SNAPPED UP Naomi Sherman
Tasmanian photographer and cook Naomi Sherman’s highly successful business proves beyond doubt that we eat with our eyes
knows full well that we eat with our eyes. That’s why her gourmet photography business is booming.
On her birthday this year Naomi Sherman was paid to make her own birthday cake. It was a stunning chocolate and hazelnut stack layered with whipped ganache and finished with a dripping of ganache frosting and a decadent mountain of side truffle. She received the brief from her Essex client in the UK, tweaked the recipe in her Huon Valley home studio, baked the cake, lit the sparklers, took the pics, ate it, then emailed the photos with her $500 bill. She says she’s never been happier. “You can send me your recipe from the other side of the world,” Sherman says. “I will cook it, beautifully style it and photograph it and give you exactly what you want. Every dish has got something that makes you want to eat it.”
Sherman says her recipe book collection is about 200-strong and fills an entire bookcase. She’s creating her own, which she hopes to self publish next year. It’s called Edible Heirlooms and is filled with simple recipes that evoke special memories.
Right now she’s dreaming of creating a new meringue she’s seen, just because she’s desperate to capture its caramelised swirl. She’s all about creating photos that evoke feelings around food. “Food has a very important connection with a whole range of moments in our life,” she says. “An image of something scrumptious is like the beginning of a story. Each viewer fills in the rest with their own experiences, and their own meaning. Everyone of us has a story around food.”
Over the past year, her recipe development has rocketed and she’s been busy handwriting them all into a Kmart notebook. The ones that worked. The ones that flopped. And the steps she’s taken to turn failures into triumphs. But despite her skills in the kitchen, she identifies more as a photographer.
The food photography phenomenon is a growing global movement thanks to social media platforms such as Instagram. It’s massive and is also an extension of the popularity of television food shows, cook books and our global fascination with food. Instagram users have so far hash-tagged food more than 300 million times. More and more of us are turning to professional food photography on both restaurant websites and their social media platforms to snoop for new places to eat and dine out because we can almost try before we buy.
Sherman uses her Instagram account as her folio and says that’s how her clients find her. “I think people think that Tasmania is such an isolated place and if you live here then you can’t compete with people in say Sydney or Melbourne for this sort of work, but I’m telling you that you can,” she says.
She loves the look of burnt cutlery in her photos so she has an oil drum burning bin, which she throws pieces into for her unique look. She’s been told by some, her posts literally make them stop scrolling, so they can linger on her photo and torture themselves with how delicious that must taste. “I love looking at something and knowing how to turn that into a spectacular photo that will make people drool,” Sherman says. “I’m just a food tease. I could wake up every day and take photos of food.”
Sherman’s photos are used by international food bloggers with impressive numbers of followers as well as in books and magazines but she’s also got a strong list of Tasmanian clients. Many local clients are small producers who, she says, are slowly understanding the value of professional photography for their own businesses.
She’s collected more than a dozen international food photography awards through Foodelia, one of the world’s best food photography websites. She is its top-ranked Australian food photographer. Her biggest customers are US and UK keto clients. Keto, or ketogenic, is a popular low-carb, high-fat diet.
After a walk with the dogs in the morning, and a quick clean of the house, Sherman starts on her recipes, then bakes or makes it and whatever she’s created often ends up as her lunch or dinner. “I often sit down at the dinner table at night and say ‘well it might look like a little bit of a strange combination tonight but this just earned me $600’,” she says. “I basically get paid to cook my family dinner and I can claim a lot of the ingredients. It just tickles me pink.”
Sherman is able to look at something as simple as a tray filled with chunks of roasted beetroot sitting on a kitchen bench and appreciate the elements of design hiding in the vegetable . “You eat with your eyes,” she says. “There are beautiful colours and patterns in beetroot, you can see the light shining through the wedge and it looks just like stained glass.”
Food contains all the design elements that make pictures look good: colour, texture, pattern, line, shape and form, but the real trick in this profession is to create an image that makes us want to eat it. To do that well, you need great skill and a flair for styling. Sherman learnt styling and photography through an online course. She thought her instructor was American but half way through, she discovered she was actually Tasmanian.
West Hobart food photographer and food blogger Dearna Bond doesn’t have a home studio but works in the kitchen, living room, and laundry with bits and pieces all over the place. She says the trick is to understand how your camera works and the elements of light and composition. She finds it easier to tell a food photo story using dark and moody imagery. “It helps put people into the picture, helps them taste what you’ve photographed, and makes it easier to create a food mood,” Bond says.
She works as a business analyst at the university four days a week, but on Fridays she’s a food photographer who also runs master classes in Hobart. In a good week, she’s made $7000 from her food photography. Sometimes clients come via photographers in Sydney and Melbourne who are happy to share their work. Recently Bond went to the launch of a Tasmanian tomato cookbook she’d photographed many of the recipes for. One of her local clients told her a few months ago that the $500 they pay her several times a year, is the best money they spend annually because the photos she produces bring in such a wave of new customers. She says she still gets a buzz when she sees her work in print. “I was in a waiting room, and picked up a magazine to flick through and saw one of my pictures,” Bond says. “I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the little internal squeal I feel when I see some of my images in print.”
Sherman and Bond try to catch up once every few months for a working day of cooking and snap-taking and long conversations and often assist each other on bigger jobs. “When we work together we end up with better shots so that’s good,” Bond says. “You learn how to do everything yourself, but it makes all the difference when you work with another food photographer because they understand exactly what you are after and they are usually 10 steps ahead of you.”
Recently they captured Sherman’s favourite shot, a photograph of her great-grandmother’s Christmas pudding with an impressive blue flame flaring from its top (pictured left). They had to douse the cake in almost an entire bottle of brandy to get the picture just right, and Sherman says, nearly passed out from the fumes.
Beautifully captured food photographs don’t magically appear. The process usually involves a lot of trial and error. Bond says you don’t need a lot of expensive gear to take great food photos. She shoots a lot of her pictures on vinyl and $3 MDF sheets she paints herself. She’s a sucker for soft linens and handmade Tassie ceramics because their imperfections show up really well. “I always do the backdrop first, and then select the ceramics,” she says. “You want to create balance so styling by number is important: odd looks better than even. Then there’s the rule of thirds so having your food off centre and having smaller details off to the side like herbs or a soft linen breaks up negative space. If you have a few types of elements, it can add flow to the dish.”
Despite only usually posting the ones that turn out, there’s usually a few flops along the way. Says Sherman: “You know how you look at all those food accounts and you think they know what’s what. For all the perfect images you see, there are also tears and doubts and insecurities. But I’ve learnt if you just push through that, then amazing things can happen. What if it all doesn’t go wrong? What if, it all goes right?”