A photographer just shows up and takes photos, don’t they? NO, nothing could be further from the truth, especially if you happen to work with food & drink.  With food and drink photography, shoot preparation is essential.  Beautiful images are created they don’t just happen.  They are planned and prepared for, here’s a bit more background on the planning side too.


© Tracy Cullen - This show me on set, shooting Christmas Mince Pies.

© Tracy Cullen – This shows me on set, shooting Christmas Biscuits.

Up above you can see me at work with my camera tethered to my laptop, shooting some Christmas Biscuits.  Camera gear, food styling kit, reflector and props in the background, you can’t see the the rest of the background and below is the final image.
Christmas Star Biscuits with pretty lights behind.

Christmas Star Biscuits with pretty lights behind.  A true ‘what you see’ and ‘what I see’ as it happened.

Shoot Preparation before the photoshoot

Knowing what you’ll be shooting and what the objectives of the shoot are to start preparing for the shoot is essential. You may be shooting for a specific marketing campaign to a set brief, in which case you need to know and understand the briefing and have everything you need for it.  Often you will need to check things with the client too. That may dictate what format you need the images in, portrait, landscape or both.
It may be that the images are needed for the website and social media or other marketing. Again you need to know the story behind the images, what is it your client wants to convey, what is their branding all about, what are they all about. Without this your images may be brilliant but they need to address the client need too, or its time wasted.
You may need to research some ideas, and generally there’ll be a need to source some props or backdrops and these have to match with the theme, story and branding. Props need to be appropriate and fit the story not just be pretty to look at. Quite often you’ll need to do some shopping for the shoot too. The shopping can take a while, especially if you have a specific requirement.
You’ll need a shoot list, so that you can tick off as you go ensuring that you’ve all the shots you need. I also have a packing list which gets adjusted for each shoot that ensures I have everything I need with me. It’s so easy to assume something is in the right place but getting to a shoot and finding you’ve not got laptop cables or some such isn’t a position you want to be in. Again there can be a large amount of kit going to a food shoot so this takes a little while to sort out and check off and then to pack into the car ready to go.
One last thing that need to be checked before you leave is that you have the right directions. Sat Nav is great but how many times do you follow it and find it has absolutely no idea of where you actually ‘need’ to be, its worth checking with the client that you have the right sat nav postcode – this can be different to the actual code.. The other thing you have to check is parking close to the venue as you have a lot of kit to take in and this can be an issue.
The scene is set using an empty glass jar and a plate with one item on it. The light is checked and positioning before the real food is brought on and the shot taken.

Shoot Preparation in action:  The scene is set using an empty glass jar and a plate with one item on it.

Based on the second image, the scene and the angle were adjusted before the final image was shot and then edited in post production.

Choose beautiful food images to enhance your reputation!

The final image after the Shoot Preparation shown in the previous image.

Health & Safety

Once on set, you need to check the light of course, but it is essential to ensure you can be set up safely, that you’re not going to be in the middle of a walk through area and therefore a health & safety risk, you need to ensure that you don’t interfere with business but that you have sufficient room to work in. Again people often think they have enough space but I often find that even if I give a specific size it’s still assumed you can just manage.
Lights however take up space, so does a tripod, cameras, lenses, food styling kit, laptop etc etc. All of these things need to be setup ready to use before the shoot can begin.
Quite often wires will need to be secured with tape to the floor to ensure that no one trips but also so that expensive equipment isn’t trashed by someone catching a foot in the wires.

On Set Shoot Preparation – Setting the Scene

Then you have to set the scene for the first item, this entails deciding what is to be in the scene and the shooting angle if this isn’t in the brief. Everything is laid out, using actual plates but not the hero food to do a test shot. I always shoot tethered, meaning that my cameras are attached to the laptop by a tether cable and images are transferred directly to Lightroom or Capture One on the laptop for close inspection. For food I rarely if ever use just the glimpse on the back of the camera to judge if the shot is right, you simply can’t tell.
At this point adjustments will be made, items added or removed from the scene, or moved so that they create the look and feel I’m going for. Only when this is correct will I call for food, and only ever one plate at a time. The food needs to look at its very best for the camera. Our eyes adjust and don’t notice the changes in food so easily, the camera however catches every last thing. Once you’ve taken the first shot you quickly check the shot again, catching any marks, drips or anything out of place and correctlng. Then you shoot until you have any all of the images you need for this item. I’ll often if there’s time take a few additional shots at this point from a different angle or close in or whatever, but never ever before I have the shots I know the client needs.




Shoot Preparation - setting the scene for a burger shoot.

Shoot Preparation – setting the scene for a burger shoot. – Here we have a spare bun place holding for the final burger and an empty glass and chip basket to just test the scene out.


Goat Burger Stack with fresh goat mince from The Goat Company, served in a Brioche bun, with lettuce, mayo, cheese, bacon, tomato and gherkin with a basket of chips and a glass of lager.  The final shot 

Goat Burger Stack with fresh goat mince from The Goat Company, served in a Brioche bun, with lettuce, mayo, cheese, bacon, tomato and gherkin with a basket of chips and a glass of lager.  The final shot.


Then we start over on setting the scene for the next shot. Sometimes you may have to shoot in different locations for the same shoot too, so kit has to be moved and set up again before the next scene can be prepped.
Once the shoot is done, everything needs to be broken down and packed away and the area restored to its former glory. This tends to be faster than the inital set up but can still take at least 15 to 20 minutes.

The Importance Of Being Prepared


If that sounds like a lot of work then you’ll be right. But without it you run the risk of not getting the images you need. Skimping on shoot preparation is akin to deciding to build a new piece of software without a specification, you might get what you need but its unlikely really.
I passed a restaurant a year or so back and they had a photographer in. She had her kit set up and food that had been shot was on the left and the long queue of food waiting to be shot was on the right. I was desperate to run in and shout stop, that food is dead you can’t possibly shoot it, which of course is the truth. While there was nothing wrong with the food at all from a consumption viewpoint, for the camera it was all dead, food for the camera has a very short life span. Salads wilt visibly, meat looses its ultimate good looks and vegetables go limp. Ideally food arrives in a just in time basis for the camera to capture it at its best.
There’s also that old adage of ‘Fail to plan, plan to fail’ and this is so, so true. For any photography its important for food photography its critical.

Planning a shoot soon?

If you are reading this and have a shoot planned at some point, then please do give me a call and let’s discuss how I can provide you with a great shoot experience and some images with the ‘wow’ factor.  You can find out more about working with me here.   Or If you want to see some of the reactions to my work, check out my LinkedIn profile here:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/suetodd/