Mike English is a freelance food and lifestyle photographer based in London. Shooting for various top magazines and publications, as well as ad agencies and food manufacturers, Mike traces his passion for food back to when, aged five, he was taught how to cook by his grandmother. Not long after, it was his fashion-photographer uncle who first inspired him to pick to up a camera. Having previously owned a studio, he now operates from his home, which has a large shooting space.
What was it that first interested you in food photography specifically, and how did you get your first commission?
Food photography combines two of my favourite things – food and photography! Food, in particular, has been a passion of mine from an early age. I remember my grandmother used to have a pear tree in her garden and the year I turned five it had such a bountiful crop that we had to make pear-flavoured everything – a long list that included tarts, crumbles, poached pears, compotes, pies and cakes! The whole family had to chip in just to get through it. As for photography, this also started within the family, when as a teenager trying to work out what I wanted to do with my life, I was asked to assist my uncle, who was a London fashion photographer. From there I worked as a studio assistant, met some leading photographers and was able to do some of my own test shoots at the weekends. My first commission arose as a result of a test shoot based on a story I developed with an art director, which was picked up later on by a client.
Tell us about a typical day on a shoot.
It always starts with the food stylist arriving laden with the food shop for the day and getting settled in, talking over the recipes and putting out the props. This is necessarily accompanied by lashings of tea and coffee! The food stylist will then prepare the food (usually several versions of the same dish so we have lots of examples to choose from) and then we’ll do a couple of hours of shots, followed by a team lunch – usually what we’ve just been shooting if it hasn’t all melted or been eaten already! After lunch it’s much the same; continue with the rest of the shot list, and then end with an edit and final delivery to the client.
How many recipes do you photograph in a typical shoot, and how much prep is involved?
A typical day usually consists of 6-9 recipes. The prep entirely depends on when we received the brief (sometimes this can even be on the day itself), the recipes and whether the stylist has a prep day ahead of the shoot. The majority of stylists I work with are very efficient and tend to work on more than one recipe at a time, so we can make the best use of light (with the aim to beat the rush hour on the way home!) – plus, food doesn’t hang around… so why should we?!
You’ve worked with a whole host of popular food writers like Deliciously Ella, Joe Wicks and the Hemsley sisters. How do you combine food photography with great portraits, and what’s it like working with both chefs and the new generation of Instagram superstars?
Celebrities are just people, but with slightly busier lives! Having a clear objective set out is key, as sometimes you may only have a limited amount of time with your subject due to their hectic schedule, so it’s all about nailing the shot quickly. In order to achieve a great portrait, I do the research on what makes them unique as a brand or chef, but also try to get an understanding of what their personal interests are in order to relate to them on a slightly less formal level. Do they have kids? Do they support the same football team as me? Do they watch the same TV shows as me? The trick is also to be relaxed, which makes your subject relaxed and, in turn, helps obtain the perfect result.
You’re a freelancer but you have an impressive network of clients and brands. How do you establish yourself as a freelancer if you want to become a specialist in this area of photography?
It’s all about creating an identity. The biggest compliment is being told that my work can be easily identified before or without seeing a credit – although hopefully that is for the right and not the wrong reasons! Marketing plays a huge part, and also creating work allies, as you never know from who or where your next job might come from. Stylists, for example, tend to have a wider client list and your name passes as a recommendation through word of mouth, which, in my experience is the most effective form of marketing.