Making money with food photography stock

I’ve been asked so many times if selling food photography as a stock material makes any sense. In today’s economy I see no reason why you shouldn’t explore this possibility … after all who doesn’t want to make a little extra cash these days? In fact, I started my photography career as a stock photographer.  I have been selling royalty-free stock photographs for a while and will share my thoughts, ideas and concepts with you, along with some suggestions for getting started.

004I’m not going to cover the whole idea and concept of royalty-free stock because it will take too much time. I would like to concentrate on how to sell your food photos. As you might now, there are many stock photography websites/companies out there. The process of opening your contributor’s account is pretty straight forward. In many cases you will be required to submit at least 10 photos as a part of the initial inspection. Based on results, stock agency will determine if your work is good enough in regards to quality, artistic aspect and most of all profitability. Once you pass this test, you can start selling.

As I mentioned before, food photography stock is a very specific and niche market segment. Not so many contributors are ready to explore these waters simply because food photography requires knowledge, investment, experience and time. And this is totally normal. I haven’t met one food photographer that specializes in all aspects of photography. Someone once said “Jack of all trades – master of none” … I can’t agree more.

There are two types of stock agencies out there. Websites such as IStockphoto, Shutterstock, Fotolia, Dreamstime sell pretty much anything and everything … from lifestyle and concept to people and landscape photography … everything goes. As a food photographer, you’ll find a little bit less competition on these sites, simply because you’re looking at huge volumes and wide variety of material. On the other hand, there are agencies that specialize in selling and promoting only food photography stock. Some of the most popular are Stockfood, Foodphotolibrary, Fotofood etc. If you are new to this whole stock concept, I would suggest get your feet wet on general stock sites and then move on to something more specific.

Now, there are some suggestions and recommendations I would like to give you before you dip into stock market.

Photo quality
Many online stock sites have a minimum technical requirements. Generally speaking, you want to start with a decent 8-10 megapixel camera. A digital SLR camera, one that you can change lenses on, is much more desirable as they produce better quality images.

Post processing
Photographs can often be improved by making adjustments to them, such as:

  • Cropping
  • Color
  • Density
  • Shadow detail
  • Sharpening

In food photography this is really important because very few shots you’ll take won’t require post processing. As a rule of thumb, 99% of your photographs need some sort of touch-ups and fine tuning. For this reason you’ll need a basic photo-editing program. I would recommend Adobe Photoshop but Photoshop Elements or Adobe Lightroom will be more than enough.

Investment
As you progress, you will find yourself searching for better cameras and lenses, lighting gear and other photo equipment. One thing that will differentiate you as a food photographer from the rest of the pack is the actual production cost. When I started selling food stock I was unaware of the total cost and up for a big surprise. My operating cost was really high. So high that I started questioning my entire business concept and overall ROI (Return on Investment).

I realized much later there is an expense associated with pretty much everything that goes into food photography production. Stuff like props (plates, glasses, table cloths, utensils etc.), accessories (brushes, burners, glycerin, fake ice etc.) and photo equipment will definitely take a toll on you wallet. Oh, and food … don’t forget the cost of food, it could be quite expensive.

To be honest, it could take a couple of years before you recoup all of your investments and start turning the profit. This might sound discouraging but on the long run it could be rewarding.  Like any other business startup, the fruits of success always grow on the tree of hard work and investment.

What should I sell?

I’ve been hearing this question all the time. Generally, you can sell all sort of food stock but naturally some subjects will always sell better than others. The best way to determine what’s really profitable and what kind of food photos sells the best, is to do a research. Go and visit some of the major stock websites and search their food portfolio. This will give you a pretty good idea what sells exceptionally well, which food photos are a mid-pack contenders and of course what doesn’t sell very well. From my experience, photographs of prepared food are on top of the list and generally sell quite well. Raw food subjects are easy to shoot (white background setups) but you won’t get rich selling those …. there are just too many of them out there.

0069When you start your royalty-free stock career, I would suggest you submit your best work, regardless what it is. Subjects you feel the most comfortable shooting will end up being your best. There is always room for improvements but this comes with time and experience.

A long time ago, someone gave me an advice and I will share with you. When selling your work online, you always need to put yourself in buyer’s shoes. No matter how happy and proud you are with that steak photo, you got to compare it with some of the best work you’ll find online. Don’t forget one thing … anyone who spends money wants the best bang for a buck and naturally the professional looking food photographs sell the best. Believe it or not, but I found so many of my royalty-free stock in leading food and lifestyle magazines … this could give you an idea who could end up buying your work.

Food stock photography agency resources:

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Food Photography Tips – Episode II

Be careful with white balance
Different lights have different temperatures. Make sure your camera white balance is set properly (AUTO or whatever light you’re using). This is especially important if you’re shooting in JPEG mode.

Morning coffee from Senicphoto on Vimeo.

Tripod
When shooting in low light conditions (limited natural light) the tripod is almost a must to have. If you have a remote shutter this can further ease your workflow.

Using flash or strobes
This is commonly used lighting method. When utilizing one light source the subject might appear too dark on its opposite side. In this case use either second source or light bouncers. To avoid hard shadows, it’s always a good idea to diffuse it with either greaseproof paper or purpose made diffuser. Don’t forget, hard shadows are the enemy of the food photographer.

Different angles
Try to shoot same subject from at least 2 or 3 different angles. This will give you an idea how subject can be presented to your audience. You can try at least two main angles … shoot on a level with the food and looking down on it. Later on in post processing, you can “spice things up” further by cropping and rotating the subject.

Use white plates
White plates are ideal for food photography. It will give you a nice transition but at the same time food will stand out as the main focus.

Steak from Senicphoto on Vimeo.

Remove unnecessary items
Fewer items you incorporate in a shot, easier will be to showcase your main subject … food. I always prefer simple compositions over overcrowded dining table. Try stirring viewers to focus on food.

Use fresh herbs to add a color and complexity
Food is not always super vibrant and contrasty. A splash color can really make an image come alive. This is the time I use fresh herbs like mint, cilantro, rosemary etc.

Cropping
Make your food plate a main focal point. Crop it and rotate it as much as you want as long as 70% of image is actually reserved for food.

Food Styling for Food Photographers

As a food photographer, you can almost count on being in situation where you got to improvise, prepare and do things food stylists do. I got to say it can be quite tricky styling the food in front of the customer … not to mention time is going to be your biggest enemy.  I would highly recommend you get yourself familiar with some basic styling skills … it will be beneficial and helpful on the long run.  I’m not saying food photographers can outperform food styling professionals but sometimes knowing few tricks could save you a lot of time and money.

Use paper
Most of the food you will be photographing will be placed on a plate and believe it or not, only top portion of that will be the actual subject. Lining plates with parchment or baking paper helps to add a fulfillment effect.

Less is more
While it may seem “full to the top” plate is the best way to go, an overcrowded dish can look less appetizing than a small portion. This could be an ideal opportunity to showcase a beautiful dishware and appealing surrounding elements.

Let it look natural
Capturing that perfect look sometimes means getting a bit messy. Instead of having everything perfectly symmetrical and clean it really helps to add movement and life to your photographs. If your baked chicken is a bit burned and the dish is not looking brand new … let it be. Most of the time food photos will look much better when presented in their real light.

Basic tools

  • Q tips – ideal for cleaning rims and insides of plates/bowls
  • Small scissors
  • Set of basic plastic handled paint brushes (with wood handled brushes, the paint on the handles tends to chip off which can happen in your food)
  • Tweezers (for poking and pulling – think of them as skinnier fingers)
  • Clear oil like vegetable or canola for making food glisten
  • Small squeeze bottles for applying sauce or drizzles

Fake ice cubes

Fake ice cubes are highly demanded in photography and even in film production, because real ice melts quickly and is difficult to work with. Some production companies sell fake ice cubes but they are not cheap, often costing up to 30$ for a single cube. Fake ice is very handy to use and it doesn’t melt under the hot photography lights, so by using it you can really simplify your work.

Glycerin
Photographers utilize glycerin to decorate their food subject with beautiful details and to make these details more outstanding, prominent and natural. In general, glycerin is sprayed using small bottles and you can find all these at your local pharmacy store. I tend to use it for photographing fruits and drinks because glycerin is a great tool for achieving “droplets effect”.

Helpful tips for beginers in food photography …

Equipment

A lot of people ask me what kind of camera equipment they need for food photography. The answer is … the one you can afford. Shooting food doesn’t necessary mean you have to have top notch camera, lenses or lighting gear. Start with a decent DLSR camera (nothing too fancy) and maybe a couple of cheap lenses. I would always recommend 50mm prime lens because its focal length, speed and affordability. These lenses can do magic when paired with great lighting. If you can afford one good zoom lens too … that would be ideal.  The only additional item you should consider buying is a tripod. Tripod is very helpful and comes super handy for this type of photography. To be honest, I can’t remember when was the last time I took the picture without my tripod.


Lighting

Natural light is the cheapest and for me the best lighting source. Large window light is ideal for the look most people want in their food photography these days. You can use all sorts of bouncers to reflect this light even further. Again, don’t spend a lot of money on fancy “camera store” stuff … something cheap as a piece of white cardboard will be just fine. After all, daylight helps presenting food in its natural condition.

Besides natural light, a lot of food photogs use artificial sources. In general, artificial lighting is divided into two main categories. “Cold lights” refers to electronic flashes, much more powerful than those on your camera but basically the same idea. Strobes come in two flavors: monolights and powerpack/head systems. “Hot Lights” are traditional tungsten or metal halide Iodide lights that burn continuously. Both of these are used for food photography but for someone who just starting in this field, a nice & inexpensive flash unit will be just good enough.

Food styling

This is a tricky part. Food styling is often as important as any other aspect of food photography. The way the food is set on a plate, how is arranged and how it correlates to other items around it, makes a difference between great and not so appealing food photo.  For any beginner, food styling is all about perceiving and imitating the look and feel of food you can see in magazines and recipes books. For start, try something pretty simple as fruits and vegetables. This would be an ideal subject for practicing your arrangement skills and playing with depth of field. Prepared food is another step. Don’t get discouraged if your food doesn’t look amazing right away … it’s all about practice.

Planning ahead

This is a very, very important part … I know because I learned my lesson the hard way. Before you click the shutter button, make sure you know what kind of look you’re going for, what you need to have (lighting, setup & props and lens) and how you’re going to put everything together. Generally, it takes much longer to prepare your “shooting set” than actually take pictures. Plan how surrounding elements on a table will be incorporated into your shot. Don’t rush because often mistakes are made when people try to speed things up. Upon successful shoot, try to remember or even write down the setting you used for that particular session. You’ll be surprised how many times this could be replicated … not even mentioning saving time.

Props

In general, props for food photography are quite important …  you need to have a variety of different items in order to make food  more interesting and visually appealing. Props are considered as items that can be incorporated in your setup. Everything from table cloth, utensils, plates and glassware to cutting boards and coffee cups fall under this umbrella. These items are usually placed in the background or foreground … they’re not there to “steal the show” but to present the food in the best possible surrounding.

Post processing

This is the last and final production step. Most food photos end up being moderated and altered in some shape or form. In case you shoot digital and most of us do these days, your camera allows you to shoot in RAW format. Using these files will provide better chances for you to improve your shots when post-processing in Photoshop, Lightroom or any other photo editing software.

I would recommend Photoshop which is pretty much the standard photo editing program. This is a perfect application for removing small imperfections you captured but also a great tool when comes to correcting things like white balance, contrast, exposure or tonal range. Photoshop or any other application could be used to further enhance your final “product” … image sharpening, saturation adjustment or simple cropping. Once again, please be careful with your budget. You don’t need Photoshop (could be quite pricey) right away. Try some free software and see what you can do with it. I’m sure most basic alterations could be done with no investment what so ever.