food photos

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.

View our gallery of food photography and contact us to request an estimate.

Picking a theme for your food photoshoot

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.

photoshoot for food

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.

food styling

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

Everyone has a budget and everyone knows what that budget is. By sharing your budget early in the process, we can build a proposal based on that budget. Food photography rates are based on a photographer’s day rate plus expenses such as props. Food photography ranges from a white background to complex sets 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!

Where will the shoot take place?

Food photography takes space. While we work discreetly, our strobes, reflectors, flags and light stands can pose an obstruction to your restaurant patrons. We recommend cordoning off an area of your restaurant for us to work in. Hot prepared dishes are usually photographed in our clients’ restaurants, to ensure they look fresh.

But when working with packaged foods or non perishables, there’s an advantage to shooting in our photography studio. We have entire 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.

Styling and shooting food photos

We’ve been shooting food almost as long as we’ve been shooting and are excellent food stylists. While many of our clients are art directors and graphic artists, most are small business owners that don’t 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, I create lighting that flatters and brings out the texture and color of food, while my partner 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.

Step 4: 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.