Creative Process Behind the Photo Shoot

Hi there!

I’ve decided to do a post about the creative process behind my still life and food photo shoots. I won’t be talking about the technical aspects of shooting (I will save that for another post), just the thought process that goes on behind the scenes.

Learning my basic creative process took about a year and a half and I’m still tweaking it as I learn. When I first started out I would just wing it. I learned quickly that this wouldn’t work in the long run. I was having to redo a lot of shots because I wasn’t happy with the end result. I’d end up shooting the same product/food over and over with different props until I found something that worked. It took forever. I’ve learned that planning is they key to success. Now I do so much planning I would say it usually takes me about 2 day to prep for a basic photo shoot.

Every photographer has a different process so please don’t feel like I’m saying things have to be done this way. This is simply what works for me. If you are struggling to find your process, maybe by sharing my experience I will save you some time.

On larger photo shoots you usually work with a food stylists, prop stylists, and art directors. These are amazingly talented people that take on a lot of responsibility. I highly recommend working with them as much as much as possible. However I also understand that when you are starting out it’s not always an option. Sometimes you just have to do it yourself. For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to write from the DIY perspective.

Side note: Don’t be afraid to get in touch with stylists and ask if they’d be interested in doing a test shoot with you. It builds up both of your portfolios and is a great way to network.

So, here it s:

1. The Subject

Obviously the first thing I do is figure out what I’m shooting. For this blog post I will be using Slingshot Coffee as an example since I just wrapped a shoot for them. The rest of the Slingshot photos are at the bottom of this post.

Slingshot Coffee, by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

2. Branding Words

I make a list of 5-10 branding words or phrases. If I’m working for a company, I ask them to provide a few words that describe their brand. You can also come up with a list of words yourself by just spending some time looking a their packaging, their website, etc. These were my words for Slingshot shoot:

1. Mix modern & vintage
2. Mix messy and clean
3. Bright
4. Pops of color
5. Modern
6. Young
7. Approachable
8. Fun

Dapper Paper (the designers behind Slingshot Coffee’s awesome packaging design) provided me with this phrase which helped a lot:

“We wanted a balance of clean, crisp and modern mixed with our vintage-inspired aesthetic to create a timeless and classic beverage label that could be plucked from yesteryear or today.”

Say you are not shooting for a company, you are shooting soup for your blog or a personal project. This list is when you decide what aesthetic your photos are going to have. Dark, moody, rustic, vintage? Modern, light, colorful, approachable, friendly? If you aren’t sure where to start, think of what the food/product says to you. If you are shooting margaritas it’d be kinda weird to have a a super gloomy vibe, right? You’d want to choose branding words that work with the margaritas, not against it.

I think this step is the most important because it sets the direction for the rest of the shoot. In my experience, when I try to create a mood board (step 3) or go prop shopping (step 5) without this list, I get overwhelmed by choices and end up wasting a lot of time.

3. Mood Board

Create a mood board. A mood board is basically a visual version of the branding words. It’s a collection of images that reflect the feel I am are going for. In the past I would create a collage of images in photoshop. Now I use Pintrest’s secret board function. I keep my branding words in the forefront of my mind while pinning. It’s an easy website to get sidetracked on! When I see an image I like, I ask myself if it is on brand.

Oh, and the nice thing about Pintrest is that I can invite clients to pin images with me.

Pintrest Mood Board

4. Sketching

 Sketching helps me visualize the compositions before I start looking for props.

If I’m working for a company I will need to get a shot list and any specifications from them before I start sketching. They most likely have some requirements (orientation, angles, room for copy, etc.) that effect my decisions.

These sketches aren’t super detailed because I don’t know what props I will be working with. They just give me an idea of how large my subject will be in the frame or where the subject will be placed. Knowing these things helps me figure out how large my background needs to be, how big my props can be, what size plates I will need, etc.

…It’s just a great way to brainstorm.


Sketching planning for photo shoot

5. Prop finding

Now is when I go prop shopping. With my mood board and branding words in mind, I seek out props that help create the vibe I’ve decided upon. I rent most of my props (Lost and Found Props is my fav) but you can also buy and return them.

A few prop shopping tips:

Find your background first. It’s usually the most visible element and a good starting point.

When you go prop shopping bring your subject with you. If, for example, you are shooting bottle of liquor, bring it with you. If you are shooting tacos, bring a taco shell, a tomato, and a piece of lettuce (or whatever elements will be showing in your taco photo) with you. As you are shopping for props hold your subject up against the props to make sure they don’t clash.

Create a little pile of all your props in a corner of the store. Make sure they are all working together to reflect your branding words.

Photo shoot props, Vanessa Rees

6. Basic setup.
I consult my sketches to figure out what shot I want to do fist. Once I’ve decided, I get my background, tabletop, test subject, and camera in place on a tripod.

7. Lighting
I start messing around with lighting. I’m not going to get into how I setup my lights- I’ll save that for another blog post. The important thing is that the lighting (whatever means you go about lighting your images) works to create the vibe you decided upon back in step 2. If you want a dark and moody shot, make sure you’ve got yourself some dark and moody lighting!

Side note: If you use natural light instead of artificial lighting, you may want to find your lighting before you do the basic setup.

8. Detailing
Now that you’ve got the right lighting, start adding prop details that complete the image.

9. Put in the hero
If you are shooting food now is when you’d want to swap out the test food with the hero. I’m not going to get into food styling because it is not my area of expertise (I rely heavily on food stylists) and there is already a lot out there on food styling. Check out La Tartine Gourmande for food styling tips.

So there you have it.

I hope this sheds some light on the process I go through to set up a photo shoot. I have these steps written on the wall of my studio and I find them super helpful to follow. Please feel free to ask any questions or share any of your own steps!

Below are some of the photos from the Slingshot Coffee shoot that I’ve been blabbing on about:

Till next time. xx

Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees

Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa ReesSlingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees

Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa ReesSlingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees


Slingshot Coffee | HONEYSTUCK - […] was on my favorite food photographer’s Instagram. I die over everything she does, but I found this project particularly perfect because I love the company’s branding and the way Vanessa finessed it in […]

Zoe - This was an exceptional post, so methodical and an important glimpse in to everything that goes into the creative food photography process for clients and brand awareness.

Just wonderful, thank you for sharing and taking the time to post this.

Zoe |

Фуд фотография от идеи до реализации - […] Оригинал статьи | Перевод: Дмитрий Зуев […]

Moodboard | Secret Native - […] alphabet // giant A // collaborative fund // expert lab // camera strap // slingshot coffee // leica // quality over quantity // […]

charlotte - Hi Vanessa,

LOVED this post. I’m a student and aspiring food photographer. I’m just wondering what are some of your favorite backgrounds/surfaces to use? I have a wooden deck that I shoot on often and sometimes use the back of old baking sheets. Do you have any other recommendations for an amateur without access to a studio and tons of expensive props?

Food Photography | Critique & Tips » Portland Oregon Portrait Photographer, Capturing Grace Photography - […] totally stole the entire concept from one of my favorite photographers, Vee Reese.  Check out her post on her creative process for a food photo shoot, it’s […]

basketball jerseys custom nike - I cherished scaning ones own nice websites. I find out you provide you with priceless tips. stumbled into this url by odds but I’m for sure glad As i clicked at that weblink

Yolanda Warnich - Great info – am just starting out in the industry and not always sure what I am doing. Have tried my hand at shooting some product but with no real success. I shall surely attempt your way of going about it.

I have just finished my Visual Arts degree. Although my background is strictly painting I have always been drawn to photography especially the commercial side of it… so much so, that my dissertation was on contemporary still life photography.

Thanks Yolanda

Click. Click. Photography Tips (part 4) | Paper & Stitch - [...] 9. behind the scenes creative process for photo shoots [...]

Catalina - This is just great! Thank you so much for your generosity.

Beauty Photography – Use It Effectively for Advertising | Womens Fashion 6 - [...] carry a message. The photographer will use their skills to convey this message but you have to contribute to the creative process. It is best to think of what your client would want to achieve by using your product. You should [...]

Creme brulee | Chasing Time Media - [...] reading this post from V.K. Rees Photography, I was inspired to experiment some more with food photography, and the [...]

Lucy Stirling - Really helpful. Thank you.

Evernotes Every Friday | Creating For Our Creator - [...] behind the scenes glimpse in this post about a product photography shoot. I am still grasping portrait photography, but product photography can be just as hard if not [...]

Aubrie LeGault - This was so HELPFUL! I’m getting into food photography and I’m so glad I read this. Whenever I do editorial shoots (portraits) I try and research my subject a little. I never really thought of doing that with food photography- but I love the idea of making a list of words, creating a mood board and doing some sketches. Thank you for sharing this was awesome.

Photos- I loved your use of space in the these images and the two detail shots were very cool.

Creative process behind the lens | TX Creative P1 - [...] Creative Process [...]

Artificial Lighting 101 » V.K.Rees Photography - [...] I’m going to assume you are on the “find your lighting” step of this post and that you have all the equipment from the equipment list [...]

Kimberly - I am so glad that I found your blog through Saveur’s Best Food Blogs list. Your photography is AMAZING! This was such a great post. I’ve been wanting to get more into food photography and still life and have been struggling with where to start. Also, I’ve been relying almost exclusively on natural light and can’t wait for your lighting post next week to learn about some alternatives.

The Lesson of the Studio (Don’t Be A Lazy Photographer… Well, Not Too Lazy, Anyway) » s-rinehart photography blog - [...] advanced than that, I’d like to point you over to Vanessa‘s recent blog posts about the creative and technical aspects of what she does. You should pop over there anyway. It’s an amazing [...]

Ashley - This is so good. I love reading about your process.

Cate - Love, love, love this post. I’m sure I’ll be looking at this again and again. And congrats on the Saveur nomination- it’s well deserved!

Jade Sheldon - You’re amazing….

Kiran @ - Thanks for sharing your amazing talent and creative process with us, V! xoxo

Maureen - Thank you for sharing this, I’ve learned heaps!

michele @ thelittlewhitekitchen - as an extremely new blogger and food photographer, this post was invaluable to be. thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us. I have followed your work for a while and what you put out is truly beautiful. Thanks again.

Food Photography, the Technical Basics » V.K.Rees Photography - [...] my last post about the creative process behind photo shoots I mentioned that I am going to write about artificial lighting for food photography very soon. I [...]

Art & Lemons - Loved this post! Thanks so much for sharing it. I’m a big fan of sketching shot lists and appreciate the research you give to each shoot. Pinterest mood boards are another great tool, I still use the old photoshop method and it’s time I made life a little easier…

Erin - Fantastic post! Thanks so much for sharing – it’s super helpful to see your process. Love your pictures!

Maria - Thank you so much for this fantastic and really helpfull post. Can’t wait for the next one about lighting!!! All your photos are amazing. Congrats from Spain!!

Beth | {local milk} - As someone who is self-taught and relatively new to styling this post was invaluable. Seriously, it gave me so much insight into making the process…well, a process. And not just some haphazard thing. This sounds so much less stressful. I’m definitely planning more than I once was…but yeah. This post may have single handedly helped my work flow and thus made my life & work better. So thank you!

Louise - This was fascinating to read – I never considered thinking about words to describe the shoot and using pinterest as a resource! I’m also going to check out Lost and Found Props since I’m also based in NYC. I can’t wait to go and explore it – are there any other places you recommend for props?

JulieD - Vanessa, so beautiful and I love you bringing us behind the scenes of one of your shoots!

Jennifer Chong - great post vanessa, love seeing your process and hope you continue to share more :)

vkrees - David- I do have a few product shots with the slingshot but they aren’t my fav so I didn’t post them. I used it less than you’d think because most of the photos I took have a “real life” vibe to them. It’s hard to work a slingshot into a real life environment. =)

David Robert - Great info, detailed and thought provoking. You created some wonderful images!

I am curious, in the pile of gathered props, you have a home made looking slingshot, which I thought matched the company logo wonderfully. My curiosity is why it did not make it into any of the final shots. Was it too powerful of a item, distracting from the actually product? Did any scratched images include it?

When I first saw it in your gathered Props, I was really curious how it would be worked in. Now that is was not, I’m more curious why not.

Thanks again for sharing this info!!

vkrees - Barbara- I totally understand your point. Often photographers work out deals with retailers. Free advertising of the product in exchange for borrowing the product for a shoot. I personally rarely do it but I know that is often done, even on bigger photo shoots.

Barbara | Creative Culinary - Wonderful post and great information including the use of Pinterest for building mood boards.

I have to admit though that as a retailer, I take a measure of offense at the notion of buying props to use and them returning them to the store. That makes them free for you but not for the retailer who has to deal with inventory, bookkeeping, costs of packaging for your sale and even the time their staff waits on you. I would hope everyone realizes that retail stores are not really another way of renting!

Great photos though and a lot of food for thought.

carey - Such a great post! I am a “wing it!” person by nature, but over the past few months I have learned the power of forethought and planning when it comes to photography. What a difference it makes. And I will now add “prop rental shops” to my Things That Make Me Wish I Lived In NYC (Or Any Other Real City) list. Last year I went to the high-end camera shop in town because their (terrible) website mentioned that they rent cameras. My conversation with the guy there went something like:
“So I saw online that you guys do camera rentals?”
“That’s right.”
“What do you have in the way of digital full frames?”
“We only have film cameras for rent.”
Then I bought an overpriced filter to offset how awkward I felt. Ugh.

Kulsum@journeykitchen - In love with your work all over again! V- xo

Sanjeeta kk - What a treasure, always loved your food pictures and styling! I am never comfortable with white background..but your pictures give confidence to try my hands on the same.

Sarah - Thankyou for sharing this post with us – this is great info for anyone just starting out in the industry, whether we have access to big prop stores or not. I will definitely put a lot more thought into how I gather the pieces for my images!

Emily {Jelly Toast} - This is such a great post! Your photography and unique vision never fails to blow me away. I need to organize and plan my shoots more and this has motivated me to do just that. I’m looking forward to your lighting post! Thanks so much!!

Leinana - I’m such a fan of your photography and always trying to improve my own. Thanks for posting this, you are an inspiration!

Ashley - This post is absolutely amazing. To catch a glimpse into your process is such a treat. You can tell that your shots take hours and hours to perfectly compose. You are mighty talented, Vanessa, and your work is incredibly unique. You continue to wow me with every photo you post! xo

Chelsea - your work is drop dead gorgeous – so glad i found your blog! this post was incredibly helpful for someone new to blog photography like me! thank you xo

christelle is flabbergasting - It’s one super interesting post Vanessa! Thanks for sharing! Can’t wait to see your other post on lighting! And I will definitely check Lost and Found props… I am in NYC in May, would you have some places to recommend where I can find interesting props? (to buy! I’ll bring them back in Montreal!) Thanks in advance! :)

Amanda Areias - Thanks for sharing Vanessa! I love using secret boards on Pinterest too, so handy! Beautiful photos as always!

Dana - Stunning photos and amazingly helpful guide for setting up a shoot. I’m getting more into food/product photography now and am so thankful for your advice as I’ve already found myself wasting time on some shots. This will undoubtedly ease my process. Thanks, Vanessa!

thyme (sarah) - This is a fabulous article. Thank you so much for taking the time and giving us a glimpse of your planning process. What I found especially interesting is that “Prop” link for renting items for a shoot. I didn’t know something like that exists.

March 2013

Hey guys! Since it is the end of March, I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve been up to this month.

I was lucky enough to be the photographer for Midnight Moon Moonshine’s new campaign. The masculine, vintage, and textured asthetic they asked for was music to my ears. This was the result.

Midnight Moon Product Shot, by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography
Cranberry Midnight Moon Moonshine product shot by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography
Midnight Moon Moonshine by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography
Midnight Moon Moonshine Product Photography by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees PhotographyMidnight Moon Moonshine mood shot by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees PhotographyMidnight Moon Moonshine mood shot by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees PhotographyMidnight Moon Moonshine by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography
Midnight Moon Moonshine by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

I was recently commissioned to take photos for what will become the packaging for 3 different products: olive oil, seed oils (sesame and flax seed), and a box of herbs and spices. The oils and spices being sold are artisan products from Jordan. It was important that the images convey that these are handmade and unique items- not your average bottle of oil.

I’m going through a gold phase so I couldn’t help myself…

Seed Oil by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography
Seed Oil by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

Finally, the cover of Isa’s new book Isa Does It came out! The photo was taken by me and the design was done by the talented folks over at Little, Brown & Co. This photo shoot with Isa was crazy fun.

Isa Does It book cover, Photo by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

Are you guys on Behance? I’ve been on it for awhile but haven’t been great about updating it. I’m trying to get better about it. Follow me and I’ll follow you back!

Webbyrå - I’m in love with your beautiful photography! Thank you for providing such great examples allowing me to learn!

Nibby - Unlike health and life insurance, most states currently prohibit auto insurance “QuotesChimp” plans. Such laws were enacted years ago and were backed strongly by the insurance industry lobby. These laws are anti-consumer. Since the individual does not have the bargaining power of a large group, anti-group laws act to keep prices high. By allowing groups to form for the purpose of purchasing auto insurance, the power of the marketplace will be freed to do its thing. The result will be to allow groups to negotiate policies with higher benefits for a lower premium.

Quinn - - I would love to be one of your fresh faces, but mine is a bit older. Jorge & I are still hoping you could do our BELOVED seisosn in July. Some with wedding dress & the rest to have fun. We could go to a bunch of cool spots & try out some techniques I’ve learned too. You still coming down in July?? Now its YOUR turn to experience July heat MIAMI style!! jajaajaaa

Sarah C - I love that you used books as props! Gorgeous photos, all of them.

Amey - oooh, I love the goldie ones! I like gold too. what’s not to like??

Amy | Minimally Invasive - Wow, wow, wow. Love the Midnight Moon photos! Did you do the styling yourself? I find it difficult to do it all myself, usually.

Jackie @ Vegan Yack Attack! - I’m consistently blown away by your work.

Heather - I am impressed with the gold photo. I find it such a challenging color to shoot with. By any chance have you tasted the moonshine? I am curious.

Las Vegas, “IT’S HOT AS HELL!”

I recently went to Las Vegas for the SAVEUR Magazine food blog awards. Vegas is, well, interesting. But the bloggers and folks from SAVEUR mag that I met there made the trip totally worthwhile. I finally got around to looking at some of the photos I took while I was there and thought I’d share them with you guys.

A huge thank you to SAVEUR Magazine for making this happen. Especially Helen and Kristin!

A big hug to all the badass bloggers I met:

Sorry if I left anyone out! It was a whirlwind.

Roy (the boyfriend) and I woke up at 4:30 am so I could get some photos of the Vegas strip while it was empty and bathed in morning light. Roy is a trooper. <3


Aimee @ Simple Bites - Just love your photos!! Gosh that seems like so long ago already. Meeting you was a highlight for sure. Cheers!

cindy - Vegas is kind of a hot hellscape. My husband spent his freshman year of college there and hated it. It’s definitely a whole different world. I love these photos, though! way to wake up so early…and CONGRATS on the award, it’s totally deserved :)

Trisha @ Vignette - Congratulations on your award! You deserve it – love your photos and styling!

Kiran @ - Fantastic photos my friend :)

KIM+PHIL - Great chatting with you and Roy in Vegas! Hopefully we’ll get to meet up again sometime.

Ashlae - <3 U + ROY (and Marshall)

caralyn @ glutenfreehappytummy - i love your photography! it is STUNNING!

Averie @ Averie Cooks - Congrats on the award, your trip, and on meeting so many fun other bloggers! Woot! Gorgeous pics of Vegas!

leanne - I’ve never visited Vegas, but your pictures are fantastic! They capture just what Ive pictured it to be :) Awesome!