The Art of Food Photography

I recently received a call to do photography for the menu of a local Mexican restaurant.  It’s interesting that they found me because I have no food images on my website.  I don’t do much food photography.  Actually, besides a few shots that I did in school and some quick portfolio shots I did for myself, I don’t do any food photography.  However, it was something that I was always interested in and quite a bit of my photography in college was geared around small product and artistic shots of small trinkets of sorts, which is kind of the same technique.

Anyway, they did find me and I had enough samples to show them to get me the job.  I had eaten at the restaurant a few times (as I love Mexican food and it is close to my house) and even remember commenting to my wife on the pictures in the menu “These are pretty bad.  I can take way better pictures.”  So it is a fun coincidence that I was called to do the photography for the new menu images.

I had some idea of what they wanted.  How hard could it be?  This wasn’t a full day shoot for a high end cooking magazine to showcase the restaurants chef, it was menu shots.  I compared it to the difference between white background clothing catalog shots and a high fashion Vouge photo spread.  Worlds of differences.  I was given no direction or input as to what exactly they wanted except the phrase “You’re the professional.  Whatever you think looks good.”  So that’s exactly what I did; I shot how I thought would look good and show customers looking at the menu what they are going to get from ordering said meal.

I felt I went above the call of duty photographing more meals than we had talked about originally, two angles of each meal that gave a little bit different lighting on the table, and even took shots of the inside of the place when asked as I was packing up my equipment.  I got the final retouched shots back to them in about ten days, which is what I had told them.  I was happy.

Then I received a call saying the owner was unhappy with the shots and needed them all to be reshot.  That really broke my spirits.  I didn’t know what she didn’t like, what she wanted instead, or any insight as to what she wanted in the first place.  After the initial disappointment in myself, I began to get a little angry.  The owner had the opportunity to be there for the entire shoot and chose not to.  I did meet her at the end of the shoot and it was her that asked me to take a couple inside shots of the restaurant bar.  She even questioned the way one of the plates looked and asked to see one of the shots on the camera screen, which I showed her, and she said it looked fine.

I am going back to reshoot for no charge.  The only request I made was to get with the owner and talk about the shots I took, the shots she wants, and ultimately break down everything that can possibly be a factor with the photography.  There is a lot going through my head.  I know I can take creative, artistic, shots of the food; I even shot a couple of the meals in a more creative way while waiting for the next meal to come out.  But with the low end charge for the shoot, how much should I be expected to do?  It was something I had mentioned when talking with the manager of the location I photographed at.  He was, after all, the only person I had contact with.  When you add more meal props (ie. multiple meals, background accessories, drinks, placemats, candles, etc) the production goes up, the time commitment goes up, which means the cost goes up.  There was also the mention of food stylists whose job it is to make the food look its best in order to transfer to photos the best.  None of this was needed, he said, just straight forward shots of the meals.

Now this brings up the question of how to move forward, and how any photographer should deal with unhappy clients.  How far do you go to make the client happy?  There are really just two paths to choose.  You can reshoot, and if they don’t like it again, reshoot again, and if they don’t like it again, reshoot again, and…  You get the picture.  Keep going until the client is happy or walks away from you.  Or, you reshoot, and if they don’t like it again, you yourself walk away.  The risks involved are your reputation.  With either option there is the risk of their word of mouth stopping not only future work from them, but anyone else they may talk to.  There is also the chance that they respect your work and realize that each of you are on different pages and respectfully part ways.  There is no way to know how it will turn out and that is the reality of having a business; it’s true with any business no matter the scale.  How will I handle this?  I am going in to the reshoot with a smile on my face, camera in hand, and a willingness to discuss their needs.  Where it goes from that point…  we will find out!

Below are some shots from the day.  The first two are the standard retouched shots that I delivered to them (there were 18 meals in total) and the next two were a couple more creative shots I took spur of the moment while waiting for the next meal.  They did receive those shots too, but on the disc of secondary angle, unretouched images.

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