FAQ: Do You Get To Eat That?

Shooting editorial food photography assignments can be a little tricky. When you are shooting in a restaurant where people are eating, it always draws attention. It can be really fun to listen to what people are saying over your shoulder. For example, I was on a shoot at a diner shooting pancakes. The diner was pretty full, so I was on full display as I secured the pat of butter in the perfect spot with a toothpick and tweaked the lighting. When I poured on the syrup for the money shot the diner went quiet and I heard a woman whisper loudly “There he goes! He’s putting on the syrup!” like I was teeing off in a golf tournament. Sometimes people will come up and want to talk to you about what you’re doing, what type of camera you have, and how great my job must be. However, the number one question that I get when shooting at a restaurant is: “Do you get to eat that when you’re done?”

In a word: No

My standard response when asked if I eat the food I’m shooting is usually something along the lines of “If I ate everything I photographed I’d be a blimp!” This is actually true. I sometimes shoot several restaurants and up to a dozen dishes in a day when working on editorial projects. However, calories aren’t the main thing that I consider in regards to eating the food I shoot. The real reason that I rarely eat the food that I photograph has more to do with my opinion of how a professional food photographer should act while shooting an assignment at a restaurant.

I feel like there is something inherently unprofessional about asking a restaurant to make you some food for free for the photograph, then sitting down and tucking into it when you’re done. Sure, the restaurant is getting free advertising because a magazine is going to be running one of my photographs. But my opinion is that the restaurant is doing me a favor by letting me come to their shop, making me a potentially expensive dish, and giving me the opportunity to make money off of their product. I definitely don’t feel like I am entitled to eat the food afterwards, even though a low assignment fee may seem to justify it.

Furthermore, I’m there representing the magazine that hired me. I would hate for the restaurant to call my editor and say “Hey, that photographer you sent over expected us to give him a free meal! WTF!”

When’s the Last Time I Washed My Hands?

There are a few other points to consider as well when thinking about eating the food that I am photographing as well:

  • During the course of a shoot I’ve been poking and prodding and generally putting my hands all over that plate of food. No matter how appetizing it was when it came out, by the time I’m done the dish has definitely passed it’s prime.
  • Also, I’m there to work, not eat. I am almost never hungry while I’m shooting food – just something about being on the job, you know? Even if I think a dish looks amazing, I want to eat it when it’s fresh and I’m there to eat, not work. I often go back to restaurants and order something that I wanted to taste while I was on the job.
  • While this is more likely to happen in a studio shoot, you never know if something has been cooked properly, or if it was cooked with photography in mind. Savvy chefs will understand that they need to undercook or overcook some dishes to get the best shot, or will leave out expensive ingredients that don’t add anything visually to the shot. If you are tempted to taste something, it’s better to ask first.
  • Finally, If the food is still edible by the time I’m done, there is always someone in the kitchen who has a long night of dealing with restaurant patrons ahead of them who could use the food a whole lot more than me.

Nom Nom Nom

Don’t get me wrong, I love food. That’s why I got into this business – in general I want to eat everything in sight. But I think keeping my relationship with food professional makes me a better photographer. Weird? Perhaps. But that’s how I roll.

Of course, all of this is moot if I’m not offered the food in the first place. I would say that I get offered food about 50% of the time. The other 50% of the time the food is whisked back to the kitchen where it is usually attacked by a swarm of wait staff.

When I am offered food, here is my policy usually as far as eating it: If the restaurant offers to send it home with me, I will take it. This helps to lessen the oddness of sitting in a restaurant chowing down on free food in front of the staff, and it has a secondary benefit of helping avoid offending the chef (who sometimes may not be able to understand why you don’t want to eat their lovingly prepared masterpiece). Keeping chefs happy is important in this business – I will get into more details on playing nice with chefs in another post. And of course, it would be a lie to say that I never eat the food while I’m there. It happens, just not very often, usually when I am friends with the staff.

Obviously, other photographers may have differing opinions on this subject. What do you think? Do you think it’s ok to eat the food that you photograph on an editorial assignment?

Note: This post was originally posted on my abandoned tumblr experiment The Photography Diet and has been updated and edited for my main blog here. –JG

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