When I started writing this series of articles about restaurant photography I was going to show you my behind-the-scenes of a restaurant shoot first. Then I realized I kept referring to the business of photography first as there are so many things that have to happen before you even get a client.
In this post, I will explain what’s involved with photographing restaurants professionally and what you must do to set up your business for it. That’s right, I said business. If you are being paid money to take pictures, guess what? You are now in business.
Disclaimer: I am not an attorney nor an accountant. I have been in business for 25 years. Any information in this post is not legal advice, but simply suggestions of what you will need to research for yourself to see what is appropriate for your situation.
Table of Contents
Before you step foot in that door…
If shooting for restaurants is something that you are interested in, or restaurants are now calling you to shoot for them, it’s best to make sure you have a few things set up ahead of time.
Talk to your accountant – tell them you are going to make some money with your photography. If you have a blog and already have that set up as a business (if you are receiving ANY money at all from the blog, then you must set it up as a business), you can then do your photography under that business name.
If you have not set up a business before, there’s a lot you need to know and your CPA should help you figure this out OR refer you to someone, like a business attorney to help you set this up.
The conversation regarding which type of business you need to set up is a complex one. I used a corporate attorney who is in the same office as my CPA. My tax attorney and I talk every year. We planned when it was best to incorporate. When I explained my situation and goals, he decided I should be an S-Corp.
You need to have this same conversation with your tax attorney or CPA or corporate attorney. Ok, you can set up a business using something like www.legalzoom.com, but they don’t give you legal advice. I’m a huge advocate of doing things the right way the first time. I consider my tax attorney, my CPA, and my accountant part of my photo crew. This is an ongoing relationship with yearly guidance and advice on how to run my business.
*Side Note: If your accountant is forcing you to fax documents, and refuses to use email – FIRE THEM RIGHT NOW! I teach a class called The Business of Photography. I ask every student about their accountants. I am shocked at how many accountants are in the dark ages. This is terrifying to me. Again, this is just my opinion – I’m just sayin’…
There are several business types to choose from, Sole Proprietor, LLC (Limited Liability Company), or an S-Corp are the most common for photographers. Each business type will have yearly costs associated with it, so again, talk to your accountant about this.
Sole Props pay income tax AND pay about 15% self employment tax. An S-Corp doesn’t have self employment tax and they don’t have the double taxation that C-Corps do. Also, if you own your house, you must protect it. Sole proprietorships have no personal protection from their business. So if you get sued as a Sole Prop, and they win, they can get your house. Not cool! I’m really generalizing here, but you get the point about the conversation you need to have with whomever you choose to help you move forward with your new business, and picking the right business type to start out.
Do you have a business license?
I gotta say, I am shocked at how many people that I meet in my industry that are operating a business without a business license which they should have. People, if you are receiving money for your blog or photography, then you are conducting business, therefore you need to research if you need a business license for what you are doing in the city you are doing it in.
Every city has different laws regarding a home operated business. In some cities, the license is free if you fall into certain types of work category exemptions, or gross sales exemptions.
Some states require county licenses AND city licenses.
Basically, start doing your research now to see what you need to do and make some phone calls.
Do you live in a state that charges sales tax? You will need to find out if your business type is supposed to charge sales tax in the city and state you are in.
In California, all photographers must get a permit with the State Board of Equalization. There is a massive publication for photographers – Publication 68 that was finally updated to include the digital era with transferring files digitally to our clients.
Yep, business insurance. I know, I know, I can hear the uggs, and groans. If you are going into public spaces and are being paid to take pictures, you better get yourself some business liability insurance ASAP!
Not all business liability insurance policies are created equal. The business of photography is extremely specific and I warn anyone out there who just goes with a standard business liability policy. This type of policy will not have specific endorsements needed for ALL your photography situations.
I use a company based in Los Angeles that specializes in business liability policies for photographers. They have special endorsements (add ons to your policy), that are great for very specific types of photographers.
Every time I shoot for bigger clients I have to prove I have insurance. If you don’t have this type of insurance, you are a massive liability to them.
Now, many restaurants out there HAVE NO IDEA that you need to be insured to be on their property. So these restaurants might not even ask you for proof of insurance. That doesn’t mean that you don’t need it! Their ignorance does not protect you at all. They just don’t know.
Imagine this: You’re all set up for a shot and the chef has a question for you in the kitchen. You walk away from your set and go to the kitchen – very common scenario, by the way. A restaurant patron, maybe had a little bit to drink, trips on your tripod, or cords, falls and breaks an arm. Now what? Patron sues restaurant and included you in the law suit. If you don’t have insurance, just plan to give your house away. Alright, that might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea, right? People, protect yourself!
Business liability insurance for photographers is not that expensive when you are starting out. The company I use is called T.C Pickard and Co (not a sponsored link). This is not a paid endorsement. I’ve been with them for maybe 20 years or so now. They are a smaller company that TOTALLY knows the photography industry. They insure people all over the country.
If you get a job where you need to rent equipment, then you have to have this type of insurance policy OR you will be required to put a huge deposit down on a credit card to cover possible damage.
Each time I do a shoot, I have my insurance company make a Certificate Of Insurance for my client. This proves to them what my insurance policy covers and names them as “Additionally Insured and Loss Payee”. Then if anything happens they know they are covered.
Estimating and invoicing the job
I always give estimates for my shoots. Event the smallest of jobs. Put everything in writing so that it is clear what you are being hired to do, and how much you are going to charge for that.
After my job, I take that same estimate, copy it as an invoice, then update any info on shots I took and either email or FedEx it, or sometimes both, to the client.
There’s a lot more to say about this but when you are starting out – get everything in writing and get it signed. Try to get a 50% advance when ever you can.
Get a shot list!
So, there’s two types of restaurants you will be asked to shoot for. Ones that have done this before, know the drill, know what’s possible in a day, and those who have never hired a shooter before in their life and need you to tell them how it goes.
When you ask them the question, “do you have a shot list?”, their answer will give you a clue if they have shot before.
I can’t tell you how many restaurants and other clients call me for an estimate and have no idea what shots they want to get.
Some of them get a little upset when I ask them for a shot list, as if it’s my job to tell them what photography they need. This is a problem. I will NOT shoot for a client if there is no shot list.
Now, if they are nice about it, I might help them come up with one. If they are not treating me nicely, I will actually tell them I’m not the shooter for them. Let’s face it, if the restaurant can’t even come up with a shot list, and they aren’t being nice to you on the phone, you don’t want them as a client. That will probably not be a very fun shoot.
The shot list needs to be as detailed as possible. Here is what you need to ask them in order to help them create a shot list:
- How many shots? Seems obvious, right? A lot of restaurants have not added up the shots.
- What is in each shot? Meaning are we doing 10 food shots where each shot is of one dish, OR is each shot going to have multiple dishes in it. Two very different scenarios where the latter one will take much longer.
- Be clear on what props they want to see. Some will ask you for props. I work with prop stylists so this suddenly becomes a more expensive estimate.
- What kind of available light is at the restaurant? If there is very little or none, you will have to bring lights. This is also a more expensive estimate now because I’ll have to have an assistant on this job to help with the equipment.
Here is an example of a typical shot list from a restaurant. I had talked to them on the phone and understood how they wanted each dish shot, so I just needed to know what we were shooting.
- Thai Steak Salad
- Salad trio
- Lamb Merguez Sausage with Braised Rabbit
- Lamb Ragu
- Miso Glazed Morro Bay Black Cod
- Grilled Asparagus with Pancetta Lardons and Sous Vide Egg
- Honey Ginger Carrots
- Bing Cherry Lemonade
- Black Garden
- Island Hopper
Candid/interactive and head shots of Executive Chef
I had to do all these shots in about 3 hours. I also had to bring lighting for the chef shots.
Are you hiring assistants?
Photo assistants are considered employees, even if they have their own business license. I payroll my assistants and have workman’s comp for them. Again, your accountant should help you with this.
If you do not have workman’s comp for your assistants, and someone gets hurt – you could be in big trouble. Be smart and do things the right way.
What to charge at first?
I get asked this all the time. When you are starting out with shooting restaurants, typically they will tell you how much they have in the budget. Sometimes it might only be $500. If I am working with a small restaurant, I’ll ask them what is their budget for the shoot.
Sometimes they tell you and sometimes they don’t. If it’s a small budget, and you don’t have much work to show, you could use this job to build your portfolio. If that is the case, make sure you get some extra shots that you would want to add to your portfolio.
Make sure that their shot list is do-able in the time frame allotted, and that you are not working for next to nothing. Make sure it is worth your while, and that you can build your portfolio at the same time.
How to deliver your final files
I use Dropbox (not a paid endorsement) to deliver all my electronic files. This account costs me $10/month. You can use something like www.wetranfer.com but the free account won’t let you store files on their server.
I set up a folder for each client on Dropbox. Then I share each folder with that client.
Follow up with your clients
After I deliver a job, I check in with them the next day to make sure they were able to download the files without any issues and that they are happy with everything.
I then add them to my self promotion list so that they will hear from me periodically to make sure I stay in their mind for future needs.
I know this was a ton of info, but all these things are very important to know before you start shooting for restaurants.