Giles Christopher, food photographer with an eye for detail and an eye for new tech, takes us behind the scenes of his switch from movies to stills and the art of balancing between food and wildlife photography.
Robert: What is your story prior to switching to food stills?
Giles: All I’ve ever known was the media industry, because that’s what my father and mother did. My dad was a producer – he worked on James Bond films, & ‘Raise The Titanic’. And my mum worked on ‘When Eight Bells Toll’, and ‘Where Eagles Dare’, amongst others – these were iconic films at the time. Even my brother is a producer for Marvel.
Ironically, I never really wanted to go into the film industry. At school, I wanted to be a wild-life cameraman, but that was never really encouraged. So I went to an art college and learned to be a draftsman – that’s where I discovered photography. I absolutely fell in love with it.
The natural progression from there was either stills or film camera work, which was a safer career at the time. So, I followed that route – loved it, but I always felt that there was something missing, and stills was something I always kept alongside as a hobby.
R: What was it like to give up a successful career as a focus-puller on some very big commercials and Pop Videos, and make the transition over to stills?
G: I worked on so many different Pop Videos in the 90s, commercials came later. I found it very hard to make the move up from focus puller to DoP, and I’d just started a family at the time, so it wasn’t the best time to make a move.
As the children got a bit older, and I was away with work so much, I thought ‘You know what, maybe this is the time to return to my first love – photography’.
R: I don’t want to pigeonhole you, because we all get pigeonholed in this industry, but the main theme of your work is food. I’m just curious, do you think you can be a good food photographer if you’re not passionate about food?
G: Yeah, I think you can. First and foremost it’s about imagery, and story telling. I love making food, and other things, look fantastic. For me the term ‘foodie‘ means someone who can appreciate the provenance of the ingredients – how it’s made, the establishments it’s served in, and, obviously, how it tastes, and what it looks like. I guess that makes me a foodie.
We work with some top Michelin starred chefs and fantastic restaurants, so I can totally appreciate all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into it – it’s an impressive well-oiled machine.
R: Since transitioning to stills, can you tell me the biggest difference that you’ve encountered when working with small agencies – there are surely pros and cons to it?
G: Working directly with small agencies can be lucrative, and rewarding, but you have to work doubly hard to earn your fees, there’s no question about it. But the pros are – the turnaround, decision making, and approvals are all quicker with smaller teams.
Smaller agencies also have the flexibility to listen, and adjust to my input, making it a much more creative process.
R: How do you go about balancing client’s budgets and realistic aspirations? Do you find that their aspirations are realistic or not?
G: Sometimes I get sent Pinterest mood boards with completely contradictory looks, and I think ‘how am I actually going to interpret this into a brief – on their budget, and their timescale’?
What we like to know is what kind of a ballpark figure they’re looking at, before I start doing too much work. So we get a rough budget from them and work on the quotes, requirements, and deadlines.
Sometimes we might ask them to send over some products to have a look at, maybe do a test shoot which really helps with expectations – for me and the client.
I think clients’ expectations are generally really high for any given budget, probably because they don’t know the processes involved. They say ‘Oh, it’s just a shot of a burger’, it’s just a shot of a drink’. But it is all about educating them about the process behind the best burger or pouring shot to complement their brand, their campaign, and the season the images are going to be released for. There is quite a bit of hand-holding and gentle guidance going on behind the scenes.
R: Do you find clients to be fairly conservative? How much can you persuade them to embrace change, and how do you manage to put your stamp on the product?
G: When clients send me reference images of the look and style they are after, they’re usually very conservative, often copying the competition. But this gives me the chance to suggest different options and set ups. When they see the ideas taking shape, and just how much better they can look, change is embraced quite quickly – which I love.
When you work with a number of brands that are fairly similar, you have to have a whole new concept for each one: the set dressing, the lighting, everything has to be different. But there are set ways you light a burger, so you have to put a twist on it.
It all comes down to the confidence of the photographer or the DoP to say ‘It’s going to look great, trust me’.
If you just go with their initial ideas and reference images, you find yourself copying someone else’s work.
Clients come to me because they know they can trust me, and together we can create something unique, that they might not have known was possible.
R: What proportion of your time do you spend behind the camera versus in front of a computer screen, and is this balance changing?
G: Yeah, it’s definitely changing. When I started in the industry I spent probably 80-90% of time behind the camera. Editing was just circling shots on a contact sheet and reprinting it. Nowadays, I think it’s about 50/50. Every 8 hours I spend behind the camera there’s probably close to 8 hours I spend in photoshop.
R: Everybody has a phone with a food shoot setting on their camera. How does that affect your thinking? How do you compete against it, or differentiate it?
G: I think it’s a threat to all types of photographers. I have friends who are wedding photographers, and they say nobody wants to look at the camera anymore, as they are all looking at their aunt and uncle standing with an iPhone next to the photographer.
It’s sort of the same with us. I find it frustrating sometimes, but I’m not really threatened. It’s all down to the person behind the camera. You can have the most fantastic equipment, but as the phrase says ‘Just because someone has an oven doesn’t make them a chef,’ and just because someone has a camera it certainly doesn’t make them a photographer.
R: Reminds me of another lovely phrase which is ‘all gear and no idea’. Is the iPhone generation – the smartphone generation – threatening your business, or pushing creativity?
G: I don’t think it is yet. But I feel like it’s close.
I know a number of bloggers who get hired to photograph food at restaurants, simply because of the number of followers they have. They may get one good, ‘authentic’ shot, and everyone thinks ‘oh, that’s perfect – they’ve got all the elements of a good photograph’.
But get them to set up and photograph a full on Summer food campaign, in the middle of winter, in a room with no windows, with different versions, plus landscape and portrait formats, and different angles – so not all overhead top shots, and that’s a very different story.
Professional photographers know how to create seasonal, consistent lighting – where-ever they are. That’s always going to be the creative challenge, and part of the fun of what I do.
R: I keep hearing the word ‘us‘, and I just want to touch on the fact that you’ve kept it in the family again and your wife is also your shoot producer. How does that work, being so close 24/7?
G: We’ve sort of always worked together. We met on a TV drama, Abi was the production coordinator and I was the focus puller. And the Producer saw herself as a bit of a match maker.
With Abi’s producing skills, on top of her experience shooting commercials, combined with my experience in the film industry, we just thought: we can take what we know to another sector, shake it up a bit, and see how it works out. Naive and brave, or just naive and stupid, but it seems to be working.
We have that lovely phrase at home that goes ‘I wear the trousers, but Abi chooses them’. She definitely steers me. She liaises with the clients fantastically, working on the budgeting, and scheduling with military precision. All her pre planning, ensures by the time we get to the shoot, we know exactly what we’re doing – she schedules it fantastically.
R: Taking it back to your wild-life photos – is it a bit of an escape for you? What got you to get up at four in the morning and photograph wild-life before a day in the studio ?
G: It’s my tonic really, I have never known life without a camera in my hand, so it’s something I look forward to, whenever I can. It’s my escape, no client, no expectations, no creative brief to follow – just me, my camera and nature doing its thing.
There are also two cats and a dog who aren’t afraid to let me know it’s time for breakfast at four in the morning too!
I do have to hide the yawns sometimes on shoots, because I’ve been up so early, and had to rush to the studio after 3 or 4 hours of being out in the fresh air photographing wild-life.
I really do enjoy my wild-life photography, it’s so low-tech, and low-stress, I’m capturing nature at it’s finest. I have nothing to worry about apart from my camera, and where the dog is going to run off to. I really enjoy that simplicity, and feel very lucky to have it on my doorstep.
R: You’ve got a strong technical background – do you like to experiment with colours and experiment with the abstract?
G: Not so much with the abstracts, but all the photographers I’ve worked with when I was younger said ‘as soon as you say you know everything, it’s your down-fall‘. You’re always learning.
When I have a clear day without any shoots, I do what I call a ‘development day‘ and I literally just sit there and look for inspiration. I go to the studio and try out ideas, lots of experimenting with colour and tones – I call it visual doodling.
It’s amazing how quickly a day can fly by. The amount of times I’ve gone in around seven in the morning, and suddenly it’s nine in the evening – very therapeutic though. And really helps with ideas I can then use with clients.
R: Talking about the new stuff – I know you’ve got involved with AI. How much do you think it’s going to impact advertising stills?
G: In just a few days I became addicted to AI. It is a very powerful tool.
It’s still in its infancy, but it’s going to threaten, first and foremost, the illustration industry, I think. Whether it be book covers and illustrations, video covers, album-cover-type art, you can come up with something that is visually outstanding really quickly. As for advertising, I think it’s still got a way to go.
In years to come, I’m sure it will be a completely different story. But at the moment, I can’t create an AI image that is like a client’s hamburger, or particular product, it would be too generic. It’s very random – it creates images out of the billions of images on the internet, and tries to think about what a hamburger looks like, for example.
The more description you give it, the more realistic it’s going to look. And it’s only going to get better with time.
R: I think it’s going to do a lot for mood boards, and storyboards…
G: Yes, I agree.
I’ve been using it successfully for a couple of things already on shoots. I’m creating my own backgrounds using AI art, displaying them on a high definition television for photography stills.
I’ve been putting in ‘plaster render’, ‘distemper’, ‘creme-coloured’, etc. Things which I think would be appropriate with the look and tone I want to create, and it comes up with an image. After a bit of jiggery pokery on the image to get it perfect, I put it on the screen in the background, throw it out of focus a bit, and I’ve got a bespoke background.
We did it the other day for a client, and they went ‘God, this is great! Where did you get that from?‘ and I said ‘I created it‘. There are some exciting possibilities to be had with this process.
I also use AI as a tool when I’ve got a creative block. By putting in a few ideas, the software gives me a selection of images that I can get inspiration from and develop.
R: What, if anything, do you miss the most about those days of mega-productions? And don’t just say the location catering!! And what do you miss least about them?
G: I think what I miss the most is working as a team. Yes, you are just a spoke in the creative wheel, but a good crew inspire and encourage each other – I loved all that. And the catering, a lot of great conversations happened over lunchtime.
What I don’t miss, is the politics, the endless decision-making, late nights and standing around outside in the rain, when you just want to go home. I don’t think I could deal with that again.
Today’s camera crews need to know so much about so many different cameras and pieces of equipment now. And it’s not just the cameras – it’s also the menus and workflows. It’s taken me 5 or 6 years just to get used to my camera. For them, having 5 to 6 different brands that all have their own menus – I think it’s too much.
R: How do you see food photography evolving over the next few years?
G: I think food photography definitely needs a bit of a change. On my development days, I try out new ideas, looking at other people’s work and trends, and whilst most of it is technically great, and very beautiful, it’s all starting to look the same.
Similarly the look in the 70s, was beautiful, colourful, slightly oversaturated, Kodachrome-type images that weren’t all in focus. That went, and then the shallow-focus look came in ten or twelve years ago.
It’s time to evolve again, and I’m sure AI is going to be involved in some way with this as well. Maybe there will be hybrid backgrounds or hybrid illustration in photography. Maybe food photography will become a bit more of an art form, like the ‘Rude Food‘ era in the 70’s.
R: Yes totally, it’s about coming up with something new. The older we get, the more we’ve seen, and the harder it gets?
G: We’re dealing with a generation that tends to do more copying, so I’m always being fed something along the lines of: ’can we make it look like this?‘. And I go ‘yeah, we can, but why don’t we try something new.’
R: Let’s put our thinking hats on!
To follow the range of Giles’ activities visit: @gileswildside, @gilescphoto and @project.g.ai