Showing up ready to shoot means more than just packing the gear.

Calamari for an Austin Hilton Hotel restaurant.

When I accept a project for a client the first thing that the client and I do, together, is to figure out what kind of need they have, how they want to solve it and what they want to end up with when our photographic project is complete. This means that we talk about style, execution and who will be responsible for what and when. 

The assignment that generated this image, along with ten or twelve other food and beverage shots, required a number of pre-planning steps. First of all there is the primary decision: will we rent a studio space with a commercial kitchen and bring in a food stylist or will the client want to shoot at their location and have their chefs and food&beverage managers handle the food preparation and initial styling? There are advantages and disadvantages in either direction. In this situation the client was adamant that we come over to their turf and have their people work with the food.

The next step was a consultation at the location with the art director. He and I walked around the restaurant that the hotel wanted us to use and scouted for a perfect spot. We chose a smaller, private dining room because we'd be able to control the light and we would be able to work even if there were customers in the main dining room. While we were at the location the art director filled me in on the general look and feel that he would like the photographs to have. A lot of that discussion centered around what to do with the background. The white background worked for both of us. I added the white background material to the list of equipment I would need to bring. 

Next up I wanted to talk to the chef who would be spearheading the kitchen on the day we'd be shooting. I wanted to make sure he knew what we needed and what we were trying to accomplish with the food. Both in terms of styling and presentation as well as the timing and process of getting the food out to us while it was fresh and intact. We needed to let the chef know that we wanted a "stand in" dish first so we could figure out the lighting and the angle for presentation, and then, when we had test shots that the art director and the marketing person from the client side were happy with, we would call for the "hero" dish, tweak it, and then shoot quickly to maintain the food's fresh look.

A nightmare situation would have been a chef sending out everything at once and then going on a coffee break. We knew the guys in the kitchen at the Hilton knew better but it's the responsibility of the photographer to assume that no one has ever done this kind of thing before and therefore should be walked through the process to ensure it's all going to work out.

My next step, after confirming the date of the shoot, is to start assembling everything we might need for a successful shoot. That includes not only the cameras, lenses and lights but also things like: chopsticks for carefully arranging/fine-tuning food on the plates, a small atomizer of water to apply condensation beads to cold glasses, shims to angle plates up or down, tweezers, scissors, and toothpicks for propping. We even bring little styrofoam peanuts to fill in the bottom of bowls so salads sit higher.

I usually bring along a sprayer with olive or canola oil to use in a pinch to glisten up some foods, as well as a hand held steamer for not only pulling creases out of tablecloths and napkins but also to steam food with to give dishes a moist, hot feel. 

In the days leading up to the shoot day I spend a lot of time looking through food magazines, like Food and Wine, to get styling ideas and to look at the way food is presented. I also look through a book of food photography I've had for years that was done by Lou Manna. Might as well steal from one of the best....

Another important part of being ready is to pick the right assistant. For a food job at a nice restaurant I'm not looking for a young kid with a blue collar aesthetic and a lot of energy I'm usually looking for an assistant who likes and understands fine dining and who is seasoned enough (yes, I get the pun) to be calm and measured on the set. Not everything needs to happen at the speed of light. I also want someone who is very detail oriented because that's my blind spot. I can see a bit of chaos and rationalize it as "casual" where a more detail sensitive person makes a better decision about how sloppy is too sloppy.

An important part of any shoot that requires the willing participation of third parties is the "call sheet" or agenda for the day of the shoot. This is a standard feature in video and film production and I tend to make it mandatory on days with agencies, clients and collaborators whom I do not directly control. 
The call sheet let's everyone know when they (individually) need to be on the set or bring something to the set. It also provides contact info for everyone so if someone is running late they know who and how to call. 

I like everything in a call list because if we say, "We'll be there at eight!" The client or agency might interpret that to mean, "We'll start shooting the product right at eight!" The call sheet takes out any interpretation. It would say, "Kirk, Assistant and Art Director to arrive on location at 8 am to begin unpacking and setting up. First test dish to be ready from Kitchen at 9 am." A detailed schedule might include times for each dish to be ready. It will also include a stop time. And a packing up time, which should occur within the eight hour shoot day, not as an addition to it. 

There is a tendency of people to charge by the day or the hour but I would like to always charge by the project and by the usage of the project and here's why: If I can schedule the project to be done (portal to portal) in less time, and my schedule is accurate,  I win and the client wins. We know up front what our time commitment and cost will be. If we separate hours from the value of the finished images I am generally rewarded for my experience because I'll be able to do a better job faster. The client gets great images and always gets back valuable time that can be leveraged somewhere else. Ditto for the Art Director. I get paid for my experience and my eye, not how many hours I spend. Charging by the project also keeps clients from "adding in" extra shots and extra work to punish your expertise and experience. By that I mean that if we finish earlier then our day was more efficient for everyone. The client got the value they expected to pay for. Charging by the day means some clients start looking for extra things for you to do if you finish "early."

If we charge solely by time instead of calculating a fee based on usage and the value of the images then we can include the time spent researching images into the value as well as our career history of learning things up to that point. If we charge by the hour we then get into explanations for time that most people who work on salary have a harder time understanding. We are paying you to pack up and load your car? We are paying you to drive over here from your studio? (the unspoken objection: "no one pays me to drive to work every day! Pout!). We are paying you to pack up your stuff and drive back to the studio? We are paying you to unload your car? Changing the conversation from time value to image value allows you to skirt unproductive conversations and objections. 

If you aren't as good as you think you are you might need to stay longer and make less on a per hour basis, following this method, but you'll learn for next time. It's all part of the process and knowing how you'll charge and why is an important part of being ready to shoot. 

Finally, showing up ready means that you need to have the energy and enthusiasm to do everything right for the client and the project at hand. Maybe that means turning down that second glass of wine the night before. Maybe it means getting to bed earlier and getting a reasonable amount of sleep. For a very complex job it may even mean a bit of meditation the day before to calm your mind and open yourself up to alternate ideas. For me, it also means eating a good breakfast with a lot of protein. A long and dependable energy source always beats downing a bear claw with your no fat latté and then having to deal with the sugar crash a few hours into the job.

The most important part of being ready is to have some sort of visual image in your mind of what the final images should look like when you've done the job the way you wanted to do it. Because without the mental map you might just shoot unanchored and get stuff that doesn't match and doesn't fill the parameters that you promised the art director and the final client. A focused mental image of what visual success looks like is the blueprint for successfully bringing the work to fruition. 

Oh yeah, and then there's the gear. But we've talked about that enough.


Anonymous said...

Being ready means being confident and that's a priceless bit of marketing!

David Zivic said...

Very informative Tuck. Felt like a mini-seminar on professional food shooting. Thank You.

Michael Gatton said...

Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom - the casual photographer like me has little idea how much forethought, planning, and background knowledge are demanded in a even a (seemingly) simple professional shoot. Love the calamari, makes me want to go out and have an order myself.

Kirk Tuck said...

MIchael, we'd never go to that length to do one shot. The day we shot the calamari we shot eight or ten other food shots and some beverage shots. Efficiency counts too. Thanks of the nice feedback!

Joseph Kashi said...

The carefully differentiated "whites" on white with the thin black border is a strong and attractive shot.

Anonymous said...

The fine balance between confidence and doing something on autopilot because you've done it lots before.
Your dedication to the nth similar shoot is inspiring.

Dennis Elam said...


Thanks for this article on preparation. Last night it was clear my students in my college class were totally unprepared for the lecture which consisted of solving problems. No one had read the book much less attempted the problems. As a result I had a class full of 'deer staring into my headlights' with no comprehension of what was happening. What a waste.

I was about to write a don't do that do this, read the book, try the problems before you come to class memo on line to them, but first I checked out VSL. Instead I will be positing a link to your story on


Thanks this is a much gentler way to make a point. I hope they get the message.