Whole Foods Market, $80 for Two Bags of Groceries and Their Stupid Anti-Photography Policy

Whole Food's Bad Photography Policy

So earlier today I was sitting there trying to figure out what I’d have for dinner tonight. Lately I’ve been on a bit of a health kick. Working out almost every day. Almost no meat in my diet. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables etc.

So I was trying to think of something excellent yet super healthy to eat for dinner tonight and my mind somehow ended up with a summer heirloom tomato salad. You know the kind, big colorful heirlooms, a little mozzarella cheese, some olive oil and balsamic vinegar. YUM!

Now I haven’t been to Whole Foods Market in a long time. Kristopher and I got some sushi there a ways back, but it’s not a place I go often. But I knew Safeway wouldn’t have heirloom tomatoes, so Whole Foods in Berkeley it was.

The problem with going to Whole Foods to pick up some heirloom tomatoes is that it is sooooo easy to get distracted by all the other beautiful food there. Ohhhh, fresh organic raspberries! Oh, and just look those beautiful red peppers, etc. The kids and I even bought a coconut. We’d never had one before so we bought one and then figured out how to open it on the internet. Fun.

Anyways, everything was going ok. I had my camera with me as always and I stopped at the heirloom tomatoes and tried to shoot a couple of them with my macro lens. It was at this point that one of the helpful Whole Foods employees stopped me.

Him: “Um excuse me Sir, you can’t take pictures in here.”

Me: “Umm, I’m just taking a few photos of these heirlooms, they are beautiful.”

Him: “It’s not my policy Sir, it’s corporate. No photography in the store.”

Me: “But I’m going to buy the heirlooms.”

Him: “I know Sir, it’s corporate policy.”

So at this point I put my camera away and headed on my way.

Now, I’m not protesting Whole Food’s right to not allow me to shoot in their store. This is not like an incident from a public street where I tend to go agro a bit on people sometimes. This is private property. If it’s their store they can set any rule they want with regards to photos.


I also have every right to write a blog post and say that their anti-photography policy sucks. I mean, I’m paying them over $80 for two bags of groceries (literally, see my receipt above). The least they could do is not hassle some guy with his four kids who’s trying to get a macro shot of an overpriced heirloom tomato that he is about to buy from them. Oh, and I was going to buy some of their cherry tomatoes for my salad as well but they had bugs crawling all over them. Someone at the Berkeley store should look into that. It was kind of gross.

Now I’ve done plenty of shooting in other grocery stores. I’ve never had a problem at Safeway for instance. But who knows, maybe they have a similar policy.

Whole Food’s policy is stupid though. The heirloom tomato salad was awesome, but I doubt I’ll be back any time soon. I didn’t mind so much being price gouged on the two bags of groceries, but in general I don’t like to hang out in places that give me crap about my camera. They ought to rethink that policy and make their store a friendlier place to hang out and buy stuff at.

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  1. Jasmeet says:

    The Safeway by my area also has the same policy. No photography, no videography.

  2. gem says:

    many supermarkets in taiwan are like that. they even have “no photography” warnings on their doors. it’s really strange.

    a lot of them say “for copyright reasons” when i ask them why i can’t shoot.

    what, i’m going to “pirate” photos of meat and vegetables??

  3. Karen says:

    I wonder if the whole foods in San Rafael is the same. Maybe I’ll go check them out tomorrow. I could try and snap a shot of those beautiful raspberries for you. The shot of the receipt came out beautifully, btw.

  4. BWJones says:

    I not only have had this experience in Whole Foods, but also a number of markets in London, UK. In one store in London, where I was a tourist (thus the camera) I was told that I had to leave the store with my camera. I was told this by some rent-a-cop security guard who then tried to take my camera from me while he escorted me to the door. I made it clear that he would not be taking my camera, but I would be happy to keep my money and not shop in their store. Apparently, it is an effort to prevent people from comparing prices… silly policy.

  5. Jon says:

    I like to shoot in downtown DC and the problems have been one after another. It seems like every building “is the world bank” and their security is very pushy and will approach you from across the street to warn you to keep away. I’ve counted at least 3 world banks in DC so far. I also get a lot of hassle from riders at the metro stations (turns out I am allowed to take photos there but everyone thinks I’m not)

    Still, I’m often amazed at where I don’t get hassled and how little most people mind when you take photographs.

  6. mac.n.tux says:

    I think almost all groceries and supermarkets are like that – have a no photography and videography policies. However, with camera phones getting ubiquitous, I think they will have to change their policies.

  7. Erwin Chuk says:

    i’m with you…who needs the guff. i’m sticking to photo-friendly establishments. for now, i’m happy to shop at my local farmers’ markets…better produce and i can snap away happily.

  8. Eugene Chan says:

    You should shop at Berkeley Bowl. They have heirlooms, and they’re cheaper too.

  9. biok5 says:

    i have had great fun shooting at supermarkets. i cant wait to do it again. for all of berkeley’s open minds and free thinking, they sure seem totalitarian at times.

  10. Thomas Hawk says:

    Eugene, you know. I almost did exactly that. I should have actually, but Whole Foods was closer to my house. I’ve actually shot in Berkeley Bowl before. They have the most amazing produce section. Far bigger and better than Whole Foods.

    That’s *exactly* where I’ll go to buy my next batch of heirloom tomatoes. Unless they give me crap about my photos too.


  11. JeffH says:

    You think grocery stores are bad, try shooting in a shopping mall! They all have the same policy and their rent-a-cops can be quite aggressive. For the life of me I can’t understand what they are trying to protect. If it’s price comparison, I can just take a pad of paper and a pen and get around that issue. I suppose it might be their interior and display designs that they are touchy about. But honestly, if I were a designer from a competing business out to steal their display designs, I’m quite sure just walking through their store would provide me with all of the info I would need.

    Can anyone who works for a business with this type of anti photography policy enlighten us as to what exactly they are trying to protect by not allowing photos in their stores?

  12. Photographers’ protest at my local Whole Foods next Saturday? Any up for it?

    I hate their overpriced Evian water bottles and their pizza is stinky.

  13. Ben Gold says:

    That sucks, I don’t get why some stores have that policy, I noticed that in places where they don’t allow photos If I am using a little compact point and shoot no one cares, strange.

    As for Whole Foods, I’ve never noticed anything like bugs on the products, that’s just gross, but they are expensive.

  14. Dave Gorman says:

    It’s so easy to protest these days…

  15. Che Robinson says:

    That is really odd. I live in Austin and have a ton of pictures of my kid in Whole Foods that is attached to their corporate headquarters. Seems like they aren’t very consistent about enforcing the policy.

  16. Jon Angliss says:

    The local Central Market has a similar policy. I didn’t see signs for it in the store, and being polite, I emailed the store manager, with no response. When I walked in one day, they have a nice little sign by the guest services desk.

    They could have an issue with the images being used for profit (think stock photography).

  17. Anonymous says:

    Thomas – like you said, they have every right to set their own policies. Yet, you moan that for some reason they should allow you (to take a picture), because you’ve got 4 kids along and only going to take one picture? Buy the product, take it home and snap away! But, to change their policy for you sounds quite unfair, and not a good way to actually enforce rules.

    (And remember that the people who enforce the rules are just employees 99% of the time, and have little impact on the setting of the rules. They just work there and are doing their jobs.)

  18. Eugene Chan says:

    I’m not sure why companies have these policies any more. (Starbuck’s does too. I once met some friends that we hadn’t seen in a long time only for a few hours there and got reprimanded when we wanted to take a photo together.)

    Ostensibly, it is so that “competitors” don’t get any info. Given technology today, it’s impossible to tell what a camera is these days unless you are using a dSLR.

    The fine folks in the Ferry Building said that I couldn’t take photos inside with a dSLR without permission, but that a point and shoot was okay.

    Doesn’t make sense to me. Can’t stop technology.

  19. Thomas Hawk says:

    Thomas – like you said, they have every right to set their own policies. Yet, you moan that for some reason they should allow you (to take a picture), because you’ve got 4 kids along and only going to take one picture?

    Actually I took a lot more than one. But it was only at the heirloom tomatoes that I got stopped.

    I also took this one of a flower before being reprimanded. Oh the tragedy, I have an *unauthorized* photo of a flower from Whole Foods!

    I moan about it because like it’s their right to have a no photography policy it’s my free speech to write a blog post and say that they suck for it. Oh and that they bugs crawling all over their cherry tomatoes.

    Trust me, I’d much rather be writing a blog post about how awesome my heirloom tomato salad was and how the best heirloom tomatoes in the world come from Whole Foods, even if it did cost me over $13 for three tomatoes.

    I just think it’s stupid. It doesn’t harm them or hurt them for me to take a couple of shots, or three or four or five or six or whatever inside their store.

    They do more damage by alienating me and other photographers than they do by prohibiting photographs.

    One of my desires is to see a more open world photographically speaking. So I write about places where photos can’t be taken in hopes that establishments like Whole Foods will re-evaluate this stupid corporate policy and relax a little bit.

  20. I’ll echo Eugene’s comment – the Berkeley Bowl is FAR superior to Whole Foods. I make it a point to go whenever I’m in the area.

    Better produce, better meat, better EVERYthing. Lots of freshly baked bread from Acme and other local bakeries…

    And they don’t seem to mind when people take pictures in the store.

    Of course it’s usually packed, but that’s only because it’s such a great store.

  21. Ah, I missed your comment. Nevertheless – if anyone reading here is in the area, check out the Bowl! It’ll change your life!

  22. carlos says:

    hi Thomas, it is a shame you got the nasty treatment from Wholefoods. As far as my limited experience goes i’ve never been allowed to ‘openly and freely’ photograph anything in a ‘branded’ space. such as supermarkets, handcrafts markets, etc…

    it’s either a really nasty look or even people inforcing the rule, like the sales guy who told you to put yer camera away…

    it’s still better than some places like mexico (where i come from) in which the ‘security’ staff actually have the right to request (or even take) your film or see the image deleted if what is involved is a public building such as a bank, a government building or ‘anything’ else that my impose a ‘risk’ to ‘something’.

    anyhow, let’s carry on kicking ass and snapping away cause it’s not really hurting anyone is it?

  23. Tom says:

    I think you live up north, but I buy heirlooms as Safeway in San Jose all the time.

  24. Anonymous says:

    You whinge and whinge in the company of whingers.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Hi Tom –

    I’m not going to defend their no photographing policy, as I am unaware of the reasoning behind it… however, I think the higher prices aren’t so unrealistic if you look at the cost structure of the certified oraganic supply chain (this is much different from regular organic which really doesn’t mean much), it will give you some insight into why prices are so much higher than other stores on produce. 1st, in order to carry certified organics, the entire supply chain must be certified organic… that means, from the time the seed is dropped in to the ground… until it is bitten into… needs to be organic. This requires that the farmers be inspected so they don’t use pesticides, so they don’t wash the fruit improperly, so they don’t store it or box it improperly… they lose more crops to bugs and weather since they cant use many fertilizers and pesticides, so they yield less per acre than traditional crops. Then, during transport, the truck must be cert. organic, meaning organic stuff must be completely separate from non-organic. And, when it gets to the store, customers only want the prettiest stuff, so much of the produce ends up rotting. I don’t know any data or stats, but all this seems to add up to quite a bit of burden, hence the hire prices. Now in almost-always-sunny Northern CA, farmers markets are overflowing with this kind of stuff, so I’m not sure why anyone would buy produce any other way (except for convenience). And it will of course be cheaper, since the farmers are selling direct to the consumer (grocery mark ups, while low overall, are still pretty high on produce to account for shrinkage). However, in the rest of the country, like the DC area, it is very challenging to get local produce (that is organic). Sure we get some veggies like corn, and our apples are great, but an orangic orange or avacado… or garlic? No way Jose! We’ve got to rely on WFMI…

  26. Todd says:

    Some friends and I call Whole Foods, “Whole Paycheck.” It’s quite funny, really. Lately, though, I’ve had to return their fresh produce twice as it started rotting within 2 days of purchase. Needless to say, we don’t shop there as much anymore — not to mention the whole boycott lobster freedom crap from a couple of years ago. Whole Foods stops selling lobsters.

    Anyway, if you live in the Boston, MA, area, a much better place for produce is Wilson’s Farms. We try to go there now once/week. The produce is superior, not to mention half the price!

  27. Friscobooty says:

    Hey Thomas. Everybody has rules. What makes you so special?! The movies don’t let you bring any outside food but, we sneak it in at times. Next time, don’t be all flashy with the camera. Take it quickly and move on. Also, if a place of business has rules, respect it. You are a customer and being one doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. Other retail stores (Macy’s, Mervyns, etc.) have security and will throw you out for doing that. Safeway let’s you do whatever because their stores are ghetto. Look, respect rules that stores put up and that’s it.

  28. Anonymous says:

    It’s rather amazing to see all these comments bashing Whole Foods without recognizing that there might be a legitimate reason for this policy.

    You might not realize it, but the grocery industry is extremely competitive, particularly in the segment that Whole Foods goes after. I think you’ll find that most of the grocery chains in this market have a variety of policies designed to thwart competitors from copying their carefully crafted store experience. Tesco, for example, is planning to open stores in the United States and has constructed their test stores inside of a warehouse to prevent spying.

    Will the “no photography” rule prevent competitors from copying ideas from Whole Foods? Certainly not. But it will make it a lot harder for them to do so.

    I’m sure Whole Foods is probably aware that some people will be turned off by their photography policy. But how many people does this really affect? Probably not very many. So the amount of money they stand to lose from avid photographers is a lot less than they could lose if they allowed competitors to come in and take pictures of their stores. As with most business decisions, it’s a trade-off and I can’t really blame them for the decision they’ve made here.

  29. Thomas Hawk says:

    I’m sure Whole Foods is probably aware that some people will be turned off by their photography policy. But how many people does this really affect? Probably not very many. So the amount of money they stand to lose from avid photographers is a lot less than they could lose if they allowed competitors to come in and take pictures of their stores. As with most business decisions, it’s a trade-off and I can’t really blame them for the decision they’ve made here.


    This is a weak argument. If I wanted to take photos for the purpose of copying Whole Foods layout I could just walk in all stealth like and start shooting rapid fire. By the time a manager got to me to tell me to stop I could easily fire off 100 photos inside their store. Now I’ve got all the “store layout” intelligence I need. If I get kicked out of this one. I can just drive over to the next one and do the same thing.

    They can’t legally take my photos from me. They can make me leave but they can’t take my photos.

    If what someone wants is to get competitive floor layouts from Whole Foods, that’s not very difficult to do.

    Not to mention stealth cameras or cell phone cams etc.

    It’s a public place. I seriously do not think that Whole Foods gains any competitive advantage whatsoever by having this policy. They simply annoy people that otherwise might spend money there in the future.

    Hey Thomas. Everybody has rules. What makes you so special?!

    Friscobooty. I didn’t say I was special. The guy told me to stop shooting and I did. That’s called obeying the rule. It doesn’t mean that I can’t object to the rule or call it stupid, or talk about how gross it was that they had bugs crawling all over their cherry tomatoes.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Talk about throwing stones at your own house… Reading the two previous comments, the ones that agree with those stupid photography bans, makes me realize who is a REAL photographer and who is NOT.

  31. Texrat says:

    As crazy as it sounds, when policies like this arise there’s always a valid reason lurking somewhere in the background… often revolving around a lawsuit. Given that so many stores are enacting this policy, I think it’s a safe assumption that there’s meat to the matter. i doubt that it’s decided out of, say, pure meanness.

    Yes they have a right to prohibit photos, just as churches may prohibit guns (gee, I wonder if that makes any sense…). And yes you have a right to protest in your blog. But readers also have the right to snicker at how silly that protest is. A little perspective goes a long way… as long as you’re using the right lens. ; )

  32. TranceMist says:

    Those are proprietary tomatoes, after all…

  33. “They can make me leave but they can’t take my photos.”

    Sounds kinda like Braveheart.

    “But they’ll never take away our Nikons!!!” (or Canons, or Vivitars or…)


    Oh, and anonymous, the one defending WF and saying they don’t cost “too much” – screw you. When YOU start paying for my groceries, you can tell me where to shop. Otherwise drop dead.

  34. Danno says:

    Of all the critics of Thomas, we have yet to hear the actual reasons for these bans on photos in the public areas of stores. What *IS* the reason for not allowing photography?

    I got hassled last week in Boston at the Christian Science Center. I was taking some portraits of a friend with a SLR and a flash, and within 2 minutes I had two security guards asking me why I was taking pictures. Once I assured them that it was just for fun and not anything commercial they left us alone. The funny thing is, their campus is home to thousands of tourists and visitors every day during the summer months and many pictures are taken on their grounds. They singled me out because I had a nice camera. Now I understand it’s private property, and they can do what they want, but am I really hurting them somehow by taking pictures there? I’ve actually taken pictures there many times before, so I guess I should feel lucky that it took them this long to notice me.

    Another point: Most concerts now allow point and shoot cameras, but SLR’s are forbidden. So it’s OK to take a mediocre picture with a flash that annoys the musicians, but a decent camera the band won’t even notice is taboo. P&S; now have resolutions similar to SLR’s and a steady hand could get the same shot with a decent P&S.; The logic behind these decisions amazes me.

  35. Dan says:

    The Nugget Market here in Davis (and surrounding cities) has the same policy. You can read about a photographers run in with them on the Davis Wiki.

    I can only guess it is to protect against competitors coming in to copy layout and marketing, or some such thing.

    I would suggest going to a coop to do your shopping. I can’t imagine them giving you a hard time for taking pictures when you are a part owner 🙂

  36. I can’t say why that store has the policy, but after two decades of corporate life, I can tell you that most policies arise out of an incident that didn’t go well for the company.

    There are so many potential ways a company’s image could be slammed by a photographer: Simulated sex acts with a cucumber in front of the store logo, photos of damaged products being sold at full price, etc. I suspect some places have the rules in place to protect employees from being photographed, and to avoid unpleasantness if there’s a confrontation between someone and an employee.

    You would think companies would think of ways to embrace the chaos, and encourage people to take fun, imaginative photos in their stores… Not most corporations.

    It’s always easier to restrict activity than it is to encourage. Ask a lawyer, and 9 times out of 10 they’ll recommend the more restrictive route. Not because it will be better for the company, but because they can’t then be blamed for recommending something that might in the future lead to a lawsuit.

  37. Dave Zatz says:

    Sounds like a good policy… 😉 Imagine the negative attention they’d get once your bug-covered-fruit pictures made it on to the Internet.

    We had two gross experiences in the last year with them. We got some salmon which had a weird worm (living and squirming!) on it. We returned it after my fiancee called the health department and learned it was probably harmless. The other incident involved some jam/preserves that had a winged bug stuck in it like fossilized amber bugs. We took pictures and sent them to Whole Foods corporate who didn’t seem to believe the story but gave us coupons anyway. Hm, maybe we should blog it.

    The lesson is, we still overpay for certain foods. And in many countries, people eat bugs – a good source of protein and fiber. 😉

  38. Republic says:

    I think perhaps the policy, for retail stores anyway, may be to deter someone from photographing products and selling them as stock photography, artistic prints etc. Your beautiful photo of the flower for example, I think would sell very well matted and framed. Not that you would do that. Just my opinion.

  39. Thomas Hawk says:

    I think perhaps the policy, for retail stores anyway, may be to deter someone from photographing products and selling them as stock photography, artistic prints etc. Your beautiful photo of the flower for example, I think would sell very well matted and framed. Not that you would do that. Just my opinion.

    Jeremy, so what if I did? How does that hurt them? They are not in the stock photography business. They don’t lose anything if I sell a stock photo. If anything they gain as it gives me one more reason to be in their store and by stuff.

  40. Daniel says:

    Most big corporate stores don’t allow photography…I run into these issues while shooting for http://www.racked.com

    good post TH, we miss you in DMU

  41. Jake says:

    We are at such a critical juncture of American history that citizens would do well to speak temperately and not spread false, malicious, hateful lies about people with whom they disagree.

  42. Mercy says:

    When you buy “organic”, especially from Whole Foods, you are going to pay up the nose for it. You are always buying for convenience. You are way better off buying from Farmer’s Markets if you can. Usuallymuch cheaper and you are buying directly from the grower.

    And the bugs are probably going after the veggies because organics don’t use the same massive poisons that other stores use. That’s why you usually want to go after the organic stores.

    Support the little guy, Thomas… leave the super markets for the others. And take some street photography while you’re at it!

    Miss you at DMU.

  43. Mr. Pants says:

    Sometimes I wonder if these posts are a joke or not. Kind of like “the fake Steve Jobs”. It’s actually very good comedy.

    I’m inclinded to think, however, that Mr. Hawk really truly believes the things he writes here.

    That said, I sure hope the execs at Whole Foods have a meeting ASAP to review their “no photography in our stores” policy so they don’t lose Mr. Hawk’s business. That 80 dollar tab for two bags of groceries (in San Francisco, mind you) they are missing out on is certainly going to make them think long and hard about their policy. I mean, Thomas Hawk might go and spend that 80 dollars on a pizza in San Francisco, or maybe a couple hours of parking.

    Personally, however, when I go to the grocery store, I tend to spend my time buying groceries – not taking pictures. I find the lighting in grocery stores to be rather poor for photography… and the subject matter to be rather dull. Plus, I find that most of the other people at the grocery store are there to buy groceries as well (image that!) – not get in the way of other customers who wish to get their groceries quickly and go on to do more fulfulling things with their life (rather than spend it at the grocery store).

    Besides, aren’t you a man, Mr. Hawk? Should “getting groceries” be the woman’s job? I know I’ve got my girlfriend trained good – I haven’t set foot in a grocery store in nearly 6 months and my cabinets are always full. I’m happy to give you lessons, Mr. Hawk. You know where to find me.

    Kind regards,

    Mr. Pants

  44. Anonymous says:

    I used to work for a casino where there was a No Photography policy.
    The policy was basically for cheaters (taking shots of other gamblers and/or of the dealer’s cards, etc).
    The other reason (and I never would have thought of this)was for privacy reasons.
    Say Mr.X was at the casino when he should not be…especially if he is with someone other than Mrs. X…
    Should Mrs. X find out and decide to get nasty, she could file a suit against the casino (or company) and they would be liable..if you can believe that.
    Also, if Mr. X was a member of Gamblers Annoymous, and should not be in the casino..etc.
    However far fetched that sounds, that was the reason (we as employees) were given. Many customers/players inquired as to why they couldn’t take pictures in the casino and that was the reason we were to explain.
    Several years later, I’ve heard that the policy has changed, so people can take photos.
    However, I hope this sheds some light on your question.
    I have to agree with Mr. Pants…who wants to take pictures in a grocery store???