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Insights from Another World: Francesco Tonelli

ASMP members talk about how their previous careers led them to a life behind the lens.

ASMP: Please describe your first career path. In what capacity did you work and for how long did you do this?

Francesco Tonelli: I have been a chef for about 25 years, working in restaurants and hotels throughout Italy, Switzerland, France and Canada. For 7 years I worked as an R&D chef for La Cucina Italiana magazine in Milano, Italy. It was there that I worked with professional photographers for the first time, while styling the preparations I developed for feature shoots in the magazine. I came to the United States in 1987 to teach culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY, where I worked as a professor until 2005.

All photographs in this article © Francesco Tonelli

ASMP: For how long have you had an interest in photography? Did you study photography formally or are you self-taught?

FT: I have admired the work of food photographers since 1990, working as a food stylist for La Cucina Italiana as well as for other commercial food photographers in Milano, but at that time, it never occurred to me that I could be taking the pictures myself. I was never educated in film photography and did not even own a camera until I came to the US, when the first digital cameras became available.

I have always had a passion for technology and computers and have been a Mac user since the early 1990’s. As a professor at the CIA, I felt the need to enhance my lesson plans with visual support and decided to buy my first digital camera in 1997, an Olympus D500L, less than 1 Mpx. I used it in my classroom to take pictures of the finished demo plates to show my students the final result they were supposed to achieve with a recipe. I was one of the first professors to incorporate such visuals in the teaching material. The digital camera led me to Photoshop and the whole process became more and more intriguing as I became more acquainted with it. With the remote guidance from a friend in Italy, who happened to be one of the first photographers I styled for, I built my first soft box using a table lamp, a cardboard box and a sheet of parchment paper. The results were amazing to me compared to what I was doing before. That sparked my imagination and I started dreaming of taking professional-level images.

ASMP: What made you decide to take the leap, leave your first career and pursue photography as a business? Did you make any specific business arrangements to address the risk of going out on your own?

FT: In a couple of years I upgraded to a 3-Mpx Nikon Coolpix, which seemed a huge step forward at the time. With that, I was able to sell my first images to some clients who were subcontracted to me by the CIA. These were large corporations needing recipe developing. Selling my images along with my recipes got me really excited and made me decide to seriously move towards becoming a professional photographer.

So I invested my first earnings (as well as some savings) to buy a professional camera, my first DSLR, a Kodak 14n and a set of hot lights, spots and soft boxes. This soon proved to be a step backwards because when I used my point and shoot I was just relying on my eye and the quality of my food preparation, but when I started using the DSLR in manual mode and shooting RAW the result did not look as good as the full auto jpegs I was used too.

Therefore, I decided to do some studying about photography myself, buying and reading some books, subscribing to trade magazines and investing part of my 2004 summer vacation to attend a week-long, hands-on D-65 workshop with Seth Resnik. This was the single most critical turning point in my progress. It was amazing information that suddenly put together the pieces of a scattered puzzle of information I had gathered.

It was one of the best investments I have ever made.

From that point on it has been a continuous exciting learning curve. I joined NAPP, ASMP, subscribed to online forums and attended other workshops and seminars. In the meantime, more clients were coming along and what had started as a hobby and then extra work became more and more important, demanding and absorbing. After one year of juggling between both professions I felt I could not do a good job at both teaching and shooting. My 40th birthday was coming up and I decided it was time for a bold move. Thanks to the full support of my biggest fan (my wife and business partner Lynn) I decided to jump into a new dream and adventure, despite having two small children and more dreams, passion and ideas than a real business plan.

ASMP: What would you say was your strongest attribute in your first career path? What is your strongest attribute as a photographer?

FT: My passion for food and my passion for technology.

ASMP: Are there particular skills or contacts from your first career that have been especially helpful or have set you apart in pursuing your photography business?

FT: The skills I acquired working with food in all sort of aspects from luxury restaurants to the most rustic and authentic environment.

ASMP: In your current photography business how much do you depend on the contacts cultivated through your first career? What methods have you used to cultivate new clientele?

FT: Not much at all. I tried to use most available tools — my Web site and online presence, E-mails, printed ads and printed promos. But in the end, I believe, it all comes down to making personal contacts, building trust, building solid relationships and delivering at or above the client’s expectations.

ASMP: Did your first career prepare you for negotiating contracts or image licensing? If so, are there particular strategies you learned then that have been helpful in your current business?

FT: No.

ASMP: What was the most significant investment you made in setting up your photography business? In hindsight, would you do anything differently in establishing yourself if you had it to do over again?

FT: My time and dedication. I would try harder to take on clients whose work and reputation I respect, regardless of their budget or understanding of the photography licensing model.

ASMP: Were you aware of any particular support services or specialized training from your first career that you have availed yourself of in establishing your photography business?

FT: No.

ASMP: Have you taken advantage of real world opportunities for education, mentoring or assisting (distinct from opportunities through academic institutions) in jumpstarting your career?

FT: No, but I wish I had the opportunity to assist some of the many incredible photographers out there, but I never had the opportunity.

ASMP: What has been the biggest challenge in making the transition from your first career?

FT: Learning how to price my work and to learn the financial and legal aspects of licensing my images.

ASMP: Is there any one thing you find to be most difficult about running a photography business?

FT: Separating myself from the negotiating on the occasions when I interface without an agent.

ASMP: Can you identify specific lessons learned from your first career that members who have spent their entire careers as independent photographers might not be aware of or lack?

FT: Professional kitchens are much hotter than professional studios.

ASMP: Looking at the photography marketplace through the filter of your experience from the other side of the table, are there any particular skills or behaviors that you feel are most lacking from other independent photographers?

FT: I have no idea. I don’t work with other photographers.

ASMP: What is the most important thing you hope to accomplish as a photographer? Where do you see your career in three years time?

FT: To create my own studio, just outside of New York City, to where agencies and clients would happily travel, and where my wife and I could host them, while delivering efficient and beautiful work.

ASMP: Is there anything about your transition to photography from a past career not addressed in the previous questions that you’d like to point out?

FT: Yes. What I believe made a difference in my case was the blessing to find an agent who embraced me and guided me in developing my skills, my brand and my confidence. Their support, along the support of my wife, is what made me go through the many challenges that have arisen during this fascinating transition.