When you’re exploring the world of food photography, it’s natural to find yourself wanting to work with restaurants. This post shares how I got my foot in the door, charging hourly rates vs. project fees and some restaurant photography tips that I’ve learned along the way to make shooting for restaurants a valuable experience for both you and your client.
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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 shooting for a restaurant. There wasn’t a lot of information online and it was hard to get insight into the process. So, while I was still at my day job, I decided to come up with my own strategy to get my foot in the door and figure out how to shoot with restaurants.
When I first started approaching restaurants (on the side of my day job), my strategy was to offer a free one-hour photo shoot so I could introduce them to my work. If the restaurant liked the images and wanted to use them for their marketing, they could buy an image license from me. There was no minimum purchase required and it was up to them if they decided to spend any money.
Depending on the location of the restaurant, I would either email the restaurant or simply show up for a meal and ask to be connected with the general manager. 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 they kept me in control of my time and prevented any additional requests from popping up. It’s important to protect your time, because people will want more from you.
After the shoot, I would edit the best images and email an online gallery to the restaurant for review. I would also include the 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 paying for licensing. If the restaurant wanted to use any of the images, they would have to pay for them. Gift cards and photo credit are nice, but they should never act as “payment.”
If I had the time, I would use this approach with restaurants when traveling too. It really helped me make some great connections all across the U.S. and get familiar with how to work with 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 financial risk for me. 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, even better!
Once I quit my day job, however, the free one hour shoot was too risky for me financially. I had to figure out how to charge for restaurant photography.
Restaurant Photography: Charging Hourly Rates vs. Project Fees
Once I was officially out on my own, I discovered that it was pretty challenging to get hired to shoot by restaurants. Restaurant budgets are very different and although they desperately want good food photography, I was surprised how there never seemed to be a budget for it.
I started estimating my photo shoots for restaurants with an hourly rate. I thought this was a flexible option for the variety of budgets I was dealing with. However, this approach was NOT a good business decision for me.
When you approach a restaurant with 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 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 was a scramble a lot of the time. 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 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 client.
Once I realized that the hourly rate wasn’t working for me, I decided to shift gears and started coming up with a project fee per shoot. It was important for me to get the time I needed for the project (before, during and after the shoot) and prevent the shoot from turning into a mad scramble.
A project fee gets me the time I need, because the focus has shifted from doing the shoot as fast as possible to doing it right. It was also an opportunity for me to help educate my clients to the fact that the longer the shot list, the more time we’re going to need to shoot it.
Using a project fee has been super successful for me, not just with restaurants, but with all of my clients. All projects and budgets are so different and the project fee adjusts depending on the shot list, how much time I need to shoot and edit and how they plan to use the images.
When estimating food photography, I always ask these important questions to get a better understanding of what the client wants so I can come up with a fair estimate for their project and my time.
All of my estimates include the following four sections:
- Creative Fee + Post Production
- Image Usage
- Team Fees (if applicable)
- Expenses (if applicable)
Using a project fee weeded out quite a few restaurants at first, because it’s a larger number up front. In the beginning, it felt like I was losing clients. But, the truth was, I was only losing the clients that were looking for a cheaper deal. It was eye-opening to realize that while I was losing some old clients, I started gaining new clients who saw a value in high-quality food photography AND had a budget for it.
Read More About: How To Estimate a Food Shoot
Restaurant Photography Tips
Now that we’ve talked about how I got started shooting with restaurants and working off of a project fee, I want to share some restaurant photography tips that I’ve learned along the way that have helped make the experience much more efficient.
1. ASK QUESTIONS BEFORE TALKING MONEY
Don’t talk money until you know more about the project. A lot of people will reach out asking what your rates are without any project information, but you really shouldn’t answer this until you know more about what they need. There isn’t a one-price-fits-all approach with food photography, which a lot of potential restaurant clients don’t realize. Ask questions first, so you can provide a fair estimate for their project and your time.
2. SEE THE RESTAURANT AHEAD OF TIME
When shooting for restaurants, it’s important that you can be comfortable shooting in a variety of different lighting situations. Seeing the space ahead of time will help you figure out whether you can utilize natural light or if you may want to bring artificial lighting with you to the shoot.
3. 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.
4. BRING MINIMAL EQUIPMENT
When shooting with restaurants, come prepared, but usually minimal equipment is better depending on how much space you have to work with. One tip I have is to bring a variety of lenses with you. I always have a macro lens for those up mouth-watering detail shots, a zoom lens for flexible close ups and pulled back shots and a wide angle for interior shots.
My camera bag usually includes the following for restaurant photography:
- Nikon D750
- 105mm 2.8, 24-70mm 2.8 & 14-24mm 2.8
- Manfrotto Tripod
- 1 strobe with an umbrella
- 1 large diffuser
- Pocket Wizards
- Backup Batteries
- Backup Memory Cards
- Laptop & External Hard Drive
Read More About: My Favorite Food Photography Equipment
5. HAVE A MESSENGER
Restaurants shoots are very fast paced. The chefs are used to preparing a lot of food really 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.
6. 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 will most likely bring you back to shoot again.
7. BRING THE AGREED SHOT LIST WITH YOU TO THE SHOOT
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 say no to additional requests if there’s simply not enough time to get through everything.
8. IF THE FOOD LOOKS SLOPPY, GET IT RE-PLATED
If food comes out looking sloppy, don’t hesitate to send it back to be re-plated. Try not to feel bad about it either. Food styling and food photography go hand-in-hand and you most likely will not have a food stylist 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.
9. GET A SIGNED CONTRACT OR AGREEMENT
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 be a whirlwind, but when you know how to charge for a project and how to keep things organized, you’ll be able to provide a valuable experience for your restaurant clients.
Reach out with questions anytime!
Read More About: Why Food Photography Is So Damn Expensive
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All images ©Regan Baroni 2021.