We would like to kick-off the new year with an inspirational story, and a career that has been a dream for many students, but a reality for a few who are willing to tread the difficult path by putting their heart and soul into creating their own image & identity, literally !

Surabhi Tripathy, our next pathbreaker, is a freelance Food and Product Photographer based out of Chennai, who works with corporates in the field of Food, FMCG, Cosmetics and various other products.

Surabhi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her photographic journey that began with her first iPhone that re-kindled her childhood experiences with the camera and set her on the path to becoming a professional photographer.

For students, photography is definitely a cool profession, but you should be prepared to struggle a lot in order to create your niche as a commercial photographer !

Surabhi, tell us about your early years

I was born and raised in Chennai. Being a North Indian in a city like  Chennai was initially not easy since I was surrounded by Tamilians in  School. I slowly picked up the language as I grew by listening to others  talk. Frankly, I am still not fluent in it. 

What did you study?

I did B.Com CS (Company Secretary), B.Ed before I got my first job. Honestly, if I were given the option of what I really wanted to study, it would have been VISCOM (Visual Communication). Back then, Viscom wasn’t really that known, so I was denied  permission to pursue it and hence I had to go with B.Com. As I was a  non-math student in my higher secondary school, I couldn’t take up the  general commerce group and ended up in Corporate Secretaryship. 

Post that, I wanted to do my masters in Delhi which my parents didn’t allow for. Moreover, my mother had to undergo surgery, and so I had to stay and take care of her and the family. I decided not to waste my year and ended up taking B.Ed since it was just a couple of months degree.  

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Once I finished that, I got a job in the banking sector. Since then, I have  worked in a manufacturing concern, teaching concern and an airline as well. Because of my job being too far away from my house, I ended up with spondylitis and had to quit working. 

While I was staying at home all the time and going nuts, I decided to pursue my passion. 

As a kid, I saw my father taking a lot of photos of us and whenever I went on my school excursions, I would ask him for a camera and capture everything during my trips.  

I didn’t realise back then that this is what I should be doing professionally. Things really changed when I got my first iPhone. It was when the iPhone 4s was launched and I was mesmerized with the  camera quality! I became a mobile photographer. Over the years, I would capture landscapes, portraits, macro shots of objects and post it on Instagram. I did get a lot of good feedback on my skills as a mobile photographer. After tirelessly working for other companies, I decided to pursue photography professionally.  

I got my first crop sensor camera in 2016 and I tried learning it on my own through videos. That’s when I realised how vast this profession is.  So, I decided to get formal training in it and I joined Ambitions 4 Photography Academy in Chennai. I completed my Advanced Diploma in Professional Photography in 2017 and since then I have been taking up freelance work as a Food & Product Photographer.  

I bought a full-frame camera and studio lights with other equipment in 2018 with financial help from my brother. He has been a driving force for me to do something with my skills. He always knew I was a creative person and he kept pushing me to do it.  

Tell us about your career path

Well, considering my personality, I would do anything that interests me and I always put my heart and soul in every job I do. Plus, being from a business family, I observed my father and brother a lot on how they deal with problems and day to day activities. 

  • I learnt how to make SOPs for services which now lets me plan my shoots
  • I learnt how to do marketing for a company which enables me to market my own services now and also, for others! During my role as a marketing manager, I had to reach out to other professionals and talk to them. This now helps me in reaching out to potential clients. 
  • I have a lot of patience, so I have experienced clients being irate and angry and I know how to solve their issues and get a happy client at the end of the day. This helps me in communicating with clients and understanding their requirements. 

How did you get your first break?

My first paid project was for Idli Factory and from then on I didn’t look back. Yes, being a freelancer is not easy, especially in a world where  every second person buys a camera and calls themselves a  photographer. I have had phases where I had no work and was under a lot of depression because of it.  

My first client was a referral. My father’s friend had referred me to his friend. They needed some photos which had to go on their packaging materials. Back then I had really no experience in shooting food and now when I look at those images, I know I can do much better. The images I shot for the client was in accordance with what they needed at the time. But if they came back to me today for another shoot, I know I can give them images which would be much better in comparison to what I gave them 5 years ago. 

This is the best part of being in this field. You grow with each shot you take! 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

A challenge that still exists for freelancers is that there are many people who do it for free. The newbies in this field want to build their portfolio and so they ask brands to send them products for free and they will, in return, give them images. This barter system of content creation has hit our livelihoods. Even today, if I am not working and I want to update my portfolio, I buy things to shoot. I would never ever go for a barter system again.  

Big brands now expect us to give them content for free. They use our content to sell more products and gain more profits and we are left with no money. As photographers, we invest a lot in our equipment, education, props etc. I have invested in the props and backdrops that I use. You would usually find food / product stylists have a huge set of props for styling purposes. I, on the other hand, buy it and use them. I  have a room full of props and backdrops that I use. And with every shoot, there are some items that I need to procure.  

Tell us about your current work as freelancer

I have a home studio which means I shoot at my residence. Whenever there is a shoot, I set up my “studio” space in my dining hall, and my room is a mess with all my props out and ready to be used. As and when I am hired by a brand to shoot, I do my homework on how I want the images to be like, by creating a mood board. I keep all the props and backdrops needed and set up my dining table as a photography table.  

I respect every photographer out there shooting all the various types of genres. I chose my niche as Food & Products because I like control. If I don’t get an image right, I can just shoot it again after making the necessary changes. Plus, with every product, it’s a challenge to create different types of images. It absolutely gets my creative juices flowing. I have shot for food brands, jewellery brands, skin care brands and so many others. 

My website : https://surabhitripathy.com/

My Portfolio : https://surabhitripathy.com/products

Link : https://surabhitripathy.com/mock-up-advertisements-for-products-personal-project

Currently I am employed full time with two Canadian brands and I also take up freelance work. Sometimes it’s hard to juggle between 2-3 clients at once, but that’s the best part of being in control. I can shoot at any day and any time! Once I did a shoot at 1am! It is absolutely a blessing to be able to work at your own leisure.  

Memorable work?

Well, honestly for me, all my projects are different and I consider them to be memorable in their own way. Since I have a versatile portfolio of the kind of products and food I have shot, each project needs a detailed level of prep work. Considering the client expectations, I create a mood board of how they would like for the images to be. Mood board consists of reference images that I use as my building block and ideas to create the set for each image. 

The most memorable one for me is the one I shot for Pillsbury and Betty Crocker. I had to bake different kinds of cupcakes and cakes and shoot them as lifestyle images. That was really fun to do as I never had to create recipes for a client before. 

Link : https://surabhitripathy.com/betty-crocker-pillsbury-pancake-mix

Most recently, I was assisting a friend for his shoot as a food stylist and it took me 2 hours to style for 1 image! The end result was totally worth it! I have always styled and shot myself for my clients. All these years of experience has led me to believe that I can call myself a product / food stylist as well. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students who want to be professional photographers is that it is a beautiful profession and when you are new to it, you will have to struggle a lot. Especially when you have to have a diverse  portfolio. Invest. Invest in your portfolio. Buy things you want to include in your portfolio. Do not ever go for bartering your services for free products because you have spent a lot on your education and  equipment. We need to change this bartering system and it starts with you. Also, connect with other photographers. Be good in a specific genre of photography. “Jack of all trades, master of none” – do not be one of those. At the end of the day, a client would want to hire a photographer who is good at 1 or 2 particular genres. I have seen wedding photographers who are best at wedding photography but when they try to do food / product shoots, they really don’t come out the way their wedding photos do. So, ace a genre and stick to it.