A food photographer talks about finding his focus, and how he stays on top of his craft.
Money&Me: I make more by choosing a niche
I was born in Africa. My father was a geologist. After graduating university, he moved to Zambia to work in the copper mines. When I was four years old, we moved to Ireland, where my dad worked for an exploration company. My parents are English, but they are still living in Ireland. They have lived there for the past 40 years.
My parents were quite fortunate in the sense my dad did well financially. They were relaxed with money because we had it. We always had pocket money and it was never an issue. We didn't have mobile phones, credit cards and computers, and the most expensive thing I ever needed was a bicycle.
It just happened that I worked in food. I initially started off in the fashion side of photography in New York and London. I arrived in the UAE in 1996. At the time, I was in Ireland and a friend in Dubai suggested I come to the UAE for work. Soon afterwards, I got a lucky break when I got a job doing photography for the Spinneys magazine. It turned out I was quite good at shooting food.
At that time, I was happy doing other kinds of work, such as fashion. But the more I did food, the more I realised this is what I'm good at. I decided that this was how I would make my living.
I later got involved in cookbooks, three of which were for restaurants in Madinat Jumeirah. I also do a lot of work for packaging. For example, when you pick up a bag of crisps in the supermarket, I do quite a few of those shots you see on the side of the package.
Many of the shots you see around town of Pizza Hut and McDonald's are also mine.
This week, I have been working on advertisements for a butter product. One of the shots was a finished dish that uses butter in the baking and another was butter melting on a roast chicken.
Next week, I'm doing a series of shots for Kraft, dealing with cheese.
In photography, you can make more money by choosing a niche and being specialised. More and more people want to hire someone who has experience and specialises in a particular field.
Financially, it has worked well.
In 2004, I moved to a warehouse in Al Quoz and built my studio from scratch. I put in a kitchen, created an area for all my equipment and put in a telephone. I spent about Dh160,000 on the interior alone.
Equipment is another ball game. I was still shooting film in 2004, whereas now I am using all digital. The technology is continually changing. Once upon a time, you owned a camera and lens and that's all you needed. Now, you must invest in equipment all the time.
I'm just in the process of upgrading now. It will cost me about Dh150,000 to get a new digital system. So it's quite an expensive outlay. But I would expect to get good use out of that system over the next five years.
I enjoy cooking and eating food. You have to have an understanding of food before you can actually photograph it well.
Food photography is about getting the right elements in place. The lighting and positioning is very important, which can mean the difference between a good shot and a bad one.
When I spend money on food, it tends to be expensive. I enjoy buying good joints of meat and quality vegetables. We definitely cook a lot as a family.
I have a wife and two daughters. One of my daughters is at university in Ireland and the other is in her last year of primary school. A lot of my money revolves around the family and the monthly overhead is high. When the financial crisis hit, I made an effort to keep costs low. I moved from a villa in The Lakes to an apartment in JLT (Jumeirah Lakes Towers), which cut my rent down by 50 per cent. By doing that, it has allowed me to save more and go on family holidays.
The financial crisis has definitely affected my work. Before the crisis, 50 per cent of my assignments would be in food. Now, I would have to say 90 per cent is food and 10 per cent in other areas. More people are now cooking at home and eating out less. The packaging industry has kicked more money into their budgets.
On the other side, restaurants have been hit badly and are investing more in photography to promote their services.
In that sense, it has been good for a food photographer. I'm completely out the door with work.
It's very important to have money and it's always important to cover whatever situation may arise in the future. When I came out to the UAE, I went through stages where I was broke. We couldn't afford to go out and actually slept on mattresses on the floor because we couldn't afford furniture. I never want to be this broke again. Now, I always make sure I have savings to cover myself for six months. I'm quite cautious from that point of view.
I don't own any property at the moment. We used to own a home abroad, but sold it about two years ago. We also bought an off-plan property in Dubai and unfortunately lost money on that during the financial crisis.
But compared to what some others lost, it's minor. I do take money very seriously and make sure I always have enough.
* As told to Jeffrey Todd