Top 10 Untold Truths About Food Photography
Have you ever looked at an advertisement for food and wondered just how it is that people can get such perfect pictures of food? After all, whenever you’re taking a photo of your meal in a restaurant, you can never seem to get it right. The food doesn’t end up looking good in the photo, or the lighting is off, or the colors just aren’t right. How do food photographers do it? How do they make everything look so delicious in every photo they take? The truth is that there is a lot of work that goes into getting the best possible photo of food. Food photographers work long hours to achieve those perfect food photos, and often the food they are photographing would not be very good for eating. The truth is that food photography, like any other professional photography job, uses a lot of tools, tricks, and secret methods to achieve the perfect look every time. Just because the models in the photo are food items doesn’t mean they don’t get made up or dressed to look better than they actually do. Often food photographers will have to put precise touches and small details into the food that is being photographed to make it look as delicious and presentable as possible. That process takes time, energy, and a lot of talent, as well as visual flair. The truth is that there is a lot of trickery going on in food photography, and some of the ways food photographers make things look so delicious may really surprise you. These are the top ten untold truths about food photography.
10. Everything is served on white plates
When you’re serving someone a meal, they generally don’t care what kind of plate it is served on, as long as the food tastes good. Whether it’s fine china or paper, it doesn’t affect the taste so who cares? Well, it’s an entirely different story for food photography. See, food photographers will generally only photograph food on white plates. Why? Think of every food photograph like a painting: generally an artist isn’t going to start their latest masterpiece on anything but a blank canvas, and that’s what a clean, unmarked white plate represents. It doesn’t distract from the star of the show, namely the food being photographed. Think about it this way: have you ever eaten at a restaurant where they didn’t give you your food on a white plate? The principle is the same. Food served on something that is clean, white, and free of any distinguishing marks is always going to appeal to your visual sense more than food served on a colored plate or one with ornate markings. “What about white food?” you may be asking. The answer in that scenario is to just switch to an off-white plate. In addition, the smaller the plate, the better the photo, since the food will look bigger, heartier, and more filling. In addition, matte plates are preferred because they cut down on the amount of shine that will show up in the photo. Basically, you don’t want a lot of plate showing up through the food, because it will look sparse and unappetising. The same goes for a big pile of food, which, while being what everyone really wants, doesn’t look as aesthetically pleasing in a photo as a properly portioned meal.
9. Pancakes have cardboard in the middle
Have you ever looked at a photograph of pancakes and thought to yourself, “Man I’d really like to dig into those scrumptious looking flapjacks!” You probably have, since as we all know, a stack of pancakes looks pretty inviting in a food photograph. However, if you tried to eat that stack of pancakes, you might run into an unexpected and rather unpleasant surprise: cardboard. That’s right, food photographers will often use pieces of cardboard to keep pancakes separated and standing up straight in photos. It’s just one of those small tricks that make the food look so much better than it would in real life. Let’s face it: a stack of pancakes is pretty awesome when it’s sitting in front of you at a restaurant, just waiting to be covered in butter and sweet maple syrup. However, they don’t always look that great in profile. That’s because the pancakes are fairly soft, and will sort of sag as they sit on the plate. It doesn’t make much of a difference when you’re about to eat them, but in food photography, food has to be looking its best. That’s where the cardboard comes in. The look of pancakes in advertisements is often one of uniform and parallel stacking, a look that is not often achieved in real life. The cardboard helps with this, as well as bulking the stack up slightly to make it look taller. They are also sprayed with scotch guard so that syrup doesn’t soak into them but instead slides off for that photo perfect look.
8. Whole turkeys are raw on the inside
You’ve probably also seen an advertisement featuring one of those perfectly cooked, deliciously browned whole turkeys sitting on the dinner table, waiting to be carved up and served. Well, not so fast. Before you get out the electric carving knife and the serving fork, you should probably know that that turkey would actually be pretty terrible in real life. In fact, it might even kill you. That’s because whole turkeys that appear in food photographs are often colored with shoe polish and other harsh chemicals to give it that brown color. In addition, the bird is probably mostly raw on the inside. This is to help it maintain a certain shape for the photo, and also because no one is going to eat it anyway, and have you ever cooked a turkey? If you have then you would know that it takes a while. That’s time food photographers aren’t often working with, so they just keep the bird uncooked and rely on the household chemicals to give it that cooked appearance. They may also hit it with a blowtorch just to sear the skin slightly and give it that more cooked and crispy appearance. Another gross thing about photographed whole turkeys is that they are often stuffed with paper towels. This is also to bulk them up and help them look bigger. Sometimes the paper towels are also moistened and heated up to give the appearance of steam coming off of the turkey.
7. Fruit is colored with lipstick
You might think that only human models would wear lipstick in an advertisement, but you would be totally wrong. That’s because the fruit in food photography is often colored with lipstick. Why? Well, think about it. When you buy a pint of strawberries, they probably look pretty tasty, but from a food photographer’s point of view, there’s a lot that has to be changed. For one thing, that delicious pint of strawberries probably has a few spots that aren’t quite red enough for the camera. To the average consumer, that’s no big deal, but when the fruit has to look its best, it’s a huge problem. Enter the lipstick. Lipstick is used to coat those paler spots on fruit and give the fruit more uniform appearance and color. It may seem strange, but don’t forget: this food is not getting eaten. It’s getting thrown right in the trash once the shoot is over, so making it look good rather than taste good is obviously the highest priority. In addition to the lipstick, food photographers will also utilize a bath with lemon juice to keep any cut fruit or berries from browning due to oxidization. They may also use a product known as ‘Fruit Fresh.’ This can actually be bought at grocery stores, so if you ever want to take a nice photograph of some berries, consider picking up some of this stuff before your shoot.
6. Ice cream is lard and powdered sugar
Photographing ice cream would be an almost impossible task. Think about it: you have to set up the shoot with hot lights, then take a bunch of pictures before you get the right one. That ice cream will have melted long before the job is done, leaving food photographers with a sticky mess that is not going to look good on camera. Not unless the advertisement is for melted ice cream, but that would be crazy. In fact, any food that melts is often a hurdle that food photographers have to get around in their job. One of the many secrets about photographing ice cream is that food photographers will use mashed potatoes. While this is true, there are alternatives that make the ice cream in photographs look more like, well, ice cream. One way of achieving this without having to mash a bunch of potatoes is to use lard and icing sugar. This combination becomes as scoopable as ice cream and won’t melt as quickly under the hot lights. Powdered mashed potatoes might also be mixed into this ice cream stand in to give it more structure, but ultimately the mixture of lard and icing sugar (and sometimes store bought frosting) are really what make the perfect ice cream photo. Then, of course, any colors or other features are added to the mixture to give it that delicious ice cream appearance.
5. Cakes are spray painted
A beautifully decorated cake is one of the most visually pleasing things out there. When you’re at a birthday party, and the cake is brought out, and it’s looking so good? That’s the sign of someone who really knows what they are doing in the kitchen. However, photographing cakes is an entirely different story. See, food photographers don’t always have a lot of time to dress up a cake and make it look good. So what do they do? They spray paint it. That’s right, those delicious, decadent cakes you see in advertisements are in fact slathered with highly toxic spray paint. You definitely wouldn’t want a slice of these with your coffee. The reason that spray paint is used is to give the cake more of a color pop than colored icing would give it. Spray paint can also be applied in an even layer and doesn’t really get as gloppy as paint that is brushed on. Painted cakes are just another secret of the food photography business, and it’s an integral part of taking good pictures of desserts. Some cakes also feature cream, and instead of whipped cream, which can melt and get runny for a photo, food photographers will use shaving cream instead, which somehow looks more appetizing in a photo anyway. Don’t ask us why that is, it’s just the way our weird brains work. Don’t worry about the cake at your next party though, it’s probably not coated in paint and shaving cream, although it would look much better if it was.
4. Melted cheese is simmered in water
There’s something instantly appealing about seeing a bright yellow slice of cheese that’s perfectly melted on top of a burger. McDonald’s already knows this, which is why their burgers always look so good in the advertisements. However, there is a secret that food photographers have in regards to taking the perfect cheeseburger picture. That cheese did not melt on the burger. Why? Because by the time the photo is being taken, that burger is cold as ice. So how does the cheese melt? It’s actually a really simple trick. Before the photo is taken, the food photographers simmer it. Because the cheese needs to look shimmering, gooey, and delicious, they will actually stick a slice of cheese in a pan of simmering water to start the melting process. The food photographers then scoop the cheese out and put that already melting cheese on the burger, allowing it to cover it like a delicious cheesy blanket. This is how food photographers create the cheeseburger pictures that make your mouth water and activate the part of your brain that needs to get to the burger joint now! It’s an interesting trick and one that is highly effective. Have you ever second-guessed the melting cheese in a food photo? Probably not, which means food photographers are doing their job right. That’s not even the craziest thing food photographers will do to get the perfect photo of food, though.
3. Sometimes nature isn’t pretty enough
Food photographers are also often tasked with taking pictures of things like fruit trees or vegetables growing in a garden. While these sights are pretty beautiful to the average person, to a food photographer, they just look lackluster. This is especially true when you’re trying to take a picture of, say, a lemon tree and there just aren’t enough of those beautiful, round, yellow lemons hanging from the branches. So what is a food photographer to do? Well, some of them will go as far as taking a needle and thread and actually sewing more lemons to the branches of the tree to get the perfect picture. That’s the kind of Frankenstein procedure you’ve probably come to expect from food photographers after reading the other points in this article, but it doesn’t make it any less crazy. After all, nature is so beautiful, why do you have to improve on it? Well, no one ever said that food photography was easy, and no one wants to admit that when we see a picture in a magazine, we’re not exactly clamoring for verisimilitude. We want to see something that excites us and makes us hungry. Throwing a few extra lemons on the lemon tree is;t hurting anyone, least of all the tree itself, so why not just make the tree look a little better? It really pays off in the end, and no one is the wiser. Well, you are now, after reading this, we suppose.
2. Ice is made of plastic
Those ice cold drinks in advertisements always look so refreshing, don’t they? You just want to reach into them and pull one out on a hot day. Well, as you’ve probably gathered from the other points on this list, not everything is as it appears in food advertisements, and the drinks are just another thing that is super staged. One of the biggest fake outs in photos of icy cold drinks is the ice itself. We’ve talked about how things melt during a photo shoot, and no other food is as notorious for melting as ice. So, to get around the melting problem, food photographers use plastic or acrylic blocks that look like ice. They’re definitely not keeping anything cool, but they look good on camera. On top of that, the actual drink itself is most likely a thick gel that is colored to look like the drink it’s portraying. This is to hold the “ice” in place and also to give a more vibrant, uniform look to the drink on camera. Finally, those refreshing looking drinks always have that little bit of condensation on the outside, but how can that be when there’s no ice in the drink and nothing is actually cold in the photo? Well, the glasses are actually just finely misted with a mixture of water and corn syrup in order to get that cool, refreshing look we all know and love.
1. You have to take a lot of photos to get the best one
As with any sort of photo shoot, the simple truth of food photography is that you can’t just take one perfect picture. Food photographers are constantly making minor adjustments to their subjects and taking a bunch of photos to reflect those changes. Often, food photographers will take a photo, then have to add something, move something, or change the angle of their shoot to get everything exactly right. The advertising industry is not one that runs on coincidences or lucky shots. Everything is planned and executed with absolute perfection. Food photographers don’t leave anything up to chance. If they need to adjust something in a photo, they will take a new photo. At the end of the day, they will meticulously sort through those photographs, select the best one, then begin the editing process in a program like Photoshop. It’s a hard life being a food photographer. The hours are long, and the work can often be very difficult. Not to mention the fact that working around all that food has to make you hungry during the day. However, as we said before, none of this food can be eaten at the end of the day. So the next time you see a great photo of a burger., or an icy cold margarita, just remember all the hard work that went into making that photo possible.