If you want to be a food photographer, you’ll likely start your career shooting restaurant photography. This is how most food photographers get their start. Restaurants have smaller budgets, so they’re open to working with new photographers.
However, photographing for restaurants isn’t that easy. Not only do you have to be skilled at shooting food, but you also need to be able to shoot interiors and portraits of the chef and other staff.
Restaurant photography can be a lot of work, and there are a lot of ins-and-outs you should know to make sure you don’t end up getting burned by this very specific type of shoot.
Ask for a shot list
Before you can give a potential client an estimate, you need to know what you’ll be photographing in order to estimate how long the shoot will take you. For example, beverages can take longer to photograph than a plate of food, as managing reflections in glass can take time and be challenging.
You should base your estimates on the project scope. If you can’t estimate how long the shoot will take you, you can’t price your services accordingly. Get a breakdown of how many food images will be required, how many drinks etc.
Some restaurants want you to bring in your own surfaces, dishes, linens etc. for a more magazine editorial feel. In this case, note that it will take longer to shoot this type of scene than it will shooting their own dishes on the restaurant tables.
Scout for the location and light
Check out the location beforehand so you know what you’ll be up against in terms of lighting. You’ll also need to figure out where to set up your equipment and workspace. This should be done with agreement from the manager or proprietor.
It’s important that if the restaurant is open when you shoot, that you’re as unobtrusive to the patrons as possible. See if the client can close off a section of the restaurant where you can work without bothering anyone, and vice versa.
Discuss styling the food
When shooting for restaurants, you should make clear on the outset that you’re not a food stylist and therefore are not responsible for how the food looks.
Food styling is a different occupation. It requires a separate skill set from photography. Your job is the lighting and image capture, not the plating of the food.
Of course, you should always be aware of garnishes and stray crumbs, and generally, make sure the food looks its best for the camera. I’ve been known to send back a sloppy looking burger or two.
The point is that clients need to make sure their chef is up to the task. Otherwise, they should hire a food stylist to guide them. A food stylist can be pricey and not feasible for an already tight budget. In the case that a client refuses to hire one, they should know that the look of the food on the plate ultimately falls on them.
Make sure you state this in your contract. You have a contract, right?
Bring a food styling kit and some basic props
While you won’t be plating and styling the food, you should still bring along a basic food styling kit that includes items such as tweezers, cotton swabs, and small brushes to tame errant garnishes or clean unwanted crumbs and drips from the plate. You want to do the best job you can with what you’re given.
It’s a good idea to come prepared with some props as back up. Bring a stack of linens in various shapes, sizes, and colors, and maybe some cutlery. Sometimes clients want their own tables, flatware, and dishes shot as they are experienced by the patrons, but many have a branding direction in mind that requires a specific look or ambiance.
For example, when clients wanted me to create dark and moody images for them, I bring in small, dark dishes and vintage cutlery – the opposite of the large, white dishes you see in most restaurants.
Use a tripod
If you shoot only in natural light, be aware that most restaurants are too dark for food photography.
You’ll need to shoot by a window and use a tripod so you can decrease your shutter speed and make a longer exposure. This won’t work for photographing people, however, as they will be blurry with a slow shutter speed.
If the images will only appear on the web or in social media, you can crank up the ISO and fix the noise in your images later in post-production.
When I scout the location, I try to take a few test shots and see how they look in Lightroom before making my lighting decisions.
Have a conversation with the client about how they would like the images shot. Most restaurants only need images for their website. Interactive web design often requires that images be shot in landscape orientation.
If the client will be printing some of the images on a menu, this may require a vertical format (and a higher resolution). Make sure to discuss the best picture orientation with the client. Make note that if they want both, it can take you up to twice as long to shoot the images, as not only will you have to adjust the camera, but you’ll have to recompose each image.
I always hook up my camera to a laptop so the client can view the images captured by my camera. Shooting tethered allows you to see a larger, more accurate rendition of your shot than you can get from the screen on the back of your camera. You can use Lightroom or Capture One Pro for tethering. Make sure you have a high-quality tethering cord.
Work with the client
Ultimately, you want to produce good work that makes the client happy. For this, the client needs to be involved in the process. They must be present at the shoot to provide creative direction and approve the images that are captured. That way, they can’t come back and tell you they don’t like them, or that they don’t align with the branding or aesthetic they had in mind.
I have a clause in my contract stating that I will not begin a shoot without someone representing the restaurant present. Also that the client will forfeit the deposit if I need to pack up my things and leave. Believe me, you don’t want to get into this situation.
Collaborate with the chef
Involve the chef in the process as much as possible. When you make an appointment to scout the location, ask if you could meet the chef.
Making the chef feel like an important part of the process can make a big difference in the outcome of your shoot. The shoots that end up being the most easy and fun are the ones where the chef is enthusiastic about working with you and making the food look its best for its moment in the spotlight.