At the beginning, planning a food photography shoot and executing it at best might sound intimidating. In this article I tell you my step by step process for how I plan almost every food photography shoot and what are the steps I take to successfully complete every photoshoot.
The process is divided into three main steps: pre-production, production and post-production. Let’s see them in detail.
BEFORE THE SHOOT DAY (PRE-PRODUCTION)
Planning a shoot is a very important step that allows you to explore the various possibilities and better define the shots you are going to produce. The more carefully you plan, the more you will reduce the number of contingencies that will happen on set.
Research and moodboard
Wether you are shooting for yourself or for a client, this step is crucial to define how your images will look. If you want to plan a food photography shoot, your work starts with researching and collecting ideas.
Let’s say you need to shoot a bowl of pasta: here is when you research for a recipe, you decide the sauce and the type of pasta.
Then you think about the story you want to tell: is it a summery dish of spaghetti with clams? Maybe you can go for a light and airy mood. Is it a bowl of ragu pasta? Then a wintery look is more appropriated.
Consider the lighting you’ll use: artificial or natural light? Hard or soft light? Which direction will the light come from? The lighting and props you choose need to to tell your story and be consistent with each other. Write down all the ideas and keep the notes for later.
To help you get through this process, make a specific mood board for this shoot. Use Pinterest (you can make a private board for this purpose) to collect images that inspire you, even for small details: it could be the color palette, the lighting, the styling of the food or the use of the napkin.
If you are shooting for a client, you can share with them your mood board to be sure you are on the same page. Since this is for internal use only, you don’t need to ask for permission from the authors of the images, but for trasparency you should tell the clients that the photos aren’t yours.
Make a shot list
Once you know what you are going to capture, it’s time to make a shot list: now you decide how many and what shots you want to produce.
Think about the orientation of the photos – portrait or landscape – and the aspect ratio: 2:3 is the most common, but you could shoot for Instagram and need a 4:5 or 1:1 photo for the feed, or a 9:16 image for the stories.
Think about the camera angles too: the camera angle will determine if you need a background beyound the set and the lenses you are going to use.
Draw some sketches of the shots and for each image, make notes next to your sketches to remind yourself of the shooting angles and direction of light. Break down everything that is going to be in each shot and write that down as well – backdrop, props, supporting food items, garnishes etc.
Number your sketches to remind you of the order in which you will photograph them. If you know that you’ll take a photo of a sliced cake, make sure you shot the whole cake first!
When you plan a food photography shoot, a shot list will help you to keep track of your work during the shoot day.
Shop for props and ingredients
Now it’s time to go shopping for all the props and ingredients! Always buy extra food to use for the styling and in case something goes wrong (if you shoot poached eggs, they may not turn out well on the first try).
Don’t forget to buy additional ingredients like garnishes! They’re not always part of the recipe, but they contribute to tell the story and to create more visual interest.
If you expect a challenging shoot day, you can prep what ever food you can the day before. If you are shooting a savory dish you can precut veggies or put herbs in glasses with water to keep them fresh. Let’s say it’s a sweet recipe instead, prepare it the day before the shoot: cakes and cookies will be at room temperature, while desserts will be ready to be unmolded.
When you are in charge of both food photography and styling, the more food you prepare in advance, the more you can focus on photography on the day of shooting.
ON THE SHOOT DAY (PRODUCTION)
Set up your scene and the lighting
Gather all the props and backdrops you’ll use for the shoot and start by setting up the scene. Set up your surface, then props and linens. Wether you shoot with natural or artificial light, you need to set up your lighting too. Keep on hand diffusers and reflectors to adjust your set up as you go, especially if you work with natural light.
If you shoot tethered, you’ll have a preview of the scene on your laptop and it will be easier for you to adjust the composition or the lighting.
Doing this without food allows you to work without the risk that the food might loose its freshness: you want that the hero of your shots looks at its best.
Sometimes you might need to use a stand-in to get your lighting set up. Just take a small amount of any food, even if it’s raw, to frame up the shot as close to what you want.
Take a few test shots and make all the adjustments you need.
Cook and style the food
Now that the scene and the lighting are ready, you need to cook the food. Sometimes you need to plate some food in the kitchen and then finish plating on the set. Other times you need to plate the food directly on the set, for example if you are shooting a soup. In this case you might use paper towels to protect your surface by unwanted spillings.
If you use a tripod, when food is on set your camera is in position and ready to go. A tripod is very useful, especially when you want to make small adjustments to the food while maintaining the same frame.
Use all the notes, sketches and mood board you made during pre-production as a guide and mark off the shots you already made on the shot list. It’s very satisfying and helps you keep track of the work you still need to do.
Allow yourself to make adjustments to your sketches when shooting, taking some time to just shoot what feels good too!
AFTER THE SHOOT (POST-PRODUCTION)
Edit the images
This is the last step: you select the images and open them in Lightroom or Capture One and develop the RAW files. Here is when you make small adjustments on white balance, contrast, colors, saturation etc.
When you’ve finished, export the files as high res TIFF and take them into Photoshop to finish your editing. Clean it up from crumbs on the set, spillings or anything that shouldn’t be there.
Deliver the photos
Now your files are ready for printing or to be turned into JPEG for web use!
If you are shooting for a client, ask them if they need TIFF or JPEG files (you shouldn’t deliver RAW files), and which color space they need for the images. If you shoot for the web remember that the standard default color space for the internet (even for social media) is sRGB.
Most of the times I use WeTransfer to deliver the images, but sometimes clients want me to deliver the files by FTP. There are other ways to deliver the images, like Dropbox or professional galleries. Depending on your needs, the right program for you may vary. Just experiment and find your preferred method!
How to plan and execute a food photography shoot: let’s recap
- Research and moodboard
- Make a shot list
- Shop for props and ingredients
- Set up your scene and the lighting
- Cook and style the food
- Edit the images
- Deliver the photos
Do you plan your shoots? If you still don’t, the next time you photograph a dish, try to plan your shots in advance by following these steps. You will soon realize that planning will help you take better photos and make the shoot much more effective!