With so much tantalizing “food porn” circulating social media, I wondered about the true masters of food and wine photography in the Bay Area and what they’re up to. I caught up with Craig Lee who started his career at the San Francisco Examiner and then the San Francisco Chronicle when the two staffs merged in 2000. In business for himself now, he’s creating sexy images like this one for Espetus Churrascaria and capturing delicious recipes from Mark Bittman for the New York Times. Craig and I talked about the most effective ways to market your work, how he got his start capturing slice of life moments in the culinary world and how important personal projects are.   

Roasting Wine Barrels at Demtos Napa Cooperage Courtesy of Craig Lee
Roasting Wine Barrels at Demtos Napa Cooperage. Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography

JB: How did you get started in photography?

CL: I went to high school in Sacramento and there was a darkroom in the Art Department but no money to hire a photography teacher. My Dad bought an old camera he’d let me use and I learned how to develop film. When my art teacher realized this, he offered to let me use the darkroom, even though he couldn’t help me because he didn’t know how to develop film. This was a time when things were a bit like Mayberry because he just gave me a key to the art department. So I used to ride my bike over to school and spend hours in the darkroom whenever I wanted. It was like a place of tranquility for me, the darkness using the enlarger, and the sound of the water trickling. I used to get a kick out of taking pictures of my friends in the quad at school and then seeing the images come to life on 11 x 14 paper in the developing tray.

JB: When did you decide to be a professional photographer?

CL: I bought my first camera used from a want ad in the local paper, it was a Nikon F. The guy selling it was a staff photographer for the Sacramento Bee and I remember saying to him, “Wow, you do this for a living? “ I thought to myself, well, that’s what I’m going to do. I didn’t want to be sitting in an office all day. So after high school I took some classes at the local community college, which was known for its photography program. After that, I got a part-time job at a local paper in Placerville and got some shooting experience.

JB: How did you decide to focus on Food and Lifestyle?

CL: At the beginning of my time at the San Francisco Chronicle I was covering general news assignments. When someone at the paper asked me to be the main food and wine photographer in 2003 I wasn’t sure about it in the beginning. Once I started going out on assignments, I really enjoyed photographing the food and wine scene and working with those people. They loved their work and were fun to work with. The food and wine section of the paper won the James Beard Foundation Award for best section in the country, four different years during my time there, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2011. By 2011 I had started my own business and was freelancing with the Chronicle. The other staff members made me feel like my photography was a real contribution and really appreciated my dedication to my craft. In a lot of ways I feel like the opportunity was given to me and I went with it. It gave me a whole new skill set; I developed my lighting skills and was able to master my craft. I began to see a niche in the market for this.

JB: After six years with the San Francisco Chronicle as the main food and wine photographer, what was it like to make the decision to leave and become an entrepreneur?

CL: I went out on my own in 2009 and at the time newspapers all over were downsizing. Being a freelance photographer has always been challenging and very competitive. I’m also in the San Francisco Bay Area which is known for its food scene. It’s a little like being in Detroit and being in the automotive industry. I just keep networking and showing my work constantly. Through my network I’ve had the privilege of working on some fantastic cookbook projects. Food and wine writer Carolyn Jung  is an absolute Bay Area treasure, I love her Food Gal blog.  We collaborated on her book the “San Francisco Chef’s Table” that tells the culinary story of the Bay Area via chefs and their recipes. The visionary gardner-cooks of Yolo County, Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M. Evans co-authored the award-winning cookbook the Davis Farmers Market and I had the honor of working with them. What those two ladies have done to educate people about our local food ecosystem is inspirational. I also have a shoot coming up soon with Eating Well magazine that I’m excited about. 

JB: What do you think is the most effective marketing you do to get new work?

CL: Events are the best way to market yourself. The best tool is word of mouth. At a recent ASMP – American Society of Media Photographers event I went to about editorial photography, one of the speakers was asked, “What’s the best way to reach you?” He thought about it for a minute and said, “Events like this, where we can meet in person.”

We send out email blasts and make phone calls so we can meet someone. That’s the goal of it, to connect with people face to face. There’s nothing like sitting with a person getting to know them, like we’re doing right now. There’s a connection when you meet someone and I’ve have gotten a lot of jobs because someone knows me. Going to a portfolio review is another great way to do that. ” 

JB: How does an APA Portfolio review work?

CL: A portfolio review is a great way to get in front of art buyers, art directors, ad agencies and magazine editors.  APA – the American Photographic Artisans occasionally holds a portfolio review in San Francisco and you pay to participate. The last one I went to, I selected my top ten choices of people to meet with and I was guaranteed a spot with three of them for about fifteen minutes where they looked at my portfolio and gave feedback. My portfolio has twenty of my top images. It’s good access to the people in San Francisco that can be challenging to reach.

JB: I’ve been listening to photographers talk about the importance of doing personal work. How important do you think it is?

CL: I think personal work is important to keep growing. The challenge sometimes is getting access to project ideas you might have in mind.  A friend had a good suggestion to use money I’ve been spending on new gear to take a trip and come back with new work. I think he’s got a point. When you sent me your website (JenBaxter.com) and I was looking at your photography I realized what you’ve done is cool because you went someplace new to see life through a different lens. When you get away from it all, everything is fresh, you get excited and come back with new stuff.

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Here’s a taste of Craig’s photography…

Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, Photo Courtesy of Craig Lee
Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek. Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography.
Classic Red Enchiladas. Photo Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography
Classic Red Enchiladas. Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography.
Chef Hubert Keller. Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography
Chef Hubert Keller. Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography.
Meatballs and Toast Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography
Meatballs and Toast. Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography.
Monterey Bay Squid, Tomato and Aioli Pizza. Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography
Monterey Bay Squid, Tomato and Aioli Pizza. Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography.
Love is Like a Bottle of Gin... Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography
Love is Like a Bottle of Gin… Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography.
Mary Ellen the Beekeeper Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography
Mary Ellen the Beekeeper Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography
Persimmon Flan Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography
Persimmon Flan Courtesy of Craig Lee Photography

You can find Craig online at Craig Lee Photo

Follow him on Facebook here

Connect with him on LinkedIn now

Send Craig a Tweet

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4 comments on “Bay Area Food and Lifestyle Photographer Craig Lee”

  1. Great interview with CraigLee. I have watchd his career blossom as his cousin. He use to always have the camera in his hand at our holiday gatherings when we were youngsters to take candid photos. He is the real deal.

  2. Jen, You did a great interview! Craig is an extraordinary photographer, and I was glad to read how he got started and what he is up to. I posted the interview on Facebook–which says a lot–as I’ve never done a post yet. I was proud to share it.

    • Judy, THANK YOU so much for reposting this on Facebook! I appreciate & love that kind of engagement from readers. It’s so easy when I get to write about someone like Craig!

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