Restaurant Photography Tips from a Food Photographer

When you’re a food photographer, it’s natural to want to work with restaurants. It seems like a perfect match, right? You specialize in producing beautiful food photography and they need beautiful food photography to promote their business. This post shares how I got my foot in the door with restaurants, charging hourly rates vs. project fees and restaurant photography tips that will help your photo shoots be much more efficient.

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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 a food photo shoot let alone restaurant food photography. There wasn’t a lot of information online and it was hard to get any real 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 find out what it would be like to shoot with restaurants.

How To Approach Restaurants for Food Photography

Since there wasn’t any real information about how to approach restaurants for food photography, I decided my strategy would be to offer a free one-hour photo shoot so I could introduce them to my work. If the restaurant liked the images from the shoot, they could pay for an image license to use them. There was no minimum purchase required, though, 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.

The deal was that I would come in for one hour and shoot one food item and one drink of their choice. It was good to specify these rules, because it kept me in control of my time without it turning into shooting as many things as possible in an hour. It’s really important to set boundaries and protect your time as a photographer, because people will always want more if you’re not clear about the deliverables up front.

After the shoot, I would edit the best images and email a little 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 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.

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

I would use the same approach with restaurants when I was traveling too (only if I had the time). 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 more work added to my portfolio. If the restaurant 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.

mixologist making a drink

Restaurant Food Photography Pricing

Once I was officially out on my own, I discovered that it was pretty challenging to get hired to shoot with restaurants. A lot of restaurants 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 it wasn’t a good business approach for me.

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 spent planning for the shoot or the hours after the shoot that I would spend editing the images. 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 not accounting for my time which ultimately meant I was undercharging for my work.

I decided to shift gears and started coming up with a project fee (also known as a creative 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 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 photography. 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 their wishlist. It helps me come up with a fair estimate for their project and my time.

My estimates always include the following four sections to show my clients what will be required for their project and helps them see that there’s more involved than just taking pictures.

  • CREATIVE FEE
  • IMAGE USAGE FEES
  • TEAM FEES
  • EXPENSES
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 make my restaurant shoots more efficient and organized.

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 numbers vary depending on what your client actually needs.

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.

READ MORE ABOUT: QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE ESTIMATING FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

Tip 3: Create A PrePro

Not many people realize that the time leading up to the photo shoot is just as important as the photo shoot itself. A food shoot takes time to plan and prepare for and it’s important to get organized ahead of time. Remember the saying, “fail to plan, plan to fail?” This is pretty accurate when shooting with restaurants.

A PrePro is a pre-production document that outlines the plan for the photo shoot. This is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle because it gets everyone organized and prepared before the photo shoot and ensures that everyone is on the same page with the creative vision and deliverables. Bring the PrePro with you to keep the photo shoot on track.

The PrePro includes:

  • Team & Contact Information
  • Photo Shoot Schedule
  • Photo Shoot Process
  • Mood Boards
  • Props & Surface Notes
  • Food Styling Notes
  • The Shot List

Tip 4: See The Space

When shooting for restaurants, it’s important that you’re comfortable shooting in a variety of different spaces with different lighting situations. Seeing the space (or pictures of the space) ahead of time will help you think through the equipment you’ll need to bring with you. It will also give you some insight into their aesthetic, which can help guide the creative direction for the images.

Tip 5: Set Up Near A Window

If you are planning to shoot with natural light, make sure you can set up by a window. Restaurants are usually really accommodating and will let photographers set up wherever they want. Don’t be afraid to claim the spot that will give you the best light. If you are shooting with artificial lights, you’ll have a lot more flexibility about where you can set up and don’t necessarily have to be next to a window.

Tip 6: 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. 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. I’m listing my favorite lenses for restaurant photography below depending on if I bring my Nikon or my Fuji cameras.

Lenses for Restaurant Photography

READ MORE ABOUT: THE BEST LENSES FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY

scallops on ice

Tip 7: Have A Messenger

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, you’ll be doing a lot of back and forth yourself, which isn’t a good use of your time. Having a messenger will make sure the kitchen team knows when you’re ready for the next dish so food doesn’t come out too fast and sit for too long. If there isn’t budget for you to bring an assistant with you, then ask the GM to provide a point person to be the messenger between you and the kitchen.

Tip 8: 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.

Tip 9: Build In Overtime Fees

If you plan a 6-hour shoot with a restaurant, include an hourly overtime fee into your estimate just in case. This is a good way to protect your time if the shoot starts to run longer than planned. The restaurant can then decide if they want to go overtime and spend more money, or stick to the approved shot list and timeline.

Tip 10: 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. Bring your food stylist eye with you and be prepared to offer some food styling guidance if needed.

Tip 11: 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 because it outlines the deliverables and expectations. I include the agreed project description, the shot list, the schedule, the 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 insight into restaurant photography. Comment below and let me know your thoughts. And, as always, 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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