Photographs of people eating are staples of the stock industry, and for good reason: image-buyers can use these pictures to suit a wide variety of needs. Search “eating” on Shutterstock, and you’ll come up with well over ten million photos; refine that search to include only model-released images, and you still end up with more than 800,000. So what exactly does it take to create the kind of successful (and profitable!) photos you see all the time in magazines and on billboards?
We reached out to eleven outstanding Shutterstock Contributors to find out. Below, they spill their backstage secrets for collaborating with models, choosing locations, and even sourcing their food. Whether you plan on working one-on-one with a model to create that perfect on-the-go food shot or you’re hoping to capture a best-selling snap at your next family get-together, these artists have you covered.
1. “Before the models arrive, you need to know exactly what you are going to shoot.”
Jack Frog (Philippe Marchand):
For natural photos, the most important thing is to create a good atmosphere, even if not all your guests know each other. Entertain them a little at the beginning of the session, and create situations that make them laugh to establish real complicity. A little something that always works is if you do a “selfie” series around the table or play YouTube videos of kittens on your phone. It works every time.
Decorations, styling, and light are, of course, essential for successful images. Everything must be prepared in advance. Before the models arrive, you need to know exactly what you are going to shoot. As I frequently mix natural and artificial lights, I often do tests the day before the shots are taken, if possible. When you have five or six people to manage, the important thing is to focus on the models and forget about the technical issues.
Of course, you’ll need food and drink. We usually prepare colorful salads, which have the merit of being photogenic, and for meat, we choose grills, which give us the opportunity to take pictures of people around the barbecue. A little trick: remember to turn the bottles so that you can’t read the labels. This will save you time in post-processing. Remember to prepare a list of scene ideas and check them off when they are done; this is a good way to avoid forgetting them.
2. “Your primary focus must be on choosing models who can be relaxed on set and really enjoy the food.”
Image by Milan Ilic Photographer. Gear: Nikon d810 camera. Settings: Focal length 50mm; exposure 1/125 sec; f1.8; ISO 400.
Milan Ilic Photographer:
My first and most important tip for creating natural photos of people eating is to pay attention to the models rather than the food. Your primary focus must be on choosing models who can be relaxed on set and really enjoy the food. They must love food!
It is always important for me to choose a location that will fit the atmosphere I’m looking for. For example, if I want to create a cozy, at-home atmosphere, it’s important to find a warm place, whether it’s a restaurant or a café or a studio set of a living room. Of course, don’t forget to pay attention to the props, including trays, plates, glasses, etc. Their color and style should fit your desired atmosphere as well.
3. “If the models are not comfortable eating in front of the camera, I try to stay invisible and encourage them to act as if they were alone.”
Image by Twinsterphoto. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Sigma 50, F1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/80 sec; f2.8; ISO 400.
When I create scenes with people eating food, I always encourage them to actually indulge in the moment. If the models are not comfortable eating in front of the camera, I try to stay invisible and encourage them to act as if they were alone. The main key that makes certain photos sell well is authenticity.
Image by Twinsterphoto
The location has to suit the story you want to express in your photos; however, try to avoid complicated backgrounds. I try to keep those as minimal as possible to make sure people will pay attention to my subjects.
4. “…make sure that the models don’t actually chew while you’re taking photos because that tends to yield unflattering facial expressions.”
Image by Robert Kneschke. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 35mm f1,4 L II lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f1.8; ISO 250.
The preparation of the food itself is always important for great images. Buy much more food than you actually need, and carefully select the freshest (i.e. unblemished) food. This rule is especially crucial for vegetables and fruits. When you want to show “homemade food,” however, the results are allowed to look a bit imperfect. Additionally, make sure that the models don’t actually chew while you’re taking photos because that tends to yield unflattering facial expressions.
Image by Robert Kneschke
5. “Unless your models are also great actors, it’s good if they know and like each other.”
Image by Kamil Macniak. Gear: Canon 5DS R camera, 85mm f1.2 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/100 sec; f2.2; ISO 640.
Whenever we shoot people eating food, we think a lot about the concept and our possibilities. We consider the kinds of food that will look good in the picture and will survive the shoot in good shape (e.g. won’t melt too quickly or change color). If you want the food to look authentic, it should be authentic and well-prepared so that models can truly eat and enjoy it.
As far as models are concerned, try to choose people who like to eat. When shooting groups with food, we like our models to know each other. That way, they don’t have to pretend they are friends, and we can easily capture great authentic photos. This also holds true when shooting couples. Unless your models are also great actors, it’s good if they know and like each other.
And last but definitely not least, consider the atmosphere. If you want your models to look real and relaxed while eating, a friendly atmosphere during the whole shoot will be the key.
Image by Kamil Macniak
6. “The location, the people, their emotions, their clothing, the props, and, of course, the food should all work together to tell a story.”
Image by Kzenon. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark III camera. Settings: Focal length 100mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f4; ISO 125.
Food is not only something that makes us less hungry. Food can comfort us or give us the feeling of being at home. It can be exciting or familiar; it can inspire us to explore another culture, and, very often, we share it with friends and family. Food is social context. Food is an experience.
For a good stock photo, it is not enough to just shoot people eating something. The context is important. The location, the people, their emotions, their clothing, the props, and, of course, the food should all work together to tell a story.
7. “In these kinds of photos, the person is the main subject, so the model should never feel rushed.”
Image by Alliance Images. Gear: Nikon D800 camera, Nikkor 28-300 lens. Settings: Focal length 28mm; exposure 1/100 sec; f5.6; ISO 100.
Any photo shoot with food must be done quickly, and that means that everything from styling to lighting and angles etc. must be determined in advance. Of course, we’re not talking about a classic food photo where all the attention will be on the food, but the food still has to look good, so your time will be limited. For instance, I did this shoot in a popular tourist spot in Italy with some classic local gelato; as I only had a minute or two max to get my shot, everything needed to be prepared in advance.
You’ll be working under pressure, but, at the same time, make sure to maintain a relaxed atmosphere. In these kinds of photos, the person is the main subject, so the model should never feel rushed. Instead, they should feel natural and carefree, so engage them in the process.
If, for example, you are working with real ice cream on a hot sunny day and one of your models is a child, don’t let yourself get tense or nervous. Try to turn everything into a game, and try to be as creative as possible in a short time frame. Accept the situation. Relax, have fun, and don’t be afraid to try different things or even get a little goofy to see what you can pull out of the situation.
8. “Because we shoot food while traveling, we always make sure that the food matches the location and the background.”
PR Image Factory
Image by PR Image Factory. Gear: Sony A9 camera, Sony FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM lens. Settings: Focal length 28mm; exposure 1/400 sec; f3.2; ISO 100.
PR Image Factory:
We’ve shot most of our best-selling photos of people eating food while traveling and enjoying local food in natural light. We will usually give our models a short narrative to consider, a bit like the plot of a play, and they will then use their imaginations and respond with a pose that reflects that story naturally. We do not give our models any specific poses, as this tends to result in rigid facial expressions.
Because we shoot food while traveling, we always make sure that the food matches the location and the background. This is a very important element to consider before you shoot; for example, don’t order a hamburger in a Japanese restaurant. You might want one, but it will not help you to sell the photo. The right food in the right place will reflect the local lifestyle and make for a more attractive image.
9. “If you want to work with a group of people, try to find people who already know each other and are comfortable with one another.”
zeljkodan (Željko Dangubić)
Image by zeljkodan (Željko Dangubić). Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 lens. Settings: Focal length 28mm; exposure 1/250 sec; f3.2; ISO 100.
I work with real food and real people. If you want to work with a group of people, try to find people who already know each other and are comfortable with one another. That way, they’ll be comfortable eating their food without worrying about the impression they’re making on strangers. Also, they will have common interests and topics to discuss, so their expressions and laughter will be genuine. Try to find out who the “alpha” in the group is. If you give them the main role, they will help lead the rest of the group. Your job will be much easier, and you can focus on light and composition.
10. “Building a relationship with our models is important for us; in fact, it’s one of our main priorities.”
Image by AlessandroBiascioli. Gear: Sony A7 II camera, Zeiss 50mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/320 sec; f3.2; ISO 640.
Building a relationship with our models is important for us; in fact, it’s one of our main priorities. We like to use the same models for different shoots, which allows us to get to know the models and build a relationship with them. Whenever we have a lunch date or a dinner date, we invite these models and capture them having fun while enjoying their dinner.
We organize these dates in various locations. They don’t necessarily have to be in a home setting; we actually prefer to take pictures of people eating outdoors. Doing a shoot during a picnic or a barbecue, for instance, allows us to catch some natural light or a beautiful sunset.
Image by AlessandroBiascioli
11. “Photos of people who are eating with genuine pleasure and who are not looking into the camera tend to be more interesting.”
nelen (Anastasia Nelen)
Image by nelen (Anastasia Nelen). Gear: Sony A7RII camera, Sony FE 28-70mm f3.5-5.6 lens. Settings: Focal length 29mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f3.5; ISO 640.
The most effective way to make more authentic photos is to watch real people eating. For example, if you’re with your family sitting in a cafe or a food court, try to notice how they behave and what they do during a meal. After having observed people in real life, you can proceed by shooting with a model.
Photos of people who are eating with genuine pleasure and who are not looking into the camera tend to be more interesting. Not everything needs to be perfect; the image will look more natural if things are slightly messy or imperfect.
An easy way to take a photo of someone eating is to ask the model not to eat before a photo shoot and then offer them something special. Choose unusual or unexpected foods if you want their reactions to turn out more genuine and unique.
Another approach would be to start taking photos at the end of a photo session that does not involve food. For example, you can capture authentic photos during a break, when the model thinks the shoot has stopped and begins to eat simply because they are hungry. If there are several people in the frame, let them interact. If there is one person, you can bring out natural moments by telling jokes or talking about the news.
Image by nelen (Anastasia Nelen)