When you’re in the world of food photography, it’s natural to want to work with restaurants. This post shares how I got started, hourly rates vs. project fees and some of my favorite restaurant photography tips that I’ve learned along the way.
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Restaurant Photography Tips
Back when I was first starting out as a food photographer, I wasn’t aware of everything that went into a food shoot, let alone shooting for a restaurant. There wasn’t a lot of information online and it was hard to know who to talk to for some insight. So, when I was still at my day job, I came up with a strategy to get my foot in the door with restaurants. Let’s dive into how I got started with restaurant photography.
How I Got Started
When I first started approaching restaurants on the side, my strategy was to offer a free one-hour photo shoot in an effort to introduce them to me and my work. If they 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 basically 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. Showing up, eating and talking to someone directly usually resulted in me scheduling a quick introductory shoot.
I would introduce myself and tell them about the free one-hour photo shoot. I told them I would shoot one food item and one drink of their choice. It was really important for me to specify that I would only be there for one hour and would shoot one food and drink item only. These boundaries kept me in control of the photo shoot and my time.
After the shoot, I would send an online gallery for review and the price per image in case they were interested in buying any.
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 this one. If the restaurant wanted to use any of the images, they would have to pay for them.
If I had the time, I would use this approach when traveling too. It really helped me make some great connections all across the U.S. and get a taste of how different (and similar) restaurants can be when it comes to getting food photography.
Overall, this strategy was a really great learning experience for me before officially going out on my own as a food photographer. And, because I was still at my day job, it wasn’t as risky of an approach for me financially. The restaurant was introduced to me and my work, I started learning what it’s like to shoot at a restaurant and I ended up with some beautiful images to build my portfolio. And, if a restaurant did purchase some images for their marketing, yay for that!
Once I quit my day job, however, I had to figure out how to estimate a photo shoot with a restaurant. This was another learning process in itself.
Hourly Rate vs. Project Fee
After I was officially out on my own, I discovered that it was a real challenge to get hired 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.
THE HOURLY RATE
I started estimating my photo shoots for restaurants with an hourly rate. I initially 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 in an effort to save money. It shifts the focus from the time you need to produce high-quality images 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. I became incredibly exhausted and often felt unappreciated.
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 a restaurant client.
THE PROJECT FEE
Once I realized that the hourly rate just wasn’t working for me, I decided to shift gears and started coming up with a project fee. It was important for me to get the time I needed for the project and prevent the shoot from turning into a 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.
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 different, so there isn’t a one-price-fits-all pricing method. However, when coming up with an estimate for food photography, I always ask these important questions to get a better understanding of what the client wants.
All of my estimates outline the four following things when applicable:
- Creative Fee + Post Production
- Image Usage (I usually bundle usage into my creative fee for restaurants)
- Team Fees (when applicable)
- Expenses (when applicable)
Read More About: Estimating a Food Shoot
Using a project fee will weed out quite a few restaurants. It’s a larger number up front, so I was definitely a little nervous about that at first. In a way, I felt like I was losing potential clients. But, it wasn’t long before other restaurants and clients started hiring me and it opened my eyes to the fact that I wasn’t losing potential clients… I was actually finding the right clients for me and my business.
If you want to check out the structure of my restaurant estimates, grab the free download below!
Free Download: Example Estimate for Restaurant Photography
My Favorite 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 of my favorite restaurant photography tips that I’ve learned along the way. I look at restaurant photography as the “wedding photography” for food. Restaurant clients are excited for the day, they want a lot of images and you need to be quick on your feet to provide a beautiful variety for them.
ASK QUESTIONS FIRST
Don’t talk money until you know more about the project. There isn’t a one-price-fits-all approach with food photography, but a lot of potential restaurant clients will reach out asking for your rates before telling you anything about the project. Ask questions first, so you can provide a fair estimate for their project and your time.
SCOPE OUT THE RESTAURANT AHEAD OF TIME
You need to be comfortable shooting in different lighting situations since you are not shooting in a studio. Seeing the space ahead of time helps a lot, because you can figure out where you’ll want to setup and what equipment and lighting to bring with you.
SET UP NEAR A WINDOW
If you are a natural light shooter, make sure you can set up by a window. Usually a restaurant will let you shoot anywhere you want, so claim your spot with the best natural light.
BRING MINIMAL EQUIPMENT
When I’m shooting with restaurants, I try to bring very little equipment with me so I don’t take up a ton of space. Restaurants rarely want to review images during the shoot, so not having to shoot tethered with a monitor allows me to move around and do my thing.
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
Read More About: My Current Gear for Food Photography
HAVE A POINT PERSON
Restaurants are fast-paced businesses. They 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 point person 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 and sit for too long. If there isn’t budget for you to bring an assistant, then ask the GM to provide a point person for you during the shoot.
Shooting for a restaurant is a lot 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, it can add significant value to what you bring to the table for your restaurant clients.
SEND POORLY PLATED FOOD BACK
If food comes out looking sloppy, don’t hesitate to send it back to be re-plated. In my experience, chefs are usually great with food presentation and it’s not often that I’m sending food back to be re-plated. But, plating for the camera is different than plating for a customer and sometimes chefs need a little help. Bring your food stylist eye with you and be prepared to offer some styling guidance when needed.
GET A SIGNED CONTRACT/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 shoot. The contract protects both you and the client by outlining the deliverables and expectations for the photo shoot.
I hope this post helped you gain a little more insight into shooting photography with restaurants. Reach out with questions anytime!
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All images ©Regan Baroni 2021.