The Top 10 Questions for Every Food Photographer
One of the things that happened very organically at our workshop I was teaching in San Francisco last year was the idea that a lot of people had questions about the business of photography. Because there are quite a few variables when it comes to dealing with a food photo shoot, and there's also a varying number of clientele. Clientele ranges from, it could be somebody you know in a local restaurant to a major advertiser with an international brand. All of those things have to be considered when you're dealing with the business of this particular art form. And one of the things that I was grateful for in that was just how hungry people were for that particular part of the talk that just kind of sprung out of nowhere. We were sitting down with a group about this big. Powell was actually in that group. And all of a sudden, all these questions kept coming, and coming, and coming, and we actually sat there and talked for quite a while about we extended the day and we sat there and talked a...
bout the business for quite a while. And it became abundantly clear to me that this was something that needed to be included in the talks that we were going to have about food photography. So, when I wrote all my notes for this workshop, everything I had was fairly straightforward. I gave bullet points and whatever. And when I got to this section, I started writing notes and I kept writing, and I kept writing, and I kept writing. And that's why we decided that this was more of a two section topic because just what I have to say is just part of the equation, it's how much you have to say as well. Because you probably have individual issues that are outside of the realm of what I'm all ready talking about. And I'm sure that on the internet, everyone else has individual issues. And I know that pricing is one of those things that people really wanna talk about. And pricing is something that has, it's amorphous. There's such an enormity to pricing when it comes to dealing with photography. But what I'm hoping to do today, when we talk about pricing in general, is give you a general guideline about where to start, understand your worth, understand that your time is worth something and that sometimes it's better to say no than say yes. So, we're gonna cover a lot of this and you're probably gonna probably hear me say those things quite a lot today, about you have to be brave enough to say no sometimes because you have to know what you're worth. And what we do in this business, whatever piece of this business you decide to be part of and work toward, you have to understand that your value is your time. Because the time that you put into your work and your craft, and your art is time away from other things that you can't do. And you have to also balance those things. A lot of us has families, we have friends, we have social lives, we have a lot of things and every minute of time that you spend putting towards this is valuable. Money isn't the only compensation you can receive in this business, and we'll talk about that as well. You have to know when to use something other than money as compensation, what is it worth to you, what is the end game? This is chess, this isn't checkers, it's complicated. So, you need to understand that we're gonna talk about so many things today that that's why we left this kind of open Q and A all day, meaning whenever we're in this, this is an ongoing running discussion, this is a give and take all day. I have prepared material but I'm prepared to answer questions and talk you through the things that are gonna be pretty, probably confusing for you right now because this, trying to figure out how to turn this into money is, that's a challenge, right? That's why we're here, we're here to figure out how to do things we love, cook, shoot, eat, and then get paid. We still wanna get paid to do this, we still wanna make a living out of it. And that's where I'm hoping to really kind of, at least smooth it over a little bit and then put a little dollop on top. (laughing) All right, let's get started. Don't be afraid to ask questions ever. The questions that are left unanswered are the ones there where the person who's trying to hire you is getting more for their money. You wanna be able to give good value, but you also wanna make sure that they understand what you know what you're talking about. So, we're gonna go through 10 questions that you need to ask somebody who wants to hire you. SO, we're gonna do one at a time. The first one is like asking them what color their underwear is. You ask somebody what their budget is, you never get a straight answer because the idea is that this is a negotiation for them and if they throw a number at you right off the bat, they're at a disadvantage. SO basically, this dance that we do about budget is about who blinks first. It really is, you ask somebody what their budget is and it's sort of like, well, I'm not sure. Okay, okay, fine, you don't wanna tell me what your budget is, let's ask some more questions. Beyond budget, beyond the idea of what can you spend, now it's about trying to figure out what it is they want. And until you understand what they want, it's a little complicated to throw numbers out because basically somebody's trying to box you into a corner the minute they ask you, "Can you do this work?" And if it's your first job or it's a client that you really wanna work for and your heart starts pounding and you're like, oh my god, I really want this job, I really want to do this, you're immediately at a disadvantage. Because as soon as you feel desperate about it, as soon as you feel like what they're giving you something, that's where you're at a disadvantage. They're not giving you anything, they're maybe giving you an opportunity, maybe. THat's if they hire you. But what they're also giving you is the opportunity to show that you're a professional. And sometimes the more professional you are with certain clients, they get scared off because they know that you're not hard to deal with, but you're a tough negotiator and that you know what you're worth. Everybody's looking for a bargain. I don't blame them, I do not blame anybody for looking for a bargain. And I think that the dance that we do, the negotiation dance with any business, particularly this one, is about give and take. How much can I give of myself? How much can I bend without breaking? And they're basically going, how much can I get for the money that I have available to spend? And if you form a relationship that's based on mutual trust, I'm gonna do the best I can for you if you do the best you can for me. Then you realize that you can form lasting relationships with clients and make something that works out for everybody. Okay, first question I always ask when somebody says, well, I want you to shoot pictures for me. Well, how do you wanna use them? This is the key element in this because if I wanna use the images as a purchaser, there's so many ways I can use them, right? I can use them on my website, I can use them for promotion, I can use them in print, I can use them for handouts, I can use them for banner advertising, I could use them for anything. The reality is that all of those things are worth different prices. How do you wanna use my images isn't just as important to what you want me to shoot. So, if you're gonna say, okay, I wanna use them for my store to put up billboards, or whatever, okay, that's a certain idea on price because it's fairly narrow. So, the wider and wider, and wider the usage gets, the more, and more, and more it's worth to them and to you. Because if they're gonna shoot pictures that they can use for a business or for a website, or for an advertising campaign, all of those things have different values that are attached to them because of the length of the use, or the amount of venues they're gonna appear in, all of those things are important. And again, these are just the basics. We're gonna go into a little bit more detail about these things as we go through. How many shots do we wanna use? Do you need variations, how many days? So now we're talking about time, right? How much time do you need me for? Having day rates is fine when you're working on these jobs, but understand that you should always calculate into your day rate or a project fee, how much time you're gonna have to dedicate on a backend. So, okay, we wanna shoot 20 recipes. How many variations do you want? How many shots do you think you might need? These are questions that you ask and one of the things is you're getting answers that you need to plan out your shoot, but you're also showing the client that you know the questions to ask, that you're not gonna own me for three days and I'm gonna shoot like a monkey with a camera, it's not gonna happen. What you're going to do is you're going to plot out everything and everything that you're gonna plot is gonna help with the price. And you're gonna say, I have three days on the backend of this and this is your budget. I don't think I can take that job because I can't dedicate six days of my life to that. That's the equation, is that, it's also about educating your clients in a very respectful way. They're the people who wanna give you money to work, so you do have to treat them with respect. But you do also have to understand that they need to know what it is that they're getting. So, by understanding like all of the complexity of what we've done here in this room for the last three days, realizing how much time everything takes, from picking out the props, to picking out and shopping for the groceries, to either that or hiring people to do that. All of those things take time, all of those things take money. So, if you're not upfront and clear about how many days do you want from me, how many shots do you want from me, and understand in your workflow how long that's gonna that, you can't build your job correctly. Where are we shooting? Do you have a studio, do I have a studio? Are we shooting at a restaurant? Are we shooting at a farm? Where are we shooting and who's paying for it? This is always a key element to food photography because everyone has the idea in their head is, oh, we're gonna shoot this at my restaurant. Well, your restaurant's in a basement, there's no doubt an actual light, there is no access to the outside, and it's gonna be very tough. So, what does that mean? Now I have to bring lights, rent lights. So again, where are we shooting? Are we shooting in my studio? Okay, my studio rate is X. Are we shooting in your studio? Okay, fine, you own it, we're good to go. We're renting a studio, well that costs X amount of dollars. Does that studio have a kitchen? Can we work in that place? Does your home have a kitchen? All of it is relevant, ask the right questions because if you get into a situation where you say, yeah, I'm gonna do it, we're gonna do this job, we got this! And you get there, and you look around and you're like, "Oh no, this is a nightmare." The kitchen is on another floor. We don't have access to daylight. The orientation is weird. There's no where to put anything, it's too small. Where are we shooting, really important question. Who's cooking? This is a food shoot, who's making the food. It's also really important to retain the integrity of your photographs that you know who's cooking the food because the idea is if they don't understand the things that we went over, those little details, how to prepare certain things for camera. Preparing food for camera isn't always the same as preparing it for dinner, we went through this, right? So, who's cooking the food? And if the idea is the client is cooking the food, do you trust that they're going to be able to plate it that's appropriate for food photography, and how much guidance will they be able to take from you. If not, you have to hire a stylist, you have to hire cooks and assistants, how much does that cost? Understand the rates in your region. I work in New York, it's expensive. Food stylists for even up to editorial things, I mean, everybody negotiates but there are rates between 750 and 1,250 a day for a food stylist to come in and work with you for one day. And they're charging you for prep days, or half days, or cleanup days, or return days. Do you understand what all that means? They're talking about my time and they know it really well. The stylists who are professionals and work, they understand what their time is worth. You want me on set, it's this much. You need me to go shopping, prepping, propping, returning things to the store, hiring assistants. If there were jobs where a client came to me and said, "This is what I want, X, Y, and Z." I started asking all these questions and what became apparent was within their budget, the stylist was gonna make more money than me. And I said, can't do the job because I wouldn't shoot without a professional to prepare the food or work with it because the client didn't have that. And the idea was I know what they cost. So, understanding those costs, I wrote it out, I told them, I said, "Look, this is what stylists cost. "This is what we need, this is what your budget is. "I don't think that I'm the right guy for your job." And they said, "Thank you." They thanked me, they said, "I understand a little bit more now and "I know I have to do something a little different." And they go back and reevaluate, and that's the... The beauty of this is that even if you don't get the job, you build a reputation as someone who knows what they're talking about. Because there are lots of people who call me now just for advice because they know, okay, well, he's not the guy that's gonna do this job for me but can you recommend somebody. Or what do you think this should cost? And I'm happy to do it because the idea is that an educated consumer is a good one because then they know what they can get for their money. Who's styling? If it's the same person as the person who's cooking, and when I say styling, I'm talking about both propping and food styling. Because the person who cooks the food may not be the person who styles the food, it's usually the assistant if you're talking about a professional photo shoot. I mean, maybe it's the same person but when I've been on big commercial shoots, the food stylist is directing, directing three or four different people to do everything that needs to be done. That's on the highest of scales. When we're talking about what we're gonna do in a smaller scale, just understand who's styling, who's prop styling, who's gonna style the food. If it's you, charge for it. Photography and styling are two different skillsets. Don't just sell yourself as a one packaged deal without understanding that those skills are valuable. If you don't have to hire a stylist, okay, for example, I'll give you a monetary example, you're working for a day rate, whatever the client might be, you're working for a day rate of, let's say, 1,000 a day. And that's including, you're lumping in the cost of your post-production on a backend, right. So, you're working for 1,000 a day, just for arguments sake, and you know that a professional stylist for this particular job is gonna cost you maybe 500 a day, for arguments sake. Well, you can create a package deal and say, look, we're gonna do both, I'm gonna bring in a couple people to work with me, you hire assistants for a lower rate, and then rather than charge 1,000 and 500, you charge 1,250 and then you're creating a package deal where you can use all of your skillsets and you're still getting paid, and the client's getting a bargain. That's the whole point of this, is creating bundles, and packages. And listen, I developed my entire career during the majority of the recession. The majority of the recession, I was working in this business and my business grew. Because I understood that clients had less money, so you had to create package deals with people to make it more palatable for them to get this work done because if you parsed it out, hire a food stylist, hire a prop stylist, hire a photographer of note, hire a studio, you know, return days, prop days, assistants, all of the things that are gonna happen, the numbers are daunting. But if you can create a situation where you're the producer and you have a team, or you have people that you trust and you have multiple skillsets, you can sell something that a lot of people can't. Okay, same question, who's propping? Who's styling, who's propping? When do you need pictures? I asked this question right upfront because the idea is so many times everybody thinks it comes out of the camera, you put it in the computer and you send it to them. You need to build time into your workflow and make the client understand. And the longer your lead time, the more flexible you can be with them monetarily because that means I don't have to rush and stack jobs together, and all of a sudden I have all this unprocessed file and I have no where, I'm rushing, I got my hair on fire because it's just crazy. When do you need your pictures? So, you ask that question right in the beginning of the negotiation because it's part of it. Because if you need them right away, that's gonna cost more. If you want me to turn these around super quick and put other things on the back burner, well then, that comes in the idea of negotiation. So, it's really, I mean, I wouldn't put a dollar figure on it but it's really just about how well, how much flexibility you're willing to give the client. So, if they're rigid, you can be rigid. If they're really loose and flexible, you can be loose and flexible. Take the lead from the client. Depending on how demanding they are and how much they need from you, that's also to your benefit. Where you want the pages, you want the job, you want the money, you want whatever comes with it, the exposure, well, they want it fast, they want it well done, they want it to look professional, that's the seesaw, you give, they give. That's how that works. What file format do you prefer? Don't go guessing. I talked about this yesterday, there should be no guesswork. If you ask the questions upfront, they know you're a professional because when you have to reach back to a client in the middle of your processing or in the middle of before you send them finals, it's sort of like, why didn't they ask me that in the beginning, you know. Know your file formats so that when you're processing, and whatever, you can use your presets in light room, or whatever, to kind of get that all out of the way. Your workflow just goes so much easier. As much as you can take out of the equation after the fact, the more you can know upfront, the better we're gonna be. And how do you like your files delivered? We talked about this a little bit yesterday too, right? We talked about the idea is if you know how they want them delivered, and if they're a smaller client and they don't have an FTP server, and they don't use Dropbox or U send or whatever, you can educate your client here. Okay, here's how I prefer to send my files. I have a Dropbox account and I'm gonna send it to you this way, you'll receive an email and then your files will be ready to be picked up. There is no reason anymore to put things on flash drives and carry them around. You know, it's tenuous, your work is all this energy and time, and money spent on this little thing. You need to put it into your backup files and then put it on the internet for them to retrieve. And again, it's a more professional workflow. One of the things I didn't put on here is food cost because there's something that, it's not a question of who's gonna pay for the food. Obviously somebody's paying for it. But don't forget that that's a big part of the equation and if your client isn't prepared to know that all of that is in all inclusive, that your rate isn't all inclusive of everything, including the food. I mean, it seems self explanatory but it's not. Just be open and honest about everything, and try to be good about estimating food cost. I try to estimate about 30 to 40% over for food cost because you need to have some flexibility and room. You never know because if you're working with things that, ingredients that are easy to attain and relatively inexpensive, great. Because then when you come back with a lower food cost, your client is happy. So, you wanna kind of make sure you know where you wanna shop but also the ingredients that we use for food photography, quite honestly, are usually more expensive than the things that we're gonna eat at home. We don't cut corners in food photography. We don't go for the budget items, we go for the best available. So, that's one of those things where you have to make your clients understand that food costs can, the number of dishes we go, the higher it gets. And you don't wanna get burned for food costs because you can take a good chunk of your profit right out of it if you underestimate food costs. So, that's one of those important things as well. So, those 10 questions. Yes?
I have a question.
Do you, in proposals then, do you have those as a direct line cost for budget for food?
And do you estimate ahead of time what it might cost or do you just have it as it's gonna be billed directly after?
Well, I do an estimate for every job and I'll put a line item for food costs and then after the fact, I will provide receipts to show that we... Receipt keeping and all that record keeping for food photographers is really important too. It's something that you need to be meticulous about. Basically I save every food receipt, whether it's for work or not because the reality is I keep a food studio and I don't bill for every grain of salt I use. I keep a stock in my studio of basic items that get used all the time, canned tomatoes, chicken stock, salt, pepper, seasonings, spices, all the things that are non perishable, or come in cans, or you can store, I have stock piles of it. I look like a survivalist. (laughing) But the idea is that when you buy that stuff in bulk at Costco or BJ's, or Sam's Club, or whatever big box store that you go to to stock up on that stuff, and if you have a lot of room in your space, you can really save money on food cost because if you go out and buy it at the local market, it's way more expensive. So, the things that you know that you can plan ahead and keep in your studio, or keep in your space, that will be reusable, that's why I keep all my receipts so then every month, I have two bags, to ziplock bags that I put up on my bulletin board, one says props and one says food. And every receipt, at the end of the day, I empty my pockets and I put all my receipts in there. At the end of the month, I scan them all into my computer, I add them up, I create a line item, and everything is there so that at the end of the month, when I need to submit receipts to clients, I have everything in a computer, or organized, labeled, and then stapled together. If I have this is for one magazine, this is for different, and everybody has a different system. There are some clients who understand that we're in a longterm relationship and there's a trust balance there and when I give them a food cost, they don't actually require receipts but I have them anyway, just in case. So, keeping your receipts in order, and understanding, too, hey, from a tax perspective, you're a freelance professional, these are tax deductible items, all of it, everything that you use in your business. So, food, in someways, is also tax deductible because you have to continually use food in ways that aren't intended for consumption, meaning you're testing, you're practicing, all of these things, you're researching. These things are important and you talk to your accountant and you make him understand, or her understand, that these are all the things that I'm doing with my business, and if you find an accountant who specializes in art, in people in the arts, in what we do, they understand these things. They understand the deductions, they understand how you need to file your taxes. If you are growing, I encourage you to incorporate because you are provided more protection, you should have photo insurance because photo insurance not only protects your gear, but it protects you from liability. So, if you're out there working as a professional, all of these things are key and important to what you're doing because the idea of you as a business person, a small business person, is about protection. You go on a photo shoot and you have an assistant and somebody doesn't sandbag a ladder and somebody falls and gets hurt, you're liable, that's your problem now because you're the person in charge. So, you need to protect yourself in a lot of ways when you're talking about your finances, your gear, liability, all of these things important and this is why incorporation, even if you're deciding that you can do it on a smaller scale, you don't have to become a C corp or an S corp, but you definitely can be a sole proprietor and you can have a small business, and have a tax ID number that's separate, and that way you can file your taxes as a business and you get to file your taxes as an individual. And then you can also take a salary from your business. So that, again, especially if you're married, that is complicated because if you're filing jointly, you have that separate. It's better to separate your work and your home. And when I first started working in this business, and I said this earlier, jokingly, I worked and lived in the same space. And it was really hard, it's hard even mentally to separate, to separate your work life from your home life but if you think about it, that's a tangible thing that you can understand. But the financial part of it too, once it becomes enmeshed and intertwined in your life, it's hard to pull it apart. So, if you find yourself on a path to working as a professional in this business or any other, it's better as a freelancer to be a small corporation. And your accountant can explain to you all the tax benefits there are too, where it's not bleeding on the rest of your life, where if business isn't good, you have some protection there as well. So, it's a smart move, and it's easy, it's easy to do, it's a phone call or click on the computer.