How a typical food shoot comes together

Our clients range from the creative director who’s been doing this for 256 years to the marketing assistant who’s in their first job out of college. Sometimes the clients are from the creative industries (graphic design, advertising, marketing) other times the clients come directly from the food industry. In any case, everyone wants to know how we work. This narrative is based on a typical advertising or corporate shoot. Editorial(magazine) shoots work a bit differently.

Work on a shoot begins long before we even take the camera out of it’s case. A successful shoot starts with good planning. We’ll sit down with the client and talk about what they want to accomplish with the images, how they expect to use them and what they would like the images to look like. We’ll go over the shot list, talk about props, locations and timing. Often one of the most difficult questions to answer for clients is one of visual style. They may be looking for a heavily propped and idealized setting (think Southern Living) or a more pared down simple look, (think Real Simple.) Of course there’s also the entire spectrum in between as well as more avant garde styles to consider. In any event, the discussion on visual style is part of a larger question of branding, which hopefully they’ve already had with their marketing teams.

With the big questions answered in pre-production, the shoot is a snap. Ok, well maybe not a snap but it’s easy. Ok, well maybe not easy, but the point is, we’ve developed a plan during pre-production and now we’re ready to put that plan into action. In addition to the client and the photographer there are usually a handful of other people on site during a shoot. They include”¦

  • Food Stylist. The food stylist is the person responsible for making the food physically look appealing to the camera. The photographer handles the lighting, the composition and the final technical details but the food stylist handles the food. Most food stylists are multi-talented and have a whole kit of tricks and tools to make the food look it’s best. Food styling is a profession and it’s beyond the scope of a simple paragraph here to outline everything they do, but let it suffice to say that a good food stylist is an indispensable part of the team.
  • Food Styling Assistant. Usually on the crew for larger productions. My food stylist is great but he can only be in one place at a time.
  • Prop Stylist. A prop stylist is responsible for acquiring the props and other decorative items and placing them onto the set as needed. Just like food styling, decorative or prop styling are professions onto themselves and can make or break a shoot.
  • Photographers Assistant. The photo assistant helps me adjust lighting, moves items onto and off of the set, and if there’s no digital technician on the job will help operate the computer.
  • Digital Technician. On larger jobs we will bring in a digital technician to operate the computer during the shoot. Since everything we shoot is digital, a trained tech is invaluable in running the software and managing the huge amounts of data that can accumulate during the course of the day.
  • Photo Intern. During the summer months and sometimes year round we like to have an intern in house. Interns here are like interns everywhere. They basically get to hang around, watch the world go by and learn from the experience of everyone on the team. In exchange for this learning experience they will often run out and get everyone coffee.

Of course not every job needs the full crew. Sometimes it’s just the photographer, food stylist and the assistant. Whatever the needs, have it covered.

Typically the food stylist will prepare what’s called a dummy. This is simply a stand-in plate of food that represents what the final or “hero” item will look like. We’ll use the dummy to set composition, rough lighting and accessories on the set while the stylist is hard at work preparing the hero. (I know many food photographers prefer to use a very rough dummy as opposed to actual food. Often clients can experience what’s sometimes called “dummy love.” Dummy love is what we call it when, after working with the dummy on set for so long, we begin to really like how it looks. When the hero comes out, we’re so used to looking at the dummy, we’re disappointed. Using a VERY rough stand in, like my brown leather wallet, instead of a steak, helps avoid dummy love.) After we’re happy with the light and the composition, and the stylist is happy with the hero we’ll swap them out and begin final tweaks. Food often has a very small window in which you must shoot before it begins to look dull and well, old. We’ll make sure were almost there with the stand-in, that way once the hero comes out we can make final adjustments and then capture the winner very quickly. We’ll typically shoot a wide variety of variations on the same shot but slightly adjusting the camera position and props throughout the shoot.

This process of course takes some time. It’s not unusual for us to spend three hours or so on one shot. We’ve also spent 2 days on one shot (although that’s not typical.) The amount of time involved per shot will vary greatly from job to job. During the pre-production process we’ll discuss this with the client and make sure everyone understands what’s going to happen and when. Clients can often have a lot of down time so it’s a good idea to encourage them to bring their laptop with them, or have other distractions for them while they’re at your studio (think wii.)


Every recipe needs that last little item to finish it off. Every outfit needs that accessory to tie it all together. Every image needs a little tweak to bring it to it’s best. Most jobs require some help after the shoot to make everything come together. Sometimes it’s simple adjustments. Other times it’s a team collaboration between digital artists, the photographer and the clients. It’s here that we’ll also prepare the file for final output.

As I’ve said, this is typical for a corporate or advertising shoot, editorial shoots run a bit differently but many of the issues and processes are the same.

Steve Buchanan is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Maryland. His work can be seen at

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