Interview: Jeff Kauck, Food Photographer

It doesn’t take long talking to food photographer, Jeff Kauck, to detect his passion for art, light, and photography.  His studio is lit with two giant windows, one facing North, one East.  During our conversation, talk quickly arrives at the finesse of light and color in classic painting.  Jeff explains the concept of Color Lift:

“You take a white cup and saucer outside, the shadow is blue, the sunlit highlights are yellow, opposite colors.  With a warm light source and a purple shadow, the white is more dimensional.”  In essence, Jeff uses the broad light beaming into his Chicago studio like a liquid watercolor palate.  In contrast to the contemporary trend towards neutrality in studio light color, Jeff’s work seems alive and visceral, with warm natural light and cool natural shadows.

Read on for our complete interview, and see much more of Jeff’s work at

Jeff is a Chicago-based food photographer and recent James Beard Award nominee.  I spoke with him during a break from a hectic week shooting a cook book.  Visit his online portfolio at

Q.  How do your Chicago surroundings inform your photography?  Is it a fun place to be a photographer?

I live on the 40th floor of a high-rise. Allowing me to experience constantly changing light, color and shape. The light, store windows, people, buildings, museums, restaurants, all inspire. Especially in summer there is a great energy.

Q) Did you get your professional start in Chicago too?  What was that like?

After assisting for several years in Chicago I returned to my home town of Cincinnati Ohio. Opened my studio and got married. We intended on staying in Cincinnati for a short time but thanks to P&G there was plenty of work. It was a great environment to start. However I knew that I would return to Chicago. This is my 15th year back in Chicago.

Jeff describes the process of moving from film production to still photography and connecting with his agent of 15 years, Emily Inman.  The relationship is a “platonic marriage” of give and take, and a productive one.

It’s clear the culinary environment of Chicago has had a huge influence on Jeff as he describes the city’s erratic weather and battle of flat vs. deep pizza (just flip through his portfolio to see on which side he’s landed).  I ask him about his use of fire and cloth, surfaces and textures.  He tells me food photography has to be about a sense.  Eyes see in 3D, but it’s the job of a photographer to communicate senses using two dimensions, to use color, light, and textures to create lift.  His team is constantly on the lookout for new surfaces and new props, and their attention to tactile and sensory stimulation really shows.

Jeff’s work describes salty and sweet, sour and tangy; and it takes a little study to sense how the effect is being translated visually.  During our talk, we discuss an image of a steak on a charred wooden plank with a crystal glitter of rock salt and another of a bowl of lemons, slightly off center with a clean steel knife and veiled with a thin cloth.  Images like these describe taste in such root-level clarity it’s easy to miss.

Q.  Can you talk about the conceptual process of visually depicting the tastes of food?  Looking at images on your portfolio page, I can almost taste the citrus, cocktails, meat, etc.  How do you do that?

As far as lighting goes the question of reflections versus shape has to be considered when setting up the photo. Regarding the food it’s always about appetite appeal.

a painter knows where to add color, extra weight or contrast to get the image to lift.  A painter doesn’t use black or white or gray, there is always color.

Q.  Who are a couple mentors, or maybe even heroes, who have shaped your career?

Always the painters Claude Monet, Van Gough, Cézanne

Q. Having seen some of your photography work, it makes sense some major influences for you would be painters.  Is there something in particular you’ve taken from each?

Van Gough was bold, confident color. Cezanne combined perspectives, color and shape. Monet’s work was luminous. All had their own look and unique style.

Specifically, Jeff discusses techniques used by painters to created a third dimension on canvas, a tactile lift or a color lift, using textures and complimenting colors to create connections within a work.

‘Copy nature slavishly’, create color harmony and color lift.  Photographers have got to study the painters!

Q. How has a knowledge of watercolor painting affected your photography?

With the goal of trying to match nature a painter knows where to add color, extra weight or contrast to get the image to lift.  A painter doesn’t use black or white or gray, there is always color.

Q.  Food photography, I think, is known for being a serious team effort.  Who are some of your favorite collaborators and how did you find them?  What is your usual role in the mix?

We have a select group of food and prop stylists that we book. Some are ideal for packaging while others are better suited for editorial work. The chemistry of the team is very important as well. I’m a firm believer in surround yourself with talent and stay out off the way.

The stylists are great, always looking for new surfaces and props.  The Chefs are so passionate about their work.

Q.  I enjoyed the studio tour video on your Web page [with link].  It looks like the most significant feature of your workspace is a big, beautiful window.  It must explain a lot of the evocative, organic light in your portfolio.  What are a few ways you use the window?

I’m fortunate to have a beautiful 20ft North light window and a large east window. Daily we pick the light, shape of light and color that is ideal for the photo. It’s really an ideal setup.

Jeff has created most of the work in his portfolio using natural light.  He describes the process of adding and subtracting light using reflectors, cards, flags, and panels.  Bouncing blue light from shadows and yellow highlights to create the color lift technique he observed in the work of classic painters.

Q.  How much of your photography is made with a Hasselblad?  Do you have a favorite lens?  How would you describe the camera to someone who currently shoots a 35mm DSLR?

I use Hasselblad, Canon and Leica. Lenses ranging from wide angle to telephoto. Each system has unique characteristics. Especially when drawing color.

Q.  If you had to pick a favorite camera….

Leica M9

Q.  Can you describe the way you light, and the process of assembling a final image?

When shooting with strobes I always try and reenact light I’ve seen in nature. With daylight I add or subtract the light. In both cases it’s a matter of getting the light to lift the way you envision it.

Q.  What are some of the tools that make that easier?  Can you give a specific example of a reenacted light you’ve used recently?

Foam-core panels, both white and black do all of my adding and subtracting. Both with strobe, HMI or daylight. When I’m setting up a photo I think about a place, time of day and feel of the light from a place I’ve experienced. Then do my best to re-create that feel.

So much of contemporary lighting is a striving for neutrality.  It’s interesting to note the intentional use of complimenting warm and cool light in much of Jeff’s work.  We take a close look at a pewter spoon in one of his portfolio images, one highlight is golden, one is blue.  It’s a subtlety I hadn’t noticed before he pointed it out, but the complimenting colors of light is one of the myriad technical details that create a painterly finished image.

Q.  Does your team include a retoucher?

I’m a believer of “fix it before you take the picture” and my style isn’t based on layering or electronic filtering. So retouching isn’t something we focus on. With that said both of my assistants are very good with Photoshop. And one is extremely good with both Photoshop and CG. Which he incorporates in his personal work.

Q.  What would you say to a photographer starting today, hoping to follow in your footsteps?

If you are looking for a “job” in photography I’d suggest you look at other careers. The busy photographers are passionate, always shooting either jobs or personal work. It’s something you “have to do”.

Q.  It’s certainly not easy!  What would you say to those passionate few?

Edit your work down to 20 pictures that clearly define your look and interests in photography. Always shoot personal work. Do everything you can to stay uncomfortable and constantly grow.

It is a very exciting time to be in the industry and, says Jeff, there is more work now than ever.  There is work out there!  Those passionate about photography must create constantly, always be shooting new work and sharing it with the world.  It is important to take stock every month, who am I?  What do I want to be doing?  To look for people and publications you have to work with and be relentless until you get your foot in the door.  It’s an exciting time!

Q.  What can we expect from you, and your studio, in the future?

It’s a great time to be in the industry. Motion, CG, stills, editing are all happening under one roof. I see that growing.  It doesn’t matter what paintbrush an artist uses, photography, motion, CG.

Q.  What’s the most fun you’ve had on a set?

When the picture just works and everyone on set knows it.

This must be a not un-common joy on Jeff’s sets!  View a slideshow of his work below and much more at

Image Slideshow
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Be sure to visit Jeff’s Website at and don’t miss his brief studio tour video.

Jeff Kauck was interviewed by Matt Beardsley via phone and e-mail in July 2011.  All photography by Jeff Kauck (copyright Jeff Kauck, not to be reproduced without permission).

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