8 Reasons a Food Photographer Needs To Test Shoot

Testing as a food photographer8 Reasons EVERY food photographer needs to test shoot.

If you think portfolio development is something only new food photographers go through, you’re totally wrong.  It’s a never-ending process, and to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I love testing.  Yes, it’s a bitch to find the time, but once I get into it, I love it and I can’t wait to do it again.  It’s sort of like blogging… :o)

1. Marketing Ammunition

You always need new photos to feed the marketing machine. If you’re a professional food photographer, you need new photos ALL THE TIME, and they have to be good ones too.

I’ve heard it said that, on average, it takes at least seven contacts with a potential client, before you’ll be considered for a job. I believe this to be true. And if it is, that means that you need to contact these target clients, multiple times, and as photographers, our photos come in really handy for that purpose.

Clients won’t always give you creative work, and that’s okay. You might be shooting constantly for months at a time, but it might not be the kind of work you really love to do or the type of work that fulfills your creative needs as an artist.

A lot of my clients hire me to shoot outline shots. These jobs pay the bills and they keep the clients happy, but they’re just not all that creative. They don’t fulfill my creative need to produce “food photography art”. I still need those outline jobs, but too many of them in a row, and I find myself wanting to “make some art”.

Marketing requires attractive and creative shots. There are times when I can go for months without shooting portfolio type shots. I might be as busy as ever, creating great, useful food photos for my clients, but I may not have produced a portfolio quality shot. That’s where test shooting prove their worth. Test shooting is all about creating bragging-quality photos. Client jobs are all about making the client happy, no matter how boring the work.

pizza food photo from a text shoot

The three photos on this page are from a recent test shoot. I actually created four, but I’m using my favorite one for this month’s emailer and I don’t want to let everyone see it before the email blast is released… :o)

New images are a great excuse to contact someone.

If you haven’t experienced this already you will… You go into a portfolio interview to show your work, you meet a client, and you think that the interview went off great. You think that before you even get home, he’ll call you with the job,. Then days will go by, weeks we go by, even months and you’ll wonder whatever the heck happened? You thought that you and he you were a perfect match. What should you do now? You’ll think, “Should I call now?” Should I email him? What should I do? That’s where new test images come in handy!

I find it awkward calling a potential client on the phone and saying “hey what’s up? Do you have going on”? But I don’t have a problem emailing a potential client and saying “hey what do you think of this”? I think it’s less awkward and doesn’t put the client on the spot and it still gives you that contact point. He can ignore it or he can reply. Either way it’s another opportunity to be at the right place at the right time. Who’s to say that he didn’t have a job land on his desk moments earlier, that you’d just be perfect for. Keeping in touch with clients is always a good idea and sending them new images is always a good way to do that. Yes, you can go overboard, but you always want to stay in touch with your clients.

Social Media – If you use social media for marketing, which you should be doing, will need constant a constant supply of images for all your posts. You need quality and quantity, and that’s where test shoots helps out.

Direct email – My New Year’s resolution this year is to send out one emailer image a month. To do that I, need great new images every single month.   In order to do that, I have another New Year’s resolution to shoot one test shoot per month. Sure, I hope to get plenty of portfolio images from my regular shoots, but this is insurance to ensure that I always have something in the cue to send out, just in case I have one of those months where I didn’t shoot anything of portfolio quality.

Webpage – If you don’t keep creating new photos, before long, your portfolio, and your webpage, will look old and out of date. People will wonder if you still have with it takes or if you’ve just given up. You need to keep adding new images to your web age and deleting the older ones. Of course, you’ll want to keep your favorite ones, but you’ll need a percentage of fresh new images for all those people that will be returning to visit your page. You want to give the appearance that you are continuing to grow and that you are successful. Even if you might be struggling at the beginning of your career, or maybe at the end, appearance is important.

2. Create or change the direction of your career

Catch-22 – So you want be a food photographer, but who’s going to hire you without seeing food photos in your portfolio? It’s a Catch-22.   You could verbally try to convince your clients that you are capable of shooting food, or you could just go out and create some photos and show them that you are a food photographer.

Theory about showing one thing and getting another

There’s a theory I heard once about food photography and I think it’s true. The theory is that if you show one type of food photography and you actually get hired for another type. What I mean is, if you show something mundane in your portfolio, chances are you’ll be hired to shoot outlined shots. If you show cutting-edge type photos in your portfolio then you’ll be hired to shoot more conservative photos. What happens is that the photo buyer once the best photographer possible for their job so they’ll look for a photographer that is more than capable of doing what they need. If this is true, and I believe it is, all your test shots should be of the very highest level. You’ll want to push the envelope. You want to create your dream shots.

food photo from a text shoot

I have “this thing” about not shooting straight down on food. Since it seems to be a trend, I’m trying to get beyond my natural bias. Test shooting lets me make the transition less painfully.

3. Round out your portfolio

Another reason to do test shoots is so that you can round out your portfolio. Maybe there are some gaps in your portfolio that you need to fill. For example, you might need drink shots, you might need dessert shots, you might need soup shots. Doing test shots is a great way to fill these gaps.

This might be true work might just be an urban legend, but I’ve heard the story where a photographer is being considered for a job shooting oranges but he doesn’t have any oranges in his portfolio. He has 100 Apple shots, but he doesn’t have any orange shots. He ends up not getting a job and when he asked why and the client tells him that he had no orange shots in his portfolio. That story is probably not true, but it does illustrate the fact that some clients won’t make the leap of faith needed to hire you for jobs when they don’t see that type of work in your portfolio. They want to see that you know how to shoot exactly what they have to shoot. Sure, some clients will understand, but others won’t.

4. Target a particular client

Sooner or later you’ll find a client that you would like to work for, but your portfolio won’t be a perfect match for what they may need. Test shooting is a great way of addressing that shortfall in your portfolio. Let’s say there’s a client that you want to go after, that you just discovered, and let’s say they manufacture ice cream. If you don’t have any ice cream in your portfolio, why not get hold of the stylist and shoot some ice cream?

5. Try a new food stylist

I don’t know what it’s like in your town, but where I live, there are just not enough food stylist to go around. So if I discover that there is a new food stylist trying to break into the market, I want to meet them, get to know them, and see how they work. This will give me more options in the future. It’s usually a good idea to do a test shoot with new stylist just to see how they work and what their skill level actually is. You don’t want to go into a real shoot only to be surprised and to disappoint your client.   You could lose a client that way. Doing a test shoot is the perfect solution to this problem.

6. Practice, practice, practice…

One of the best reasons to do test shoots is so you can simply practice. With every skill, you need to practice to get better. Food photography is no different.

food photography test shoot 22

This feels better… :o)

Another interesting thing about doing test shoots is that you are the boss. You don’t have to compromise like you have to do in most commercial food photography shoots.   If the shot is good it’s because you made it that way and if it’s bad, there is nobody to blame but you.   With that responsibility comes a greater degree of satisfaction and you don’t have to share the credit either…

It’s okay to fail, but not a real job.

What’s one thing you never want to do with the client present? Fail! The thing is if you never fail you never grow. Every artist needs the opportunity to fail from time to time. They need to push the envelope and they need to take chances, and it’s usually not a good idea to take chances with the client’s project. They tend to frown on failure but it’s a necessary part of growing as a photographer. Shooting on your own or with the stylists with no client present, is a good way of being able to take those chances and maybe failing.

This blog post is about why you should do test shoots but let me give you a suggestion. When you think you’re done shooting, stay with it just a little bit longer. Try something a little bit new right at the very end. It might be another angle or if you’re not used to it made you take your camera off the tripod and just play around. On my last test shoot stylist suggested something that I normally don’t do and I tried it and it turned out amazingly well. It was the best shot of the entire shoot.

If you’re already a professional food photographer you’re probably used to working on a deadline, so you need to realize that on these types of shoots there are no deadlines and you are here to play. You can try new things. you can experiment. Don’t be rushed to get through the shoot and get on two other shots because that’s not the goal. The goal is to play, have fun, and come up with some great food photography art that you can use for marketing.

7. Fun & satisfaction

One thing I haven’t mentioned here is that we all got into this profession for a reason. Yes, each person has their own individual reason, but I’m willing to bet that one of the reasons we all got into this is because “it’s fun”. Sometimes we forget that fact. Shooting food is fun. And I don’t know about you but I like to have fun every chance I get.

I don’t know if this is ever happened to you but when I’m shooting, I get into a “zone”. I think this is the zone that athletes talk about where my mind and body are on autopilot. This state of mind is euphoric and I love being in “the zone”. It’s not that it’s fun, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s just really cool. I think it has something to do with endorphins. This is a state of mind I get in when I’m being creating and shooting things that I know I’m going to be proud of, like with my test shots.

8. Motivation

Another thing about doing test shooting is it motivates you. Sometimes you forget how good you are and what kind of images are capable of producing. By doing test shooting you can see that you still have it.

I don’t know about you but to me portfolio pieces are as important as getting paid sometimes. not all the times, but sometimes. If I had the choice between producing the best photo I’ve ever taken and getting paid for one-day shoot, I probably take the portfolio piece over the pay.   Doing these test shoots “ups” the percentages I have of creating portfolio pieces. It keeps me fresh, it keeps me up to date, it keeps me doing what I love.

In conclusion…

Dealing with the cost of testing

I’m not sure you’re aware of the statistic but most businesses spend about 10% of their income on marketing. As photographers, we sometimes forget that fact. We too, need to market. Doing test shoots is going to cost you money. That’s a fact. There will be the cost of the food the cost of the background and maybe even the cost of the food stylist. I can usually get a food stylist to work for free but they will want to have their costs covered and I usually find new food recipes to try at Thors Fork.  I found that the typical cost of a food shoot is around $150 for food supplies. That’s really not that much money if you compare that to what other companies pay for their marketing efforts.

The more difficult cost to absorb is the cost of time. I try to put aside one day a month for testing and that day is usually scheduled as a flexible day. If I’m using a stylist, I tell her that this is the tentative date and if a real job comes in for either one of us, we’ll need to reschedule. One day a month equals about 5% of my monthly time budget. That’s not a lot of time when compared to the importance of producing new photos for my marketing efforts. To be successful as a professional food photographer, I understand the importance of marketing. I have to be committed to producing these portfolio shots on a regular and consistent basis.  So, the bottom line it… Suck it up!  You gotta do it!

* This is a first draft. I’m sorry, but I’m running behind and I didn’t leave myself enough time to really edit this the way I would of liked. If anyone out there fancies themselves an editor and wants to help out a little, I’m be happy for the input.

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  1. Theresa · February 18, 2015

    Great post! I try to do this as much as I can, one way that I get myself to stay on track is a monthly recipe email I send out. I have a chef I work with and each month we come up with a recipe and I photograph it, that way it’s always new images I’m sending out to potential clients and I send it with the recipe so instead of a hard sell approach it’s more of a hey here’s a recipe you might like.

  2. Alice Adams · February 19, 2015

    I agree with you Michael, test shooting is great and it lets us expand and explore. All the test shooting I have ever done is usually stylist pays for ingredients, photographer pays for the post production, and both get to use the photos.
    Happy testing!

  3. Rob · February 25, 2015

    Speaking of test shoots Michael, what is your opinion of being contacted by a company to do a test shoot? I have a friend (who’s a photographer) and he was recently contacted by a business to do a test shoot. They told him that they LOVED his portfolio, but, they weren’t quite ready to make the leap to hire him.

    What do you suggest to your readers about handling this request? Do professional photographers get asked by businesses to do free test shoots often? There is the possibility that a photographer could oblige to doing a test shoot and then the company uses those free shots in their marketing promos. I think a photographer would need to be careful about engaging in this kind of request to not get taken advantage of. Maybe he/she could offer a discounted price for a few samples with copyrights, etc?

    Thanks for the great advice!

    • Michael Ray · February 25, 2015

      I guess that much would depend on if I had the time or if I felt that the client was serious or not. The only way I would do it was with the understanding that the work was MINE. If ANYONE used it for anything, I get paid. That’s called “spec” work, not testing… I would do it for friends. I often times shoot for absolutely free, if it’s a good cause.


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