Becoming a Professional Food Photographer is Scary

Sharwood Indian Cooking Pastes

Y’all know that I talk a lot about figuring out photography around here.  It’s a maddening hobby, dontchya think?  I think what keeps us all going is every now and then you take a photo and are stunned with how well it turned out.

It gives you a little adrenaline shot doesn’t it?  I tend to squeal and jump up and down and do a little dance (I’m not lying – I really do that).  And then you go back to taking 9 million crappy photos in a row and figure it was all a fluke.  And right when you’re about to throw your camera off a bridge into the ocean, you get another stunning photo.  It’s juuuuuust enough to keep you going through the next 9 million crappy shots.  (9 million is not an exaggeration…I’m very scientific about these things…).

The thing is, as long as I call it a hobby, or refer to myself as an amateur, it seems ok that there are 9 million crappy shots (alright, alright, it’s not 9 million – but there are a lot).  Because I’m not a pro.

But then there comes that day when somebody offers you money to take a photo.   You take the money.   But you don’t ever refer to yourself as a professional because you think it was a fluke – nobody will ever ask you again.

But then, somebody does.  And you do it.  And it happens a few more times.  But you still call yourself an amateur because that word “professional” conjures up all these scary things that freak you out – like being able to deliver the shot every time.  Or knowing how to do big scary things with lighting rigs.  Or paying all your bills with just a camera in your hand.  Or having a photography degree.  Or just not being good enough.

Or maybe, maybe it’s that you’re scared that it sounds successful and perhaps conceited and like you’re being pompous.

When does it become real?  When do you finally admit that you’re a professional photographer?  I’ve been paid for my photographs multiple times over the last 4 years.  Yes, if you pay me, I’ll take a photo.  But I’m not really a professional.

Melissa photographing food

Me at work courtesy of Ethan Adeland

And then I got a phone call asking me to be… a professional food photographer.  It was the type of gig, that if I accepted it, referring to myself as an amateur would no longer work.

I did accept, and I was terrified but excited. And yet still, I resisted.  And then a friend referred to me as a professional food photographer and I secretly freaked out  – and not in a good way!   I replied “no, no… not yet… not until they pay my bill”.  Part of me was scared that even after I did all the work, they’d come back and say “oh sorry, we thought you were a real food photographer… and these just aren’t good enough…”  (Have I ever mentioned that I’m totally neurotic?).

So, now that we’ve finished discussing my neuroses, let’s move on to something useful, shall we?

I thought it might be interesting to share with you just how different doing a professional shoot is from photographing for your blog.  My client, Tree of Life on behalf of Sharwood Foods, has given me permission to blog about the process we went through and man… I learned soooooooo much.

My job was to photograph every product in the Sharwoods line – they just revamped their packaging and launched new products and needed all new photography for their advertising and marketing.  There were 22 bottles that need to be photographed solo, and then in family groups (all Indian, all Thai, all Chinese, etc).  And then I had to style and photograph a series of lifestyle shots for the different family groups. The non-lifestyle photos had to be artwork ready – which means that the art department needed to be able to drop them directly into artwork with no background.

Lesson #1: Pick The Product Yourself if You Can

Sharwood Thai Cooking Sauces

I remember reading an article by a food stylist who had spent ages in a bakery pouring over hamburger buns looking for the perfect one.  I thought she was crazy.  Now I understand.  The more perfect it is before you take the photo, the less work you have to do in post processing.

Sometimes, you don’t get a choice – I didn’t.  The product was new, we were waiting for samples, some was shipped from the UK and I got what I got.  Some of the labels had been torn, scratched and started to peel off in shipping and transit.  All of that had to be fixed in Photoshop afterwords.  The photoshoot itself was relatively quick and easy in comparison to the hours of retouching work that was required to fix labels. Other things to look for:

  • LOT codes those little codes printed on the package that tell the manufacturer when and where the product was made.  They’ll need to be removed in Photoshop afterwards if you can’t shoot around them
  • UPCs  these are the bar codes that the cashier scans  when you buy a product.  Sometimes they can stay, sometimes they can’t.  Ask.
  • Ingredient Listings again, ask if these can stay
  • Bilingual (or trilingual) packaging In Canada, all packaging must be in English and French.  Sometimes they’re on the same side of the package, sometimes they’re on opposite sides.  If they’re on opposite sides, find out if you need to photograph both – that’s twice the shot list and twice the retouching

Lesson #2: Food Stylists Are Worth Their Weight in Gold

Sharwood Chinese cooking sauces

Styling for a blog, is one thing.  Styling for a professional shoot, is something else.  I’m not a professional stylist.  And I honestly thought this would be the easy part of the shoot.  It wasn’t.  Fortunately I had three friends who generously helped me out.  We shot the lifestyle photos in the gorgeous, magazine ready kitchen of my friends Victor and Melissa, with help from my friend Ethan.  Melissa got totally into the whole thing and was searching on-line for ideas, pulling out her dishes for props and tossing out all kinds of suggestions.  Plus she brought us all Steveston mini-donuts and made me my favourite strawberry chocolate tea :)

At one point, we wanted yogurt for a shot but we didn’t have any.  So Victor made some by mixing ricotta cheese with milk.  Perfect stand-in. Ethan, who’s hands are much steadier than mine, swapped out cilantro leaves from the “yogurt” multiple times to keep them looking fresh and keep the yogurt looking perfect.  He was also my second set of eyes, catching so many little details that I missed.

We swapped things around, had to pay attention to angles for reflections, built mini-sets… and basically turned Victor and Melissa’s dining room and kitchen into a war zone.

Every detail needs to be paid attention to – no smudges, no streaks, no crumbs, no wilting… everything in perfect place.

Lesson #3: The Client Doesn’t Care if You Run out of Daylight at 4pm

Yeah… shooting on a deadline means you don’t get to wait for perfect natural light.  You better be prepared to deliver regardless.  The individual product shots were shot in a light tent – in pitch dark at night.  That was actually the best way to do it as it cut down on unwanted reflections and white balance issues.

Programming the Speedlights

Victor, programming the master speedlight. The other two are sitting on the counter.

We aimed to shoot the lifestyle shots at around 2pm but the weather didn’t co-operate.  It was a miserable wet, grey November day.  So we had no choice but to bring in light sources and use strobes.  Using strobe lighting (off camera flashes in this case) is much easier when you have help.  Victor has much better strobe skills than I do so he helped with the setup and him and Ethan held up flashes and white boards and we bounced the bejeebers out of light for the latter half of the afternoon.  I would never have done that for my blog – it’s time consuming and a lot of work! (oh but what an amazing difference it makes!)

Lesson #4: Be Organized and Make a Checklist

Shooting at home is great because you have everything you need within a few metres of your kitchen.  But it’s not always an option. So you need to be organized (this is just as much for my future reference as anything):

  • have a shot list – the client should provide this
  • discuss the shots with the client if they’re not going to be on set (mine weren’t).  I had specific instructions for the lifestyle shots of what could and could not be included and what type of mood they wanted.  They were also able to show me some examples of what they liked
  • find out if there are specific props the client wants used (mine did)
  • understand what’s required of you: does the client want just the RAW files with no touchups and only basic post processing?  Or are you required to do full retouching and prep to make the images artwork ready?  The second one is a whole different skill set in addition to photography and it will change your approach to how you shoot.  Know what file types they want the finals delivered in and what sizes.
  • do your food shopping at the last minute (we used a lot of fresh veggies)
  • plan out your shots as best you can.  Have a good idea of what props you’ll need and pack up items that can do double, triple or quadruple duty
  • sketch out your lighting if you can – stage your shots accordingly
  • pack up your lenses, tripod, reflectors, diffusers, spare battery, flashes, USB cables, laptop or iPad (or easy preview), scotch tape or duct tape, even a step ladder (ask if there will be one available)

The Equipment List

This is a list of what we used for the entire shoot:

Not a super fancy kit but it worked really hard and performed really well.

 Ethan sitting with Toto the dog

Ethan was a great stylist AND dog wrangler, convincing Toto to pose for the camera. Toto was a good sport

The best part of the whole thing was getting to work with some of my favourite people who made an awesome experience even more awesome, and having a wonderful and considerate client.

But you know the biggest lesson I learned from it all?  That sometimes, the people around you have way more faith in you than you do.  And sometimes, they’re right.  And those are the people that are really important.

And to cap off this story, last week I went to the Make it Show in Vancouver.  I made one purchase – to be used for props.  The artisan who had made them was wrapping them for me and asked me what I was going to do with them.  I paused.  Instead of just saying “oh I like to take pictures of food” or “I write a food blog” or something along those lines, I gulped and said, for the first time out loud “I’m a food photographer”.  She said “what a cool job to have!”.

Yeah…. yeah it kinda is. :)



  1. says

    YOU ARE SO FREAKIN’ COOL! I’m yelling because I’m way excited and also because I’m going to tell people that I have a very close friend who is a professional food photographer, which basically makes me Martha Stewart by association. (Don’t question this.)

  2. says

    Believe it girl. This is no fluke! Congratulations, so happy for you Melissa. This is so hard earned and so well deserved.
    I’m sure your client, Tree of Life and Sherwood Foods are delighted with your shots. The ones you shared in this post are beautiful (and bilingual :)
    Your friends, Melissa and Victor and Ethan of course, were so fabulous to help you out with styling, props, lighting, etc. and to shoot in their gorgeous kitchen must have been so much more comfortable than in a studio.
    Keep your camera and equipment packed and your check-list updated…I have a feeling you are going to be one busy professional food photographer :)

  3. says

    Oh, I am so excited for you :) And thanks for sharing your story… you know I share your blog everytime anyone asks me for photography tips and from now on, I’ll be able to tell them you’re a professional food photographer!!! How cool is that?

  4. Cristina says

    What a fantastic, well written and honest post, Melissa. Ya know, I’m cheering for you over here!! That’s it girl, you are officially “professional” now with this project to add to your portfolio. :) This will no doubt open the doors for additional projects with this company and others to follow. I’m so happy for you and that you have a support system that’s precious all it’s own. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  5. says

    Thank you so much for this post. This is honestly something I look for all the time and never really seem to get sufficient answers for. Finally someone posted the ins and outs involved with food photography. I love that you’ve gone from amateur to pro, and it gives me hope! It’s awesome to hear about your own experience.

  6. says

    Yay! Congrats! You totally have the skillz (with a ‘z’) and the experience to use that label! Your shoot sounded so professional!

    Some people think that if they get paid for something then it automatically makes them a professional.. and I guess in a sense it does. However, I really think you need the skills to back up that title (which you totally, obviously do).

    Exciting 😀

  7. says

    Good heavens, I so totally sympathize with you. I just graduated from school and got my first commercial job. Only not a single food stylist in all of Montana….and I only have 1 speedlight and a couple of shoot through umbrellas and lots of white boards. Not a fan of the tripod, but this time of year…well I buckled down, used the tripod, lights, tethered, etc. In the end, I still had to thank heavens for Photoshop! Personally I think you did a great job. I’m taking your words about other peoples faith to heart…it’s a good way to keep positive when you feel insecure.

  8. says

    You just so concisely summed up my range of feelings on the potential of becoming a professional food photographer… not that I am one. Wonderful post Melissa.

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