Food photographer Leigh Loftus is helping chefs and restaurateurs snap their own money shots at a time when branding is more important than ever.

Chicago-based photographer Leigh Loftus first opened her business more than a decade ago. Over the years, she grew it into a prestigious brand photography enterprise in Chicago’s hospitality scene that works with heavy hitters like Leviathan Restaurant and the Berkshire Room.

But Loftus has gone beyond typical brand photography by offering a new service for chefs and restaurant operators. This particular arm of her business, The Chef Shots, is devoted to showing restaurants how to work for themselves when it comes to images.

Through educational sessions, Loftus teaches those who run concepts how to successfully photograph their own food. The kicker? The shots are taken with smartphones.

When Loftus started The Chef Shots last year, she had no idea how timely the skill set would become just a year later. Because of the pandemic, chefs and operators have become all too aware of the important role social media and other digital platforms play in reaching new and existing customers. And the success of these channels largely depends on clear, enticing photography.

Leigh Loftus

Loftus spoke with FSR about the inspiration behind The Chef Shots, DIY photography, and the new dependence on images in the restaurant world.

Food photography has blown up in the past decade. What’s been the evolution of your career?

While I was studying photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, I shot an event at Palmer House Hilton. The director of food and beverage also asked me to shoot food. I’d never done it before and that’s when I fell in love.

This was 2010—the year Instagram came out. Food photography wasn’t even a thing yet, so I just used Google to make a list of every Chicago hotel that had a restaurant. I came across chef Rick Gresh’s blog. I asked if I could pick his brain about getting into the industry. I genuinely did not anticipate him hiring me, but he did.

Things snowballed from there. I’d look up restaurants, contact PR firms, and shoot for free so I could network. And that’s how I built my career. In my mind there was a huge void in the current offerings; restaurants couldn’t afford huge commercial photographers. There was a way to offer it at a lower cost, but still at high quality, and that’s exactly what I did.

What do The Chef Shots courses entail?

My mission is to teach the culinary world to compose their photos using the basic principles of photography. I’m teaching compositional tools, like how to look at light.

Even if you are in a poorly lit space, if you can see how light is landing, you can position yourself accordingly. If you don’t know how to do that, no amount of AI and smartness in your phone is going to make up for a poorly composed image.

What are some tips for shooting food and beverage with a phone?

Clean your lens. So many people show me their photos and can’t figure out why they have this weird blur: It’s just because their lens is dirty. They’ve handled their phone so much, probably set it on counters that have food on them. It’s so simple, but it’s my No. 1 tip.

Turn on your phone’s grid and use the lines to frame and straighten your shot. Say you’re photographing a cocktail while standing at the bar. Naturally, your elbow’s bent to 45 degrees and you’re looking down on the glass. But that’s just a weird perspective for a photograph. Move your phone to 90 degrees instead and use your grid to straighten and direct your shot.

Use negative space. People most often put their subject dead center. Sometimes that’s the best way to shoot it, but oftentimes leaving negative space to either side of your subject gives the viewer’s eye a place to rest and helps the image feel balanced.

Why is it so important for restaurants to understand strong photography, especially in light of the pandemic?

Along with the slew of other life changes, suddenly we’ve found ourselves finally having the time to better understand and possibly even enjoy using social media. It’s become the glue connecting us to one another in this time of social distancing. Connectedness is what every single one of us wants, whether in person or online, during a crisis or in “normal” life.

Think about your best friend: You look forward to hearing from them, you can’t pass a funny meme without thinking of them, and last but not least, you’re genuinely excited to share in their life’s journey, from the glorious highs of their accomplishments to the challenging lows of their “failures.”

When you’re connected to someone you’re their loudest cheerleader, biggest advocate, and most raving fan.

As our world shifts out of social distancing and into reopening and rebuilding what so many of us have lost, my hope is that everyone, myself included, is able to forge a new relationship with social media—one that invigorates us, one that excites us, and most importantly, one that builds a true connection between ourselves and the audience we aim to serve.

When you do that, when you form that “best friend” level connection with your audience, they’ve got your back; they want you to succeed. Not only will they be there to help pick you up the next time you fall down, they’ll bring all of their friends, too.

Expert Takes, Feature, Leader Insights