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Earlier this summer, I was awarded a dream photo shoot to photograph chocolate chip cookies for my local grocery store. What sounded like a simple job at first, ended up being more challenging than expected, and in this article, I’ll walk through the process of approaching a commercial food photo shoot for a real client, with seven key tips to keep in mind.
One of your best friends in food photography is a macro lens, as it lets you zoom-in and capture small details and perspectives, that your client’s camera phone can’t. In a day where just about everyone has the ability to take pretty good food photos with their cell phone, it’s important to always create photos that your client couldn’t easily capture themselves using low level gear. Personally, I always photograph food with two camera bodies (a Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 6D) and two lenses (24-70mm f/2.8 and a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens).
Lighting-wise, you can easily use reflectors and natural lighting if it’s at your disposal, but I prefer a simple and cheap off-camera flash setup consisting of a Canon 580 EXII Speedlight flash, Yongnuo wireless flash triggers, a simple lighting stand, and a shoot through umbrella. My lighting setup is in the diagram below.
Depending on what kind of food photography quality you’re aiming for, it may also be wise to invest in a food stylist. In this case, I did not use one, but started to wish I did at certain key moments, which I’ll address later.
Generally speaking, food photography can be done just about anywhere, but you should always check with your client to see if they have a preference of shooting on site in a particular location, or if they want you to conduct the shoot in your space. In this case, the latter scenario applied. Since the photo style we were going for would be pretty cropped and zoomed in, I didn’t need a fancy kitchen or dining room setup. But I would need a variety of surfaces and props to enhance those heavily cropped images.
There tend to be two main scenarios when it comes to food photography. Sometimes the client will have a menu of dishes prepared and you need to shoot as many as possible in a given time frame, OR the client has one particular dish or menu item that they want highlighted. This assignment falls into the latter category, as the whole point was to take images of one particular item: an extraordinary large chocolate chip cookie, dubbed “The Cookie.”
My local grocery store had spent a year experimenting in the kitchen to come up with a recipe for a gigantic chocolate chip cookie, and they needed photos of the product to help with promotional marketing. These photos in particular had a very specific purpose of being blown up into large decals and posters, that would be plastered on walls and windows throughout the store, so the highest resolution photos would be needed.
After understanding the client’s basic photo needs, I always conduct research on Pinterest to get inspired and visually identify patterns among other similar photo shoots. While many clients encourage photographers to add their own twist or dose of creativity, it’s also a good idea to have a sense of traditional ways that others have executed similar photo shoots, in case your client ends up wanting a more traditional image. A quick search for “chocolate chip cookies” on Pinterest gave me a slew of ideas on different ideas to effectively photograph, “The Cookie.”
Per the researched examples that I had found, plus my personal approach to food photography, I set out to shoot these cookies using three main surfaces: a ceramic plate on a granite countertop, a wooden cutting board, and the white paper napkins and packaging that came with each cookie. The purpose was to offer the client a variety of surfaces and textures to choose from, in addition to a variety of implied settings in which “The Cookie” might be consumed.
The next photographic approach I took involved having a human model interact with my photo subject. Incorporating a human element, either by simply including a body part such as a hand holding the cookie, or a partially eaten cookie, gives the photo subject a sense of purpose and utility that the client might find helpful. It also adds a sense of scale – important to show the size of “The Cookie”.
Pretty much every food has a logical pairing, such as white wine and fish, beer and burgers, and milk and cookies. Instead of just focusing on one component, why not set the scene by introducing a natural pairing to the photo subject? This not only sets the scene, but it can also help provide scale, in this case showing how large “The Cookie” is compared to a glass of milk.
After going through the above scenarios, and putting together a first batch of photos for client feedback, I was a bit surprised when they replied saying, “These are great, but not quite fitting our ideal vision.” Luckily, I asked for feedback early in the shoot and was able to collaborate further with the client to hone in on what they were actually looking for, which were photos more to the tune of this:
While the client’s initial instructions were to produce a variety of photos of the cookie, like the ones I first delivered, it took an extra conversation with them to realize that there were two main points they really wanted to illustrate:
With these two points really emphasized, the resulting images ended up being purely macro shots, but the challenge was capturing the gooey melted chocolate centers. This is when a food stylist probably would have come in handy, but through trial and error, I was able to use my oven and microwave to re-create the melted chocolate look in my own kitchen.
Whenever you perform photography services for a client, make every effort to get your hands on the final product that has your photo(s) in use. Having proof of your published photos is excellent for building your portfolio and credibility as a photographer, not to mention it just feels really good to see your images blown up on the side of a building.
Do you have any other tips or approaches for tackling commercial food photography jobs? Let me know in the comments below!
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