Lessons learned from photographing food

I’d be the last person to call myself a professional food photographer – the detail required to properly style and light food so that it looks appetizing and delicious to eat is a real skill in its own right. But I’ve been making some progress via those Snapwire requests for photos of three images of takeout or delivery meals from local restaurants that I mentioned last month. Since I started, I’ve completed 7 of the assignments, have 2 currently in review and 3 more to take before the end of November. So total earnings will have been $420 when I am finished. I also keep thinking back to the comments from a real food photographer on the previous post and the extent to which I am hurting the industry by taking on such poorly paying assignments. It is a tricky balance between making money in this stock photography niche and maintaining the long term health of a profession. But back to the assignments – what did I learn?

Examples of food photography
From above view of wrapped chicken souvlaki gryo takeout food plated at home with napkin

Firstly – there is some pretty disgusting food around – not necessarily the image above, which, while messy, was actually quite tasty. After our early experience with a delicious curry that we ate over two substantial meals, some of the others were photographed, tasted for that evening meal and then thrown away.

Secondly, if you try to do these types of shoot and want to maximize your income per hour, you need to have everything ready like a production line. The shot itself was well defined – from above, main soft light from the right and fill in from the left with the food fully visible on a plate with white napkins on a wooden table. They even specified the approximate percentages of napkin and table surface. So to get this, I used the center section out of our dining table, two napkins and some cutlery and left everything set up and ready to go:

my studio layout for a production line shoot for flat lay food
My “studio” for rapid photographs of plated food

I have a very old and very solid Manfrotto tripod that I bought a Manfrotto 131DDB accessory arm which allows me to move my normal tripod head between the end mounts and adjustable locations along the top. At the same time I bought the table attachment that I used (at the time) for a laptop for tethered shooting but now is very useful for counter balancing the camera! With this arrangement (which I use for most of my top down studio shots) I can overhang the subject without the issue of the tripod legs being in the shot or throwing shadows across the scene. I also had a small travel tripod ready for side view shots. I recently bought a simple Neewer low profile tripod head which takes the Arca plate attached to the bottom of my camera and while it is nothing like as sturdy as my normal tripod head (a Markins head that I have had for so long I no longer remember where I bought it), it is light and reasonably solid and only costs $30. I plan to make this my travel tripod when I am keeping weight to a minimum.

The flash softbox on the right is new as well. It is currently $30 and it attaches (and folds) like an umbrella with the flash gun facing backwards into its silvered insides and the light reflects back through the white cover. This is made by Neewer as well – they seem to have some pretty good photography accessories. I bought the 80cm one when it was on sale for $24. My flashguns are old Canon ones. A long time ago I wrote about how to use Canon flashguns with a Sony if you are interested in how that bit works. The white cards act as fill in reflectors – I decided to use a second flashgun on the left to give me a bit more control. With all this in place (and I do admit it makes my studio/office a bit untidy), I get the food, my wife plates each one in turn and I run upstairs, place the plate in the right position, focus manually and fire the shutter. Then down for the next plate. The whole process takes 5 minutes or so. Then, because the exposure is manual as well, the processing is pretty similar from shot to shot – I sometimes add a radial filter to brighten the shadows in the food, but not much else is required.

Thinking about what food to buy is a big part of making this easy. The original picture in this post shows one of the issues – food like this is wrapped (and they put the fries in there as well!) which all makes for a pretty unpleasant looking image. The fries are squashed, the thing falls apart when you start to unwrap it – altogether a tricky thing to make look appetizing. So I always look for things that can be plated easily and will keep their shape and colors through the delivery process. Salads are always a good idea:

Flat lay view of antipasta salad with ham, salami peppers and lettuce in a delivery plastic box and eaten at home with napkin

You can photograph them in the box (that is allowed) but if you carefully remove the main elements and then build it up again on a plate, you can create a nicer view without much effort:

Antipasta salad with ham and salami

Some food look best from the side (and that is permitted as well if you also have a top down shot), so think about how you are going to get the best from a food choice. Sandwiches are a case in point:

This is OK from above but you have no idea what it is

The side view is much better:

Side view of “whatever this is!”

This is why I have that other tripod there – quickly detach the camera, move to the second tripod, focus and shoot. No need to adjust anything with my main setup.

Salads with larger pieces of meat as an extra are much easier to handle than shredded meat. This one took some effort to remove from its plastic box and rearrange, but the end result was OK.

Prime rib on top of house salad

With each shot, I did take different arrangements – perhaps the cutlery on the plate, a dish of dressing on the side, the dressing on the food etc. Although the request was for a copyright buyout, I kept a careful record of which specific shots were purchased and the other ones I took were then available for stock agencies (and this blog post!). So hopefully some income will come via those sales over time.

I did find some places that I never knew existed – one place (which was actually called a Hideout) was not where my GPS map said it should be – I was just in a small street of homes. After a frantic phone call and a short drive further along the road, I found a red brick building with lights along the roof but no signs of life. The door was blackened and locked. Then I saw a doorbell and instructions to look at the camera. With that I was buzzed in and found two old ladies on large slot machines (and smoking!) and a bar – nothing else. My food was ready for collection but I did wonder who would ever go there for a meal! Such is life, I guess!

Finally, if you have got this far, a request. I wrote a blog post for the Dreamstime blog competition that finishes on November 26th. For most of the time I have been well in the lead thanks to you and other readers of the Dreamstime blog. A new post went up this past week which is getting a lot of traction, and so if you have a Dreamstime account and haven’t voted, please think about doing so (if you find the article useful) by clicking on the Useful box in the top left. Here is the article. Thanks!

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6 Responses

  1. AlessandraRC says:

    I did my share of food photography for stock and my impression about my results is that entire meals do not sell as well as simple dishes. For example an Indian curry with bread Naan and rice etc versus a bowl with quinoa salad, the latter would sell many times over the former. I think that it has some to do with competition and some to do with key wording. It is easier to find a bowl of health quinoa with keywords that are more unique than it is to find an entire meal with several elements. That being said, I came across some problems in the beginning that were very annoying, like the reflectiveness of plates and silverware, something hard for the beginner that I was. Soups are also hard. After several months of struggle, a few books read, I sort of gave up on food precisely because I do not have a place where I can maintain a set up. But I still give it a try at restaurants: a few snapshots and the light is always bad, ISO high, aperture to open and those photographs seldom sell. My two cents. Thanks for your tips. Maybe I will try again. Food has remained amongst my best sellers despite it all.

    • Steven Heap says:

      Firstly – sorry, but this was caught up in spam – no idea why! Yes, I know what you mean about food – there is so much competition out there. I’m not sure if my outtakes will ever sell, but they didn’t cost anything so I might as well get them online. I did two more restaurants yesterday. Only one to go now!

  2. Miro says:

    Hi Steven, nice shoot and very well done with full home studio comfort. I start work with this food company this summer, I do this right in restaurant. I can do it very quick if restaurant is ready and with right management. This is not really about high end quality job I think, it was more about show customers how looks potential order but must looks good for sure. What is good it was flexibility. I always try shoot something for stock and I love meeting new people in my area also. I must say so far my home food photography is more tasteful for stock, maybe because I cook with love and not for sale 🙂 This days is any income from photography plus.

    • Steven Heap says:

      Hi Miro – I saw that there was the option of photographing in the restaurant, but, to be honest, some of these places are not where I want to spend much time! And taking my equipment around is harder for me than just bringing it home, although that does restrict me. I did see that they suggested that you could do a trip around taking photos in various restaurants, but I guess you would get full pretty quickly. You are right about home cooked food – much better than most of the stuff I tasted in this gig!

      • Miro says:

        You are right Steve, some place is not right for me also, I always check online how looks restaurant and area. I only have camera with cheep manual flash, umbrella an white cardboard with me. I always try shoot something from area where I am. I shoot only around 5-6 miles away from me. Good lights for your other projects.

I'm always interested in what you think - please let me know!