It’s difficult to not become paralyzed with awe and envy by the world of Gabriel Cabrera as he imagines it through his camera lens. The Mexico City-born, Vancouver-based food stylist, and photographer paint a bold world of drool-inducing delectables that stands in stark contrast to an ever-widening sea of food photographers that pollute each and every social media platform with seemingly identical #foodporn.
Cabrera’s food photography is a marriage of good cooking and fine art. He pulls from a wide set of references across different art mediums, melding the visions of a cinematographer, architect, and painter. His work – both as a food stylist and photographer – often feels more like a still ripped from a Luis Buñuel or David Lynch film than the pages of Bon Appétit. Carefully curated dishes, glassware, tablecloths, and cutlery are as gorgeous as the food that they showcase. Color palettes switch from bright neon to saccharine sweet to dark and bold, but always capture such rich texture that the images often feel three-dimensional. Wild props and set designs create an ambiance that replaces the mundanity of food photography with lush imaginary universes.
“When I am putting together a new idea, I don’t pull references from other food photographs. If I’m developing a cocktail series, I don’t search for other cocktail references,” explains Cabrera. “I’m constantly pulling from movies or architecture or artwork. There will be something there, a detail, a color, a texture, that I try to imagine in a different way.”
Cabrera did not intend to become a food stylist and photographer. Photography and cooking were always just hobbies. He chose one—cooking—and ended up in Vancouver, Canada to study culinary arts. Following graduation, he bounced around from kitchen to kitchen in his adopted city but came to the realization that working within the restaurant industry wasn’t for him.
“Nope, not for me,” Cabrera proclaimed matter-of-factly. “When you are working in the restaurant, it’s all day long in the back cooking. I felt this need to be doing something more visual. More creative.”
And so began Artful Desperado, translated to Artful Outlaw, a blog where he curated art and interiors. Friends encouraged him to share his own recipes and, after a short photography course and a lot of trial and error, Cabrera began uploading original content. Seven years later, Cabrera has become a powerful player in the world of food styling and food photography with enormous social clout—he counts with 80,000 followers on Instagram and 23,000 on Pinterest. Brands have taken notice, and the likes of West Elm, Subway, Coca-Cola and Urban Outfitters regularly reach out to Cabrera to curate projects. Cabrera chatted with Artrepreneur about the beginnings of his personal brand and standing out in an over-saturated market like food styling and food photography.
From Photography Novice to Food Stylist and Photographer
KV: Can you start by telling us how you got into food photography?
Gabriel Cabrera: I had been working on Artful Desperado for about a year and it was really taking off. My friends asked why I wasn’t publishing my recipes there, and that was that. I took a quick photography course to learn the basics of using a camera. That was about six years ago. I had always treated photography like a hobby, I’d just put the camera on automatic and shoot. But after the course, I really started experimenting. I was reading and watching a lot of videos on Youtube and tapping into my network in Vancouver asking people how to do this and that. I took pictures every single day for two years and mostly hated the pictures, until eventually, I was like, “Ok, these are starting to be pretty decent pictures.”
Back then I had a T3i with one 50mm lens. I didn’t have any backgrounds. I was using anything I could in place of a tripod. I was just using a few tablecloths and props taken from whatever I already had inside my apartment. The lighting was all natural, opening and closing the blinds and using a whiteboard to bounce light. It was very DIY. But I really think that was for the better. If I had started out with all professional equipment right away, then I wouldn’t know what to do when something breaks in the middle of a shoot.
KV: How did you initially market your growing personal brand as a food stylist and photographer?
Gabriel Cabrera: I started sharing everything on Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram. I was trying to post something every single day but realized very quickly that that was not realistic. I had another job at the time as a photographer in a studio. Instagram couldn’t be my full-time. So I changed my strategy and allocated two or three days a week to create content for my social media profiles, and took a lot of photos with different set-ups. I’d go around the city taking photographs of cafés or restaurants just to be able to post. I didn’t have any clear themes but was really just showing different angles of food or cocktails or nice interiors. People were responding and I started to get some momentum going. The key really was consistency.
With a platform like Pinterest, I was very conscious about building a base and pinning things that were similar to my food photography or whatever I was photographing. If I was going to be taking some photos of a coffee shop for my blog, I would create a board and pin different pictures of cafés. I didn’t want people to think that I was only pinning the work that I did and promoting my own food photography work exclusively.
KV: Has your social media strategy with Artful Desperado changed a lot since you began?
Gabriel Cabrera: Yes. I really don’t have as much time to dedicate to food photography or other personal work for the blog. All of the work I am producing is for clients. So that has been a big change. I still publish that work, and it ends up bringing more clients because potential clients can see the projects I have done already. Also, since my availability has changed, I don’t have as much time to think about posting. I work with an assistant now, and we are focusing a lot more on strategy and posting schedules. I’m no longer posting just to post. Before I was just developing as much content as I could. Now I think about everything that I put out there and whether it makes sense with the work I do and want to do. Everything has to contribute to my brand in some way and appeal in some way to the clients I want to work with.
KV: How were you landing your first gigs as a food stylist and photographer?
Gabriel Cabrera: The first ones came from people reaching out to me directly through my blog or my Instagram. My first two clients as a food stylist and photographer were a healthy food brand and a tomato company. They liked the work but weren’t sure how to incorporate it into their brand, so those first two jobs were both doing art direction and the actual food photography, which was very fun.
I’ve never done any cold calling. I think it is too tricky. Even if you are very well-known and have a strong established brand as a food stylist or photographer, it is difficult for companies to imagine what you can do for them. It is difficult for them to visualize how your style can be integrated into their brand. Instead, I thought about the clients that I wanted to work with; I would go out and buy their products and create a series of photos with their products in different scenarios, but always thinking of something that would work for the brand as a campaign. I’d publish the photos on the blog and across all my social media and tag the company. I’d always follow up with an email to let them know and tell them that they could share if they wanted. Some companies would regram the photos, and a few companies followed up asking me to develop something for them.
Infusing Art into Food Photography
KV: Now you are moving into sponsored posts on your social media, too. Do you ever feel like that is in conflict with your art? Are you picky about who you work with?
Gabriel Cabrera: I have always been very upfront about sponsored posts. I think that a few years ago, you could get away with casually dropping a fake endorsement, but now people can see through it. I have always been honest and when I post an ad, I say so in the post like, ‘Hey guys, I’ve been working with this company, we are working on this project together. Here it is.’ I am picky when it comes to companies whose ethics conflict with mine. I’d never work for someone like Chick-fil-A, as they support anti-gay and anti-immigrant policies. As a food stylist and photographer, I am a strong believer in being open to listening. I worked recently with Subway. They approached me and my friends sort of made fun of me. We talked a lot with them, and it ended up being this amazing job that I really loved working on. They were these really magical photos with floating ingredients on painted backgrounds. It was nothing like what you would expect Subway to be working on. It just comes down to that, if they are open to working with me and incorporating my food photography style, then I will be open to working with them.
KV: Your style is really unique from the food photography that is out there. How do you incorporate art into your food photography?
Gabriel Cabrera: If I had to attribute influences, I ‘sorta’ come from an artistic family. My father is an architect, my brother is a graphic designer and artist, my mother is a marine biologist, which isn’t necessarily creative but she was constantly bringing home weird things from the lab. I never went to school for art, though it was always a hobby. Before I was working as a food stylist and photographer, I’d go to a gallery or a museum and see a painting and say to myself, “This could look good as something else,” the colors, the textures. At the time, I didn’t know what that something else was, but now I incorporate those things into my food styling and photos. Recently, I became really obsessed with neon and neon art, and went to a neon art installation. I was thinking to myself, how can I incorporate this into a food photography series about cocktails? So I bought some neon fabric and fixed the lighting to really bring out the neon. Whenever I am developing a new series, I’m never looking at food photos. I am always looking at art or architecture for references.
KV: How do you think you are able to stand out in a market like food photography that is over-saturated and filled with a lot of very talented photographers?
Gabriel Cabrera: I never want to be a ‘glance over’. I never want clients to glance past my food photography work. And I think it comes down to something that sounds very cliche and unhelpful, but you have to do what you love. What makes the difference is treating what you love like a business, which a lot of creatives have a hard time understanding. Like, I only want to do the stuff I enjoy and everything else gets pushed aside.
Today especially, you have to be extremely data-driven and do market research in your industry. What are your Instagram stats? What is your following? What do people who look to food photography look like? What is that demographic? What are they liking and sharing? Polling your clients and figuring out what they want. Checking out style trends for the year and reading Pinterest reports. What are my top things of the year? It’s endless. If you want that market and those clients to pay you, you have to figure out how to bring that together with the things you love to do. And then focus on that.
But that’s also a fine line because I don’t think you should do something just for the likes because you will end up producing the same work as everyone else. You should be incorporating all of that data you have gathered and figuring out how to capture that with your particular style. I’ve noticed a big shift in the clients that come to me. Although I have less likes now that I have focused in on my style, I’m getting fewer clients that are asking me for generic food photography and more clients that are coming to me because I represent something different than the majority of what you see on Instagram.