DAVID CHARBIT - FOOD, INTERIORS & TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER
Published 21st May 2018
Initially specialising in food, interiors, lifestyle and travel, David is now honing his focus to concentrate more on his great love of all things sea.
Half-French, born in Peru and brought up in the UK since he was five, David Charbit has travel and adventure in his blood – and he certainly embarked on a huge adventure two years ago, when he left his job as an economics and business teacher to become a professional photographer. Initially specialising in food, interiors, lifestyle and travel, he is now honing his focus to concentrate more on his great love of all things sea. His editorial work has appeared in a range of high-end publications, including The Sunday Times Magazine, The Guardian, Elle Deco and Homes & Antiques, and he also shoots for a number of commercial and interiors clients. We find out how he made such a major sea-change in career, and the part his Nikon kit has played in his burgeoning success.
I did a degree in business and Spanish at Birmingham University, then went into commodities trading at Czarnikow, a brokers specialising in sugar and ethanol. It was exciting and challenging, but I soon realised that to make a success of it I'd be stuck working in big cities like London, and I really didn't want that. I also went into marketing for three years, then I switched to teaching business and economics at a school near Gatwick, and moved back to Brighton, where I was brought up. I really enjoyed teaching, not just for the flexibility in terms of where I could live, but because it's such a good opportunity to help people – it's great working with kids and enthusing them.
As a teenager, I'd enjoyed photography, and I picked it back up again around four years ago as a hobby. The summer I got back into it, I was out surfing in Hossegor, France, where my father is based for three months of the year – surfing is one of my big passions, and Hossegor is one of the best places in Europe to do it. While I was there I took some pictures and posted them on the internet, and the next thing, a journalist from Australian Surfing Life got in touch to see if they could use them. They didn't in the end, but it did make me start thinking that photography could be a career option.
I started doing more and more photography, beginning with food and cooking, another of my great loves, and then interiors. I was lucky to meet a seriously good fashion photographer in Brighton who became my mentor and helped me with some of the technical aspects, as well as helping me understand the importance of good lighting. And the school was great, letting me teach part-time for two years so I had some income while I was learning. I'd still end up doing marking on my day off, however, as there's always so much to do in teaching, and eventually something had to give, so I left teaching completely. That was in 2014. So there I was, a full-time freelance. I contacted as many photographers as I could who I wanted to work for, and I ended up assisting three in London, doing both commercial and editorial shoots. I still do a bit of stuff for two of them now.
I was just aware that shooting food, interiors, travel and lifestyle was a lot of variety. Ultimately I want to be known for something in particular. I love taking pictures of the sea, and seafood is my favourite type of food, so I thought why not specialise in the sea, including seafood photography and reportage. I can still do interiors and so on, but with the sea theme as a point of difference to make my name with.
Yes, since I restarted my photography seriously. I used to travel a lot with surfboards, but it got so expensive putting them on the plane – around £200 a trip – that instead I started renting boards at my destination, which was so much cheaper, and I saved up the difference to go towards a decent camera. In 2012 a photographer mate took me to Park Cameras at Burgess Hill, and when I picked up the Nikons they felt better in my hand than anything else I looked at. So I got a D7000 and a couple of lenses to start myself off.
I've got the D810, which I bought in 2014, and the D750. I have three lenses bought secondhand – the 300mm f/2.8, the 105mm Micro and the 16-35mm, which I just use now for interiors – and a 85mm f/1.4 which I bought new. It's a lovely lens, one of my favourites. It's a great focal length for food, really sharp and great for travelling with as it's so compact. My two favourite lenses I've also had new from the start: the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/2.8. I can use the 70-200mm in so many situations, it's amazingly versatile. And I just love the 24-70mm, even though it's quite heavy. At one point I thought about replacing it with a 50mm, to use alongside my 85mm, and then I thought, what on Earth are you thinking – you use this for most of your work! When I'm travelling, I take both cameras and the 24-70mm and 70-200mm so I don't have to change lenses. And I don't have to worry about the weather when I'm using them, either, as they are properly weather-proofed.
The dynamic range, the 36 megapixels… obviously I'm keen on all that. I love doing landscape work, so the high resolution is important for that. And low light-wise it's great – I can shoot in poor light at a higher ISO and not have to worry about noise, so I don't always have to carry around a tripod. I love the level of weather-proofing that the D810 has, too – the casing is really robust. In Skye a couple of weeks ago, the weather was horrendous, but we were so enthusiastic at the start of the trip that we went out shooting in the rain all day anyway. We got absolutely soaked, but the gear was fine. A few years ago a lot of food photography was done on medium format, but now, I just can't see how it makes sense, not when you can use the D810 and enjoy all the advantages and flexibility that shooting with a DSLR gives you. I also want to be able to shoot action and fast shutter speeds in slightly more extreme environments, and that wouldn't work on medium format. I can't imagine lugging a medium format kit out and about.
Food photography is so competitive. There is so much talent in the industry that you really have to be very determined. Getting a portfolio together has been hard work; when I started, I would have to buy the food and props, cook the food, style everything, light it all – it was exhausting, and almost killed my enthusiasm to take the photographs. On a proper shoot you have a whole team, including the art director, the food stylist and their assistant, the props stylist, the photographer and their assistant, and sometimes also the client. It's such a big team effort that it's no coincidence it leads to such wonderful results. In restaurant-based jobs, they don't use stylists, only limited props, and you're usually shooting on the restaurant's own table top – that can all make things challenging, too. But editorial is where you make your name, and where I am focusing my efforts going forward. It's much more collaborative and I appreciate the social side of those shoots.
About a month ago, I went up to London for a food-shoot test day, with the theme of seafood from around the world. I took along all the gear, from lights to props and even local seafood and set everything up. We worked from 9am to 6pm, and got five shots, which I was really pleased with. The best food photographers at the moment are nearly all shooting from above – it looks very modern, quite graphic – and that's what I wanted to capture.
It depends. Some images are really easy, just needing a few minutes in Capture One, whereas others need much more attention, and I will end up retouching various things in Photoshop. But with editorial food shoots there's generally very little work required as so much effort goes into styling the food and getting everything as right as possible for the camera.
I'd love to go out on the trawlers and do a whole provenance piece, tracing the fish from sea to plate. And when the next Nathan Outlaw comes along – he's the two-Michelin-starred chef who specialises in British seafood – it would be great to do their cookbook…
When I first started seriously considering photography as a career, someone told me to get as much help as I could, to not be afraid of asking for advice and offering to assist, and to not be afraid of being knocked back. You do have to be persistent, but most people are really helpful – several photographers I approached didn't need assistance but still offered to meet up for coffee and a chat. Loads of people gave me so much help when I was switching careers, and I'll always be grateful for that. Some of those I've assisted and worked with are quite established, and as things are beginning to happen for me now, I'm reaching a point where I'll be assisting less. It's still early years but I'm starting to believe it's working!