Award-winning food photographer and stylist Teena Agnel on what makes her creations ‘click’

Making food look good for the camera is no mean feat. Qiraat Attar captures the story of commercial food photographer & stylist Teena Agnel who revived a long-dormant love for food and pointed her lens at cuisines turning it into a thriving business

When you look at a billboard with chocolate ice-cream, a scrumptious pizza, or a juicy burger, and your stomach rumbles, that is you unknowingly acknowledging the food photographer and the stylist for having done a delicious job. Teena Agnel is one such maestro, an international-award-winning artist behind the lens, with her life recipe composed of a scoop of unwavering discipline, a dash of multi-tasking abilities, and topped off with the pursuit of perfection. 

Armed with the belief that we owe it to ourselves to craft a life that gives us joy and fulfillment, Teena Agnel spills the beans on her hustle, leveling up from amateur to expert at food photography and styling, and her crucial balancing act between advancing her passion and managing family life.

Loading the blank reel

Teena’s life trajectory will find resonance among many women. A software professional who moved to the USA after marriage, visa conundrums led to a long break from the corporate workforce. “I used to work in India, but the year I moved to the USA, the visa situation changed, and I was stuck with a dependent visa.” This situation made it more difficult for Teena to find a job for many years. “Once you’ve been home too long, companies don’t want to hire you because of the career gap. Being in a foreign country and out of the workforce, your confidence takes a nosedive.”

But there were greater plans awaiting her. It was after watching the movie ‘Julie and Julia’, portraying the life of the culinary powerhouse Julia Child that Teena was hit with a burst of inspiration and the idea of blogging struck her. She was unaware that what started as a way to hone her skills would instead reacquaint her with her long-dormant passion and turn her career around.

“Once you’ve been home too long, companies don’t want to hire you because of the career gap

Practice shots

“I was constantly trying out new recipes. When I decided to start blogging, I knew that photography played a major role. So, I got myself my first DSLR. However, the initial clicks were awful. That’s when I started researching Food Photography. I came across amazing photography e-books from blogs like ‘Pinch of Yum’ and ‘Recipe Tin Eats’, which helped me understand the basics of DSLR, photography, and styling.”

Teena vivaciously also talks about Rachel, creator of ‘Two Loves Studio’, and ardently followed her advice, having learned valuable lessons from her courses. “She’s got this wonderful website. And I love her style of photography – a light, airy, and minimalist look where the food is always the hero.”

California Pizza Kitchen
1484 by Puro
Galerie Du The by Ahmad Tea
Sugarmoo Desserts
AJ Kitchen

Finding her footing

After moving to Dubai, Teena quickly realized her niche; her first client was a nutritionist who wanted her to click the recipes she had created for her clients, which she also converted into a cookbook. “Later, I was approached by another client asking, ‘Would you like to be a food stylist?’ And I didn’t even know that food styling existed,” she laughs.

Once she decided to turn her passion into a business, Teena obtained a freelance license, thereby allowing her to enter the UAE market. Starting with local clients, she built up her portfolio to include some of the most quality brands in the region, with international brands soon following suit.

Behind the scenes

We take this opportunity to pick her brains and ask for a peek behind the curtain. We have all seen the mouth-watering ads of cheesy pizzas and stacked-yet-sloppy burgers. So how do they achieve the look?

“When it comes to restaurant photography, the food doesn’t stay on the set for long. So, you can use simple styling techniques like brushing oil on the meat and spraying water on salads. A solution of glycerin and water creates a condensation effect on a glass of cold drink. If you’re photographing pasta, brush it with its sauce just before the shot so it looks fresh. When I style food in a restaurant setting, I always use my gloves and stick to water as a spray. In commercial photography, where the food is going to be featured on packaging or billboards, typically three or four items are done in a full day which can stretch to 10-12 hours, sometimes more.”

Employing some nifty ‘tricks of the trade’, there is more here than what meets the eye. “If shooting a poster campaign for an ice cream brand, most of the time it’s not real ice cream. It could be mashed potatoes or even shortening and sugar mixed with color. Having said that, some brands also shoot with real ice-cream. In that case, the team must work in a cold and controlled environment. It may sound deceptive, but there’s a logical reason for it. Ice-cream starts melting within a couple of minutes. To create the look of the freshly scooped ice-cream is very tricky, a craft very few food stylists have mastered.”

Her USP

Teena caters exclusively to restaurants and food-related brands, creating images and content for their menus, social media, websites, catalogues, and online delivery platforms.

What keeps Teena’s clients coming back is that she provides both food photography and styling together, with her own range of props and backdrops, which significantly brings down their costs without compromising quality. Her clients also hail her professionalism and detail-oriented approach. In addition, having taken on a full-time assistant to help her during shoots, she is free to focus her energies creatively on delivering her best work. The result is a glowing portfolio that is as aesthetically jaw-dropping as it is skillful.

She has been awarded Food Photographer of 2021/22, UAE

The hidden lows

The harder the journey, the sweeter is the reward. Teena is no stranger to this. “Even when people are successful, they doubt themselves. I do feel discouraged sometimes, and some days can be extremely tiring. But at the end of the day, I tell myself, I would rather be working hard than doing nothing. While a lot of people wish to retire early, I am quite the opposite as I would rather keep working until my very last day.” She says with a smile.

She recalls being a stay-at-home mom before starting her own endeavor, balancing home while working on her very first blog posts. “In America, such as the lifestyle that my husband and I were the cooks, the cleaner, the nanny, pretty much everything. Since my older one was then only one-and-half years old, it took me about five months to launch my first recipe blog (www.artofpalate.com) with 26 recipes. I am glad I took that small step.”

With her move to Dubai, the pressure eased, and she breathed a sigh of relief. “The best thing about Dubai for me was I could find help. I had my second child by then. We had a nanny who would come for a couple of hours in the morning and sit with my baby while I would create my recipes. I would edit at night after putting my baby to bed. Family is such an important part of our life journey. We were blessed to have my parents, parents-in-law, siblings, and cousins visiting more frequently, providing additional support. Having help at home created the avenue of pursuing my career seriously and dedicating my energy to it. Even today, there are days my shoots go on for 16 hours sometimes, so having help is indispensable.”

Teena adding the touch of perfection in her shoot

Through Teena’s lens of experience

If you are someone looking to pursue food photography but are confused by the sheer volume of resources out there, Teena has some remarkably valuable advice. “Get a basic DSLR based on your budget, a 50-mm lens and start experimenting with natural light. I started with a cropped sensor camera and a 50 mm lens. Now I use a full-frame camera (Canon 5D Mark IV). 100-mm macro lens is my go-to lens for almost all my work.”

What about high-quality smartphones? “While they do work for flat lays and lifestyle shots, there is limited scope for what you can do with a smartphone. On the other hand, a DSLR offers great control and gives you more room for creativity.”

Teena’s foray into this creative profession and her learning curve may seem unfathomable to many, especially women who reluctantly sacrifice their careers for domesticity. She asserts, “Age is just a number. Your mid-thirties or forties or even fifties are not too late; there are many who start their career at that stage and beyond. Also, never call your business a hobby if you want to generate income from it. Today, despite having a professional portfolio and a body of work, people still wonder if this is only my pastime.”

When I decided to start blogging, I knew that photography played a major role

Family dynamics

Given the creative and unconventional nature of her profession, it took time for even her parents to fully understand this type of business. “Sometimes my dad would say, get a job,” she smiles. “To date, they are surprised that there is a demand for such niche skills.” Nonetheless, her family has been supportive, be it her husband or her sister. Both are her best friends and her biggest critics. Her kids often proudly proclaim that she is the world’s best chef.

With so many milestones reached, including the Prestige award as UAE’s Food Photographer for the year 2021, Teena is still buzzing with energy and anticipation for her future endeavors. “I have recreated and photographed more than 300 recipes from around the world and had the pleasure of working with some amazing brands, brands I could never dream of until a few years ago. I hope I can continue my creative journey. Despite it all, there is so much more learning to do.”

Life comes full circle, as she expresses her desire to help women rejoin the workforce after having taken a hiatus for reasons beyond their control. “When a gap in their resume causes them to stay home, it disappoints and disheartens them. I wholeheartedly empathize with these women because I have myself been in this position.” Here’s hoping that this story reminds them that with a bit of courage and perseverance, there is a life waiting to be crafted on their terms, for their story is still unfinished!

You can reach Teena at [email protected] or www.teenaagnel.com

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