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.

To Plan or Not To Plan…

The question I propose is “Is planning for specific shots on a photoshoot worth all the trouble?”  Now, first off, you should always plan or have ideas of what or how or where you are going to shoot at a specific location.  However, does it always pay off?  Do you end up spending more time and effort in planning something that gets thwarted once you arrive?  How often do you go to your Plan B, or even Plan C?  You can spend ample amounts of time preparing for a shoot and have to resort to your Plan X, Plan Y, or Plan Z; that’s just the way it is.

I recently photographed a model for portfolio shots for the both of us and even though I had one specific shot idea that I wanted to get (and another semi-specific shot idea), I ended up more satisfied with a different shot.  I am attaching a handful of the photos that I came out with, but I am not going to say which was the shot that I underwent the most planning for (or the secondary shot idea); I am leaving that for you to figure out.  Though I ended the day with shots that I and she were more than happy with, it just goes to show that the planning process does not always pay out.

The location, Slick Rock Recreation Area near Three Rivers, CA, is a place that I have been to many times.  I have photographed families there and have always wanted to take modeling shots there as well.  It’s a tricky place to plan for.  In the summer when the weather is nice and warm, the run off from the snow in the mountains makes the area completely flooded and more of a lake up to the parking lot and almost to the main road.  In the winter when it is pretty cold to say the least, the water is very low opening up many options to shoot.  Light river rapids, large trees which are completely underwater during the summer (yes…  it floods that much), nice large boulder type rocks, and wide open grassy fields are much of the landscape you can expect.  Being winter time, the temperature was quite uncomfortable for me as well as for the model when in some outfits or changing between them.  But if you have a good model, which I did, it shouldn’t affect how they work.

Needless to say, my knowledge of the location, a good model to work with, and plenty of creative and technical planning couldn’t make what I envisioned in my head become a reality in camera.  Since I am used to going with the flow, however, we brainstormed together and shot what was the closest to what I was trying to get.  So in this case the planning did not work to my advantage.  See if you can guess which shots were the ones I planned and which were a result of our on location brainstorming.  For fun, keep in mind that the temperature dropped as low as 44˚ when it got dark and every spot we photographed would have been under water in the summertime, including the road!

The New Backyard Wedding

The backyard wedding:  Everyone has been to one, been in one, or knows someone that was married in their (or someones) backyard.  My parents were married in the backyard of my grandparents house.  For a long time, the backyard wedding was used as a way to cut expenses or to hold a more low key celebration than a traditional wedding.  But times have changed and trends have come and gone and the backyard wedding is being popularized more and more as a mainstream wedding venue.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether a couple is wealthy and holding the most extravagant event ever seen or penny pinching to make the most of their budget, using a backyard as a wedding venue is becoming a very popular trend.  Hell even Kendra & Hank Baskett were married on their reality show in a backyard…  granted, it was Hugh Hefner’s mansion backyard, but still my point being made.  There are pros and cons to the backyard venue, however, I will find pros and cons of every venue; and every couple looking for a venue for their wedding should look to find the pros and (especially) the cons before booking.  It is just good practice.  Not to disregard anyplace that has something wrong or a little off, but so you know what you are getting before hand rather than finding out on your wedding day.

I love backyard weddings personally.  They are challenging to work, they make me think more creatively, and they have some of the most fun environments.  All of which make me strive to produce the best possible images I can.  It is difficult most of the time (mainly for portraits) but just like anything that I do, I don’t want to be able to fly through it with ease.  That’s when you get sloppy or bored or lazy.  Why are puzzles so popular for kids?  Because they have a challenge and give great satisfaction when completed.  So yes, in a way, backyard weddings are like the puzzles of wedding venues… as weird as that sounds.

You don’t need to be on a budget and be forced into having a backyard as your venue (you should never be forced to do anything for your wedding, always make it a choice), and even if you have a ridiculously high budget you can consider a backyard venue.  It just works.  Below are a few images from various backyard weddings.  Some with higher budgets than the others, but all unique and wonderful in their own way.  And because of the great time I had at each one, I know the brides and grooms will remember their day maybe even more than if they were married at any other “traditional” venue.