Part 1 - What to expect at a professional food or product photo shoot

So you’re going to have professional photos done of your product, creation or recipe. Congratulations, a very good decision indeed. However, this can be a cause for anxiety if you’ve never been to a professional photo shoot before. What is expected of you and what can you expect from all the people that might be there…the creative team.

It is of my opinion that the first thing you should do is search the Internet for photos that you like. Then try to figure out why you like them. Take a look at the backgrounds, the camera angle, the Depth of Field (sharpness or blurriness from front to back), the color palette and anything else you can think of. Do you like a rustic look on a wood surface or the clean look of pure white (required for Amazon.) This collection of photos is called a mood board. Share the mood board with your creative team and tell them what you like and why.

Use other images as inspiration only. It is very important that you don’t copy someone else’s image – especially if it’s unique. That is copyright infringement. Let your creative team create.

At this point, you should have a basic idea of what you want your image to look like. Now the questions begin. Here are a few common ones, have your answers ready.

  • Do you need horizontal, vertical or square images?
  • Do you need high resolution for print or low resolution for the Internet?
  • How many products?
  • How many shots of each?
  • What type of background and surface? (Pure white for Amazon?)
  • Is there a time frame?
  • Is there a layout to follow (for an ad or package?)
  • Is this an editorial or commercial photo shoot?

Editorial or commercial, what does that mean? Commercial photography is used for advertising or promoting something. A photo of your product on a label, package or in an ad would be commercial photography. Editorial photography is used to help tell a story. Photojournalism is editorial photography. So, you may think that all of your photography will be commercial. “It ain’t necessarily so.” Suppose you sell a product that can be used in a recipe. Photos of your product are commercial but, the photo of the finished recipe can be considered editorial because you are telling the story of how to use the product.

So, why do we need to distinguish between these two? In commercial photography, we are more concerned with “Truth in Advertising” rules. The image should be, or at least appear to be, exactly like the product being sold.

This all began when a soup company was using marbles to keep the meat and veggies at the top of the soup bowl in their ads. When you made the soup, it looked nothing like the ad. So, we now have “Truth in Advertising.” Make sure that your ads accurately represent your products.

You may say that the burger you get at the fast food joint doesn’t look anything like the one on the ad. Rest assured that the things going in to the photo of the burger are the same things that are in the actual burger. They are just handled in a much more careful way and then prepared with the skillful hands of a food stylist. Sometimes it gets carried away. Major burger companies will have the stylist glue each sesame seed onto the bun to make sure that it is perfect for the photos.

Photographers and stylist do manipulate the product on occasion. Occasionally, we have to add a little more product to a container or do other minor changes to make things look awesome. But, use common sense, you can’t show a 1/2 pound burger in an ad, when you only use 1/8 pound of meat. Advertising images can look better than the real thing but they cannot misrepresent.

The product represented in an ad or package should not try to deceive the consumer. The photographer and stylist are going to take steps to insure this. Suppose you sold a can of soup. The stylist is going to open a dozen cans of soup and count the number of carrots, peas, chicken, beans etc. in each can and get an average ratio. Then if you see these components on the spoon in front of a bowl of soup, they will be in the same ratio. It sounds crazy but, that’s how we protect the consumer.

Did you ever wonder why images of cereal and milk on a cereal box never looks soggy in the bowl or spoon? If you are selling cereal, the cereal should be real, and the proportions have to be right if there is more than one component. But, that doesn’t say anything about the milk. If you are selling cereal, Truth in Advertising rules apply only to your cereal…not the milk or anything else that is in the photo. I guess that you figured it out already, that white stuff in the bowl is not milk. If you are selling ice cream cones, the ice cream doesn’t have to be real. But, if you are selling the ice cream…it’s going to be the real thing.

Now suppose you have a recipe for soup. Even though your recipe is being used,  everyone would make their soup slightly differently. In that case, it doesn’t matter how many peas you show on the spoon. It is just a guide to what the finished product will look like. Editorial shoots are usually easier than commercial. Many photographers charge more for commercial shoots than editorial ones and they usually take less time. So, this brings us to one of the first questions a photographer might ask in a PreProduction meeting. “What are the images going to be used for?”

Part 2 - What to expect at a photo shoot

Whether your creative team is just your photographer or if you have an ad agency, web designer or print designer, communication is key. Your photographer needs to fully understand your needs before the shoot. You and your creative team should communicate well in advance of the shoot.

So, what information will you discuss?

  • Whether the images will be used for print or Internet is something that is important for the photographer to know – the color space (some technical mumbo jumbo) for the Internet (RGB) and the color space for package printing (CMYK) are very different.
  • Whether you need squares, horizontals or verticals
  • The look and feel (clean white background, rustic look, formal setting etc.) Use examples from the Internet.
  • The type of background
  • The type of surface
  • Prop selection
  • Will you use flavor cues
  • Is there a need for a food stylist or a prop stylist.

…and many other questions need to be discussed before the shoot.  Have a Pre-Production meeting, either face-to-face, by phone or even by e-mail if necessary, before your shoot. Prepare a shot list – a list of all the products and the photos you need of them.  Once you’ve had your pre-pro (pre-production) discussions with the photographer, stylist, art director and/or designer you are now ready for the shoot. Now, it is up to you to bring the product to the photographer’s studio.

A term that you will probably hear in the studio is “Hero”. The hero refers to the product that looks so good, that it’s the one that is used in the final image. Before the hero is put on set, the photographer will often work with a stand-in, to get the background, camera angle, lens selection and lighting right.

If you are photographing packaging such as bottles with labels, hand pick the best ones. The labeling process often puts labels on crooked or scratches them. The bottle has a seam.  Try to get bottles where the seam is on the side rather than in the front. If possible, bring extra labels so they can be put on the bottles by hand.  If you have a bottle with a clear liquid in it, such as liquor, the back label will have to be removed. Check the printing on boxes and bring perfect ones. Check the corners of boxes to make sure they are not bent.

If you are selling a baked product that is frozen, try to get it before it is frozen…immediately before the shoot. Hand pick the best and treat them as if they are very fragile. Keep them separated from one another so they don’t collide during transport.

If you are using food in a recipe, you need to start with the best ingredients to end up with the best hero. I feel that the best way to do this is pay the stylist to shop for you. They know where to get the heroes and what to look for.

So, how should you prepare for the photo shoot? Have lots of stuff…I mean lots! Especially, if it’s food. The photographer or stylist is going to go through all of your products to pick the best ones (or the best pieces of several of them and put them back together to make it look awesome.) Don’t run out of product and have to compromise. Make sure that your heroes are as good as they can possibly be. Product is the least expensive part of a photo shoot so have lots more than you need.

Part 3 - What to expect at a photo shoot

You will get the best images if you are on set and voicing your opinion. The photographer will set up the the surface, background and lights on the set, using a stand-in to get the lighting correct. The team will set up the props. Discuss props beforehand. A “PROP STYLISTS” may be necessary if props are an integral part of the shot. Props can tell a story, point to a hero or frame the image.  Props are supporting actors to the hero. Only props that support the hero should be used. Avoid unnecessary clutter.

The camera should be tethered (cable or wireless) to a computer or other device with a larger screen. Please make sure you are viewing the image straight on…if you are at an angle, you may not see the correct brightness and contrast. While the image on the screen should be good, it is unedited. If you think something is too dark, too light, too blurry, not blurry enough or whatever, now is the time to speak up. Be confident that if the photographer says that he or she can fix the in post (post processing), it can be fixed but, remember what you want them to do since they may forget. And if they do forget, a gentle reminder wouldn’t be a problem.

With the aid of the creative team, the photographer/stylist will find the best angle, adjust the composition, re-position the food, re-position the lights, move crumbs around over and over again until they feel that it’s the best that it can be. When the photographer shoots something that you like or something that you don’t like, let him know. He is there to please you but can’t do that if you don’t provide input. On the other hand, the creative team has a lot of experience doing this. Allow them to make the suggestions.

When the shoot is finished, images must be processed…not like in the days of film but, a digital process. Post processing may adjust color, contrast, brightness and retouching of the final image…This could take a week or more if the team is busy.  Ask when to expect the finalized images but, be patient.

One more thing to keep in mind. Sometimes, it is just impossible in a particular circumstance to get things the way you want. Let’s say you like napkin in the image but, it is reflecting in the glass dish. Ask the photographer to take it with and without the napkin and composite the two images together. Be aware that there may be an additional charge for that so ask if that is a concern.

Part 4 - What to expect at a photo shoot

What are you expected to pay for at a photo shoot? There are lots of pieces. Hopefully, your photographer has given you an itemized estimate before the shoot.  Here are a few of the items that might appear there:

  • Creative Fee – the photographer’s day rate or per shot rate
  • Usage Fees – some photographers charge these based on the usage
    • US only
    • Time limit
    • Web or specific print job only (i.e. use the image for package label but not ads)
  • Prop purchase/rentals
  • Reimbursements for
    • Materials (i.e. special backgrounds, props)
    • Food used to create the image (remember, bring lots)
    • Catering (if food is provided for breakfast, lunch etc.)
  • Stylists’ Fees
  • Studio and equipment rental (if applicable)
  • Sales Tax – In New Jersey – digital images are not subject to sales tax but prints are

If you order or go out for lunch, you are expected to pick up the tab.

So, there was a lot of information in this 4 part post and it may seem pretty daunting. But, rest assured that a professional team will make the process go easily and without any issues. Just remember to keep the team informed and have fun at the shoot….it really is fun! And don’t forget to tell the team how AWESOME the images are. Its a good thing to hear, even for seasoned professionals.