Styling and shooting food photography
The number one question we are asked by art directors and restaurant owners is “do you have a food stylist?” The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. We’ve been shooting food almost as long as we’ve been shooting, period. While a large percentage of our clients are art directors and graphic artists, a much larger percentage of our clients are small business owners that perhaps do not have the resources to pay for a third party stylist. As such, learning to style food was an act of necessity, but over the years it has become one of our major strengths as a company.
During a food photography session, my job is to create lighting that flatters and brings out the texture and color of food, while my partner Sarah handles all aspects of positioning, decorating and styling food.
Step 1: After receiving a signed contract and retainer from a client, we have an internal brainstorming session to go over ideas. This is where your restaurant, cookbook and magazine’s unique vision or theme come into play. While we have hundreds of props, I don’t believe there has ever been a shoot in which we haven’t needed to purchase anything. After a bit of shopping and brainstorming, we create one or more ‘concept’ sets and then call you, the client, to show you what we’ve come up with.
Step 2: We meet with you at our Los Angeles photography studio to discuss art direction. By this time, we have a few ideas where we’d like to go and we create a full presentation of the plateware, cutlery and concepts we plan on using. During this creative meeting, we take our clients’ ideas and criticisms into consideration. Everything from “I don’t like the color of that napkin” to “move the fork over here” is carefully weighed and considered until everyone is satisfied.
Remember, this is your project – even if we disagree, you have the final say, so don’t be afraid to speak up and tell us what you like or don’t like!
Step 3: We schedule a day (or days) for principle photography. Setting up a shot can take minutes or can take hours. By this time, we have an idea of what we want the shots to look like and it’s a matter of tweaking and playing with props and lighting to make that vision a reality. This is a process that is never rushed, as lighting is everything when it comes to food photography.
Remember: good lighting and composition will make customers want to eat your food. I’ve shot food photography with a window and a piece of white cardboard and I’ve shot food photography with 8 strobes and as many reflectors. It all depends on how elaborate the set is and the look we’re going for.
All the time, clients will say “I need you to come in and shoot a dozen items. It should only take you an hour or two!” No. Never presume or assume to know how long a job will take and never trust a photographer that can shoot a whole menu in “an hour or two”. Professional food photography is a slow and exacting science.
While we’re setting up lighting, we’re using some blatantly fake ‘dummy’ food for our test shots. Rubber chickens, wax apples and pieces of wood make great stand ins for the real thing; anything to approximate the color, texture and shape as the real thing. Once the real food is brought in, the clock starts ticking. There’s only so many minutes or hours you can shoot food items before they need to be replaced (unless your working with fast food – I hear that stuff never decomposes!). The key is to get it right the first time if at all possible, hence the ‘dummy’ food.
Once we have magic with the lights, now comes the styling. The main dish is the hero of the shoot and everything else in the shot, from the props to the side dishes are arranged to draw attention to the hero. This is where the stylist comes in and believe me, this is the slowest part of the food photography process. Picking through 300 sliced green onions to find the perfect 10, sculpting mashed potatoes into the perfect ice cream scoop and pouring motor oil over pancakes to make a beautiful maple syrup is a practice of experimentation, time and patience. I’ll gloss over what goes into food styling, but some of it will surprise you. Again, having access to the resources of our studio is beneficial.
As we shoot, our images are sent directly to a notebook where the images are viewed in high resolution, reshot if need be. We use different angles, props and styling techniques until we feel we have what we need. Can you as the client be present for this? Sure, but I’ll be honest here – watching food photography is as boring as watching paint dry and it’s more difficult to work with someone over our shoulders. Believe me, you have a thousand better and more exciting things to do.
Of note: food photography food is discarded without exception after the shoot is over. This is worth mentioning, as when we were shooting for a local Los Angeles sushi restaurant a few years back (sushi is one of those foods that must be photographed at the restaurant), the owner came out and asked if we were done shooting a particular dish, as a customer had ordered it and she wished to serve it to them. The look on our faces could have stopped a clock – between handing food with our bare hands, poking and prodding it with tweezers and toothpicks, basting it with glycerin, water or cooking oil for shine, you cannot serve this to your customers afterwards.
Step 4: After we’ve picked through our shots, we prepare a presentation of the unedited photos for our clients to pick the final shots for editing. It is during this time that we collect final payment for the shoot.
Step 5: The selected photos are edited and uploaded to an online gallery and the client is given a link to download their final photos in full resolution. Huzzah, you’ve just complete your first professional food photography shoot and I guarantee that you’re happy as a cool cat on a hot day right about now!