Magazine Article


Food For Thought
Passion, instinct take Ben Fink to the top of his field

© Ben Fink

© Ben Fink

© Ben Fink

© Ben Fink

© Ben Fink

© Ben Fink

© Ben Fink

© Ben Fink

© Ben Fink

Award-winning photographer Ben Fink has photographed for publications such as Food & Wine and Bon Appetit and companies like Artisan Books and the Culinary Institute of America. He has provided images for books by Rachael Ray, Jacques Pépin, Don and Deirdre Imus, and Lilly Pulitzer. In 2001, he received a coveted James Beard Foundation Award (one of the nation's preeminent honors for culinary professionals) for his work on Maggie Glezer's book Artisan Baking Across America.

Fink is currently working on a "brunch" book with Gale Gand, the James Beard award-winning executive pastry chef and partner of the acclaimed restaurant TRU in Chicago and host of Sweet Dreams, the Food Network's first daily show devoted entirely to baking.

It could be said that Fink is living a sweet dream of his own, doing what he loves, meeting and working with celebrities, and getting to pick and choose his own assignments. How did he get to this position? It all started with a chance encounter on a freelance assignment.

"Saveur" the Moments

After studying art at the University of Memphis and Memphis College of Art, Fink turned to the world of freelance photography in 1986. But it wasn't until a freelance assignment in 1993 for a local magazine when he truly found his niche. He was asked to shoot an article about food, and he and writer Mary Ann Eagle worked so well together on the project that it led to more editorial assignments.

"We worked together for a long time on that magazine," recalls Fink. "I would go over to her house and we would cook, drink, and take pictures. It was fun for us to get together with the editor of the magazine and sort of be outrageous and party and take pictures of food. But it turned into a serious thing."

The duo worked together for several years before deciding to forward some samples to Saveur, an award-winning food and travel magazine. Those samples led to another long-term business relationship. "We sent Saveur a story idea and were shocked when they told us they were going to print it," recalls Fink. "It ran in the second or third issue of the magazine, and I've worked with them ever since. My most recent article, which I shot in Berlin, ran in the December [2007] issue. I really enjoy working with editorial, and it's a great way to hone your skills and meet some wonderful people."


Though he no longer collaborates with Eagle, who has retired from writing, Fink has surrounded himself with a strong, dedicated team. "A great crew is essential," he asserts. "I work primarily with a digital tech and two assistants, and I choose the food stylists based on the project. There are a handful that I love to work with as much as possible--consistency is very important."

Fink works with a pair of digital technicians, Jeff Cavanaugh and Gio, who alternate assignments, but he admits that he does most of his own retouching on advertising shoots. "On editorial shoots, where I shoot books and things like that, I'm my own digital tech," he says. "I started shooting digital about five years ago. The camera I use is a Contax 645 with a Leaf Aptus 75 digital back. When I shoot people, I'm shooting the new Canon EOS Mark III."

As for food stylists, when he's shooting editorial, Fink uses Alison Attenborough and Jamie Kimm. "They're a husband-and-wife team, and we actually share a studio space," says Fink. "I use both of them for magazine and book work, though I don't do much magazine work anymore. I also work with Megan Schlow [on editorial assignments] and Elizabeth Bell in advertising. I do a lot of Kraft and Oscar Mayer shoots with Bell."

Fink also has a tremendous amount of praise for his rep, Melissa Hennessy. "She is absolutely amazing," he says. "I'd be lost without her."

The Process

Food photography has its quirks, but it taps into many of the principles of a basic photo shoot. "We start with the concept, then determine where we'll shoot and with whom," says Fink. "Some jobs call for more environment; some recipes call for certain stylists."

A preproduction meeting with the client follows to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Fink believes this meeting is essential before lighting, propping, and food prep is set up.

"While we're shooting, we review everything on the monitor with the client and the creative team," he explains. "Once they give their final approval, we either move on to the next shot or wrap."

Because he prefers to shoot with natural light, complications will occasionally arise during a shoot. "I use mostly natural light and only bring in artificial light if I absolutely need to," says Fink. "Advertisers love natural light, but sometimes things are so rigid that you have to light it. If it's a cake or something that's built in front of you that has to sit there for a couple of hours while the shoot takes place, it has to be lit."

Fink also notes the light's spontaneity. "The truth is, the right light only lasts for maybe a half an hour," he says.

In addition, when working with natural light, Fink is always looking for the light. "I'll move a plate of food around and go to a window or to a certain part of the room to find the light," he says. "While it's pretty exciting, it scares me to think that I have to tell my client that we need the food on the set and we have 20 minutes to shoot it. They're not usually happy with that, because they have to agonize over it, but more than likely the shot that I took in those 10 to 15 minutes is the one that they'll fall in love with."

Of course, when shooting food, timing is key. It's important to catch the food looking its absolute best, and sometimes capturing the right moment takes a little ingenuity. "With food, editorially, I always shoot fast," Fink says. "Just today, I was shooting with Gale Gand, and when I work with Gale, we don't use a food stylist. So while I was shooting pancakes, I was dripping fresh berry sauce over the pancakes. Because it soaks in immediately, I had to drip it on the pancakes with one hand while the other hand was on the shutter.

"It's all about the light hitting that really moist area of the food," he stresses. "I want to make the food look juicy. If the author says, 'I want to grab that right off of the computer screen and eat it,' I know I've done my job."

Some foods are more difficult to shoot than others. "Frozen food, surprisingly, isn't that hard," says Fink. "I've done a couple of frozen-food books--desserts and ice cream and things like that."

What is tough for Fink? "I just did a bacon shoot for Oscar Mayer, where we made a landscape out of bacon," he says. "It was tough to actually get bacon to look really yummy--not too greasy and not too fatty, but not too lean, either--and make it look like bacon," he comments. "So there was a lot of retouching on that one. But it's going to be a dynamic campaign that will come out in the next few months."

Focal Point

Another complication can arise when a person is added to the shot, though Fink has strong opinions on how to handle that situation. "If there's a person in the shot with the food, I'm concentrating on the person, because that's where your focus is going to be," he states. "I let the food stylist do their job. My feeling is, if you want to be focused on the food, there shouldn't be a person in [the shot]. So if there's a person in it, I want you to be drawn to the person rather than the food."

If the client wants the focus to be on the food and there's a person in the shot, Fink stresses that the person is just a vehicle or part of the background. "I might actually throw the person out of focus a bit," he says, emphasizing his point. "Or, like the shot of the cowboy with the burger [shown below], the focus is the food. The cowboy is the background to sort of describe the atmosphere. And I can switch those back and forth.

"There are several different ways of looking at it, in my view," he continues. "I have to switch gears in my head. When I'm working with Saveur, it's about the people and capturing a culture. You're telling a story--you're describing what you're seeing through pictures.

"When it's about the food, it's about making it look really juicy and yummy," says Fink. "So, you jump between these two worlds. It can be fun, but it can be difficult. You have to pause for a minute and think, 'Okay, what's my goal here?' Luckily, I've gotten to the place where [the client] is asking me, which is a good thing. But it can be a big responsibility, because I don't want to make it look like every other story I've done. My ultimate goal is to make each project have a life of its own and be something new. That's the way I try to guide it for my clients. And that can be very tough, too."


Ben Fink's Gear Box

• Contax 645 Medium Format (out of production)
• 45mm, 85mm, 140mm lenses
• Leaf Aptus 75 digital back
• Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II & III
• Canon lenses: 16mm, 20mm, 24mm, 16-35mm, 35mm, 50mm, 105mm, 70-200mm

• Profoto HMI
• Comet
• 8x8 Sunbounce scrim,
• 12x12 Sunbounce scrim
• Sunbounce reflectors

• Apple 24-inch iMac 2.8GHz

Shooting Stars

Fink has collaborated on close to 200 books. Among the most popular are Jacques Pépin's "Fast Food My Way," "Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill Cookbook," and "Rachael Ray 365: No Repeats" [cover shot shown at right] and "Rachael Ray Express Lane Meals."

One difference in shooting food for a celebrity chef is that the person will often style their own food or work side by side with a stylist, according to Fink. He really enjoys working with celebrities because "they are also artists and can bring their styles of self-expression to the shoot. The collaboration both on set and off is incredibly fun and rewarding."

One non-chef celebrity with whom Fink enjoys working with is radio personality Don Imus. Imus and his wife, Deirdre, own and run a 4,000-acre cattle ranch about 50 miles east of Santa Fe, New Mexico. "It's a working ranch dedicated to helping kids who have been affected by cancer, blood disorders, or SIDS," explains Fink. "The kids get an opportunity to experience life ‘as a cowboy,' but also to experience food that's nutritious and good for them." When the publisher of Deirdre's book, "The Imus Ranch: Cooking for Kids and Cowboys," approached Fink, he jumped at the opportunity. "The book allowed me to shoot food and people in their environment--always a nice mix," he states.

As for the James Beard award, Fink was typically modest about his accomplishment. "When you're working on these projects, your whole focus is on the elements of the food--the texture, the color, the shape, the lighting," he explains. "The last thing you think about is winning an award, so it's a huge honor and surprise if it does [happen], especially when it bears the name of such a celebrated chef like James Beard."