Photographer Leigh Loftus has captured the best of the Chicago food scene for a decade. Now Loftus is shifting gears. She’s launching a new platform to teach chefs and restaurateurs how to capture their own “drool-worthy” food photos using a smartphone.
Loftus launches her online Chef Shots photography classes this month. And here’s a hint: it’s not about the phone.
“Think of the last time you went to dinner and you had the best dinner you ever had and the chef came out to your table. Imagine saying to them, ‘Chef, that was the best dinner I’ve ever had. You must have a really great oven!’ It’s not the oven — it’s the person,” Loftus said. “So many people think they have to have the best smartphone on the market…If you don’t know the basic principles, you’re not going to be a good photographer…It doesn’t matter what camera you have on you if you know these tools.”
Loftus is targeting anyone who works with food and has an interest in creating terrific images for social media: chefs, restaurateurs, restaurant social media managers, even servers and bartenders with a good eye and an interest in capturing dishes and drinks in their best light. The courses are also perfect for PR firms with restaurant clients, she says.
Perfecting the “beauty shot”
Loftus has combined her serious photography chops and effervescent style to create a unique platform with nearly 70 training modules and counting. Participants can start with a basic Phonetography 101 course for under $40. The intro covers the basics of learning how to use your phone camera, including how to use High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging for better food photos and how to work with portrait mode. Loftus also teaches basic compositional rules including the all-important rule of thirds: breaking a photo into thirds, both horizontally and vertically.
After mastering the basics, participants can delve a little deeper with Food Photo 101. That class focuses on lighting and basic editing, including modules on using natural light and how to best place the dishes with respect to that natural light. Each class offers practice assignments and challenges to help participants build hands-on skills. Loftus also offers some basic social media planning resources to help restaurant pros understand the kinds and volume of content they need for effective promotion. This includes breaking content down into carefully constructed “beauty shots” and more freewheeling “story shots,” including video clips and time lapse material.
“People don’t know how to keep up with social [media] because they don’t know how much content they need to be producing,”Loftus said. “I’m not solving all of your social media challenges but I’m helping you solve the content piece so that you don’t feel like you can’t keep up with it.”
A fortunate encounter
Loftus got her start in food photography thanks to a haircut.
Originally from the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, Loftus moved to Chicago to study photography at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Loftus was a student living in the dorms and learning the tricks of her trade by working for a wedding photographer when she got her first food gig. On a whim, she bought some coupons for haircuts at the Palmer House Hilton near campus. Loftus’ hairstylist approached her about doing some photo work in exchange for hair services. While Loftus was shooting in the salon, the hotel’s food and beverage director stopped by and asked if she could shoot food.
Loftus had no food photography experience but took a leap. She got some tips on working with lighting, and the project was a smash. “I loved it. They loved it,” she said.
For a young photographer, who initially thought she’d have a career shooting weddings, it was a new world.
“I was in college so I didn’t realize Chicago was a foodie town,” Loftus said with a laugh.
A new world
That lucky break at the Palmer House marked the beginning of a booming food photography business that grew to include an impressive list of hotels and restaurant groups, upscale magazine work and collaborations with the celebrity chef Rick Gresh.
When Loftus got her business rolling in 2010, the timing was perfect. Instagram was taking off in the early years of the decade, and restaurants were looking to establish a strong social media presence. Loftus developed an innovative subscription model to make food photography affordable to restaurants and won the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award from the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) in 2017.
But just as Loftus’ business was truly gelling, the bottom started to give way for food photographers. As smartphones got more serious, restaurants were bringing work in-house. Demand for professional food photos started to drop. For Loftus, it was time to pivot, but she wanted to stay connected to the culinary community she’d come to love. She decided the way to do it was to start a business to help restaurant folks to learn to take their own high quality food photos.
“I had spent ten years building these friendships and relationships,” Loftus said. “It’s a form of communication so they’re able to tell their story visually in a way that they weren’t before.”
‘Social media is how we connect’
With Chef Shots slated to launch later this month, Loftus currently has 20 restaurant professionals beta testing the site. And in the age of COVID, her 2019 decision to create an online platform couldn’t be more timely.
“Everyone has had to hit reset really hard,” Loftus said.
Restaurants are looking to cut costs and are avoiding outside firms to handle food photos, Loftus says. At the same time, social media promotion is more important than ever as restaurants juggle new and ever-changing realities.
“Social media is how we connect,” Loftus said. “I’m teaching you how to be comfortable creating content and how to produce enough of it…If [restaurants] make a one-time investment to make their team better at something, I think that’s beneficial in the short term.”
Leigh Loftus: How to take your best food photos
In addition to the in-depth online classes available for sale at her new site, Loftus offers some basic tutorials on her YouTube channel and Facebook page. If you’re a food lover who wants to take some drool-worthy shots for your own social media, here are a few tips from one of the best:
- Food is easier to work with when it’s cold. Make more than you’re planning to serve and let it cool down before getting creative with staging.
- Stick with natural light. Turn off overhead lights and other light sources and let the natural light shine through.
- Pay attention to how the light is hitting the subject.
- Think about composition. Turn on the grid function on your camera and use it to compose the shot instead of simply shooting dead center. The grid is one of the most essential–and most overlooked- features on a smartphone camera.
- Think about what’s in your frame and why it’s there. Does it serve a purpose? If not, move yourself or move the dish.
- Use filters sparingly. Instead, learn how to edit your photos yourself to achieve the look and pop you want. “Never is any piece of food colored magenta,” Loftus said with a laugh. “The filters that are in Instagram do not serve the subject matter.”
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Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.