Restaurant Photography Tips from a Food Photographer

Food photography and restaurants go hand-in-hand. This post shares how to approach restaurants for food photography, restaurant photography pricing and restaurant photography tips to help you capture a beautiful gallery of images.

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restaurant photography tips

Restaurant Food Photography

Back when I was first starting out as a food photographer, I didn’t know what went into restaurant food photography. There wasn’t a lot of information online and it was hard to get any real insight into the process. I decided to come up with my own strategy for how to approach restaurants for food photography, so I could get some experience.

Photographer’s Note: If you shoot food & restaurant photos with your iPhone, check out my signature course, Mastering iPhone Food Photography. This is a beginner-friendly, online course focusing on how to use the iPhone camera for food photography. I share professional knowledge & insight in a series of video lessons, screen recordings and behind the scenes demonstrations to help you significantly improve your iPhone food images so you can stand out in the food industry.

How To Approach Restaurants for Food Photography

My strategy for approaching restaurants for food photography was to offer a free one-hour photo shoot. I would be at their location for one hour and would shoot one food item and one drink of their choice. It was important to set these limitations, because I didn’t want to be taken advantage of since I was offering the photo shoot for free.

After the photo shoot, I would edit and finalize the images into a gallery for them to review. If they wanted to use any of the images for their business, they could buy an image license to use the images. There was no minimum purchase required and it left the ball completely in their court if they were going to spend any money or not.

My “free one hour shoot” strategy got me into a lot of restaurants.

Some restaurants ended up buying several images. Others didn’t buy any. Some tried to offer me gift cards or photo credit 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.

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

Overall, this “free 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. I got more experience. I got to introduce them to my work. And, I got new work to add to my portfolio. If a restaurant wanted to purchase an image license, even better!

Once I had started developing a solid food photography portfolio, I had to figure out my restaurant photography pricing.

mixologist making a drink

Restaurant Food Photography Pricing

Hourly Rates

In the beginning, 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 it wasn’t a good business approach for me or my time.

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. To a restaurant, it makes sense, because they’re trying to save money. To a photographer, an hourly rate shifts the focus from the time you actually need to “how fast can you shoot?

I really tried to be accommodating at first, but my restaurant work started becoming a scramble. Not to mention, I really wasn’t accounting for the hours spent planning for the shoot or the hours after the shoot that I would spend editing and finalizing the images. I became exhausted, felt unappreciated and was definitely underpaid for the hours I was putting into it.

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 the restaurant.

Project Fees

I had to regroup and figure out how to charge for restaurant photography. I ultimately decided to start charging a project fee (also known as a creative fee). This fee would accommodate for my time before the shoot, during the shoot and after the shoot.

A project fee is a very great approach for food photographers, because it accommodates for the time you need to do the job. More importantly, the focus has shifted from doing the shoot fast to doing it right. Yes, it is a larger number up front, but I’d rather be more transparent about this with my clients so there aren’t any surprises later.

The longer the shot list, the more time it will take to shoot and edit. And, more time equals more money.

Before talking numbers, however, I ask important questions about what the restaurant wants. This helps my restaurant clients start thinking more critically about what they need (rather than just focusing on my rates). Once I have a better idea of their creative vision and shot list, I can figure out how much time I will need. Then, I can clearly state this in the estimate for them to review.

How To Estimate Restaurant Photography

A food photography estimate should include the following sections:

  • CREATIVE FEE

This includes the prep time, the shoot time and the editing time.

  • IMAGE USAGE FEES

This includes the number of images, how the client will get to use the images and for how long. Sometimes this fee can be bundled into the creative fee. I usually provide a separate image license agreement from the estimate so the usage terms are clear and everyone is on the same page.

  • TEAM FEES

This may or may not apply for restaurant photography, but if you do need a team, you need to include their rates and overtime fees.

  • EXPENSES

Expenses will always vary per shoot, but could include food, props, surfaces, studio rental fees and travel.

Check out this post that dives deeper on each of these sections.

READ MORE ABOUT: WHY FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY IS SO DAMN EXPENSIVE

restaurant photography tips

Restaurant Photography Tips

Now that we’ve got some of the business-talk out of the way, let’s dive into some game-changing restaurant photography tips for how to capture beautiful food images. The first few tips focus on “planning ahead” to ensure a successful restaurant food shoot. The last few steps focus on tips for capturing beautiful food photography in a restaurant.

Tip 1: Figure out the shot list & create a pre-pro

Before any food photography shoot, it’s incredibly helpful to write out the shot list and develop a pre-pro with the client. A pre-pro is a pre-production document that defines the creative vision and the shot list for the shoot so everyone is on the same page. It includes the team contact information, mood boards, props & surfaces (if using them), the shot list and the schedule. This is a great way to ensure that you and the client are aligned on the expectations and deliverables ahead of time. Bring the pre-pro and shot list with you to the photo shoot to help everyone stay on track.

Tip 2: Plan for your lighting

Restaurants vary in the type of lighting you’ll have to work with so it’s important to be comfortable shooting in a variety of locations with varying light. Some restaurants have lots of windows with lots of gorgeous natural light pouring in. Others have a darker vibe, or fewer much windows. In a nutshell, you need to figure out if you will be shooting with natural light or artificial light and plan your equipment accordingly.

Natural Light Tips

If the restaurant has enough natural light, you need to plan to shoot next to a window. It’s ok to reserve a table or move tables around so you have a designated spot with enough light. The restaurant will appreciate you taking the lead to make sure you have what you need.

If you plan to shoot with natural light and there isn’t a lot of natural light to work with, I highly recommend bringing a tripod to help you out. This will allow you to a lot of flexibility with your camera settings, including much slower shutter speeds, and will help you avoid blurry images.

If you don’t have a tripod and need to hold your camera, you could bump up your ISO settings to let in more light, but you’ll want to be careful of capturing grainy-looking images. ISO settings will vary per camera – some can handle higher ISO settings and some can’t. If you do need to use a high ISO setting where it adds grain/noise to your images, you could try to fix this during editing by increasing the noise reduction.

READ MORE ABOUT: HOW TO TAKE CONTROL OF NATURAL LIGHT

Artificial Light Tips

Sometimes restaurants will have a much darker vibe to them, which is really beautiful for dining, but can be tricky for food photography without an extra light to help you. I usually can get away with bringing one artificial light and a softbox (or an umbrella) with me. Be sure to get your equipment setup and test your light before the food comes out, so you can be efficient once the kitchen starts sending out the dishes they want to shoot.

If working with artificial lights isn’t something you’re comfortable with yet, be careful about what restaurants you try to work with. Not all restaurants will have beautiful natural light pouring in. It’s important to feel comfortable in any type of space and learning more about artificial light will open a lot more doors for you.

READ MORE ABOUT: GETTING STARTED WITH ARTIFICIAL LIGHTING

Tip 3: Bring multiple lenses

For restaurant food photography, I recommend bringing different lenses to help you capture a variety of perspectives. One dish could be shot a few different ways and different lenses will come in handy for that. However, if you only have one lens, that’s ok too. If you’re shooting with a fixed focal length, plan to move around a bit. If you have a zoom lens, you can adjust the lens to different focal lengths.

I typically bring a wide angle for interior shots, a macro lens for those up-close detail shots and a zoom lens for some different focal length options. See my lens lineup below depending on if I’m using my Nikon or my FujiFilm camera.

Lenses for Restaurant Photography

Tip: If you’re shooting with your iPhone camera, Moment Lenses are separate lenses that you can attach to your iPhone for a variety of different perspectives.

READ MORE ABOUT: THE BEST LENSES FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

Tip 4: Have a messenger on set

During restaurant photo shoots, it’s important to have a messenger to help communicate to the kitchen when you’re ready for the next dish to come out. Otherwise, the food will come out too fast and end up sitting for too long – and ultimately will need to be re-plated.

Having a messenger to help you will help the dishes come out a pace that works for you. Ask the GM to provide a point person to be the messenger between you and the kitchen during your photo shoot.

scallops on ice

Tip 5: Take an iPhone Food Photography Course

If you shoot food & restaurant photos with your iPhone, check out my signature course, Mastering iPhone Food Photography. This is a beginner-friendly, online course focusing on how to use the iPhone camera for food photography. I share professional knowledge & insight in a series of video lessons, screen recordings and behind the scenes demonstrations to help you significantly improve your iPhone food images so you can stand out in the food industry. Stop by and see if it’s a good fit for you! 👍

Tip 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. Stay true to your time, but keep in mind that one plate of food could be shot from a couple of different angles. Remember the three popular angles in food photography during your photo shoot: overhead, straight on and 3/4 angle. If you can capture one dish at a couple of these angles, it can add significant value to what you bring to the table for your restaurant clients.

photography angles and composition

Tip 7: Consider using surfaces & backdrops

Depending on the creative vision for the images (which should be discussed before the photo shoot), having some surface and/or backdrop variety can be really helpful in the creation of your food images. They can help bring a dark and moody vibe or light and airy vibe to life. Notice how the surfaces in the images below create a totally different mood?

restaurant photography tips

Tip 8: Use unique dishes & glassware

Restaurants usually get pretty creative in what dishes they decide to use in their restaurant. Don’t be afraid to include them in your images. Not everything has to be shot on a round white plate. 😉

restaurant photography tips

Tip 9: Add a human element

Adding a human element (like a hand) can be really effective and helps provide variety in your client’s image gallery. Just make sure the person isn’t wearing anything too distracting. Although adding a human element is a really nice addition, you still want the food to be the star of the image.

restaurant photography tips

Tip 10: Get up close

Remember how I said to bring extra lenses? If you have a good macro lens, bring it! This will help you get up close and personal to the chef’s creative details. Capturing a good macro shot is another way to get ‘variations’ of one plate. If you shoot pulled back for one shot, get up close for the next shot. This type of variety in a client’s image gallery is impressive.

restaurant photography tips

Tip 11: Capture some interior shots

Capturing the ambiance of the restaurant is always a good idea. I highly recommend adding interior shots to the shot list if the restaurant hasn’t already thought of that (be sure to accommodate for these shots in your estimate). There’s a lot of planning that goes into the vibe and the experience of a restaurant and your restaurant clients usually will want to show this off. My recommendation is to shoot interior shots FIRST when it’s clean and organized. Then, dive into the food shots. The food portion of the shoot usually results in more of a mess which takes time to clean up, so getting interior shots done first is a much more efficient use of the time you have.

restaurant photography tips
restaurant photography tips

I hope you found these restaurant photography tips helpful! Photo shoots at restaurants are a lot of fun! They’re fast-paced and you can usually have a lot of creative freedom on set. Use these tips as a guide and reach out with questions anytime!

Happy Creating!

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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