Restaurant Photography: Tips From A Food Photographer

When you’re exploring the world of food photography, it’s natural to try and work with restaurants. This post shares how I got my foot in the door with restaurants, charging hourly rates vs. project fees and some extra restaurant photography tips that I’ve learned along the way to make the photo shoot a fun experience for both you and your clients.

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restaurant photography tips from a food photographer

Getting Started with Restaurant Photography

Back when I was first starting out as a food photographer, I wasn’t aware of everything that went into a food shoot, especially when it came to shooting for a restaurant. There wasn’t a lot of information online and it was hard to get insight into the process. While I was still at my day job, I decided to come up with my own strategy to get my foot in the door so I could figure out how to shoot with restaurants.

How I Got My Foot In The Door

When I started approaching restaurants, my strategy was to offer a free one-hour photo shoot so I could simply introduce them to my work. If the restaurant liked the images from the shoot, they would have the option to buy an image license to use them. There was no minimum purchase required, so it was totally up to them if they decided to spend any money. It was a risk-free approach for them and an opportunity for me to learn what goes into restaurant photography.

Depending on the location of the restaurant, I would either email the restaurant or simply show up and ask to be connected with the general manager. Then, I would introduce myself and tell them about the free one-hour photo shoot.

The deal was that I would come in for one hour and shoot one food item and one drink of their choice. It was really important for me to specify these rules, because it kept me in control of my time. It’s important to set boundaries and protect your time, because people will always want more from you if you’re not clear.

After the shoot, I would edit the best images and email an online gallery to the restaurant for review. I would also include the image licensing fees in case they wanted to use any of the images for their marketing.

Some restaurants bought several images. Others didn’t buy any.

Some tried to offer me gift cards or photo credit on social media in exchange for images. But, I knew it was important to stand my ground on the image licensing. If the restaurant wanted to use any of the images, they would have to pay for them. It’s simple business.

Gift cards and photo credit are a nice bonus, but they should never act as payment for your photography.

If I had the time, I would use this exact approach with restaurants when I was traveling too. It really helped me make some great connections all across the U.S. and get familiar with how to work with a variety of different restaurants for photography.

Overall, this “one-hour shoot strategy” was a great way to get my foot in the door. And, because I was still at my day job at the time, it wasn’t a big risk for me financially. I got to shoot for a restaurant, get more experience, show them my work and get new work for my portfolio. If they ended up purchasing some images, that was even better.

Once I quit my day job, however, the free one hour shoot wasn’t a good approach for me financially. I had to figure out how to charge for restaurant photography and get them to hire me.

mixologist making a drink

Charging for Restaurant Photography

Once I was officially out on my own, I discovered that it was pretty challenging to get hired to shoot with restaurants. The one thing I kept noticing was that they desperately wanted good food photography, but there never really seemed to be a budget for it.

Hourly Rates

I started estimating my restaurant shoots with an hourly rate. I thought this would be a flexible option for the variety of budgets I was dealing with. This approach got me in with a bunch of restaurants, but just because it was a good pricing approach for them, did not mean that it was a good pricing approach for my business.

When you offer a restaurant an hourly rate, they will try to get as many images as they can in as little time as possible. It’s all in an effort to save money. An hourly rate shifts the focus from the time you actually need to “how fast can you shoot?

I tried to be accommodating in the beginning, because I was more focused on getting hired rather than finding my IDEAL clients and projects. It became a scramble. Not to mention, I wasn’t accounting for the hours after the shoot that I would spend editing. I became incredibly exhausted, felt unappreciated and was definitely underpaid.

From my experience, I don’t recommend working off an hourly rate as a food photographer. An hourly rate makes it hard to get the time you need for the project because each hour looks like an extra dollar sign to your clients.

Project Fees

Once I realized that the hourly rate wasn’t working for me, I sat down to figure out how much time I was actually putting into my restaurant photography. Each project varied in time, but the truth was, I was undercharging for my work.

I decided to shift gears and started coming up with a project fee for each of my restaurant shoots. There wasn’t a one-price-fits-all number to share anymore. Instead, I would get a lot more information about the project first and then come up with a project fee based on the client’s wishlist.

A project fee gets me the time I need, because the focus has shifted from doing the shoot fast to doing it right. The project fee also helped me educate clients to the fact that there’s more to photography than the shoot itself. The longer the shot list, the more time it would take to prepare, shoot and edit. And, more time equals more money.

Weeding Out Clients

In the beginning, it really felt like I was losing clients when I presented a project fee. But, in reality, I was only losing the clients who simply didn’t have a budget for their wishlist. Using a project fee approach has ultimately been super successful for me – not just with restaurants – but with all of my clients.

When estimating food photography for my clients, I always ask these important questions to get a better understanding of what they want. It helps me come up with a fair project fee for their project and my time.

My estimates include the following four sections to help me show my clients what actually goes into a food shoot:

  1. CREATIVE FEE
  2. IMAGE USAGE
  3. TEAM FEES (when applicable)
  4. EXPENSES

READ MORE ABOUT: HOW TO ESTIMATE A FOOD SHOOT

restaurant photography tips

Restaurant Photography Tips

Now that we’ve talked about how I got started shooting with restaurants and hourly fees vs. project fees, I want to share some restaurant photography tips that have helped me out on set. Figuring out your project fee and getting hired is only part of the process, so let’s dive into some tips on how to make your restaurant photo shoots efficient for both you and your clients.

Tip 1: Restaurant Groups vs. Individual Restaurants

Not many people realize that they can reach out to restaurant groups as opposed to an individual restaurant. A restaurant group basically consists of multiple restaurants under one umbrella. It can be more profitable for food photographers to connect with restaurant groups, because there’s a stronger possibility for more consistent work and they usually have budgets set aside for food photography. To look up local restaurant groups simply google restaurant groups in your area or the areas you want to work. 😉 You’d be amazed at how many there are to connect with.

Tip 2: Ask Questions Before Talking Money

During your initial conversations with restaurants, don’t talk money until you know more about the project. A lot of people will reach out asking what your rates are without providing any project information. Not everyone realizes that certain types of shots will take more time to plan and shoot than others.

This means there isn’t a one-price-fits-all approach with food photography. Ask questions first, so you can provide a fair estimate for their project and the time you’ll need.

Tip 3: See The Restaurant Ahead of Time

When shooting for restaurants, it’s important that you can be comfortable shooting in a variety of different spaces with different lighting situations. Seeing the space ahead of time will help you figure out where you can setup and what equipment to bring. If you’re not local, have them email you pictures of the space.

Tip 4: Set Up Near A Window

If you are a natural light shooter and don’t have experience with using artificial lights, make sure you can set up by a window. Restaurants are usually really accommodating and let photographers set up wherever they want. Claim the spot that will give you the best light.

Tip 5: Bring Multiple Lenses

When shooting with restaurants, I recommend bringing a couple of lenses to help you capture a variety of images at different perspectives. One dish could be shot a few different ways if you have some extra lenses to play with and restaurants will love getting those variations. I typically bring a wide angle for interior shots, a macro lens for those up-close detail shots and a zoom lens for some extra focal length options. I’m listing my favorite lenses for restaurant photography below which are compatible with my Nikon or Fuji cameras.

My Favorite Lenses for Restaurant Photography

READ MORE ABOUT: THE BEST LENSES FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

scallops on ice

Tip 6: Have A Messenger

Restaurants shoots are pretty fast paced. The chefs are used to preparing a lot of food quickly to keep their customers happy. During the photo shoot, it’s important to have a messenger to communicate to the kitchen when you’re ready for the next dish to come out. This will make sure that food doesn’t come out too fast or sit for too long. If there isn’t budget for you to bring an assistant, then ask the GM to provide a point person to be the messenger between you and the kitchen.

Tip 7: Shoot Variations

Shooting for a restaurant is different than shooting for a commercial brand. You will have a shot list, but the more images a restaurant can get, the better. You need to stay true to the shot list and your time, but if you can shoot some variations of the shot list, it can add significant value to what you bring to the table for your restaurant clients. When you provide a beautiful variety, they will be so grateful. And grateful clients usually results in them hiring you again without thinking twice about how much it costs.

Tip 8: Bring The Shot List With You

I always have a copy of the shot list with me at the photo shoot. It is incredibly helpful, because the chefs may or may not have the same list. It ensures that you stay on track with what was agreed to prior to the shoot. Additional requests sometimes pop up and if there’s time, you can explore those shots. But, the shot list makes it easier to avoid additional requests if there’s simply not enough time to get through everything.

A big part of working with restaurants is education. They won’t know that some shots may require more planning and time to execute.

Tip 9: Get Food Re-Plated When Needed

If food comes out looking messy, don’t hesitate to send it back to be re-plated. Try not to feel bad about doing this either. Food styling and food photography go hand-in-hand and you most likely will not have a food stylist with you on a restaurant shoot. The restaurant is depending on you to take beautiful images and will appreciate your eye if something needs to be adjusted. In my experience, chefs are usually very meticulous with food presentation and I rarely need to ask them to re-plate the food. But, plating for the camera is still very different than plating for a customer. Sometimes chefs need a little help when it comes to the plating and styling. Bring your food stylist eye with you and be prepared to offer some styling guidance if needed.

Tip 10: Get A Signed Contract Before The Shoot

Be sure to get a signed contract or agreement so you and the client are on the same page with everything prior to the photo shoot. The contract protects both you and the client by outlining the deliverables and expectations. I include the agreed project description, shot list, estimate and the terms and conditions of the shoot. A contract also opens up the discussion for how they process payments and how soon you can expect to be paid. You’re a business too, so getting all this in writing protects you and your business.

I hope this post helped you gain some extra insight into restaurant photography. It can definitely be a whirlwind, but when you know how to charge for a project and how to provide an efficient shoot experience, you’ll be providing a truly valuable experience for your restaurant clients.

Reach out with questions anytime!

Happy shooting!

READ MORE ABOUT: WHY FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY IS SO DAMN EXPENSIVE

This post contains affiliate links which means if you click or make a purchase through my site, I might make a small commission at no extra cost to you. I only promote products that I actually use and support. 

All images ©Regan Baroni 2021.

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