“I’ve lost so many friends,” laments professional food photographer Chelsea Kyle, when I ask her how she budgets her time. “You can’t put anything on your schedule, unless you’re willing to say no to clients.”
Such is one of the downsides of being a highly sought freelance photographer and video director in New York City. However, Kyle has no regrets since leaving her full-time position at Condé Nast two years ago.
“Freelance is way better.”
Specializing in food and product photography, Kyle has worked with brands including Apple, Kraft, Kroger, and La Croix. More recently, she’s been working for major beer and spirits brands such as Budweiser and Grey Goose. Last month, she shot Johnnie Walker’s latest product, Jane Walker, a limited edition whisky released for Women’s History Month.
I spoke with Kyle last week about her career and the challenges she’s faced as a freelance artist.
Kyle grew up in Connecticut, raised by her grandmother. While she has loved photography since a young age, Kyle was initially dissuaded by her family from pursuing a career in the arts. After high school, she reluctantly commenced a Bachelor of Nutrition at the University of New Hampshire.
“I barely made it through the first semester,” Kyle laughs.
She eventually left UNH while trying to convince her family she should be studying photography. At the time, Kyle was also working at a wedding dress shop, and started handing out her information to customers in the hopes of finding photography work. One customer hired her, then another, and suddenly Kyle was a working wedding photographer.
Kyle was still interested in pursuing an Arts degree, although the prerequisite requirements she would have to meet before specializing in photography were discouraging. A friend encouraged her to look into trade schools, and she enrolled in the New England School of Photography.
Unlike a traditional Arts degree, the two-year program she chose had a strong focus on developing technical skills. Looking back, Kyle is grateful she didn’t have to spend much time in a classroom.
“The hands-on part of it for me was so important,” Kyle says. “We didn’t have textbooks. You showed up with your equipment and your camera manual, that was your textbook.”
While her friends completing Arts degrees engaged in subjective discussions about the nature of art, Kyle was out in the field, learning how to light, frame, and capture visually pleasing compositions.
“The first year we weren’t even talking about concept. Either it was appropriately done through technical reasoning, or it was a fail.”
In the program’s second year, Kyle landed an internship at Boston Magazine, and when she graduated, they offered her a full-time position as the photo editor’s assistant.
While working at Boston Magazine, Kyle “found a niche” with the magazine’s online food section. It proved to be a strong foundation for her to start applying her new technical skills creatively and commercially. In 2015, four years after graduating, she was hired by Condé Nast after someone she’d worked with recommended her for a staff position.
The last few years have been a tumultuous time for print media, particularly Condé Nast. Kyle was grateful to be working, but budget cuts and staff redundancies meant that she was spending more time doing admin work than shooting.
“At one point I was the only person running the photo department for Epicurious,” Kyle says. “I was juggling so much that it really just made it harder to be creative.”
Despite her hectic schedule, Kyle also made time to moonlight on weekends. Through her tenure at Boston Magazine and Condé Nast, she’d built a strong network of contacts in the industry that regularly asked her to work with them. Eventually she decided to leave her job and become a full-time freelance photographer.
During her transition to freelance food photographer, Kyle started searching for talent representation. Her portfolio quickly garnered the attention of multiple agencies, however, it was important to Kyle to find an agency that she could trust to represent her accurately in private correspondence with her clients.
“By the time you get to a meeting with reps in person, it’s really about how you vibe with that person, because they’re taking over a huge part of your income and your life,” Kyle says. “It was less about getting an agent, and convincing them to rep me, as it was finding the right person.”
Kyle eventually signed with Hello Artists, and she can’t overstate how helpful she’s found it having an agency on her side.
“People have a very distorted view of what is right to ask for because of social media and digital. I have been given contracts that you don’t even know how to break it down or read it, and they’re designed to trick you.”
Kyle’s agency handles all contract negotiations, advocating for her financially so she can focus on the work. She loves not having to “be the one talking to the client about money”.
“It’s so worth the cost to have someone on your side.”
Her advice to photographers seeking representation is to ensure “your portfolio is strong and speaks to you and what you want to be doing.”
Kyle says approximately half her work comes through her agency, and the rest comes through referrals and recommendations from her network. However, she makes it clear that freelancing is not about waiting for the work to come to you.
“If there’s a really cool project that you really want to do, that could fit for a magazine or a company, you don’t have to wait for someone to come to you,” Kyle says. She recommends reaching out with a pitch on what you can offer them, rather than asking the client how they can help you.
Additionally, Kyle says it’s important to be constantly building your portfolio, and doing test shoots that show off the type of work you want to be doing.
“I think people underestimate how much you can manifest the clients you want by showing the work that you want to do,” Kyle says. “I talk to a lot of people who feel like they get pigeonholed into specific styles or genres of work that they’re not really stoked about.”
Kyle says the trap these photographers fall into is including work in their portfolio that they were paid to do, but that doesn’t adequately represent their artistry. Kyle deliberately shares only specific projects on her website and Instagram.
“Showing work I’m excited about helps me get more jobs closer to my personal style and interests.”
A glance at Kyle’s Instagram reveals she has a unique visual style. The work she shares on the platform is so enchanting, we included her in our recent post about 10 women photographers on Instagram you should be following.
While it’s clear a lot of work goes into crafting every image, maintaining a consistent look is not something Kyle worries about on set.
“I don’t ever go into a shoot and say, ‘here’s what I’m going to do to make sure it looks like me,’” Kyle says, although she admits it’s the “biggest compliment” when someone recognizes her work before they see who’s credited.
“The hard part isn’t in maintaining your own style, it’s more adapting to what someone wants from you, and being able to do that while still being excited about it.”
Kyle explains that most brands have an established style, and aren’t looking to completely reinvent how it looks and feels. When being considered by a new client, she often has to prepare a treatment that explains how she’ll create something that feels new while still honoring the brand legacy.
“You have to figure out a way to achieve the look that they need and also make it unique enough that you’re making it exciting for them and it does feel fresh and new.”
Kyle admires photographers like Stephen Shore and Gregory Crewdson who “break the norm” in their work. Trying to do things differently is a challenge she’s embraced as a commercial photographer.
“Every client on set is saying to you, ‘does it make sense? Would we put a fork here? Would a person be eating from that direction?’” Kyle says. “I’m constantly pushing myself to be like, ‘it doesn’t have to make sense.’”
For most commercial stills work, Kyle uses a medium format Phase One Digital Back camera. Medium format cameras offer a high megapixel count, which is critical for large applications such as billboard and print work. A high resolution means Kyle can also crop-in her photos without losing too much detail.
Kyle has been creating a lot of stop motion animation work recently, which requires a different type of camera. Medium format cameras capture ultra high resolution images, but the file size of every photo is massive. This means they aren’t an ideal choice for stop motion, which requires a camera that can capture multiple frames per second.
Kyle attributes the growing interest in stop motion animation to the meteoric rise of Instagram as a marketing platform.
“Instagram has really replaced a lot of where marketing happens,” Kyle says. “I know there are brands that spend 100% of their marketing on Instagram.”
While brands can advertise on Instagram using stills or video, Kyle thinks stop motion animation offers the best of both worlds. They’re more intriguing and dynamic than a still image, yet less complicated to produce than a full video. Of course, that’s not to say they’re easy to make.
“It’s a lot harder than doing stills because you have to be prepared to do a lot of takes,” Kyle says. But it “is different than video in the sense that it’s more jumpy.”
“You have to really find the balance of a human interaction in stop-motion.” Kyle recommends focusing on simple action, such as a hand entering the frame, to avoid a complicated production.
While “everything I do is adjacent to food at the moment,” Kyle is always looking for ways to grow as an artist. She’s recently started taking on more video and directing work, and unlike most professional photographers of her calibre, does her own retouching.
Kyle is unopposed to taking on other styles, such as fashion photography, but she really enjoys the creative potential offered by food and product photography.
“Going somewhere and shooting someone is different than building a scene and a world and lighting it to look the way you want it to,” Kyle says. “I like to be able to build things from scratch on set and really bring a vision to life.”
We hope you enjoyed our interview with professional food photographer Chelsea Kyle. Chelsea is represented by Hello Artists and her Instagram handle is @chelsealouisekyle. Her website is chelseakyle.com.