What Is It Like Being a Commercial Food Photographer?

Until 10 years ago, I didn’t know that being a professional food photographer was even a thing. I don’t come from a creative background, so if you had asked me what I thought they did, I would have been very far from the truth. Hopefully, I can shed some light.

I am very fortunate to be a professional food photographer. After many years of hard work and trying genres that were not really for me, I managed to find my little niche in the world. However, a decade ago, I didn’t know anything about this. It is probably fair to assume others are in the same boat as there really isn't a lot of information out there, so I want to give you a bit of an insight into what it is like to be a commercial food and drink photographer.

As with all genres of photography, there are genres within the world of food photography and many levels, from working with restaurants to shooting for McDonald's. Style-wise, the genre is currently going through a big change with a trend toward more graphic and pop art-style images, whereas before, the more rustic look was very much more in trend. My work tends to be toward the bold and graphic style.

Who Books Food Photographers?

It seems obvious, but if you can buy it, the brand can book you. Nevertheless, it can be a bit more complicated than that. When starting out, most of us work with restaurants that are local to us. A simple DM on Instagram, an email, phone call, or in times gone by, walking in and saying “hey” would do the job. However, when looking at the bigger brands, there are a few more cogs in the wheel. Although a few variations do exist, generally, the brand has a marketing team that employs and works with an ad agency. The suits and creatives then pitch to the brand, and once signed off, the art buyer at the agency will ask the photographers' agents to produce treatments for the job and they will then ask for an estimate and decide if they will go with you or not. By the time I am involved, the final look of the image has usually been firmly signed off, and they are just looking for the right photographer who can turn their brief into an actual photograph.

How Much Do Food Photographers Charge?

Food photography pay varies wildly, just like everything else, from a total spend of maybe $300 for a local restaurant to around $30,000 a day on average (some go far higher for specific jobs) for ad campaigns. There are fewer of those big jobs out there compared to small restaurants, but there is also less competition and you need to do far fewer days of work in order to make a comfortable living. So, it is horses for courses, as with most genres. 

What Camera Gear Do Food Photographers Need?

For most of us, the main needs in terms of image quality are great colors, high resolution, and reliability. So, cameras with loads of autofocus points and high frame rates or ISO capabilities are not overly sought after. Rather, we would look for cameras with a high color bit depth, 50-100 megapixels, and lenses that have good rendition and color reproduction. Lighting-wise, if anything is moving, a fast pack with a good t0.1 score is pretty handy, and most of the big brands have these options. If things are pretty still, then usually, we want lights with at least 1,600 watts of power per head, as the way we modify light can really eat up those watts. I work generally with a high-resolution Canon DSLR and Carl Zeiss Optics with Broncolor lights, and for the big campaigns, I rent a Phase One system. Hasselblad seems to be very popular in the field, though, due to their great optics. 

How Do Food Photographers Get Work?

Marketing is key, especially with the bigger campaigns. If I am not shooting, then I do what I call “marketing Monday.” This is where I spend the entire day working on my marketing. This is in the form of e-cards, physical postcards, updating my website, and adding new images to my agent's website. Then, both I and my agent use Instagram to post our work, and I use my stories to show a bit of the behind-the-scenes type stuff.

What Do Food Photographers Do Each Week?

Although what I shoot can be very different, most weeks actually look the same. The order may differ, but in a week, I try to get a day of marketing done. I spend a quarter of a day on my Youtube channel (actually it is one full day a month), a quarter of a day on social media content, half a day of administration and finance-related stuff. I then spend, on average, a day a week shooting for clients (usually five days back to back followed by no paying work for a while)! I spend a day a week of test shooting and a day linked to this trying to work out what it is I need to be adding to my portfolio, what skills I need to improve on, and where the trends in the industry are headed. The rest of my time is currently spent on Zoom calls, pre-production, making treatments for potential shoots, and looking after my studio and gear.

How much time is spent on each task each week differs somewhat, but they work out at about this when averaged out along a month. This week, I have only been doing marketing so far, and the back end of my week will be spent researching for new test shoots, as I have no paying campaigns to shoot this week.

How Much Do We Shoot?

The number of photoshoots per week can really vary. Sometimes, we have nothing to do for a couple of weeks. Other times, we are so stacked that we work straight through the weekend with overnight edits for deliveries. It is something that I really struggled with for a long time, but now, I know to rest when I can because when the work is on, it is really full on.

Who Is Involved in Commercial Photoshoots?

Much like fashion photography, we tend to work with teams during a food shoot. On set, there would be the creative director and their team who are usually giving sign-offs and, of course, creative direction. A producer, who is supplied by my agent, my digital tech, assistants, and sometimes the retoucher will be there. Depending on the delivery requirements, there will then be someone for set building, prop styling, a food stylist, and sometimes an assistant (or even a team of food stylists), and if there is a lot of prep and cooking, maybe a home economist. Everything tends to work pretty smoothly, and when I am shooting, I tend to try tp keep the timing of everyone's work in check so I know how the shot is coming together.

And that is pretty much how the profession is to live with. At times, it can be very slow, other times, it can be so intense that it seems too much — pretty much like every other genre of photography. I think the above would relate to any other commercial genre of photography too, but I would love to know your thoughts.

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6 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

That Jäger bomb shot is so cool.

Tdotpics photography's picture

You’re definitely correct about that one but I also love the one with the pink background it looks so amazing ... very clean

Tdotpics photography's picture

Alex quick question what’s the best way to get in touch with you Twitter or Instagram?

Lina Shipley's picture

There's a link to their insta in their little bio there at the end of the article

Jorge Malo's picture

I started off by doing freelance commercial photography back in 1983. Then I established my own product photography studio in 1990. Put everything in pause for 10 years and resumed business in 2009 mostly doing good photography, stock photo and travel shots for expedia. Work started to diminish mostly because young people do not like to work with old people, in three years I'll be 70. So I was forced to retire. But I still enjoy life, specially my grand children.
You nailed it! You perfectly described the world of a Food Photographer!
Congrats and best wishes on your job!

Michelle VanTine's picture

Great article. I do a lot of food photography work and it's SOOOOOO much work! I love that you showed the story of how we get our shots