When I started teaching food photography classes several years ago I saw that many of my students were completely overwhelmed with how to put a photo shoot together. They would say to me in frustration, “I don’t even know where to start”.
Even if you’ve been shooting for a while now, or just starting out, this post is about how to organize your thoughts and your plans for you next food photo shoot by starting with making a shot list. When doing a photo shoot, this is a great place to start and it’s so easy to do!
So, what is a shot list? A shot list isn’t just a simple list of the pictures you want to take, it’s your photo shoot plan written down on paper all the things you’ll need to take all those pictures on your list. I’m quite sure you’ve been doing some version of this on your own already. I’m going to share my planning process and maybe it will give you some extra tips that can help you out.
#1. What’s your recipe or what food are you photographing?
I know, it sounds obvious. I look at the recipe and break it down, not just for the ingredients, but what else do I want to include in the image. In the shot above, my food stylist made the recipe for the Shakshuka. When we were planning the shoot, we talked about what would be fun to show with it. We came up with smashed potatoes and some toast. I call these food props. They help tell our visual story.
So now when buying all the food for this, you have to make your food shopping list for everything, all the way down to the fresh herbs sprinkled on top. I write this down in my shot list.
If you are doing ingredient shots and/or how to, process shots, then you have to account for those as well. Sometimes with the how to cooking shots, you might need to do something a few times to photograph it nicely so just be prepared with some extra ingredients just in case. Write every shot down in order to make sure you don’t leave anything out.
#2. What kind of food shots do you want to show?
Many of you show your finished recipe only, and that’s fine. Many of your also show beautiful ingredient shots AND many of you show process shots or how-to shots, instructional images for how to make your recipe. So think of how to break those down into individual shots.
#3. What is your surface or background?
The shot I’m using here is an overhead shot so we are only seeing a surface. If you are showing a horizon line, then you will be showing a surface AND a background. The background is what you see when your surface runs out. So, what are those? Fabric, your beautiful marble kitchen counter top, wood planks? Plan for this and have a few options on hand. I plan for this for every image.
Doing ingredient shots and how-to cooking shots? What are the backgrounds there? Make things look consistent. I suggest your how-to shots all have the same surface when appropriate. To make things easier on you, make your how-to shots very simple, all about the food.
#4. What are your non-food props?
This planning step is extremely important and often left for last. I don’t care how much experience you have photographing food, sometimes finding the perfect plate or bowl can be SOOOOO difficult! I always have several options on hand in case the bowl I loved from Crate and Barrel is just too big.
In the images I am showing in this post, my cast iron skillet was the inspiration for this shoot so we planned a recipe around that prop. Then I had several bread boards, several bowls, small plates and silverware to use as options. The more you shoot, the more you will start acquiring your prop collection. See, what I’m doing there? Now you HAVE to go “Prop Shopping”. It’s for the shoot! You’re welcome.
For how-to shots, again, make it easy on yourself, you are showing how to prepare the food. Do not put fancy props in these shots, only what’s necessary.
#5. What variation shots would you want to do?
Do you want vertical and horizontal shots? People, I always forgot to do a variation for a horizontal layout, never fails because I never write that one down. How about some shots with and without some food items? Write those down to remind you so you don’t forget. Do as I say and not as I do 🙂
Here are all my variations for the Shakshuka photo shoot:
For me, many variations are simply bringing in the camera very close. Here’s a tip. When doing a shot with dipping stuff into the food – shoot it first before you dip! This way, if the shot doesn’t work out, you didn’t possibly ruin your beautiful food styling.
#6. Do a Background Plate.
So here’s something I always do. I shoot what I call a background plate. I take all the food off the surface and shoot it on it’s own. I use this for compositing later on if I ever need it and I’ve used background plates a lot for things I have to say.
They also make great backgrounds for images you need to do with just text on them.
Get your clients to give you shot lists.
One more thing. If any of you are shooting for clients or doing sponsored posts, you have got to get your clients to give you their version of a shot list. The shot list is crucial in making sure the client gets what they want. If they give you some sort of shot list, then you take their shot list and break it down. I will often do this, then I get them to approve my list that I made. This shot list becomes the core of the photo shoot.
I get calls all the time from restaurants who simply say, “We need photos, how much is it?”. I explain that they need to create some sort of shot list for me. I can’t tell them a price unless they tell me what they want. Then suddenly a few shots turns into 25 when they start thinking about it. That’s crucial information to know.
If they don’t know what they want yet, then how do I know what will be involved with their photo shoot? How will I be prepared to shoot what’s needed if they have no idea what shots they want. Pre-planning makes a successful shoot.
Many times we have to train our clients how to do food shoots. I have to train even the biggest ad agencies how to plan for a photo shoot because they have hired brand new designers fresh out of school that have never done a photo shoot before. It’s all about communication in order to make the images that our clients are hiring us to do. The shot list is the first step in this process.
Here’s a sample shot list – super simple:
Example Shot List – Shakshuka in Cast Iron Skillet
1. Ingredients shot on wood surface with gray metal colander
- Fresh herbs – parsley, thyme
- Red peppers
2. Shakshuka shot on wood surface with toast and smashed potatoes
- Prepared Shakshuka
- Same ingredients as shot 1
- Bread for toast
- Props: breadboard, plate for smashed potatoes, silverware, napkins, cast iron skillet
3. Shakshuka shot closer – same shot as #2 for food and props
4. Shakshuka macro shot on eggs – same shot as #2, camera brought in
5. Horizontal shot!
6. Shakshuka on surface by itself, no props
7. Shakshuka with bread dipped in, no props
8. Background plate
There you have it! A shot list is a great way to start any photo shoot, and in my world I never do a shoot without one.
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