Lauren Mclean began her career as a still life photographer, but has found her feet working for clients such as Sainsbury’s and Co-operative Food.
With people going out to restaurants less and spending more time cooking at home, resulting in a rise in popularity of supermarket magazines, unlike many freelances, London- based food photographer Lauren Mclean has found the recession beneficial to her field of work.
“Food photography is massive at the moment”, she says. “Because of the recession, people are buying more cookbooks and staying in to make meals for their friends and family, while supermarket magazines want a very relaxed editorial style, to get across the message that you can ‘do it yourself’ at home.”
But while the work may be there, the competition has grown fiercer. “There’s lot of competition in this area, which I don’t think was the case five years ago”, she says, “but food hasn’t been badly affected by the recession like other areas of photography.
Much of Mclean’s work is what she describes as, ‘quite graphic, dark, and moody’. While it’s an aesthetic with which she is clearly comfortable, that has given her a distinctive style, she is looking to diversify her portfolio, in order to increase her chances of securing bigger clients.
“I’ve approached Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, but everyone wants to work for them”, she says. “They cover a wide range of products, and are highly regarded, so to be able to list them as one of your clients is good for your reputation.
“I’m trying to make my portfolio as varied as possible. My colours are usual¬ly quite strong and contrasting, and I’m working to get some material in there that’s light and airy, because Waitrose and Marks & Spencer do a lot of stuff with very neutral colours.
“The higher end companies don’t want to take the chance on using someone quite new like me, when they could use the likes of Howard Shooter or Craig Robertson.
«They know what they’re going to get from these guys: they want experience. It’s a bit of a Catch 22: they won’t commission you because you haven’t got the experience, and you can’t get the experience until they commission you. I’ve been getting in touch with them though, and one day they’ll have to give in!”
While cooking has always been a great love of Mclean’s, the decision to pursue food photography seriously as a career came relatively recently, in 2010, after she had already established herself as a still life photographer.
Growing up, Mclean had an uncle with a passion for photography, which inspired her own. She graduated at Leeds College of Art and Design, with an H N D in Multi¬media, and studied City and Guilds photography qualifications at evening class. Her first job was in retail photography.
“I got a job as a Studio Assistant at 490 Global in Leeds, where we photographed still life”, she says.
“We did a lot of work for Argos, photographing its jewellery, and furniture in room sets. I learnt everything I needed to know about continuous lighting and flash.
«We mass photographed products: one time we had to shoot 140 irons within a couple of weeks! It was a good discipline to learn.”
Mclean progressed to the role of Junior Photographer at 490 Global, but then her boyfriend was headhunted and moved to London, and it wasn’t long before she packed her bags and joined him.
“I didn’t really enjoy my first five years in London”, she says. “I grew up in a village, as did all my family, and I was the first one who had ever moved away. London was quite big and scary at first, but I’ve been here for seven years, and I really like it now.”
When Mclean arrived in London, she essentially started her career again, freelance assisting for portrait photographers. She also did some photography for schools and nurseries. “It was a bit better paid, although it wasn’t much fun”, she says.
Mclean next spent 18 months working for the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she was responsible for digitising its collection.
“I was based in the studio, where I photographed paintings, prints and drawings”, she says.
“After that, I worked as a scientific photographer alongside the police, in Kent. My job was to provide detailed photography of evidence that police had collected — it wasn’t crime scene — nothing that ex¬citing! We were based in a studio, and our photographs would be turned into book¬lets to be sent to court.
“But it wasn’t for me. I love variety and creativity, and there wasn’t much scope for that.”
As a part of her work at the V&A, Mclean had assisted food photographer Myles New from time to time, and she’d been inspired to think about a career in food photography. She left her job as a scientific photographer in September 2010, and has been shooting food freelance ever since, although she initially decided to ‘retrain her eye’, and found work assisting once more.
“Even though I’d been a photographer for so long, food photography was a to¬tally new area”, she explains. “I assisted some really good food photographers, like Howard Shooter and Craig Robertson.
«Through them, I was able to make the contacts to do my own work. One contact at Sainsbury’s essentially took me under his wing, and gave me my first commission — for a food shoot there.
“I also shot for food and fashion magazine Eat Me, going around London taking pictures for its restaurant reviews, which enabled me to put together a little portfolio.
«It was basically about getting the best picture I could with what was there in the restaurant, shooting in natural daylight. It’s only recently that I’ve started to use more and more flash.”
Mclean has since worked for a variety of clients, including Asda Magazine, Weight- Watchers and Co-operative Food.
“Asda is becoming increasingly upmarket”, she says. “It’s got its Chosen by You and Extra Special ranges, and its magazine is the most popular of the in store publications.”
Up until recently, Mclean had to pay for studio hire out of her fee for most jobs, with the exception of Sainsbury’s, which has a photography studio in-house.
Now however, she is sharing a studio with Craig Robertson in London Bridge, which works out much more economical than regularly hiring.
“It’s specifically a food studio, so it has a really good kitchen, which is well stocked with equipment”, says Mclean.
“We’ve got a little pot collection, too. Clients normally bring their own, but having a few extras is always useful.
«It has a really good client area, with big comfy sofas, and massive north facing windows. It’s the flattest light: the best kind of light for food. You never get the sun directly, so you can shape it to use for whatever you want.”
The role of stylist is very important in food photography, and Mclean has worked closely with food stylist Lottie Covell over the years. “Food stylists are incredibly important. They have one of the trickiest jobs”, says Mclean.
“It’s their job to cook things properly, and make them look lovely. It’s down to them to really to get it right, and then I might just tweak a few bits.”
The pair have built up a portfolio together from test shoots, and they are working on a book proposal, comprising Covell’s recipes with Mclean’s photography.
Getting the book commissioned is currently top priority for Mclean. It has already proven costly but, if successful, will be a good way of raising her profile and boosting her workload.
“Lottie and I split the costs 50/50, except for the studio, as that’s mine”, says Mclean, «but what with hiring the props and everything else, our latest test cost in the region of £500, so making some money out of it is a priority.”
Most of McLean’s work is shot on a Mamiya with a Phase One digital back, while she also shoots on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
“I try and get the shot right in camera”, she says. “I might just add a bit more contrast in post production, or darken off certain areas a little, but that’s it, really.
“Most clients want you to shoot daylight, as that’s the style at the moment, but I tend to use a little tungsten for backlighting or catch lights too, to create a bit more shadow, interest and warmth. I put a couple of blue filters on as well, to give the feel of summery daylight.”
In previous decades, getting food to look appealing often meant treating it in less than appealing ways — using lard for ice cream, or super gluing sesame seeds to burger buns, and I ask Mclean whether she uses any ‘tricks’ of her own, or if the food is still edible at the end of a shoot.
“There aren’t any particular tricks that we use to make the food look pretty”, she says. “We tend to eat the majority of the stuff we’re shooting afterwards, so that it doesn’t go to waste.
«We prepare things like ice cream in advance — scooping it out and then putting the balls in a really deep freeze, so that they stay harder for longer. Melting too quickly is never usually a problem: we generally end up waiting around for it to melt a bit so it looks more real!
“Maybe occasionally, a crust might fall off a herb crusted rack of lamb in the oven, and a bit of super glue might be used to reattach it, but most of the time the food is untouched.
«That’s the way the clients want to do it now, which is nice. It’s all very relaxed, to give the impression that people can cook the food themselves.”
Having learnt a lot from assisting, “Most clients want you to shoot daylight, as that’s the style at the moment, but I tend to use a little tungsten for backlighting or catch lights to create a bit more shadow, interest and warmth”
Mclean is keen to take on assistants of her own where possible.
“I love to use my own assistants, because it was the way I learnt”, she says. “It’s quite hard to afford them though, specially if you’re hiring a studio.
“I use a girl called Vicky on a regular basis, because she’s fantastic with people; she makes everyone feel really comfort¬able. She’ll do what I ask, and that’s what you want in an assistant.
«She does a bit of retouching too, which is very helpful. Sometimes, the shoots can be long, and it’s nice to have that person there who’s got your back.”
As her confidence in food photography has grown and her portfolio has developed, Mclean has been keen to update her online presence to reflect this.
“I designed a lot of my website myself”, she says, “and my boyfriend did the HTML and put it together. It’s a Flash based site, and it’s perhaps a bit dated now, so I’ll be redesigning it again soon. I want to make it easier to navigate, and to add some sections, such as Travel and Drinks.”
“The Kraken bottle has a sea monster design, so I tried to make it look like my squid’s tentacles were stealing the rum out of the shop. I had to chop the tentacles off and clamp them in the right position”
Mclean has signed up to Production Paradise, a professional network with a food and drink section. “It’s an online marketing group, which sends out monthly mailings to all the big companies across the world, pushing our work”, she explains.
“I use Twitter a lot, too. My tweets automatically load onto my Facebook page. I’ll put a photo up if I’m on a shoot for Sains- bury’s, or wherever.”
Despite her interest in online promotion and social media, Mclean also takes the old fashioned approach, finding much of her work by taking out a printed portfolio to potential clients.
“I got my book made by Plastic Sandwich, and I do the prints myself at the print space», she says.
«I take an iPad with me as well, because sometimes I have newer stuff on there, and it helps to be able to look at the detail more closely. You can put your tear-sheets on there too, which is great, because a lot of people like to see your stuff as it was printed.”
Looking to the future, I ask Mclean if she is interested in shooting video. “Sainsbury’s is really pushing its online marketing, and it’s recently asked me if I want to shoot video”, she says, “but although I’ve done some experimental video for myself, I haven’t actually shot video commissions for a company yet.”
Aware of the competitive nature of the industry, Mclean is keen to produce distinctive work. One image in her portfolio that particularly demonstrates this is a test shoot she did for Kraken Rum, where a squid’s tentacles are creeping into the shot and wrapping them¬selves around a bottle of rum.
“I bought a squid from Borough Market to do those shots”, she says. “The Kraken bottle has a sea monster design, so I tried to make it look like my squid’s tentacles were stealing the rum out of the shop.
«It took hours, and in the end I had to chop the tentacles off and clamp them in the right position, because it wouldn’t quite fit right.”