You’ve been commissioned to photograph new images for a restaurant, but there’s a lot of spinning plates and moving parts. In this article, I share my essential steps for preparing for and running a photoshoot at a restaurant.
As with every type of photoshoot, communication is key to creating results the client will be happy with.
When you get on the phone with the person who is commissioning the shoot, here are some key questions to cover off so that you can plan accordingly:
- How many dishes need to be photographed?
- Will the restaurant plate the food as they’d like it to be shot, or do you need to bring in a food stylist?
- Do they need interior photographs as well as food images?
- Would they like any pictures of the chefs, mixologists, or owners?
- What is the aesthetic they are looking to achieve?
- Do you need to bring props and surfaces? What will be available for you to use at the restaurant?
- Would they like portrait or landscape images?
- Do they need one photograph per dish, or do they need a variety of macro and food portraiture shots?
- What aspect ratio do the images need to be in?
- Should there be room for text in any of the pictures?
The Shot List
In short, get as much information as possible from the commissioner and send them a blank shot list form to fill in. My shot list is typically a blank table with headings for:
- Styling notes
- Garnishes and pairings
I’ll fill out the top line as an example for them to follow. While it might seem like a lot of work the client has to do, it’s important for them to think through what they need and let you know in advance so that the shoot can run smoothly, the chefs know what to make and plate, and that they get the images they need at the end of the day.
There’s nothing worse than a poorly filled-out brief and then a comment comes in after the event such as “would have been great to have had the burger shot as a portrait.” Your shot list is your lifeline to refer back to as evidence that XYZ wasn’t requested in a worst-case scenario.
If the restaurant is local to you, ask to swing by before the shoot to assess the venue and look at the lighting and where you might want to set yourself up on the day. If the venue isn’t close, look at the website to see if they have interior shots. If not, ask the manager to send you some phone pics and explain that it will inform your lighting approach.
Further, check with the venue where you can park so that you know if you’ll need to pull up outside and unload first and then drive off to the parking. It’s stressful to be running late because no one has told you where to park and you’re driving around with minutes ticking by.
Decide where it’s best for you to set up. Consult with the manager too, especially if the restaurant is open. I like to be relatively near the kitchen, but tucked into a corner so I’m out of the line of sight of most customers.
Something that might be handy to bring with you is an extension cord. I’ll often need to plug in my laptop for tethering and charging spare batteries for the speedlight while I’m working, and if the sockets are just that bit too far away from where you need to be, it can be frustrating.
Some restaurants are set up beautifully for shooting with natural light, and some won’t be (which is where your scouting ahead of time comes in useful). If a restaurant has three walls that are all floor-to-ceiling glass, for instance, your light will be super flat. Keep in mind that you might be shooting at the back of the restaurant, out of the way of customers, where it will be darker. Check back to the image references the restaurant has given you and clarify what type of light they are looking for and pack accordingly.
My typical setup for a portable, lightweight solution is to bring a speedlight (and extra batteries) with some kind of shoot-through umbrella or umbrella softbox and perhaps one or two bounce cards, but this will depend on the brief, the restaurant, and what you feel comfortable with.
Keep in Communication
Open a line of good communication with your point of contact for the shoot and/or the chefs who will be plating for you to make the day enjoyable and easygoing. Depending on how many dishes you need to capture, brief your contact on when you’d like the dishes to arrive, based on how long you anticipate each dish will take to shoot. You don’t want the stress of more and more plates arriving at your table that are starting to wilt, melt, or look soggy. If you’re getting that backlog, tell the chefs to pause for 20 minutes. Communication will prevent anyone from getting flustered or stressed.
Shooting at a restaurant is so fun and the day just whizzes by, but there are also a lot of moving parts to consider. It’s our job to extract as much information as we can from the client to make sure we deliver a result they’ll be really happy with, and most of it lies in good communication. I’d love to hear if you have any other tips for shooting at a restaurant to make the day go smoothly.