Feed yourself with Food Photography


Photography: Tim Hill

Every branch of photography has its challenge. Portrait photographers have to capture the subject’s entire personality and character in a single shot. Architectural photographers have to fill shadows, dodge reflections and shoot a picture that portrays the feeling of space. And still life photographers? They get to move lights around so that the object is properly lit, focused and sharp.

Those aren’t always the most exciting jobs in the world but much depends on the type of objects in front of the lens. Photographing shampoo bottles in front of a white background all day could grow quite dull quite quickly. But photographing food usually requires a great deal of creativity. The food has to be prepared and styled, a task often completed by a professional assistant, a composition has to be put together to show off the food at its most appetizing, and each type of dish offers its own challenge.

Most importantly, trends in food photography tend to change quite quickly too. A look through an old magazine or an old recipe book reveals not just how diets and food fashions have changed over the years but how the way we want to see them has altered as well. Food photographers have to shoot what the client tells them but they also have to shoot images that suit the food and match their own style.

“You get asked to shoot whatever people want by editors and art directors, and being a working photographer I do what is asked of me,” explains Tim Hill, a professional food photographer whose clients have included the BBC, Fortnum & Mason’s and Haagen Dazs. “Normally when I shoot like that, at the end — when I have shot what is asked for —  I then go on and shoot what I want.

Maybe it’s a different setting or maybe a lot tighter in on the food or the lighting changes — whatever the reaction I get with the food makes me do… Keeping an eye on current fashion is fine but being true to yourself is very important too.”

Breaking into food photography isn’t always easy. Tim himself started his career as an assistant in a catalogue studio in London in 1973 before becoming a junior photographer two years later. He’d been shooting still life images for seven years when he was asked to photograph some pottery soup bowls for the catalog’s cookware section.

Photos of Soup Sell Bowls

To make the subject more interesting, he hired a food stylist, then called a home economist to bring in food props and make a number of different soups to fill the empty space in the bowls.

“The management was horrified at her bill but the client loved the shot and the increase in sales of the soup bowls,” recalled Tim.


Photography: Tim Hill

Tim soon found himself receiving all of the food photography the company was asked to perform, as well as more equipment and an assistant to help him prepare the shots.

Today, Tim shoots independently, winning commissions through his personal website and selling licenses through his own stock site.

He still works with a food stylist though, usually his wife, Zoë Hill, who trained as an artist and whose role is to prepare the food with the camera in mind. That’s a rare skill and one that differs from the techniques used by a chef.

“A chef prepares a meal to look good from above, relying on smell and taste as well as visual appeal,” explains Tim. “A food stylist only works on the visual from a pre-determined angle of view a lot lower than overhead.”

A typical shoot will involve creating “stand in” food which is used to fix the viewpoint, arranging the lights and the props, setting the plane of focus and choosing the depth of field. When everything is ready, the plate is removed and its place marked with wooden blocks. The stand in food is discarded, the “hero” food added and the blocks removed, and the shots are taken as quickly as possible to ensure that the dish remains fresh.

Food Stock Doesn’t Have to be Food Alone

The resulting images tend to have uses that stretch beyond catalogs and brochures. Food stock is used by advertising agencies, magazines and newspapers, book publishers and designers, and many others. And the definition of food photography can now be fairly broad too. StockFood, a specialist supplier of food images, is now expanding  beyond the ingredients and meals into food-related areas that include flowers, decoration ideas, table settings, and health. The company is also interested in images of food and people that could include shots of diners in restaurants or shoppers in supermarkets. As always, the more versatile the image, the likelier it is to demand high usage fees.

“For example, an image depicting a family in a grocery store could be used for editorial purposes as well as for advertising uses such as point of purchase displays and  supermarket circulars,” Shannon Mahoney, StockFood’s General Manager told us.

The images can then be sold on a rights managed (RM) or royalty free (RF) basis. The RM photos tend to have higher production costs and a more conceptualized look, but StockFood allows the photographer to choose how they want their images sold. Earnings depend on the quality of the images but also on their quantity and on the frequency with which new material is added, advises Shannon. Those changing fashions are important too.

“Successful agency photographers produce a continual stream of new photographic material that takes current trends into account,” she says.

StockFood is accepting submissions, provided that they’re high quality, professionally produced and follow the submission guidelines. Images must include caption information and any necessary model releases need to be included. Accepted photos also have to be exclusive and must remain with the agency throughout the term of the contract. Although it is possible to pull images, StockFood has an international distribution that makes removing submissions expensive and time-consuming. Submit a photo that the company doesn’t sell then, and it will be stuck there until the end of the term.

So what makes a sellable food photo?

According to Tim Hill, it’s the best ingredients prepared by a food stylist with a good visual eye.

“Learn to cook,” advises Tim, “and appreciate what it takes to present food for a camera.”

3 comments for this post.

  1. Cindy Epstein, Food Stylist Said:

    Thanks for the kudos for the food stylist! It is indeed an art form unto itself. Although we are highly appreciated by professional food photographers, most others can't understand what goes into making those mouthwatering images that you eat with your eyes.

    There is a great food styling and photography class coming up on Feb. 20 in San Diego, Sun, Surf & Food Style II, produced by http://www.photostylingworkshops.com. I took it last year and it greatly enhanced my skills. I also met two food photographers I regularly work with now. There is info online at http://www.photostylingworkshops.com/classes/gallery2/d/21253-1/Sun_Surf_Foodstyle_II.pdf?g2_GALLERYSID=TMP_SESSION_ID_DI_NOISSES_PMT
    It's totally worthwhile for stylists and photographers.

  2. Digital Photography Tips Said:

    Great post and images .. I tend to take forever with food photography (I have to constantly set everything back up because of snacking on the props)

  3. Kim Said:

    I write a food column for a local newspaper and do my own food styling and photography. It drew the attention of a woman who owns a salsa company, and she's currently writing a cookbook. She has asked me to do the food styling and photography for a percentage of the cookbook sales. What would be the appropriate percentage to ask?

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