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.

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:


Little video snapshot

A few months ago, I made this short video and I totally forgot about. Anyway, this is really a cool way to advertise and promote your work. It’s pretty inexpensive and it does make a long lasting impression. I used Photodex Proshow Producer which is super easy to use and packed with awesome features and options (I’m not affiliated with the company in any shape or form 🙂 ).

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.

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.

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.

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”.

The day after – Post Processing

All right, you have successfully completed that photo session and you walked away with hundreds of photos that somehow need to be presented to your client as a final product. I’m sure the customer won’t be interested in keeping all of them although it could be requested. Many of them will be retakes, duplicates or simply non-usable from quality perspective. The next step is to ask your client to make selection and mark those photos they want to keep. This process could take some time and I would highly recommend you leave the decision to them … let the client choose what they feel is worth trading their money for. In terms of numbers this can vary. Determining the scope of work before the actual session will always prove to be a right step in your sales process. It might sound impossible, but you should have a rough idea what your client is expecting and how many photos they might need.

I always pick at least 100-200 photos and post them on my website. One thing for sure, you’ve got to have a password protected area on your site where only authorized customer have access to. These proofs in general can remain there for a while but eventually you will remove them making space for your other stuff. I found this workflow pretty good and trouble-free … I hope my clients share the same impression.

In general, 99% of all photos you take need some sort of post processing and fine tuning. How many files you’ll be working on and how much time you’ll spend in Photoshop is directly related to your experience and quality of shooting. Taking those pictures is half the battle. What you do in post processing is almost as important as nailing the shot in the first place. If your photos look amazing right out of camera, you’re really lucky … post processing might be quite easy. From my experience, food photographs always require heavy processing and you will rarely walk away with just a little bit of touch ups. Depending on complexity, you will probably edit and work on each individual file. I have one suggestion. Once you pick the “keepers”, try to automate the process as much as you can. I can share what I do but again you might find it awkward:

  1. Considering I use Canon equipment and shoot RAW format, my first step is editing files in Canon Photo Professional (this step is for basic analysis only).
  2. Using the Adobe Lightroom I process images in batches for common things like resizing, color temperature and white balance adjustments (I start with RAW files).
  3. Final processing step takes place in Adobe Photoshop. In here, I basically do everything that needs to be done. Unfortunately, it’s the most time consuming piece. The final result must comply with given requirements. I’m not gonna go into technical details because it’s way too complex … I will cover this topic in some future post.

Many will ask how much you charge for post processing. There are two ways of doing it. If your original quote includes post processing time it can be pretty straight forward. The challenge here is knowing how much work lies ahead of you … the client can always change their mind or requirements but expect the same fixed cost. The agreement has its good and bad side. Your customers will likely prefer to deal with only one fixed cost. On the other hand, you might leave post processing as a separate project and submit the quote after your photoshoot is completed. Don’t forget one thing, the client always have an option of hiring a third party company/individual to do this job. If they decide to do so, don’t take it personally … after all, it’s the budget that dictates and drives their decision. When it comes to hourly rate, I think charging anywhere between $100 and $150 per hour will be just fine. Before you rush in and offer your services, you got to make sure you know what you’re doing. Don’t expect your client to pay for your lack of knowledge, expertize and slow turnaround time. Proficiency and timely execution is a key … after all, you got to be frank about your computer skills and position yourself in this role accordingly.

Food photography Tips – Episode I

Tip #1 – Pick your shooting angle

Before you start photographing food, don’t forget you must prepare and plan your shooting session. You need to decide how your food should look like, what your audience will experience. Think about surroundings and the way you will incorporate it into your shot. The next step is choosing the right camera angle. Generally, you can pick any viewpoint but majority of food photos you’ll see out there are taken from 35° to 60° angles. In my opinion this isn’t too existing. In early days (50’s and 60’s), food photographers tend to shoot food exclusively from right above. The food was presented exactly in the way we see it on a dining table.

A lot of things changed since then. For the past 2 decades, food is photographed from low angles, emphasizing height and depth. This approach is still predominant and most photographers today shoot like that. Just recently, the “old way” where camera is placed right above the subject, is coming back to life … a lot of editorial work today is created with this technique.
The truth is, you can photograph food from any angle but if you just starting I would recommend going first with low angles and then try exploring all “other options”. You might find that 45° angle is the best approach and nothing is wrong with that. Make yourself comfortable first and then move into something different (high angles or right above the subject).

Tip #2 – The depth of field

Go for shallow unless you’re asked otherwise. When you photograph food, the rule of thumb calls for a shallow depth of field. Those blurred-out background photos look pretty fresh and appetizing. DoF is dictated by shooting distance and lens. For example, if you’re using macro lens and most of them are quite fast (maximum aperture f/2.8) you will be able to get pretty close to your subject. Now, if you set the aperture at f/2.8, you’ll realize the depth of field is way too shallow. Just a small portion of your food will be in focus and most likely it won’t do any justice to entire composition. On the flip side, the farther you get from the subject, more shallow you will be able shoot. Again, this is pretty subjective … everyone has their own preference therefore DoF will vary from picture to picture.
For packaging and advertising clients, you’ll be asked to produce images where pretty much everything needs be in focus. When I was working on a project for the local Toronto food producer (packaging), 90% of shots were taken with apertures from f/10 to f/22.

Tip #3 – Crop and rotate

When comes to photographing food, image cropping and rotating is something you need to get used to it. If you choose to crop your image pretty tight, you’ll worry less about props and surroundings. Tight crop is something I would recommend but not all the time. It really depends how close you got to a subject and of course what you want to reveal. Close-ups tend to divulge the true nature of food and draw attention to main focal point. On the other hand, you don’t want to carry too far with cropping. Removing absolutely everything around that juicy beef steak isn’t a great idea either. You need to find some middle ground.
Rotating your image is another trick you should consider. Often, straight-up shot are pretty boring and quite expectable. When the bottom portion of your food plate becomes parallel to the bottom of your picture, things can get fairly tedious. Try to rotate your image in either direction … trust me, you’ll be surprised how much better that photo will look. It’s almost inevitable when you spin you also need to crop your image. Don’t worry, there are plenty of samples on the Internet how to do this and there is no better way to learn this than practice.