Daria Kalugina is a very popular Russian advertising, product and food photographer. She’s been shooting all over the world working with different brands - among her clients are Chandon, Lindt, Rafaello, Luminarc, Heineken, Hilton and Swisshotel and many others. Over the past 10 years Daria has had 600+ commercial photoshoots, delivered 190+ master-classes and workshops and launched her own online food photography school www.contrse.com with 1500+ alumni now.
Hi Daria! Firstly, could you tell us a bit more about how you did get in to photography?
I’ve started in 2009, and as many other photographers I didn’t know what I wanted to shoot so I was actually trying everything - shooting nature, macro, portraits (I especially loved creative art projects and spent a lot of time developing the style of the photoshoot and costumes for my models, creative post-editing etc). Actually, post-editing and retouching is something I’ve been doing for 15 years now, since I was 13.
So when did you finally decide to focus on food photography as your niche? And why?
I guess it was end of 2014 - by that time I was a bit bored with portrait shootings. I also felt like it’s quite difficult to develop in this area since besides investing in self-development and education you had to invest in every project too inviting professional models, stylists, makeup artists, paying for the studios, etc. That time I wasn’t really able to allow myself spending too much money on my hobby. Additionally, there were soooo many wedding and portrait photographers around that it was quite challenging to compete with them being new to that community. Food photography initially was just a hobby for me - I was trying to develop my food blog and needed the photos to publish my recipes. I found out that it was way more easy for me to work with the food! You know, I’m a kind of control freak in anything which relates to my hobby or work, and it was so convenient for me to be able to control all the areas! Equipment, lighting set up, cooking, food styling, post-editing - everything depended mainly on me, I didn’t any longer need to count on models or someone else. And I guess this is what actually made food photography a perfect choice for me.
Makes sense! Now - the most popular question for all the photographers: which camera and lenses do you use? And what light do you normally work with?
Now I shoot with Canon 5D Mark IV. My favorite lenses are 50 mm 1.2 for the overhead shots and 100 mm 2.8 L macro for all the other angles. As for the light, I actually work with any - natural, flash, continuous, mixed… I honestly think that one of the key skills for the professional commercial photographer is to be capable to work successfully with any equipment he owns or gets for the photoshoot. Since I’m a professional food, product and advertising photographer, I work mostly with flash based artificial light - it ensures the most precise high-quality lighting, it’s easy to control and create natural looking photos.
I loooove natural light too! When the project allows that, I enjoy shooting with daylight since it's very challenging yet exciting to work with unpredictable and rapidly changing natural lighting. When it’s almost impossible to predict how the rays will fall, you just let the situation go and and follow the inspiration, adjusting to the current lighting - and this is when truly magical photos could be created! Though when I’m limited in time, I just take my favourite artificial light (I work with Profoto D2, usually with 2 flashes but it depends on the photoshoot - for some AD shoots I could use more lighting sources while for some projects even one strobe is enough).
You have had more than 600 photoshoots by now - 624 to be precise. Do you remember your very first commercial shoot?
Oh yes, sure - and that’s quite a funny story! That time when I didn’t really think about food photographer career, I was badly trying to develop my food blog (I had - oh wow! - 15 followers on blogspot and about 50 followers on Instagram). One day I found the shop account on Instagram selling popular Kilner jars. And a genius (not really) idea came to my mind! I ordered various jars from this shop to take the photo of the jars so that later on, when I publish the post, the shop sees it and reposts it (hopefully!!) on their account and I get some new followers coming from this shout-out subscribing to my blog. The shop has indeed reposted my photo and this only gave me just 2 or 3 new followers, but in just a couple of days I got an offer from that company! They were offering me a commercial photoshoot of their jars! I didn’t know anything on how to build the price for the photoshoot. Today I run the webinars on this - how to rate your services, how to work with the clients etc. - but that time I was really confused. And since the shop offered either pay me or send me their products in exchange for the photos, I happily agreed on the exchange :)
Also, I did have almost no props and of course my heart was melting thinking of the new jars I could further use for my own photoshoots. So this was my very first commercial shoot - the clients found me themselves, I’ve just helped them a bit with the search lol This is actually what I recommend to all my students - try different ways of advertising your skills to the potential clients. And as of that photoshoot I understood I wanted the food photography to be not only a hobby but my full time job. And this is when I started to really invest in my professional development, take more complex photoshoots, set the new tasks and successfully accomplish them.
Talking about working with clients - what you consider to be the most difficult part of this process?
Well, I think that in any area the client relationships are the most important and challenging point. The success of your project pretty much depends on whether you could communicate with the client competently, setting the tasks and discussing the details correctly. The communication ethic is the basis of your successful work - like in any area of business, the feedback your client shares with their partners and friends regarding your work means a lot, quite often this is what helps you to get the future job offers.
What impacted on your decision to launch your own online food photography school?
When I only started food photography, I knew literally no one in the food photography community therefore I didn’t have the opportunity to learn from someone experienced. I had to learn everything myself - of course, my previous experience in wedding and portrait photography helped a lot! And I assume the skills I’ve already had - the vision, the ability to feel the light, work with color etc. - were one of the key reasons I’ve succeeded in that area. And one day I understood that I wanted to share my knowledge and - what’s more important - I knew I could do it quite well!
In the university I was moonlighting as a math and physics tutor and I really enjoyed explaining the guys all the complex things in simple terms. I knew that even the most difficult or tricky technical point I could explain to the other people easily and clearly. And this is what actually motivated me to create my first online master-classes about post-editing in Lightroom and Photoshop. After a number of master-classes and webinars I understood that people were really enjoying them, getting the professional knowledge on post-editing. Even those who initially were afraid of starting post-editing their photos in Lightroom and Photoshoot were so excited after the course since they now knew exactly how the particular things worked! Now I’ve been teaching photography over 5 years and on my photography school website you could find many different courses, master-classes and webinars, not only about the post-editing, but also about creating the composition, working with the natural and artificial light, etc. And a great news is that soon they will be available in English! Right now I’m working on translating one of my newest, amazingly informative courses about shooting the beverages. This is my all-time favorite theme - I adore how the light, both natural and artificial, could enhance the beauty of the glass and the drink. Many of the photographers struggle with shooting the glass because of the glares, sometimes they experience issues with styling such a, seemingly, simple object like the beverage. There are so many nuances you need to know and consider to make your photo bright, vivid and moody - and I love sharing that knowledge with my students!
What top-3 advice would you give to the budding photographers?
Oh yes! I wish someone has told me this before lol Here are 3 key points I’d love to share with you:
- Don’t compare yourself to others, especially to the more experienced photographers - it impacts your own creativity and may lead to the self-disappointment. Of course, you could - and need - learn from the professional photographers how they create their shots, set up the lighting, style the food etc, but still try to compare yourself to yourself only, to who you were yesterday, a day before yesterday, last year. Analyse your own professional growth, this is how you could move forward and develop your skills.
- Think twice when choosing your first props - avoid buying every single thing you like, especially if when the props belong to different styles. In this case there is a risk of your apartments to become a huge props storage one day lol When you only start your photography career, pick versatile props - basic grey photography surfaces (probably with warm beige undertones or slight blueish tint), multi-use ceramics or textile.
- Never stop learning! Thru online photography courses or offline workshops or master-classes, always continue developing your skills, this is what ensures you becoming the true professional.