When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book’s release, they have been discovering even more interesting culinary career paths. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature: “Unique Culinary Careers.”
James Ransom is a food photographer. His work can be seen every week at FOOD52, where he snaps a variety of recipes from their start as raw ingredients all the way through to final presentation. As anyone who has dabbled in food photography knows, it’s not as easy as it looks. Crafting that perfect shot requires a mix of careful styling skills, knowledge about lighting, and much more. Just thinking about it leaves us in awe of Ransom and the quality of his work. We talked with him about his career path and his advice for would-be photographers.
How would you describe your job?
My job is to create an image that makes you want to eat the food I’m photographing. Sometimes that’s harder than it sounds.
How did you get this job? What has your career path been like?
I studied photography in high school and college and received a BFA in Photography from Brigham Young University. As soon as I graduated, I packed up my car and drove out to New York. I started out as an in-house photographer at an e-commerce site called UncommonGoods where I photographed products for their website and print catalog. After a few years I decided to set out on my own to freelance. I picked up small clients here and there and put in a good number of years as a photographer’s assistant. About three years ago, I started shooting food and really fell in love with it. Through a series of fortunate events I was introduced to the folks at FOOD52, where I shoot the bulk of my food assignments at the moment.
What inspires you?
If I had to narrow it down to one thing I would say color. I love rich colors, especially eye-pleasing combinations of color. I’m also inspired by great photography, beautiful spaces, good design and, of course, great food.
What were some unexpected challenges of your career?
I didn’t get a lot of training on the business side of things. A lot of people think photographers just have fun traveling the world and taking snapshots. What they don’t realize is that we have to run a business. We do our own marketing, estimating, invoicing, researching, shoot production, filing, archiving, accounting and taxes. Sometimes I spend just as much time in QuickBooks as I do in Photoshop.
What is a typical day like?
One of the best things about being a food photographer is that every day is different. Some days I’m at home retouching images on the computer or updating my website. Other days I’m on location or in a studio shooting a roasted goose. Every project is different with different technical challenges and that’s exciting.
Do you have a story about a particularly great day? Bad day?
A particularly memorable day was the time I was assigned to shoot “hay-charred scallops” at a restaurant in town. The chef brought out some scallops that looked like they had been rolled in soot. I didn’t ask any questions, just took the pictures. When I turned in the images the photo editor was shocked and asked where the hay was. I ended up having to go back to reshoot them plated with a handful of hay next to the scallops, just so they could see that there was hay in the recipe. Everything worked out in the end, luckily.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
I get to work with a lot of different people — food and prop stylists, art directors, photo editors, writers, producers, graphic designers, set builders — the list goes on and on. It’s really satisfying to collaborate with other creative types. I also get to taste amazing recipes that I probably wouldn’t get to experience otherwise.
Anything exciting coming up soon?
I’m working on a personal project photographing interesting Jell-o recipes. I grew up in the “Jell-o Belt” (it’s a real place) and I have memories of eating the strangest gelatin concoctions you can imagine. Family reunions always had two, three, or sometimes four different Jell-o salads. I’m really excited to recreate some legendary food moments from my childhood.
What is your advice for anyone looking for a similar career?
Shoot what inspires you, not what you think people want to see. As soon as you can do that, you will find out what you are all about.