Kat Lillvis is a graphic and interactive designer- turned professional photographer who has rocked the United States from coast to coast with her innovative and client driven photography skills. She currently works as a senior planner for digital content at General Mills, and as a freelance food photographer. I have had the privilege of knowing Kat; she graciously came back to her alma mater to teach a workshop on food and product photography in one of my courses. Her expertise then was astounding, and I am so pleased to be able to experience and share more of her valuable knowledge and insight with all of you.
Kat Lillvis, Soup, 2020
During this virtual interview, I had the opportunity to discuss with Kat about what drives her passion for photography, how she stays creative in a time where social media is so prevalent, and what steps our readers can take to start booking photography clients of their own. Kat’s career journey took an unexpected turn during college, something that many of us can relate to. What began as a hobby in high school and college became her passion and career after she put her design and photography skills to use for a client. Kat shared with me that she never thought she would end up with a successful career in photography.
Food Photographer Kat Lillvis Shares How She Stays Creative and Inspired
“I pursued a minor in Photography just for the fun of it, still not thinking this is where I’d end up“
Kat tells me that, “during college I used photography as a ‘side hustle’ to help pay the bills. I shot for venue events, local magazines, and some modeling work. When I landed at my first agency gig doing design work, I saw a huge hole in my client’s work that could easily be made better if only they had some recent, appetizing photography of their food products. I volunteered to expand their library, and the rest is history!”
Kat Lillvis, Progresso, 2020
I would like to give a huge thank you to Kat for taking the time to sit down with me, share her story, and give valuable insight into the food photography field . Please enjoy the following interview between myself and Kat, I hope you find it informative and inspirational.
Is it a love for food, photography, design, or some of all of the above that drive your passion?
“I think it’s truly a blend of all these things, they really work together. My photography is made unique by the ‘design approach’ I bring to the table; I treat each frame like I would a canvas in my design programs. And of course, food is such a challenging medium that you have to have both, the know-how to produce a visually delicious product as well as passion to keep throwing yourself at these challenges. Sometimes my subject matter requires over two hours of prep for one singular frame… and the clean-up after a shoot is another job altogether. You really have to have a passion for cooking and good food to appreciate and enjoy shooting it!”
Do these play a factor on your design process and creative planning?
“I feel so fortunate that I have a background in photography to enhance my design work. For so many products and services, it takes one really good photo to convey an entire brand’s message. You can visually understand the product’s usage, the lifestyle associated with it, who it’s for and when, etc. They say ‘a picture’s worth a thousand words’ and that’s definitely true in marketing! Whenever possible, I plan my design executions around the photography I’m able to capture.”
How do you stay relevant and creative in a time when social media is so impactful, and overwhelming?
“This can be really tough; the visual market is extremely over-saturated thanks to social media. It can be very easy to get discouraged when it feels like everyone and their mother is snapping quick phone pics on Instagram that rake in the likes when your photography takes so much longer to perfect and produce a final result.”
“I think, in a way, “staying relevant” is almost something to avoid- it means you’re constantly chasing new methods or styles in your work to keep up with the Joneses… which means you aren’t spending time perfecting the things that make your work unique. In the long run this will end up being your bread and butter, not the latest color ‘filters’ or shooting trendy scenes. Interesting work speaks for itself. Pick a style and subject matter you enjoy, and go after it with everything you’ve got.”
Kat Lillvis, 2020
Kat Lillvis for Chowza, 2020
Kat Lillvis for Cheerios
Kat Lillvis for Liberte
What advice would you give to other food photographers to help them push their creativity and improve their photography?
“I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but ‘make your own projects’. Choose existing brands that embody your desired aesthetic and treat them as your own fake client. Do some research; try and learn what their target market is, the purpose of their product, and how you might visually bring those elements together. This approach gives you more of a ‘real life experience’ than simply shooting pretty images and hoping someone likes them. Plus, you’ll learn so much faster if you are practicing constantly instead of waiting for clients to show up. Afterwards, you can bring your imagery to the brand and pitch it for their use… or don’t! I found that I attracted the clients I wanted to work with by stacking my portfolio with similar brands. Like attracts like! If you can prove that you’re able to bring their competitor’s brand to life, they’ll trust you can do it for them… and they’ll pay you for it.”
Do you find that professional outlets are still the best way to get jobs? Or are social media platforms viable options for getting noticed and booking clients?
“When it comes to my freelance photography: word of mouth is king. Social media definitely helps, but I found working with local entrepreneurs was a fabulous way to spread the word about my work since Minneapolis start-ups have such a fantastic and supportive network. Once I got ‘in’ with one or two start-ups, their owners quickly shared their experience with me to their peers. It also helps to network with local design agencies- they are constantly looking for photography to document their projects. Once you prove yourself with this type of work, they’ll trust you to execute any client photography they may need. Sometimes all it takes is a strong relationship with one agency to maintain a healthy stream of freelance work all year long!”
“When in doubt, find a local “Talent Hire” services, like Creative Circle. These agencies are fantastic and do all the heavy lifting of finding and managing your clients. You can accept or deny any gigs they pass your way, making this a great way to ‘dip your toes’ into doing photography more full-time. As an added bonus, you’ll be treated as an employee and they will take care of your taxes and even, in some cases, offer insurance options. Do your research and ask for an informational interview with any service like this to make sure they’ll be acting in your best interest and supporting your career goals. Eventually, your portfolio will be stacked with strong work and you can ‘release the training wheels’ of a talent service and go at it alone.”
One great thing that helps Kat stand apart in her field is her work with food start-ups. She uses her experiences in working with a broad category of bigger, well-known brands to help guide smaller, local brands in the right direction. Photography is one main factor that helps companies succeed. Great photography and styling can reach new consumers and create intrigue around a brand or product. If you are trying to step-up your photography game, need inspiration for marketing products, or just want to learn more about photography and styling, I hope this article has given you insight and sparked some new ideas. I encourage you to check out more of her work on her website and Instagram, and reach out to her if you are a brand who is looking for a food photographer/stylist. I hope Kat’s story and advice help you stay innovative, creative, and passionate during this time of global uncertainty.
Kat Lillvis: https://www.katlillvis.com/
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