The Life of a Food Photographer: A Balance Between Control and Chance
With social media abound with food photography these days, we thought it would be fun to interview one of our long-time cookbook photographers, Antonis Achilleos.
Achilleos is a food and still life photographer who has contributed to our cookbook publishing since 2008. With his gorgeous sense of light, willingness to go above and beyond, and his sharp focus, he has been a dream collaborator. I sat down with him to find out what inspires him, as well as what he likes to drink.
Q: You’ve photographed so many cookbooks for Chronicle Books. Do you have a favorite, and why?
A: I love so many of the books that I shot for Chronicle and for different reasons. Ciao Biscotti was super fun and playful. You (Vanessa Dina, the design director) came up with the idea of using the pattern and illustrative backgrounds, and we just had fun with it. Juice It was great as well. It’s fresh and colorful, and all the recipes are delicious. I am very proud of Roots. I think it turned out to be beautiful. I learned a lot about the amazing variety of root vegetables in existence, and I try to cook from it all the time.
Q: What was your first job?
A: After finishing college, I did a lot of photography-related jobs—mostly as an assistant or a printer where I had to make contact sheets (nobody knows what those are anymore!) for a fashion photographer.
I don’t remember my very first assignment, but at one of the first ones the client didn’t like the shots so I stayed up all night and reshot it. I am still friends with her and she still hires me for projects. I have been fortunate to meet and work with extremely kind and generous people, like Alan Richardson, who I used to assist, and Doug Turshen, who was an art director that recognized abilities in me before I even knew I had them and pushed me.
Q: Is there an aspect of the job that you particularly love?
A: I like still life—I like the “fiddling” and the building of the “thing,” whatever it is. For me, the joy is always a balance between control and chance.
The aspect of the job I particularly love is the collaboration with the team. It’s very hard to be an island all the time. When the right people get together, magic happens, but that is true for most everything I guess.
Q: Your lighting plays a significant role in your photographic style. What or who inspires you most?
A: Yes, lighting is important, and the trends and styles have been changing from hard to soft, and back to hard, and from warm to cold. Everything in Donna Hay’s beautiful magazine used to be blue. I like my lighting not to be too obvious.
I try to get inspired by everything around me. I take a walk along the east river in NYC after I drop the kids at school, and every day there is something exciting to see. I get inspired by looking at art and work done by colleagues. Being in this field, it’s always important to stay relevant.
Q: What low-tech tool could you not live without?
A: Low tech tool—I guess my tweezers. Always good to have around a pair of long nose tweezers to move things on a plate. And sometimes pluck that stray hair.
Q: What high-tech tool could you not live without?
A: High-tech tool would be my coffee pot. I have this amazing coffee machine that grinds, brews, etc. that I can’t live without. I thought of getting a traveling case and taking it with me when I shoot on location. And now that the researchers found coffee to be good for you, I drink even more of it. Everything that was bad is good for you now. I know eventually they will find cigarettes to be healthy for you, and I look forward to to that day so I can start smoking again.
Q: Was there a moment that made you want to be a photographer?
A: I am not sure if there was an exact moment for me. I have friends who knew exactly what they wanted to be. Looking back at my life and my personality, this is the perfect job for me. As a kid, I always created little stories, built still lifes, and tried to make things pretty, and I am still doing the exact same thing today.
Q: Can you share any behind-the-scenes secrets or tricks with us?
A: Staying calm is really important. Sometimes there is a lot of pressure on a shoot. You have clients, art directors, and crew. It can get overwhelming. If a shot is not working, I try to move on or cover it and then come back to it if I am not happy with it. When you get bogged down by a shot, it’s hard to gain momentum again.
Q: Favorite camera?
A: Camera Obscura.
Q: Favorite filter?
Q: Favorite cocktail?
A negroni, because it reminds me of my love.
Antonis Achilleos is a food and still life photographer based in NYC. His work for Chronicle Books includes: Big Fat Cookies, Dad’s Awesome Grill, We Love Madeleines, Milk & Cookies, Roots, Spice & Ice, How to Cook Like a Top Chef, Juice It, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Ciao Biscotti, Lollipop Love, Grilled Cheese Kitchen, and the soon-to-be-released Muffins & Biscuits. Check out his website here to see more of his work.
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