food photography

If you’re reading this, then you’re already on the way to having eye popping, mouth watering and whatever other catch word-ing food photography for your restaurant or cookbook project. While the whys are mostly self explanatory, the reason for hiring a professional food photographer can be summed up in one sentence: good food photography makes people want to eat your food.

Food photography is the smartest investment a restaurant owner or cookbook publisher will ever make. With that being said, I could probably stop typing right now, but I’ve always felt that an informed client is a great client to have. I’m going to talk a little about the process of food photography and please bear with me – I am a far better photographer than I am a writer!

While this article is mostly targeted towards restaurant owners, caterers and other direct needs clientele, it’s still a good read for art directors and editors that have a goodly amount of experience working with food photographers. Knowing how your food photographer thinks and works is a nice way of building a strong working relationship.

Before contacting a food photographer, think about how you would like the photos used. Consider both your immediate needs and potential future usage as well. For example, if you need new shots for your menu board, you may also like to have new photos for your website and print advertising as well. Having all of your food photography done at once saves time, cost, effort and ensures a consistent look to the shots. Speaking of which….

Picking a theme for your food photography

When I ask about art direction, I’m often met with blank stares and replies such as “you’re the artist, you decide”. In a word, ‘no’. Creating and developing a consistent feel and ‘mood’ to your food photography is all a part of developing a unique style that sets you apart from competitors.

Two great examples of how food photography can establish a brand’s unique voice is Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola. These are two companies with extremely similar products, yet whose marketing have become near polar opposites of one another. Coca Cola is (arguably) credited with the popularization of the ‘modern’ red suited and plump Santa Claus that we know today, which has become central to all of their advertising.

As a result of this keen strategy, we’re never allowed to forget the fact that red is a fun and refreshing color and when the holidays roll around (as they tend to do once a year), Coca Cola red, along with some creative advertising, is found everywhere and boosts sales during the winter season, a historically slow time for soft drinks in which the majority of us would rather grab for a hot cup of tea than a cold glass of Coke.

Looking at Coca Cola’s food photography and advertisements, they are utterly dominated by the color red and as we’re practically assailed with images of Coca Cola red-clad Santa Claus’ everywhere during the holidays, It’s apparent that their strategy has worked out pretty well. Don’t believe me? Do you remember the classic shot of a smiling Santa Claus holding a bottle of Coke? Of course you do….So does everyone else.

Food photography is your first opportunity to speak directly to your customers. More direct and effective than anonymous reviews or Google searches alone, eye catching food photography increases appetite and influences purchasing decisions. It’s important that your food photography matches your company’s theme and vision.

hiring a food photographer

Ask yourself: what is the message that you want your food photography to convey? Authentic taste and experience? Organic, fresh ingredients? Comforting, home cooked taste? Avant Garde micro-fusion-molecular gastronomy? Knowing the answers to these questions helps you decide on a consistent feel and direction for your food photography.

For example, if I were contacted by a family owned Italian Bistro that prides itself on authentic cuisine made with fresh ingredients in a stone pizza oven, I would probably suggest an arrangement of fresh spices ranging from basil leaves and oregano, alongside vine ripened tomatoes picked at the peak of freshness and splashed with little water droplets.

In the foreground of the shot would be a piping hot pizza pie, complete with melting cheese and served on a wooden cutting board, atop a terra cotta countertop. A slice would be lifted out to highlight all of that delicious mozzarella and sauce. In the midground, a pizza cutter would be off to the side, a bit of sauce and cheese on the business end, reminding us that this pizza is freshly made. In the background would be the stone pizza oven, flames licking the inside to give a warm, authentic and inviting look.

That’s great for the family owned Italian restaurant, but would likely be terrible for a hip, upbeat downtown pizza joint featuring Skrillex music and neon lighting. If you’re picking up what I’m putting down here, it’s that every restaurant, food magazine and cookbook has a unique image and a distinct message to their customers and your food photography should reflect that image. By learning about your restaurant (and I often ‘pop in’ for a bite at my clients’ local restaurants to experience its vibe for myself), it helps me collaborate with my clients on the overall art direction, lighting, background and props.

Budgeting For Food Photography

The most common reaction when I ask a potential client about their budget is “I don’t know” or “well we’re ON a budget, but I don’t have an amount”. I then prepare a proposal, the client calls back and says “but my budget is….”. We negotiate and I write an entirely new proposal.

Everyone has a budget and everyone knows what that budget is. By sharing your budget early in the process, we save a lot of time. Food photography rates are customized on a number of factors that loosely translates to “number of shots in a day, number of days spent shooting” plus expenses. Food photography ranges from a white background to complex sets, replete with props and lots of styling elements. Complex sets reduce the number of shots we can take in a day and can raise the cost of a project, but don’t let that scare you away, if that’s what your project needs. There are almost always elements that can be scaled back to fit better within a budget, so don’t be afraid to speak up!

I work with a great deal of restaurateurs – small business owners just like myself and I can only imagine how daunting it is to walk into a photography studio with no idea what to expect. The worry is that if a client states a budget of a trillion dollars, our rates will suddenly be raised to a trillion dollars. That never happens. Relax, food photographers are here to help you. Your success is our success and your satisfaction is paramount. Quoting a fair and justifiable rate based upon a client’s needs improves our chances of receiving a referral or repeat business.

Where will the shoot take place?

While common thought may say “at our restaurant”, this isn’t always ideal or possible. Food photography takes more space than you could ever imagine – strobes, reflectors, flags and lots and lots and lots of light stands can pose an obstruction to your restaurant patrons and unless you have the ability to cordon off a large area of your restaurant or shoot before your restaurant’s first service, this may not be possible.

There’s a distinct advantage to shooting food at our photography studio or commercial kitchen – we have entire shelves upon shelves filled with cutlery, plateware and props all dedicated to food photography projects. If a specific set or prop isn’t getting the job done, we can simply grab another from the shelf, mixing and matching until we have a winner.

Who will cook the food?

Who would you like to cook the food? When we perform food photography at a restaurant, often times the restaurant cook will partially prepare dishes. There have even been a few that have styled, but this should only be an option if you are absolutely comfortable and confident in your chefs. Preparing food for photography is much, much different than preparing it for a customer and we would much rather see buckets of raw ingredients that we can work with, than a completed dish that only has minutes to be shot.

Many restaurateurs have ‘loaned’ one or more of their chefs to us to ensure that the food is prepared in a similar manner as it is for clients. This isn’t a bad idea at all. In addition, we can hire a third party chef, or prepare food ourselves. In working with several independent publishers, there have been several times in which we’ve handled every step of the process, from shopping to cooking, styling, lighting and shooting complex recipes and it’s something we’re completely comfortable with.

On the flipside, we’ve worked alongside third party stylists, art directors and chefs in commercial kitchens. We have no preference – every client is different and every project is different and we adapt to the situation as needed.

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!