Interview with a food stylist – Ronnie Charlton

I met Ronnie Charlton at a food photography workshop with Lou Manna. Ronnie was a restauranteur and food stylist and was learning more about the photography end of food photography. Ronnie sold the restaurant and moved to Oklahoma in 2011 where he is a full time food stylist. Ronnie once told me that food was his life. He is very giving of his time an knowledge in a Facebook group that we both participate in. Ronnie is located in Oklahoma, or as he describes it, a small market. You can see his portfolio at Foodstylistpro.com. Here are Ronnie’s answers to my interview questions.

1. Where do you find most of your food styling assignments? (Photographer, agency, clients etc.) When you first started, was it different?

For starters, I am in a small market… My assignments range drastically…  this is an idea of clients at this time…

I have an editorial client that involves recipe development and stills, I love this client they send me rough recipes that I test, and I will do the Pre Pro (Pre Production), conceptual and propping. We shoot them in 6 shot per days and they are released for publication… I follow up with edited recipes…

A local agency uses my services for Commercials and Stills. They have a topnotch in house creative team. We are mostly on location and their clients range from fast casual, to Casinos.

A major product group with several brands has secured my services. We shoot stills of their packaging, brochures, promotional and web. They have hired me to do some consulting from time to time.

For catalogues, I’m working with a food service small wares client where the food needs to look good but not overpower the product; in this case it’s the container or serving dish that is our hero.

I’m working with a unique local client that is an original when it comes to Farm to Table… there units have a small grocery store inside the fast casual restaurant, featuring outstanding ice cream, dairy, bakery and locally sourced products. They have a bakery and one of the greatest dairy and ice cream plants in the USA. There Marketing division has used me for styling sandwiches for stills and commercials.

These are my staples but it wouldn’t be that uncommon to find me working in the warehouse of a Chocolate Factory or in a Bakery or Vocational School getting food ready for the camera for marketing and promotional usages… 

2. Who do you usually book with; the photographer, an agency or the client? Do you have a rigid fee structure or do you negotiate each booking?

At this point less than 1/4 of my assignments are coming from the studio directly… This could change at any moment but it is the way it is now… I think this is because of the geography and personal marketing… It is mutual for most photographers at this point as I am bringing them clients or they have their own clients and come to me for styling services…

On fee structure…. there is no one answer, each client is different.   That being said, I have a firm day rate, one for stills and one for motion. My compensation for shopping, propping, pre pro and prep is a set hourly rate. I will bid a job when requested and require a pre pro to make a bid. It is seldom that my bid varies +_ 5% the most being the area of food purchases or props.

I will not, work without a Pre Pro and shot list prior to the shoot, by at least two days with rare exception…

3. Do you work with an assistant? If so, what is the role of the assistant? Are you teaching on the job or is that reserved for another time?

Yes, on the bigger jobs… I like to keep things simple so my younger sister who is extremely detail oriented comes along… With a limited market, I have chosen to keep it close and not have an assistant, as in a replacement for me… As time goes on this will change but for now, this arrangement could not be better…. I mostly work alone in the kitchen, so for the most part this works well…

 Note: I would not consider conversational or auditory teaching on the job where the client is present… The client is paying for all of you,,, ALL. I do a pre pro review of the assignment and a follow up after…

4. I am sure that there are some photographers that you enjoy working with more than others. What do your favorite photographers do to make the day more enjoyable?

Hey, they are all my favorites, each and everyone has their own uniqueness. For me to say “I like the photographer that keeps the set clear so I can get in easily” or “only works with a consistent light source” would be a distraction from the overall goal of the shoot… Often we are guests of the photographer and were in there space… they are king…

5. There is a protocol when discussing changes on set. Do the photographers you most often work with prefer that you talk just to them or engage directly with the client/art director? Which do you prefer?

Yes, this will vary from one photographer to another but there are some general rules that seem to be obvious… I would seldom, as in never… direct the photographer in their skills and likewise… I may pick up the pre pro in reference and say “does it look a little moody, is there something you would like for me to do”? And it would be out of range from any client or creative director… and would be proceeded by “are you pretty close on the lighting here”? There are also favors when you’re working as a team that mutual understanding and quietly working will get you a long way on the set. Never forget that creative’s on the set have a specific job that bleeds over and often are seeing the problem and are working on it… With a stylist there is an order in product styling that has to be followed… One of many examples would be… color of meat adjustments and concerns come first… then shine and texture… it is part of our craft and if we do this out of order the results could be devastating and we would be starting over and trust me we would.

 I think it is a matter of mutual respect here, when I am working, it’s a team… the more that we work with someone the better we get at the “if” and “when”…

It can get complicated pretty quick when an art director is addressing the stylist through a photographer or vice versa… often, I have self promoted and the client has hired me directly, so the dynamics change a little in these situations…

 As stylist we try not to move or touch any of the photographer’s equipment, that being said if and when you bump anything on set that may affect the shot you MUST inform the photographer as a common courtesy, examples: bumping or moving reflectors, gobos, lights, tripod, surface shift, lens face bump or camera bump when looking through the view finder…  The relationship is important to the success of the shoot… Often the photographer or creative direction will be tempted to move the food, don’t do it… This is a big no, no… It is the job of the stylist and often the integrity of the product “hero” is at stake here… As always there are a few exceptions “few” and in a working relationship, we all know our boundaries…

 The photographer is there to make our work shine and often they make it so much more than what the stylist is offering to the set. I have and will be dazzled and amazed at the talents of a photographer! I don’t know how to explain it. It must NEVER go sideways it will ruin the creative process…

 Just to note here… A good art director will allow the creative team on set to get a general idea first and chime in with a “move forward with existing composition and work” or “that’s not what were looking for here”… at that point it would be determined whether it is with styling, props, lighting, DOF, position, etc. The Art director points the finger; it’s their job “director”… The art director and photographer will give direction to the stylist in regards to composition, color freshness, feel and under stated or overstated product “hero”.   I take this direction with anticipation, as what they are seeing is based on experience and a direct reflection of the brand or image and the art form in photography, were all experts in focus areas…

6. What type of food do you find the most difficult to work with? Why? What type of food do you enjoy working with the most? Why?

Oh, come on… Everything we are doing can be as difficult, or as easy, as we or our client wants it to be… The difficult things can be the most fun or we can turn them into a drag ass if we want… Some things are just not beautiful by nature… The best way I could describe this is with sexual anatomy… Seriously, is it that beautiful? Compared to nature’s beauty… But it is beautiful, it truly is, some more than others…   We have to see the beauty in everything… Think, SEXY!!!

I have worked in all mediums of food styling, I like them all… Each day when I drive home I think wow, I love this… my ass may be beat but I love this…From where I stand you got to like it all… I want to work more in the mediums that I have less experience with…

7. When do you feel most creative?

To me, it is more of a process… The sooner I can get my hands on the pre pro and or story boards the better…At this point I can surf photos on the net and visualize what has been conveyed in the pre pro… Next the preliminary meeting is the big boost where the client has conveyed in words their vision. I take a rerun and start to develop a strategy for shopping and propping to me this is an important part of the creative time with colors, sizes, comparisons and what ifs… But so often for me, especially with editorial, it’s in the kitchen preparing lots of mini heroes come together for the final hero … The peek is when we are shooting, that’s when I’m a star…

8. Have you learned anything about photography from working on set? If so, what?

Of course, Lighting is such a big part of the process and often adjustments are being made in a progression of proofs that are there on the screen… We see, we say, it’s a team thing with the modern workflow of digital…. In the film days, it was different.  

I have posed the question one way or the other in depth of field that may or may not affect the final outcome when it comes to identifying the subjects in the photo.

I can’t imagine doing this in the days of Polaroid’s. Note: this conversation would be one on one with the photographer…

 9. What special concerns do you have when working on site at a restaurant? Are there any special concerns when working in the photographer’s studio?

Honestly, I get very few restaurant assignments as in single unit… Anytime you’re on location stills/motion the adjustment for unfamiliar turf can be a big one, all creative’s included…

While most food stylists can function with minimal kitchen in the studio, more is better… I have worked with a griddle, makeshift convection oven and ice chest… I used lots of foil and washed my equipment when I returned home… We can function anywhere, but knowing what you’re getting into prior to the shoot is best.

See it for yourself or get the details on your location no matter where it is, studio managers or assistants and scouts are usually unaware of your needs and the details, see it for yourself! I have been known to call the chef and do a walking tour over the phone as a prerequisite to going on location…

10. What advice would you give to a photographer in terms of their relationship with a food stylist?

Photographers…

Keep the communications flowing, without all the communication… it is direct and to the point, in a soft and kind way… Look at the work of your stylist and decide if it meets your expectations before you work with them, say no if you feel the need to.

We have a reputation of being picky and bitchy “not me”, please look past that it’s who we are and we will flourish…   give us time to clean up…

To those with less “still life” experience… Never overstate yourself…. A food stylist will not make you a better photographer, but they can get you out a bind when needed trust me….

 

 Food Stylists…

Keep the communications flowing, without all the communication… You’re the motherly image on set, even if you’re a guy. Never forget! Food is maternal… Look at the work of your photographer and decide if it meets your expectations before you work with them, say no if you feel the need to. Trust me here…

Photographers have a reputation of being, highly technical, relentless perfectionists look past that it’s who they are and you will flourish…  

To those with less experience… Never overstate yourself…. A photographer will not make you a better food stylist, but if you’re good, they can get you out a bind from time to time…

 

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About Jerry

I was a science teacher for 31 years. During that time I photographed wedding and Bar Mitzvahs for about 15 years but that was in the days before digital. Being a teacher, I had my summers free so I assisted food and commercial still life photographers in NYC for 3 summers and fell in love with it. Having a wife and a mortgage, it was not practical to give up a job in teaching and go into photography so I put off my dream of becoming a food photographer until I retired from teaching. Now I am living my dream - I am a food and product photographer servicing New York City, Philadelphia and all of New Jersey.
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