Creative Careers Interview 2022: Sue Todd

One of our lifestyle sub-editors chats to food photographer Sue Todd

Molly Taylor
28th February 2022
This week I talked to Sue Todd, a Fine Food and Hospitality Photographer based in The North East. We discussed her career journey, as well as some of her tips for using Linkedin as a young professional entering into the world of work.
I saw on Linkedin that you have been working as a Fine Food and Hospitality Photographer since December 2014. What were the steps you took to progress your career to be at the place it is today?

It’s been a very convoluted path! Photography was what I always wanted to do, but unfortunately, it didn’t quite happen at first. I began in the catering industry with my husband and worked for the British Rail in the IT department. They encouraged me to go to university to do IT, so I decided to try it, alongside bringing up my children, looking after my husband who was ill at the time, and raisings pigs, hens and goats!

My husband was getting better by that point thankfully, and I later joined him in his business. That opened up the world of photography to me again, because we were working in e-commerce, high-tech medical training simulators and VR haptics. In 2014, that basically all came to a stop and I thought, “what now?”. This was a great opportunity to pursue what I always wanted: photography. I’ve never been happier as far as work’s concerned. I’ve worked with some amazing companies and done so many different projects. I think the one thing I really love is that every day is different: you never know what’s going to come up next. 

What does your day-to-day work schedule look like?

Every day is so different. Some days I’m in a studio working, and I might have client goods arriving. Other times I’ll have clients coming into work, which involves making sure we’ve got everything ready and that things are set up properly to work with them. Afterwards, I’ll come back upstairs to the office and go through and cull the images, and plan when I’m going to do the editing.

Some other days I just go prop shopping! With food, you always need different props. You wouldn’t think that this was a big part of the job, but of course, you need things like napkins, plates and cutlery when you are shooting. I have masses of cutlery now because I don’t want to use the same fork on every shoot. A lot of the time, people don’t realise that a lot goes into that side of the job.

Who are the kinds of clients you shoot for and do they usually approach you, or do you reach out to them?

Interestingly, it used to be about half and half, and then with Covid, it was mainly clients approaching me. I even have clients on the south coast and in France now! Obviously, it’s a bit more difficult for them to get up North, so they tend to send me products.

When you’ve worked with a client for a while, you get to know what their likes and dislikes are, and how to fit in with their brand. I’ve come across a few photographers who will say what they can do for the client in their style, whereas photographers need to cater for their client’s needs rather than their own. In terms of my style, my photos tend to be very bright and vibrant or very dark and moody, depending on how I feel on the day! But when photographing for the client, it must fit with what they need, and their vision might be completely different to yours.

I usually get a mix of new clients as well as repeat clients. Some will come back on a very regular basis, while others I meet a couple of times a year, or only once or twice. Some of my clients will have a very distinct brief for what they need from the project, whereas others will drop things off and leave it up to me as the photographer because they trust me. At first, that was quite daunting, but I have adjusted to this as time has gone on. 

In terms of the kinds of clients I shoot for, it’s a huge remit. I work with a couple of mixologists who put together drinks menus and once in a while, we have a big cocktail session. I have a client who sells beautiful grass-raised poultry and I take pictures of his eggs and hens. I am often asked to photograph food in cafes, restaurants, and as well as plated meals. There is a growing amount of clients who send me their jars of jam or chocolate as well. We also have done cookery shoots and videos; I haven’t delved into videography as much as I’d like to, but it is hard to fit everything in!

What is it about food that makes it so interesting to photograph?

Food didn’t appeal to me much as a child, and it wasn’t until I went to London that I thought ‘Wow, it’s actually edible!’, and I’ve loved food ever since. Working in catering also bolstered that up, and it means that I have an affinity and understanding with people in the trade about the pressures that they face. Although when I first started off, I was shooting all kinds of things (and I still have some purely commercial clients), more and more it’s predominantly food that I photograph. Food is quite difficult to shoot, and quite often I shoot with people who don’t realise how difficult it can be. The camera notices that lettuce is wilting in front of you whereas our eyes don’t always. Although the sauce doesn’t look congealed to the human eye, the camera notices every detail!

You are doing a talk soon with the Careers Service about using Linkedin to increase exposure and build your brand. Why is it so important to have an effective online presence when looking for jobs?

I think it depends a lot on what you’re doing to a certain extent. My style is very much business to business because I don’t tend to work with the general public. Linkedin is very business-focused, and it took me a while to find my feet there but once I did, I have found it immensely useful. More often than not, I have had business on Linkedin from people I didn’t know were watching. I’ve had a phone call out of the blue, I’ve had messages on Linkedin, as well as emails from people saying they’ve been watching my business or projects for a while, and I had no idea who these people are! Having said that, I have also had people who have become connections, and I’ve gradually talked to them. Some people ask for a price, and you might be too expensive for them in that moment, but you stay in their mind and they come back later when they're ready.

If anyone is looking for a job when they come out of university, I think Linkedin is probably the best platform because there are lots of jobs advertised. You can’t put a value on creating bonds and trust with people or clients. When messaging people on Linkedin, don’t send a sales note asking for a job, but instead a friendly one saying that you’ve been looking at what they’re doing or saw one of their posts, and you were wondering if they wouldn’t mind connecting with you. That puts you into their mind, and when they are in need, they’ll think of you. 

Linkedin can seem really offputting because it’s full of loads of businesses, and it can seem hard finding your place there, but it’s also the place where job opportunities come up and jobs are posted all the time. If you’ve got plenty on your profile, and it’s not all about yourself, but rather, you join in the conversation, people will see you’re capable of conversing and having sensible and polite conversations, therefore giving you more credibility.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

You have new experiences and you learn different things with every person that you work with, and I think that’s what makes it for me. I love the fact that I’ve got my own space now as opposed to working from home all the time. I’ve loved building it all up from the beginning to where I am now, and it’s such a pleasure to get up in the morning and know that you’re going off to do something you love. I have spent a long time doing jobs that I hated, so it’s fabulous now to do the one thing I’ve only ever wanted to do.

Join us for our annual Creative Careers event on Wednesday 9 March at the Newcastle University Students’ Union to hear from a variety of industry professionals to find out what it’s like to work in the creative sector.

See here to find all the great events happening during the week - there are limited spaces available for each session, so make sure you book your place in advance. Be sure to check out Sue's talk at on March 9th, 3:30 PM - 4:30 PM - sign up here!

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