Taking professional food shots can be rewarding, both financially and aesthetically. In certain cases, you can work your way into becoming a “go-to” photographer for all of a food company’s needs. Or you can develop a consistent freelance business working with chefs and cooks. There’s a good chance to earn a good income and, who knows, you may get a free gourmet meal as a bonus!
So, how much should food photographers charge? If you’re just starting out as a professional photographer, $200 per shot is a good starting point. If you’re a seasoned pro, and working through an ad agency, with a food props stylist, studio with lighting and an assistant, you generally charge your own rates based on costs in your region, but the sky’s the limit.
As you do your research in this area, you may see many questions about current market rates for food photographers based on experience levels. What I hope to do for you here is help you with some research questions about how to plan out your food photography shoot and how to approach the business side of things, including tips for building a proposal that will work.
Ask Questions First
Before you can give an accurate estimate for a food photography shoot, there are a lot of questions you will need answered in order to come up with a precise estimate or proposal. Here are some of typical questions you need to ask a client:
- Is there a budget?
- Where will the shoot take place?
- Can they provide samples of past shots they like?
- How many shots will be needed?
- Do they already have a storyboard?
- What types of food needs photos?
- Are any props required, like plates or bowls?
- Do I do re-touching or will they use someone else?
- If shot on white, do I clip out products or will they have someone?
- Who provides the food items?
- When do they need an estimate?
- When do they need the final images and in what format?
Creating a Food Photography Package Deal
When working with new clients, or even repeat customers, a good idea when starting out is to create a few package deals for photo shoots. As an example, if your normal rate is $200 for a single food photograph, you could present a 5-image deal of $1000, then offer a discount as the number of images increases.
You could offer 10 images for $1750 and 15 images for $2000 as an upsell with a built-in bulk savings incentive. This also ensures the client has enough images for their marketing purposes.
You will also need to inform your customer what the charges will be if they exceed the amounts allowed in their package deals. Again, you may want to create some additional package sub-deals for overages of your primary package deals, something like 5 additional images for $750.
Unless you’re a seasoned professional photographer working for an ad agency, you are likely dealing with the customer directly, who may be a restaurant owner, baker, pastry chef, or even a caterer for events like corporate get-togethers, weddings, or family events.
You can expect to incur some additional costs above your package pricing deals, in the event that you are on-site and the staging area is very dark and needs proper lighting, the food props are not of a high enough quality, the food needs some styling before shooting, or a background needs to be created to improve the overall image.
Adding in Other Photography Expenses
If you’re new to food photography shoots, or a pro working through an agency, there can likely be additional requirements that are add-ons to your primary package and will need to be priced separately on your estimate.
Although there are many incidentals that can be needed for your best food photography shoot, some typical items or services include:
- A photo assistant to help with camera setup
- A food stylist to make the food look incredible
- A prop stylist to make the plates and more look great
- A digital technician to assist with processing shots
- A designer to put on final touches or edits of photos
- Studio rental costs (dependent on location)
- Backgrounds and surface fabrication
- Lighting equipment and assistant
- Meals and drinks
- Contingency expenses
The Studio Rental
If you are just starting out and your client wants to witness the photo shoot, you’ll need a professional studio rental to set up lighting properly and impress your client with your expertise.
Also, keep in mind that because it’s a food shoot, you will need a specialized photography studio that also has a kitchen. Prices can vary so giving an average cost will be difficult. The location matters as well, as an urban studio can run much higher than suburban or rural.
So, you’re likely asking “what does a food stylist do and why do I need one?” Like a beauty consultant, the food stylist makes the food look appetizing. Have you ever seen how luscious food looks in commercials, as it glistens under the camera lighting? The stylist does that.
If your photo shoot is for an ad agency on behalf of the chef or restauranteur, then they will likely want a stylist to add their magic to the food before you take your shots. Again, these costs depend on your location and what level stylist is contracted, but roughly $500 – $700 overall.
Just as the food stylist adds their polish to the food itself, the peripheral items such as plates, silverware, glasses, bowls, and linen play a crucial role in making a winning food presentation. It takes someone with expertise to make all this happen successfully, called a prop stylist.
There are typically two methods of working with prop stylist, which can affect the cost. The stylist can perform “shop and drop” in which they purchase or rent items according to your specifications, then simply drop them off at the studio for you to arrange.
The second method is a full-service pop stylist who both pulls props and works with you on the set to make sure they are arranged best for your photo shoot with each food. Stylist pricing varies greatly so it is always advisable to research this before submitting your proposal.
If you already use a specific assistant who may be on your payroll already, you’re in business. If you need to contract someone temporarily, they usually get paid a day rate which can start around $350, to assist with lighting gear, camera equipment, and acting like a personal assistant.
Which Lenses Will I Need to Shoot Food?
After some experience photographing food for clients, you will find that there are 3 particular lenses to use with DSLR cameras that all perform unique functions and capture their own singular versions of the same food.
If you don’t have any of these lenses in your arsenal and you operate a DSLR, then you can likely add a cost for either purchase or rental to complete a professional food shooting session.
The 50mm lens is may come as standard equipment with a DSLR purchase. Although it is not really a full frame lens to cover the entire 35mm canvas, it is very close and a little bit closer to square. It is a great lens for a typical photo that includes some background with the object centered, and in a very common framed shot we all see just about everywhere.
This lens can be used for a first “go-to” lens for flat lays and overhead shots to capture quite several elements that all relay my food story to the viewer to, all in one shot. Because it shoots a bit wider, it is a good choice to arrange a photo and leave space for text in an ad.
You can expect to pay $40 – $200 for a regular 50mm lens.
The 60mm lens, since it is slightly more macro than the 50mm, is a great choice for shots that are closer in and it has wonderful capabilities to capture light and color because of its focal length. It really is a unique size and can straddle from the wider frame of 50mm to the closeup quality of a macro lens.
This lens is great for any kind of food close up that still includes a little bit of background elements woven in. A closeup with the ability to see in what space it exists.
You can expect to pay $180 – $820 for a regular 60mm lens.
While the 50mm and 60mm lenses create a kind of closeup, while still staying true to the background elements, they can produce a slight distortion on the item of central focus, just due to their physics.
For a true closeup shot of food without distortion or background elements, the 105mm lens is the perfect focal length for shooting food. It can get in close and give the desired details to bring the taste of these foods one step closer to the viewer. This brings out the glistening steak look.
You can expect to pay $150 – $1200 for a regular 105mm lens.
Creating DIY Food Backgrounds and What They Cost
An inventive and professional looking background is the backbone of the shot and helps to tell the food story clearly. It should add to the image, not compete with the food.
Use colors like white, pastel blue, light gray, or muted brown to help set off your food properly. A little texture is also important, like a few grains of salt, several sprigs of herbs, and the weave of the cloth, and your food can really pop.
Warm colored wood backgrounds can mute the image of the food and give the photo an overall confused and bland look. The overall cost of a background for your food shot can vary greatly – if you can purchase items at a craft store and make it yourself with some creativity, you can pay under $100 and save greatly over having to pay extra hours to a prop stylist.
The Cost to Create a Black Box for Food Silhouettes
Did you ever wonder how professional photographers get those really cool silhouettes of food items with the deep black background? It’s not all that expensive and can be done with a wooden or cardboard box, some negative fill (all black) cards, and a little creative lighting and shutter control.
Here’s some simple steps to create your own dark box for silhouette photography.
- Start with a box which is deep enough for the sides to cover the food. It can be either wooden or cardboard but needs to be sturdy.
- Place one negative fill card at the box of the box to eliminate light from the walls bouncing off the box.
- Another negative fill card should be placed on the opposite side from the direction of the light source, to help stop light bouncing back from your lighting.
- The final negative fill card should be place between the light source and the box, to prevent additional light from bouncing off the box itself.
So, what you end up with is a completely negative black space, and you may need to adjust the positioning of your fill cards accordingly. The goal is to make the food pop with the lighting but seem like it is floating in black space with no background at all.
You will likely need to make adjustment of the lighting positioning and also adjustments to the camera height, closeness to the box, and then some final tweaks to the aperture setting and shutter speed setting to get the desired look of complete crisp focus on the food and an empty black background.
Your total cost for this box is below $30, including a box, negative fill cards (which can be made by you as well), and that is the total costs separate from your lighting costs and shooting costs and maybe the food stylist one more time right before you take the photograph.
How to Present Your Photography Proposal
Never give out your pricing over the phone to a random caller. If you ever get a call of inquiry, tell them you will need to have a meeting to go over all the requirements and details of their particular food photography session. Some things can be given a price over the phone, but this service is definitely not one of those things.
If someone asks for a price range, it is very likely they will suffer from selective amnesia after speaking with you, and only remember the bottom of your range. This happened to me all the time when building computers and servers for clients. It is extremely important to do a proper interview and take notes about all the necessary items for their shoot.
Make sure you follow a standard business format with a proposal template, that will allow you a short bio of yourself, your experience, a few of your achievements and clients. Then it should have space, like an invoice or financial statement, for line items and costs, including an area at the bottom for the grand total including tax plus any additional service fees. I may have to do a megapost or something that covers all of these business aspects in further detail. Be sure to let me know if that's something your after.
Enter very clear contract terms at the bottom or on a separate page, which is always best done by your lawyer. If you don't have a lawyer, you can “cheaply” get your documentation reviewed by legal counsel. It should contain all the details of liability, refunds, overage charges, late fees for overdue payments, and a clear statement that this is an estimate and charges can change based on new additional customer needs.
Regarding payment terms, it is always best to take a deposit or retainer with which to begin work, hiring team members, and buying supplies. Then milestone payments are a good idea, requiring a certain percentage of the remainder when a specific milestone is reach in your work.
A final payment should be saved for the final product, whether this is digital files, prints, copies of prints, or some combination of them all. Include terms from your lawyer regarding what happens if the client is not happy or is late on payment.
The main issue here is to get everything in writing, and this means every detail discussed so the client is absolutely sure of what they are getting for what price and how the acceptance process works. Make sure the client and you both sign off on all discussed details, especially if the client is represented by an agency.
16 Food Photography Tips
In conclusion, let's wrap up this post with a few quick food photography tips:
- Experiment with different heights from your food, to get closer for texture or farther away to show more of the background.
- Use a tripod, even if you don't like them.
- Check out other photographers prior to the shoot for inspiration.
- Resign yourself to learn even more about aperture and shutter speed as you go.
- Storyboard your vision on paper before the shoot.
- Don’t cram your lens down onto the food, leave some negative space for the shot to breathe.
- Set up your shots in advance with fake food.
- Basic equipment tweaking – white balance your camera for the room, make sure there are backup batteries for all your gear, invest in a quality prime lens – 50mm, 60mm, or 105mm.
- Same as with grocery shopping, take your photos on a full stomach. It will affect your photography if you don't.
- Tweak your light and shadows – experiment with both artificial and natural light and make use of your shadow areas to compose the most exciting shots.
- Spray your silverware with anti-glare.
- Use corn syrup to make everything stick.
- Use a polarizing filter to stop glare.
- Consider shooting on the floor if it results in the right shot.
- Use a rocket blower to arrange crumbs and granules.
- Invest in quality backgrounds, materials, props and materials for a multitude of unique shots.