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Behind the scenes with @tonofoodphoto

Welcome to Behind the Scenes with Lucie Beck. A blog where behind the scenes knowledge is shared by various photographers around the world. We are all connected by our passion for food and photography. This weeks guest: Tono Balaguer from @tonofoodphoto.

Can you introduce yourself?

Hi, I am Tono Balaguer from Valencia. I started in the photography business 30 years ago which means I am not a “millennial guy”.
I have also been an engineer/architect, boat captain, electronics technician, and musician along the way. So I have been very active all these years, but my only real profession, the one I love and also the one that makes my living, is photography.

I have won a Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year award in 2021 (3rd place category Wines, see image below).  I try to spend my free time as much as I can away from tech and computers.

If possible I love to travel with my motorhome. Because I live in Valencia, my life is very much linked to the sea so I love boating and sea kayaking.

behind the scenes
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How did you start with food photography and how did you learn?

I started with photography doing portraiture for my girlfriend and later also for her friends. As soon as I started working with a model agency, I got my first fashion job, which was my real starting point of my career.

I am a very self-taught person, also with photography. First I started shooting based upon my intuition and later, in my one-year military time, I started reading some books from a US friend about the technical part. Those books were very helpful as a starting point.

tono balaguer
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Could you describe your style?

Because I want to work for advertising-related jobs, I have to adapt to changing trends. But I have also developed my own style. I started with my general knowledge of photography mostly related to composition and lighting, editing, and so many other things related to photography.
Because I did not start doing food photos at the beginning of my career, I did not have my own style yet. So I spent at least a year worrying about this.
I took some online mentoring, looked at lots of webinars. I was also very active on social media as a part of my training to find my personal language with food photography.

After spending an age of testing  and experimenting with different lighting, styles, color grades, but in the end, I found my own voice.
I reached that point when people started to say that they could recognize my images among a ton of some other good photographer images,. Those comments made me happy because I felt that I finally reached that point, that I was fighting to find.

Wow…. I forgot to describe my style. I would say that I have 3 styles that I manage with my clients:

  1. Moody dark which is the one I enjoy the most and is the most recognized.
  2. Light which is quite creative but I leave more “air” for clients to help integrate their graphics inside the frame
  3. Commercial: This is doing what certain clients ask for no matter how is the requested style, the challenge there is to cover the client expectations.
tono balaguer
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"There’s an invisible line between copy and getting inspired."

Do you have special tips about food and/or restaurant photography?

Well, I prefer to work in my studio because I have all the environment under control. But certainly, clients request to shoot in their restaurant because they have the structure and the right appliances to develop and create their food recipes.

So I try to replicate as much as I can a studio setting in the best corner of the restaurant. I try to bring with me as much of my props and backgrounds, which sometimes is a little nightmare.

But my tip is to recreate my working environment as much as I can in the restaurant. I try to make myself feel as comfortable as I can to be able to boost my creativity when I’m out of my studio, feeling as much as possible as being in my studio.

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What is the important skill of a (food) photographer?

Only one? Photography is a matter of bringing together all your learned and creative skills and putting them all together in less than a second. The skill is to be able to work in real-time, knowing what to add and what to take off from the scene. Because less is more. The most difficult thing for me is after doing my starting composition, simplify some props/elements to make the main product shines brighter among the rest.

behind the scenes with tono balaguer
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How do you continue to learn as a (food) photographer/creative?

I have a internal thermometer; when I see other professional photos and I shout a loud “Wow” growing from deep inside me. This means that this creative is doing something that is captivating me to a point that I feel love for that creation.

Sometimes I just admire that and it makes me feel humble and reminds me that we always have to be learning, because food photo is like life is, never stop learning.

Another time I analyze that image and I learn something from my admiration. But today I learn by doing my own investigation and admire the work of some good photographers.

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How do you nurture your creativity?

It may sound unusual but I try not to look at other work but work with myself instead. In the past I invested much time in preparing each still life so I learned from my own process of how I manage the elements in the scene.

I analyze so much and also do a lot of trial/error, and later I think about these steps when I review the shots. So the answer would be diving into myself, away from Pinterest and mood boards.

Creativity and “inspiration in other’s work” are very opposite things. I think creativity is what grows from deep inside and you give it a shape.

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Which photographers and/or artists inspire you?

I personally believe that I am more inspired by artwork itself than by photographers/artists. Because all of us are human and we are not always with the same level of creativity.

As I said before, I try to not contaminate my inspiration with artwork from somebody else. But I must admit that I love to look at Instagram accounts like @hautescuisines, @foodartblog, @foodfluffer… behind these accounts you can find experienced curators who select the images. I would love to the thinking process of these curators when choosing the featurered images.

Do you have tips regarding building a good portfolio?

In my opinion it is rare that a client will find the same image in your portfolio that he/she has in mind. Sometimes they find photographers that already have an image in the portfolio exactly as they imagine their image.

But is a crazy nightmare to build a portfolio with all the potential client’s dreams in advance. So I think that we do not have to get obsessed with this.
We must include our beloved images, and also those that have more success with clients and/or on social media.

Most people say you should include a little piece of everything, but since that is a utopic challenge, we must be as close as we can to utopia, without driving ourselves crazy about it.

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How do clients find you?

I would like to ask myself “how do GOOD clients find you”? Or even better “how can I find GOOD clients”?

They reach me through Instagram or my webpage, but my published work and actual clients talking to their industry colleagues, sometimes works much better.

When I started photography in my first 10 years 90% of the estimates finished in accepted ones and in a job. What I now experience is that clients send tons of emails or DM to many photographers and many times they choose based on the lower rates. As the opposite of what happened before nowadays 80% of the estimates do not finish in a job.

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

The less I can, but you need a minimum to be there. Social media stresses me out because platforms are created to make you spend the most time as possible inside but we also need time to edit, select the photos and all the computer task after the shooting. So I would never be the right guy for the social media owners but you need to be there.

I only use Instagram because if I had to choose one, this is the best for a food photographer. If I would be involved in education and building a YouTube community as my income source I would need to invest less time in the creative task and more in social.
But since we will never know what will we do tomorrow, today I prefer to do not to invest more time than the minimum to be there.

Would you like to improve your foodphotography?

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Which part do you like best about being a (food)photographer?

I love the whole process, except when I have to look for the right ingredients because I never find all that I need in one place and I need to drive all over the place to find it. Sometimes that can be a little crazy task.

But when I have all that I need in my fridge or on my table that is when the fun starts, from the very first moment and until the last shot is an amazing time. Oh well, I don’t like that final task of cleaning all the crockery and bringing back every plate and pro to its place.

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

Good question this one. You have to learn to say NO.

Social media, as I told you, wants you to be there a full day so you need to be aware of technology when sharing real life with your family at home.
I try to use weekends to be away from any screen, that is why I try to spend my time in nature: rowing in my kayak or hiking mountains and sleeping in my van, as far away as possible from where the 3G, 4G, 5G, and future G will reach me.

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What lessons did you learn along the way?

To work hard and do not wait for rewards. If you have expectations you can find frustration coming to you.
I enjoy what I do and that is a personal reward so I don’t need third parties rewards, likes, or comments.

As a professional it is crucial to believe in yourself and not depend on some other’s feedback. Positive feedback should not disturb your clear view, also a negative one should not be able to blue your day.

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

Since I have started in the photo profession 30 years ago I have had my studio at home but at separate levels.

So it is a house and in the lower area I live with my family and the top level is a pro studio with all the gear, backdrops, props, lighting.

Not a big one but the right size for food photography. I think is hard to bring clients to your workplace if you work in your living room.

That’s is good for online clients, but when clients want to come to the shooting you need to have a photo studio with all the tools and resources that you may need during the shooting.

How do you prepare a photography & styling set?

I work like a painter with a white canvas. It sounds a bit typical  but it is exactly the same.
So I do not work with moodboards but I test several backdrops, lightings etc.

These initial tests are helpful to know which way will I walk first.

It’s crucial to be self-critical and quickly detect what is working well and what is not working in your scene, right out of the box.

After this first set, I proceed the same with a second test with the same product or with another product, depending on the budget I have more or less time to work with each product.

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Where do you start, do you use a mood board?

I try to not use one unless the client brings one. Because everything that you see from others somehow could determine your own creativity, sub-conscience is very treacherous. And there’s sometimes an invisible line between copy and getting inspired.

What tools in a photography setting can’t be missed?

I think the right backdrop, the right lighting, and the main subject that should showcase like a hero. You need the camera and lens that you feel comfortable with. And the main thing is to have time to work with them. Starting with this you can create a simple but very impressive image. But these are the ones that can’t be missed.

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Which light do you work prefer (daylight/artificial)?

The key thing here is your eye.
You may be able to “see the light”. That is one of the most difficult things to learn because you can learn one light pattern, or two or a bunch of them.

But you need to be able to create the right light for your hero food which can be completely different from one photo to the next one or from one food to another.

So that is why I never repeat my lighting schemes, I create a new light for every shot, despite having some guidelines that define my style.

I use all lights; good windows pointing to South-East, South-West, and North-West, strobes, and sometimes I work together: natural light plus continuous light. I first ask myself which kind of lighting does my scene needs and later I create it. I determine if strobes or natural light would do a better job for my target lighting and I walk in that direction.

Can you tell which equipment you work with?

I’ve been a long time working with Canon and am happy with that, but I’m in love with Carl Zeiss prime lenses and now I have switched to Sony A7 series bodies to use the Zeiss Batis lenses.

I use all of them: 25, 40, 90, 135, only if I need an extreme macro I switch to a specific Sony macro lens because Batis hasn’t a real 1:1 macro lens.

Since I did work long ago with Zeiss lenses and my analog Hasselblad 6×6 cameras, there is some romantic feeling inside me to having the pleasure to enjoy the Zeiss T* lenses in the digital era.

With the Canon body I feel more accurate focus and they do stunning gear. Also, Nikon does stunning stuff. I think the gear brand is not crucial, since I did work with all these brands, but the light and your eye are key

What is your dream…..?

May I ask to have a few million dollars just to allow myself to enjoy my photography as a hobby instead of having to be marketing myself with clients and all that commercial side of this job?

I would love to be a creative guy, but since photography is my living, I would never get that until I found a few millions in a bag under a tree….. But being serious… just to enjoy photography as an artist without needing to get my income from my hobby. Sounds logical? I’m not a material guy at all but it is hard to be a creative in a world where many influencers do a recipe plus photo for $50 for their clients.

How do you see yourself in about 5 years..?

The same as I am now but with a few good clients more. I am good with myself and my photography. Would love to have the health to enjoy this for a long time.

Here you can find Tono Balaguer:

Website: tonofoodphoto.com

Instagram: @tonofoodphoto

Would you like to improve your foodphotography?

Join MyLucie membership and have access to unlimited resources and an amazing creative community.

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