How to take photographs for a cookbook

What kind of publishing arrangement
The first thing to decide is whether you are going to self-publish or approach an agent with the cookbook you have written.

If you're planning to attempt an agent, you will not need photos to go with your text. A publisher would want to have these done by a professional photographer, in a manner that suits the marketing strategy for the book, the art director and the graphic designer.

If your books are more of a professional business publication, meant to establish your business and position you as an expert in your field, an agent probably will not be interested in representing you to publishers. This is because, without an established following (think celebrity chef), it will be difficult for you to attract enough buyers to your book. The blatant self-promotion of business books is also probably not going to gel with the business model of a publisher.

If you're not sure which path to take, have a good think about whether there is enough 'meat' in your books (and I don't mean actual meat that you eat) for traditional publishing. What I mean by 'meat' is detail—well-written and engaging—and a strong theme or point-of-difference between yours and every other cookbook, magazine or website out there already.

Even if your cookbook manuscript is full of delicious home-grown recipes, if those recipes are standing alone—without other text and images, and without a celebrity chef platform—it will not be enough to interest an agent (or a traditional publisher).

Taking cookbook images for indie publishing
If you do decide to self-publish your cookbook then you will need to consider whether you want images in them or not. Most cookbooks are more likely to be used by readers if they contain images of each recipe, however if you're producing a simple ebook (reflowing, not fixed layout) then it is up to you. A printed cookbook, on the other hand, almost always needs photos with each recipe. With so many others out there competing with yours, the one that is the most attractive will win.

If you do decide to take photographs, even if you're just taking them for the main section headings, please make sure you use a proper camera, not a mobile phone. If you know someone with a digital SLR and a decent skillset with professional photography, that's the bare minimum in my opinion.

Our submission guidelines go into detail about what constitutes a high-resolution image. If you're not sure about whether you're going to end up self-publishing in print, or ebook, or both, or what type of ebook, what size, how amazing or big you want the pictures to be, it pays to err on the side of caution and take those initial photos with good lighting, a good camera and a skilled photographer.

Before getting in contact with us, one customer went to a lot of effort with cooking, plating up and even setting up a different prop-heavy scene for each recipe, only to take the photos with a mobile phone...! The resulting images were passable (though not excellent) for the fixed layout ebook, but then the author decided to put the book into print. The mobile phone photographs really were not good enough, big enough or high enough resolution for printing.

It costs a lot to produce a full-colour photographic book, and you don't want to ruin it by having less than stellar photographs.

Equipment needed to photograph recipes for a cookbook, social media or website

  1. A digital SLR camera
  2. Lighting equipment (if not using diffuse outside light, like what you get on an overcast day)
  3. A semi-professional photographer
  4. Meal exactly as per recipe, plated up in a creative and attractive way that suits the theme of your cookbook
  5. Props and background furniture etc. such as straws, cups, glasses, dishes, plates, placemats, napkins (consider what would appeal to your target market)

Resolution required for the images of a cookbook
RGB 300dpi 3,000 pixels wide or higher

The photos taken with a digital SLR camera may be 300dpi or higher, which is fine. If not, that's OK. Original digital photos straight-from-the-camera aren't usually 300dpi but it does not matter, as the megapixels—height and width—are very high and a graphic designer can change it to 300dpi for printing without visible differences in quality. The height and width matters here in terms of how large the designer can make them in the layout without quality loss. For print, these digital photos need to be at least 3,000 pixels wide and 4,000 would be better. This depends on the eventual page size and image size on the page. An iPad 4 or 5 has height and width of 2048x3072 pixels, so if your image is smaller than this it may not look fantastic on an iPad screen.

Images from a digital camera will be RGB and your designer will usually only turn them to CMYK (the colour type needed for printing) when they're completely Photoshopped and inserted into the book layout, and the designer is making the files ready to go to the printer.

Do not do anything to your images prior to sending them to the designer unless you are a professional graphic designer and know exactly what you're doing. For example, saving them to 'email size' then expecting them to be good enough for a printed book project is not logical. Every time an image is modified and saved, there is quality loss, especially in JPG format, which is a compressed (lossy) format.

For more specific instructions, please engage my Publishing Consultation service so that I have time to analyse your project and images.

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