo look or I draw sketches but that doesn't necessarily mean that I follow these when I get down to shooting. When a magazine send me recipes, I usually research how they look on internet in case I never heard of the dish. That makes it easier to decide on props and colors and to get a feeling of how I want to style the food. When I shoot commercial jobs that part is done by the food stylists and if I am allowed to decide the props, I usually give them a ring to hear what they think would be good. The creative director usually sends me his mood board to which I can add if I want.

When I shoot for Plated Stories, I am freer to do what I want so half of the time I just bring the food I want to shoot into my studio and see what happens!

Lighting Tips

TDM: Do you have any styling tips, about light and props that are specific to food photography?

IB: First and foremost, the food must look good and if the food is of the kind that tastes good but doesn't look good, you need to create a really nice atmosphere in the photo to fool the eye a little. It is also helpful to create mood boards, find props that fit the mood you are going for. I suggest you pick out several dishes, napkins, or cloths and backgrounds so that you can change in case you are not satisfied with the feel of the photo. Only remember to use your mood board for inspiration, not for repeating or recreating the same images.

Think of how you want the light to fall and how much of it you want. Use reflectors to accentuate and lighten dark parts of the food you are shooting or screens to reduce light and scrims to diffuse harsh light. Play around with the camera a bit, try different angles and go closer if you are not satisfied with how it looks. Think about where you want the focus to be in the image and how much of the photo you want to be in focus. By using different apertures you can make the same setup look completely different.


TDM: What kind of gear do you use? How important is gear to a successful photograph? What do you recommend to a beginner?

IB: I have a Canon 5D mark II and the lenses I use the most are a 50mm f/1.4 and a 100mm macro lens. Apart from usual the camera gear I need when I work (card reader, battery charger, cables, external hard disc, tripod), I always have Blue/Glue Tack with me. It’s very useful when you need to attach sliding props or prop up food. A paintbrush to remove crumbs is essential. It is always better to do the cleaning up beforehand because it means less work in post-production.

People often ask me about which is the best lens to shoot food with. I prefer the prime lenses I mentioned above because in my opinion they are better for shooting food and still-lives but I think it is a matter of personal taste, whatever feels good to you and is within your price range. If you are doing it as a hobby you can usually use what you have but when you start selling your photos you may need to upgrade.

A Favorite Photograph

TDM: Do you have a favorite photograph? Why?

IB: My favorite photograph is whatever I'm about to shoot, my next photo, whatever it is! I don't have a favorite photo of my own but I chose this one because it is a great example of how inspiration works. I had seen a photo in a French food magazine that I really liked a lot, there was a kind of fin de siècle feeling to it that triggered my mind and I decided to make my own version of it. So I studied it and then put it away. Next time I was in my studio I recreated what my mind had generated since I last saw it and felt very happy about it, especially as it turned out so different from what original the photo looked like. This is how I think inspiration should work, not by copying what you like but by creating something out of it that is yours.


TDM: What inspires you?

IB: I not only collect photos of food but also still life images of food, be it paintings or drawings, old and new. What I particularly like in a still life painting is the way light is treated; I get inspired by how it falls on the subject, the shadows it creates, the feelings it produces in the viewer. I firmly believe that it is very important to have personal projects as a photographer, you need it to keep your creativity going because as nice it is working with clients, you have to produce what they (and the market) like and want (which hopefully coincides with what you like) and often choose ways that aren’t particularly creative. So working on personal projects, alone or with other people, is a great way to push yourself to do things you want to see or want to try.


TDM: Do you have any advice for aspiring food photographers and bloggers?

IB: My advice to an aspiring food photographer would be to build up a strong but selective portfolio that really represents your style and your capacity so you have something to show and continually add to it. Never forget the importance of networking (although know how to choose with whom you network) and marketing yourself. You need to spend lot of time on this and on other business aspects, far more than you may actually like. On a job, forget your ego but not your personality and style — be precise, deliver on time, and be easy-going because that will earn you more jobs.