Q&A with Sarah Birks

By   Jantien Abma 6 min read

Sarah Birks is a freelance art director and prop stylist specialising in food content. With a background in fine art, a Bachelor’s degree in graphic design and an insatiable appetite for all things food, she worked on food titles for ten years before going freelance at the start of 2015.

1. Tell us a bit about what you do as an art director, prop stylist and designer. How do these roles differ or inter-relate to each other? And does one come first?

There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to this question! Almost every day is different for me, depending on what skill set a client has booked me for. I think I identify as an art director first and foremost. This involves ensuring all the people on set know what is expected of them and what type of image needs to be achieved depending on the brief; often it’s the art director’s job to make tough decisions about whether or not an image is working and what might need to be done to fix it. It’s also important to ensure that everyone feels they have a voice when it comes to expressing opinions – the best results are achieved when it’s a collaboration of ideas.

Sometimes it’s my job to create the ideas and concepts behind the shoot. This is often a combination of sourcing props for a shoot as well as art directing, and I feel this is when I do some of my best work.

However, I also source props for clients working from a provided brief, which does not require me to stay on set. I’m just as happy doing these jobs, as I enjoy seeing my initial vision expanded with other creative people’s ideas.

I actually don’t do a great deal of design work anymore since becoming a freelancer, but find my previous experience as a designer invaluable, especially when it comes to interpreting briefs and understanding how images will be used at design stage. For the same reason, I also find it useful when selecting props, as I have first-hand knowledge and experience of what kind of surfaces will allow text to read, for example. I can also guide clients who might be new to food photography.

2. How did you first get into this line of work?

I’ve had a life-long love affair with food and cooking. After finishing high school in Australia, I was accepted into the university Business degrees I had applied for. However, I made a last-minute decision to follow my heart and do something creative – up until that point I had only seen my Fine Art class as a hobby. I spent the next four years studying Graphic Design, and when I finished my degree, I set my sights on working in the magazine industry, with the end goal of working on a food title. Not tempted by the industry in Australia, I booked a flight to London and began cold-calling magazines. The following week I met with the creative director on a food magazine at the BBC and convinced her to let me come in for a few days to help. Two months of work experienced followed, by which time a permanent design role had came up at BBC Good Food magazine. I went on to spend just over eight years working on different food titles within the BBC, which was a fantastic experience and learning curve. I continued to work on other food magazines until I went freelance in February 2015.

3. You’ve worked on a number of exciting projects. Tell us about one of your favourites.

I love the variety that being freelance brings, but if I was to choose a particular highlight in my career thus far, it would have to be when I worked on Olive magazine. Everyone was really passionate about their jobs, which was completely infectious, and it was also one of the most creative roles I’ve ever had. I was very lucky to have an editor and creative director who weren’t afraid to let me take risks. Being allowed to make mistakes (and I did) is the birthplace of innovation and creativity; I’m glad I recognised this at the time and embraced it.

4. Tell us a bit about your approach to your projects. How does it differ depending on whether there are people involved in the photo shoot or if it is just food?

Before I start any new project, I try to get a good understanding of my client. Even having some insight into a company’s office politics can really help me navigate through a brief – my objective is to never waste anyone’s budget! I think my time working in-house has given me some invaluable knowledge and understanding of how much work goes into organising a photo shoot. By the time I receive a brief now, there has usually already been weeks, if not months, of planning. However, I recognise that I have so much more creative headspace no longer being a part of that process, and try to channel that into my ideas when sourcing props. Even after all these years I like to think I haven’t fatigued when it comes to producing new ideas. Trying to think of new ways to shoot a burger or a tart is sometimes easier said than done!

Shooting people with food can be quite tricky. One of the most important things to consider is scale – it’s amazing how tiny a joint of meat can look when you’re trying to capture it with a six-foot-tall man! The days on set with just myself, a food stylist and a photographer are definitely the least stressful.

5. What is it like being freelance? How does it differ to being in-house?

I have been freelance for just over two years now, and I’m still learning new things every day. In the beginning, I used to really freak out if I had a quiet week. Since the age of fourteen, I’d never stopped working, be it after school, during weekends or at University lectures. Even when I arrived in London, I used to work at least 20 hours a week in a bar to pay my rent while doing 38+hours of unpaid work experience. I love being busy and often think I do my best work when there is a certain amount of pressure applied – it’s a fine line though, and I’m constantly re-evaluating the balance. I’m not very good at saying ‘No’, but I am getting better at setting boundaries.

The biggest difference being freelance to in-house is the stress. I still have stressful times, buts it’s generally self-inflicted. I wouldn’t say I was a perfectionist, but I’m happiest when I know that I have done my best. I have worked with some great people while in-house and not being part of a permanent team is something I do miss, but I also love the community of prop stylists I get to see when I’m out sourcing props. On the rare occasions when we’re not all rushing about trying to find the perfect spoon, they’re a great bunch of people to chat to.

Possibly in the future I would consider going back in-house, but for now I’m so grateful that I get to earn a living doing what I love, spend time with people I respect and whose company I enjoy – it often doesn’t even feel like work.

6. Do you have any predictions for new cookery or food trends?

Predicting future food trends is not something I proclaim to be good at, but there is definitely a move towards more environmentally friendly ways of eating, be it fewer animal products or more seasonally led, and fewer imported, fruit and vegetables. I think people are becoming much more aware of the impact our food consumption has, not only on the long-term health of the environment, but also on our bank accounts. We’re also eating fewer of our meals at dinner tables, so the trend to serve food in bowls has increased, which is a shame as food looks so much better shot on a plate!