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9 Tips for Mouthwatering Commercial Food Photography

Tips for mouthwatering commercial food photos

Have you been tasked with photographing food for a client? Or are you simply looking to level up your commercial food photography game?

You’ve come to the right place.

In this article, I share my best tips for commercial food photoshoots, including:

  • How to find plenty of photographic inspiration
  • How to create a variety of beautiful setups
  • How to increase your odds of getting hired a second time
  • Much more!

While these tips apply to all commercial food photography, throughout this article, I do reference a photoshoot where I was tasked with capturing chocolate chip cookies for my local grocery store. I use the cookie session to illustrate my various points (and I show you the various cookie images I created during the session).

Ready to learn how to capture great commercial food photos for clients? Let’s get started!

1. Carefully select your gear

Food photography has special equipment requirements – and when you’re doing commercial food photography, you have to be even more careful when choosing gear, as you must make sure you satisfy all your client’s needs.

Starting with food photography cameras: You can use pretty much any APS-C or full-frame mirrorless or DSLR model, though higher-resolution cameras are generally better (especially if your client plans to print big). And if you plan to shoot handheld, then class-leading low-light capabilities are essential; they’ll keep your images looking clean even when you’re working at high ISOs.

Lens choice depends much more heavily on the specific project, but macro glass almost always comes in handy. These close-focusing lenses will let you zoom in to capture small details and perspectives – and in a day and age where just about everyone can take decent photos with a smartphone, it’s important to create images that your client can’t easily capture on their own. It can also be a good idea to bring a wide-to-standard zoom, such as a 24-70mm lens; that way, you can capture a variety of food compositions from a variety of angles.

(I always photograph food with two camera bodies – a Canon 5D Mark III and a Canon 6D – as well as two lenses – a 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 100mm f/2.8 macro lens.)

Lighting-wise, you can easily use reflectors and natural lighting (assuming the room where you plan to work has windows), but I prefer a simple and cheap off-camera flash setup consisting of a single speedlight, a shoot-through umbrella, and a reflector. (You’ll also need a lighting stand to hold the flash.)

Here’s my lighting setup in action (as used during my cookie photoshoot):

Commercial food photography tips

2. Choose the right location (and set up the room)

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. For instance, they might want to shoot on-site in a particular location, in which case you’ll need to bring all your gear and (potentially) some additional items, such as a table, a chair, linens, and plates.

If your client doesn’t have a preference, then you’re free to choose the location. If you plan to use natural light, make sure you choose a place with nice window lighting. And if you need to create an entire table setup, do your food photoshoot in an area with plenty of space.

By the way, there’s nothing wrong with conducting the shoot in your own personal studio as long as you have all the necessary props on hand. I knew my cookie photoshoot would feature lots of close-ups, so a fancy kitchen or dining room setup was unnecessary; instead, I worked in my own space but made sure I had a variety of surfaces and props to enhance my images.

3. Understand the client’s needs

There tend to be two main commercial food photography scenarios. Sometimes, the client will have a menu of prepared dishes and you’ll need to shoot as many as possible in a given time frame. Other times, the client will have one particular dish or menu item they want you to highlight.

Additionally, some clients are very particular and have specific moods or even shot ideas in mind – whereas other clients take a more laid-back approach that essentially amounts to, “Okay, just do your thing.”

It’s important that you know what your client wants in advance. That way, everyone’s happy, and you won’t need to do any reshooting. So discuss with your client what they’re looking for, and maybe mention a few of your ideas to see what they think. Ask if they have any example images that you can look at, and make sure you know how the images will be used (a magazine image will require a different compositional and technical approach than a Facebook cover photo, for example).

For my example assignment, the grocery store wanted me to focus solely on one particular item: an extraordinarily large chocolate chip cookie, dubbed “The Cookie.” The store had spent a year experimenting to come up with a special recipe, and they needed photos to help with promotional marketing, which would be blown up into large decals and posters (and would be plastered on walls and windows throughout the store). That meant I would need to produce files with the highest-possible resolutions, use ultra-sharp lenses, and ensure my images were technically perfect.

Commercial food photography tips

4. Find ideas using Pinterest

Even once I understand my client’s basic photo needs, I always head over to Pinterest and conduct some research. I look at other photoshoots that featured similar subjects and shooting requirements, and I try to identify patterns and generate ideas for my own work.

Many clients encourage photographers to add their own twist or dose of creativity, but it’s also important to understand the ways others have executed similar photoshoots (and it can be a good idea to capture a few of these more traditional shots during your commercial food session, just in case your client ends up wanting a more conventional image).

A quick search for “chocolate chip cookies” on Pinterest gave me a slew of different ideas for effectively photographing “The Cookie.” And while I would never copy images directly, it’s perfectly acceptable to incorporate elements from other photoshoots into your shots.

5. Use a variety of surfaces

Whenever you set up a room for a commercial food photoshoot, make sure you have plenty of surfaces on hand, such as:

  • Wood (in various colors)
  • Plates
  • Marble
  • Cutting boards
  • Paper

The more surfaces you have, the more shots you’ll be able to create, and the more likely it is that you’ll satisfy your client. It’s good to offer the client a variety of surfaces and textures to choose from – plus, if you use several surfaces, your client can put together a sequence of photos that imply the food item is eaten in many different scenarios.

Per the researched examples that I had found, plus my own personal approach to food photography, I set out to shoot the cookies using three main surfaces: a ceramic plate on a granite countertop, a wooden cutting board, and the white paper napkins and packaging that comes with each cookie.

Commercial food photography tips

6. Incorporate people and action into the scene

Beginner food photographers often seek to show food on its own

…yet it’s possible to create especially engaging, relatable photos by including people in the frame.

Note that you don’t need to show whole bodies or faces; you can simply include a hand holding a food item, a hand sprinkling ingredients, or an apron in the background.

For my cookie shoot, I took some photos that included a person holding out the cookie. I wanted to give the image a sense of purpose that the client might find helpful, and I also wanted to add a sense of scale so I could communicate the size of the giant dessert.

Commercial food photography tips

7. Use ingredients and pairings

Pretty much every food has a logical pairing. There’s white wine and fish, beer and burgers, and milk and cookies.

So determine a food that pairs well with the item you’re photographing. Then, instead of just focusing on the main subject, why not set the scene by introducing that natural pairing?

This approach can also make the image feel more authentic, it can help the viewer imagine the way the food would be eaten, and it can help provide scale, which is important if your food item is unusually small or large. In my case, I added a glass of milk to emphasize the cookies’ size:

Commercial food photography tips

8. Be open to feedback and further collaboration

As soon as you’ve finished your shoot, I encourage you to put together a quick first batch of photos for client feedback. The images don’t have to be perfect; just select a variety of shots, do a fast edit, and send them along. (Of course, make it clear to the client that you’re not sending a final product!)

After shooting my cookie photos, I sent over some images to the grocery store, hoping to get some helpful feedback. I was a bit surprised when the client replied, “These are great, but don’t quite fit our ideal vision.” Luckily, I was able to talk further with the client to hone in on what they were actually looking for, which were photos more like this:

Commercial food photography tips

You see, while the client’s initial instructions were to produce a variety of photos of “The Cookie,” it took an extra conversation to realize that there were two main points they really wanted to illustrate:

  1. Size mattered. Since “The Cookie” was truly large, it was important to emphasize its huge size.
  2. They wanted to see the goo. The selling point of “The Cookie” was the gooey chocolate center. My client wanted to see it in the photos!

Once I understood these points, the resulting images were macro shots (like the image included above). But because I asked for feedback early on in the process, and because I was willing to talk through the photos with my client, I was able to create a much more satisfying set of images.

9. Find the finished product and document it!

Whenever you do photography services for a client, make every effort to get your hands on the final product. Proof of your published photos is great for building your portfolio and credibility, plus it just feels really good to see your images blown up on the side of a building, hung in a restaurant, or featured on a menu.

Make sure you capture decent-quality images of the final product, too. Then share them on social media and add them to your website; that way, potential clients know exactly what you’re capable of!

Here, I’ve photographed my cookie photos, which were blown up and plastered on the side of the grocery store:

Commercial food photography tips

Commercial food photography tips: final words

Now that you’ve finished this article, you know how to capture incredible commercial food photos.

So use the tips I’ve shared. Communicate carefully with your clients. Choose the right gear, do research for inspiration, and spend plenty of time working with different textures, props, and food pairings.

Now over to you:

Which of these tips do you plan to use first? Do you have any additional ideas for tackling commercial food photoshoots? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Suzi Pratt
Suzi Pratt

is an internationally published Seattle event and food photographer. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. When she’s not taking photos, she’s making travel photography and camera gear videos for her YouTube channel.

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