Putting In the Work . . . Works
Since it’s almost the end of the year I thought I’d take stock in how productive my 2017 has been. Most of my creative energy was spent on The Nut-Free Vegan, a blog I started back in February to fill a hole I saw in the online vegan recipe space. I’ve mentioned it here before, but for those who didn’t read that post: I’m a vegan with an allergy to tree nuts, and those are prominent in plant-based diets—especially with dairy alternatives. So I started a site that would find workarounds for these nut-based options since I know there are a lot of people like me out there, whether they’re vegan or not.
What I quickly learned with the site is that I have a lot of fun researching food and coming up with new recipes. My plan is eventually to take a few cooking courses so I can bring a little more formal education to what I make. I’ve always been fond of making food and I’ve done a lot of reading and research this year, but I don’t think that can match what I would learn from actual chefs.
But a food blog isn’t just making great food. It’s also taking great photos, and that’s where I really felt things click in 2017. I leaned into this, taking a food photography class from Minimalist Baker even before starting the site, and then continued to educate myself through several Creative Live courses and endless YouTube videos. What’s great is that a lot of the top shooters in this field love to share their knowledge, so I really got a substantial education through sitting in front of my computer for hours on end. And the giant stack of cookbooks I’ve amassed over the past few months has been helpful, too.
Sidenote: as a cookbook designer I’ve been able to see a lot of outtakes and shots that don’t end up getting used in the pages of what you buy at the bookstore and this, too, has been incredibly useful to me. It’s not something most people get access to, so I feel very fortunate and have paid close attention to it.
But as with anything you set out to do, no amount of sitting in front of a computer and absorbing information can replace putting in the work—and I’ve definitely been doing that. With the exception of a few instances here and there, I’ve spent every weekend morning in 2017 transforming my kitchen or living room into a makeshift photo studio. I’d estimate the time spent taking food photos is north of 100 hours at this point, and it’s starting to pay off.
Looking at the shot below for Chocolate Chipotle Chili, which is from the first recipe I posted on The Nut-Free Vegan, (and it’s something I plan to reshoot very soon), there are all kinds of problems: the bowl looks like mush, the focus could be better, and the light is pretty much killing me right now. It’s not all bad—I’d say my experience as a photographer in other areas and graphic design gave me a bit of a leg up when it comes to starting out—but it’s definitely not all that appealing.
In contrast, the following shot is for Beefless Beef Stew, the most recent recipe I posted on the site. There’s still room for improvement, of course, but it’s leagues better than the photo above. The “hero” is well defined, the lighting is great, and the styling was much more thought out.
These two photos represent my year and I’m really happy with the story they tell. I can see progress and it reminds me that I had to put in a lot of work to get to where I am. And the really cool part is that I’m so passionate about this that it never, ever felt like work and I had no idea just how much time I invested until I started thinking about it today. Am I where I want to be? Of course not. That’ll take years. But I’m really, really pleased with the progress I have made so far. I’ve even had one photo and recipe in Vegan Food and Living Magazine and am in talks with the art director at another publication about shooting some freelance jobs. Going from dipping my toe into something I had no idea I loved to getting paid to do it and actually being happy with the strides I’ve made—something that I’ve never really done with anything I’ve pursued in my life—in the span of about ten months tells me that I’m on the right track.