Food & Drinks

Kenyans find a new career in food photography


Nairobi-based food photographer Sakina Mapenzi during the interview at her home on May 9, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG


  • Sakina Mapenzi is a Nairobi-based food photographer who is obsessed with taking pictures of burgers.
  • With a background in journalism, she started by taking portrait and landscape photos.
  • Food photography grew on her as she experimented with different types of foods.

We eat first with our eyes. Long before a steak or salad lands on the lips, it has landed (or not) in the stomach through the eyes.

Perhaps this is why food photography is quickly becoming one of the fastest-growing genres. In Kenya, restaurants, chefs, and food influencers have started hiring food photographers.

One such person is Patrick Gitau. Shy in front of a camera but bold behind it, Patrick has been a food photographer for the past six years. Not once did he imagine his love for food, details, and pictures would converge in such a unique setting.

“Cooking has always been something close to my heart but it needed someone to draw it out. That someone was a chef at Windsor Hotel where I worked as a kitchen steward,” says the 37-year-old.

However, it was not until 2016 that he thought of food photography.

“My wife, Reginah, is a phenomenal cake artist. She baked and decorated the cakes, and I’d take pictures using my phone and post them on social media. Our business grew. That’s when I realised that photography is a worthwhile business.”

After saving for five months, they bought their first camera, a Nikon D32 at Sh50,000. Soon people started noticing his food photos and work started coming in and has not stopped since. His work has been on billboards, banners, menus, and recipe books.

Why food photography?

“Because taking food photos is similar to cooking it. To get a perfect picture, you have to create the shot just like you would prepare the meal. That’s very fulfilling and exciting for me,” the photographer says.

He charges between Sh70,000 to Sh200,000 for a full day shoot of about 20 food items.

When Patrick started, people laughed at the mention of him being a food photographer. The space has since opened up, thanks to social media and the emergence of e-commerce.

Sakina Mapenzi is another Nairobi-based food photographer who is obsessed with taking pictures of burgers.

“They have good contrast in colour, they always look juicy. They also have depth. You can take the pictures from many different angles and they’ll still look good,” she says.

With a background in journalism, she started by taking portrait and landscape photos. Food photography grew on her as she experimented with different types of foods.

“I grew up skinny because I was a picky eater. As I became older and cooked more, I discovered a whole new world of food and decided to document my journey on Instagram.”

At first, she was shy and lacked the confidence to see the potential she wielded.

“My first gig was a friend’s pastries. I remember how stressed I was during that shoot. However, the pictures came out so well and her sales sky-rocketed. I binned my fears and adjusted my prices to reflect my value,” the 25-year-old says.

Food photography is more than just “taking a picture.” It’s an alchemy of many different factors.

“Colours, textures, light, food quantity, quality of ingredients, and a lot more. When shooting, I’m not taking a photo. I’m designing a product,” says Dodman Mirikau, a food photographer.

That means everything you see in a food picture— the flowing juices, colour, positioning of the fork, or even an onion ring — every little detail is intentional and thoroughly thought through to deliver the intended results.

The University of Nairobi graduate of Design who majored in Product and Industrial Design got into photography with his parents’ encouragement.

“They bought me my first camera, a Canon M50, and I immersed myself in learning the craft,” he says.

Since joining the industry in 2020, he has worked with 40 clients. His launchpad was a food photography competition where he emerged in second place.

“The first place went to an Ethiopian, who when reached out for a job here in Kenya recommended me. He didn’t see the need to fly to Kenya when there was talent here already,” notes the founder of Mirikau Foods.

This opportunity led to many others and he sees himself in the industry for a very long time.

This kind of art also requires speed and preciseness as some food looks best when hot or warm or when straight out of a freezer. Wait too long and something wilts, cut too soon and the juices disappear, hold improperly and the ingredients fall off.

“Let’s not forget the light. The light is everything, which is why I like shooting under natural light. It makes or breaks the picture,” Sakina says.

Food is the biggest commodity in the world. Businesses are always looking for new ways to advertise. So, why do many local food photographers still battle a lack of paid, underpaid, and unpaid work?

“In school, we’re taught the technical bits of photography but not the business side. So people have all these skills but don’t know where or how to apply them for productive employment,” Dodman says.

“In the real world, few professionals are willing to share their knowledge on the industry with newbies.”

To take a food photograph, one needs a set, camera, editing software and skills, and supporting equipment such as lights.

“Thus even in this age of smartphones, food photography is still an art. Not everyone can pull it off. It, therefore, saddens me when corporates refuse to pay for work, offering “exposure” instead,” Dodman says.

On the lack of paid, underpaid, and unpaid work, Patrick advises,

“I always ask a food photographer who’s struggling to get work if they know how to cook. You must know food because photography is a business built on trust. If you know about the product you’re shooting, it gives a client confidence because it shows you value what they value.”

Secondly, invest in learning the art. The people who pay for food photography know about it. They are well-travelled and know what to expect.

“Distinguish yourself by having the passion and drive to do more of the background work to offer value. It can be as simple as being able to create an exceptional set, mixing up the right shade of paint, or having the correct set of cutlery. It’s all in the details.”

Also, know your value to the point of walking away when your work is being undervalued. To encourage payment, he asks for a 70 percent down payment explaining that a financially committed client will show up.

“Our pictures put a lasting legacy on a moment. It’s only right that our work is valued accordingly,” Sakina says.

Advice for those considering joining the field?

“Start right now with what you have. Hire a camera because those options are available now unlike before. You can watch all the videos and read all the articles but until you take a camera and take pictures, it won’t work out for your good. Perfect your craft to gain confidence.”