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Behind the scenes with @gaylemcleod

Hi! I’m Gayle McLeod, a professional food stylist and food photographer based in Vancouver, Canada. Thank you, Lucie, for inviting me to your blog!

Before food photography, I spent several years working in the tech industry but also studied and worked in interior design. They seem like opposite interests, but I love that photography combines my appreciation for the technical aspects with my artistic, creative side. 

How did you start and how did you learn? 

I started photographing food when I launched my own online food business in 2014. I needed images not only for my website but to market the products on social media. I had no idea what I was doing, but picked up my first DSLR and started learning the basics from a friend who taught photography to high school students at the time. I followed up with countless hours spent online, learning more about photography from educators in the field (Darina Kopcok and Joanie Simon are two of my favourites).

I can laugh about it now, but at the time all of my products were soups and sauces – very challenging brown foods! As you can imagine, the styling portion of food photography was the most important. I jumped at the chance to attend a food styling workshop years ago with Gabriel Cabrera, which helped me realize how much I enjoyed the process of making food look its best for the camera.

The rest was practice, practice, practice! 

Which photographers inspire you or where do you get your inspiration from?

I find inspiration everywhere – I’m always thinking it, really. I would say mostly from cookbooks, food magazines, Pinterest, and Instagram. Since I have a background in Interior design (colour theory was my favourite part), something as simple as a colour palette will get my creativity flowing.

I also find photography challenges like your “#onlyone…” themes really pull me out of my comfort zone and help with fresh ideas. I’m not always able to post on time to participate in the challenges, but I have several mood boards created around particular themes and have a list of personal projects I want to shoot based on them.

There’s so much talent out there, but photographers that ignite a spark for me are Leigh Beisch, Greg Dupree, and Maya Visnyei. For beautiful and seemingly effortless food styling: Judy Kim and Kirsten Jenkins.

Who are your clients and how do they find you?

Clients find me through Instagram and word of mouth. I work primarily with local food producers in need of commercial food photography for their packaging, website, printed promotional materials, and social content. My clients’ needs range from requiring a single image for a product label to long-term projects – producing multiple photos over a long-term agreement. I’ve also done food styling for film, which is ridiculously fun, even if it’s quite intense! I’m actually working on another film this month and have been told one of the food items is integral to the storyline, so I’m beyond excited to see it on screen.

How often do you blog?

Well… definitely not as often as I had hoped when I started my food blog a couple years ago. I’ve been developing and testing recipes for years, but when it comes to creating content for my own blog, I have less time than I would like to produce the kind of quality content I want to put out there. I try to create a couple of new recipes each month – the actual content is more important to me than frequency (even though SEO might not agree!). 

What are the best tips and tricks for blogging?

I use a note-taking app that syncs across all my devices so that wherever I am when something comes to mind about a particular idea or blog post, I can capture it right away.

I make sure to use my focus keywords or phrase in the image file name for all the images in a blog a post to help with SEO. 

The content itself needs to be trustworthy, accurate, helpful, and/or inspiring – something readers feel compelled to share. My best performing posts are ones with tofu recipes so delicious that it changes peoples’ minds about tofu. I bet we all know someone who thinks they don’t like tofu ;P

Do you work with brands?

As an influencer with sponsored posts, no – not really. My intention for my blog is purely to share the food I love most. If I mention a product or company, it’s because I already buy it and love using it in my home.

Do you have good tips about your portfolio? I see you have, for example 3 categories on your website: fresh, meals, and sweets. Do you notice that customers like to see these categories?

Such a great question! Actually, the consultant I worked with to help me put together my portfolio suggested the layout. I think the categories are an excellent way of sharing a range of photography cohesively. It reminds me of how we might peruse through the chapters of a cookbook.

How much time do you spend on social media and which channels do you use the most? 

I spend a couple hours a day on social media in general, and the majority of that time is on Instagram, but I am making more of an effort to look at Pinterest lately.

Do you have 1 good tip for Instagram and 1 good tip for Pinterest?

I add a frame to my images for Instagram to post the full crop (2:3 aspect ratio) and avoid the 4×5 constraints of IG. It’s not for everyone, as it adds an extra step before posting, but since I style and shoot most of my personal projects this way, I want to show as much of the image as possible.

As for Pinterest?

My tip? Follow my friend, Bea @lachicabites! I’ve been following Bea for a while and love that you recently featured her on your blog too! She shares fantastic tips on Pinterest. I do make an effort to create optimized images for my blogged recipes with Pinterest in mind.

How do you make sure you find a balance between leisure/home and work?

My family makes sure of that! We have a reasonably busy household with two kids, a cat, a dog, and all of us home a lot more than usual these days.

I’m up early to get organized and check emails/social before daily life starts, then head out for a long walk or visit the beach with our dog every day, rain or shine. I can’t help but leave everything behind and be in the moment when I’m out on our walks, which does wonders for my stress level and creativity.

Since I work from home, there’s no question it can be tough to find a balance and stay motivated. I recently moved my studio space into one room in the house to close the door when I’m working, but also so I can leave everything set up when I’m not. It’s made my work/life at home balance much more manageable. 

What else would you have done if you had known this at the beginning of your career?

I would have focused more on learning the business side. If your goal is to generate a realistic income with photography, getting a handle on the industry is essential. 

Where do you make your photos, at home or in a studio?

At home, in my office/studio space. Like I mentioned, I have a dedicated room with all of my props and equipment, which I love, even if it’s a little cramped with everything in there! I sometimes take over our dining room when I need a bit more elbow room or shooting for a commercial job when I need to set up a remote meeting with live view during the shoot.

How do you prepare a food styling set?

I do my best to avoid anything that looks too contrived, which ironically takes a lot of planning.

I’ll decide the optimal angle for what I’m shooting, and find the best props in direct contact with the food to compliment the hero. After that, I’ll choose the surface, linens, etc. If I don’t have what I need, I’ll start hunting for the right props or make a new surface that fits into the concept. 

Before the actual food even hits the set, I test the lighting, adjust the props, and fine-tune the composition.

I like to work in layers, so I’ll make sure to have plenty of extra food elements prepared to add to the scene as I work. I start quite minimally then build the layers as I progress through the shoot. 

Which props do you use the most?

I like vintage cutlery, tools, and bakeware for the visual interest in their patina. For serving; anything matte and neutral to let the food shine. Baking paper – crumpled then smoothed and folded – adds an interesting, textured layer with minimal effort. 

What backdrops are you using?

So far, I make all of my own surfaces. I love your tutorials on YouTube, Lucie, and the ones you share on Instagram. I’ve also made some with high-resolution images printed to paper then laminated on wood. I have some reclaimed wood surfaces, including one from an old apple crate that I took apart. It’s small but has loads of character. I also have a few painted canvas ones, which are super lightweight and easy to store.

With which light do you prefer to work, artificial- or daylight?

I worked with only natural light until last year, then brought a couple of Godox strobes into play and now use them almost exclusively. I change the modifiers around but use my Godox 120cm umbrella softbox with removable grid the most.

As much as I love working with natural light, my client workload became too stressful when limited to a few hours of workable light in a day. Another benefit of using artificial light is consistency, especially when a particular project goes on for days, weeks, or even months. Being able to quickly craft the same lighting at any time saves a ton of effort in post. 

What camera and lenses do you use and you use a tripod?

My camera is a Canon EOS 6D Mark II, and I love my Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 lens. My tripod is Manfrotto MT190. It’s compact, lightweight with a horizontal boom arm, but I use a Manfrotto 131DB reproduction arm attachment for overhead shots.

Which program to edit your photos?

I use Lightroom, Photoshop, and diving into Capture One right now. 

Tips & tricks?

When I spend a long time editing images, I step away for a while to let my eyes rest before finishing. Focusing for too long can affect colour perception, so you might be surprised how an image looks when you come back to it after a break. 

Experiment with split toning. I do this occasionally in Lightroom to adjust the hue and saturation of highlights and/or shadows to create a more artistic effect. As an example, the frozen bellini image looked quite cool and flat after basic edits, so I warmed up both the highlights and shadows in this case to get the feel of being outside on a piazza with the warm glow of the late afternoon sun. 

If you’re feeling stuck, put down the screens and back away! Honestly, I think the best thing I can do when I feel like my work isn’t up to par or I don’t know what to do next is getting off the screens. Go for a walk, listen to a podcast, hit up a small, independent market, go prop hunting! Mental breaks are just as important as a disciplined focus. 

Want to see more of Gayle her work?

My food blog is My Family Food Life, and my portfolio website is Gayle McLeod Food + Photography You can find me hanging out on Instagram @gaylemcleod.

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