Successful food photography

You may have noticed that when you see virtually any food advertisement, it never ends up looking the same as it does in real life. Even packaged frozen foods feature photos that have hungry consumers crying foul when the product comes out of the microwave, but it’s only sensible, if a little sneaky, for advertisers to make their products look as appealing as possible when photographing them. However this practice goes far beyond shooting an entree from its good side.

Some of the tricks used by photographers to make food look scrumptious are pretty clever and some are downright mind-blowing. Nothing says hot and fresh like lots of steam, if advertisers are to be believed. When someone in a commercial splits open a dinner roll, opens up a Big Mac carton or microwaves popcorn, you can be sure that the product will be steaming like a tea kettle. Of course we all know that commercial shoots are a long process involving lots of takes and that nobody is on set constantly cooking up steaming batches of products but the secret behind those steamy shots is as simple as it is clever. Most food doesn’t have a very high water content so it stops steaming pretty quickly as it cools down. But cotton balls can hold plenty of water and if soaked cotton balls are microwaved they’ll keep steaming for much longer than your average burger.

Photographers will strategically place them behind or around a product enabling them to get that perfect shot that gives that product to just cooked appearance. Mashed potatoes are the unsung heroes of advertising photography. They’re easy to work with and model, keep for a long time, and won’t melt or run under hot lights. Over the years advertisers have found a number of ways to use mashed potatoes to make other foods look better on camera. They can be used to add volume to meat like roasts and whole chickens simply by injecting them into the desired area. They’re also baked into pies to give the filling a sturdy consistency that won’t run when a piece is cut. But by far their most popular use in advertising photography is as a stand-in for ice cream. Ice cream is incredibly difficult to photograph especially because it needs to look ice-cold and the hot lights used on a photography set will cause it to start melting within seconds, but mashed potatoes don’t have this problem. Adding colors and mix-ins makes the illusion complete and as long as they’re the right consistency it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference. If you’ve ever seen a picture of frosty cold ice cream that made you just have to go out and get some it’s almost certain that you were actually looking at mashed potatoes.

There are also a number of problems photographers encounter when trying to photograph milk. It tends to look thin and not quite wide enough on camera and its most typical use in advertising as a co-star in cereal ads presents difficulties. What’s more, cereal has to look crunchy and fresh in ads and as we all know it doesn’t take most cereals very long to become soggy – that is why the milk you see in these ads isn’t milk at all; it’s glue. Regular Elmer’s glue retains its stark white appearance on camera and it’s so thick that no cereal is heavy enough to sink inside. The cereal bowls you see in these ads are modified to be only a couple of inches deep. A thick layer of glue is poured in and a sprinkling of cereal is laid over the top photographers can shoot for hours, and the cereal will stay fresh and dry, while the phony milk never loses its milkiness.

When you see an advertisement for a restaurant or a steak house the steaks always appear grilled to perfection. You can tell because they’re pink and juicy on the inside with distinct grill marks on the outside. The marks of an excellent steak they may not always get right in the restaurant, but advertisers make sure that what you see on TV is as appetising as possible and they do it in one of the least appetizing ways imaginable. The steaks used in these ads are not even cooked on a grill at all it’s too hard to achieve that perfect pinkness that way. Instead they’re cooked in an oven or on a flat grill and then the grill marks are painted on with shoe or boot polish. That wouldn’t exactly be a tasty steak, but it sure looks good on camera!

Whipped cream is as difficult to work with as ice cream. If you’re trying to use it in an advertising shoot, it doesn’t have a consistent thickness and tends to get running and will begin melting under hot lights in mere seconds. Fortunately for photographers there’s a common product that looks identical to whipped cream but doesn’t have these problems. It’s shaving cream. In every ad you’ve ever seen featuring a milkshake, parfait or slice of pie with a dollop of whipped cream on top didn’t actually use whipped cream at all. Shaving cream holds up for much longer, won’t melt, and is easy to sculpt in shape. Just like with mashed potatoes and whipped cream, it’s impossible for your eye to tell the difference. If you’re wondering if some unlucky crew member on a commercial shoot ever picked up the wrong drink by accident and got a mouthful of Barbasol, well that’s never been documented, but the law of averages in Murphy’s Law both dictate that yes it almost certainly has!

Distributors of fresh fruit have their own tricks for making the product look more appealing in person. A lot of the fruit you find in grocery stores actually has a very thin wax coating to make it appear more shiny, but this isn’t quite enough for TV cameras, so photographers have discovered another trick to make fruit really pop in advertisements. If you’re a little put off by that wax coating you can at least keep in mind that wax is edible and won’t harm you. Spray deodorant, on the other hand, should never come anywhere near food unless it’s starring in a commercial. Photographers spray down apples, grapes, pears and practically anything else that has a skin with a liberal coating of spray deodorant to give them that ultra shiny look that we associate with being natural.

Sauces tend to look thin and watered-down on camera and can also appear duller and lacking in colour. Some sauces can also separate over the course of a long shoot but photographers have found a simple addition that solves all of these problems at once. It’s wax; simple ordinary wax with some colouring additives. Red wax for example can make the colour of a red sauce pop while making it appear to have the desired robust consistency on camera. Different colours can be used to tweak a sauce’s on-camera appearance until it’s just right, and the wax will keep the sauce from separating over the length of the shoot. It can also be used to thicken a sauce up enough to get those pouring shots which can be nearly impossible to achieve otherwise.

Cardboard is second only to mashed potatoes as the MVP of ad photography. Whenever you see a shot of a slice of layer cake with perfectly even distribution of cake and frosting, you can bet that there are a couple of extra layers. Photographers will insert pieces of cardboard in between the layers of the cake, then pipe the frosting onto the cardboard! This helps ensure that there are no crumbs on the frosting, which is unavoidable when simply cutting a piece of cake, and that the layers of cake and frosting look perfectly uniform. Cardboard is also used to make sure that every fast-food burger you see in an ad looks perfect. Condiments like lettuce, tomatoes and pickles are always positioned precisely in these shots and this is done by slipping a layer of cardboard in on top of the burger patty. The fixings are then meticulously positioned for the camera and held in place by pins. You might complain that your fast-food burgers never look like the ones in the ads, but you really wouldn’t want the one from the ad unless you were looking for a mouthful of packing materials!

Anyone who has ever tried to cook a perfect chicken or turkey knows how difficult it is. In advertisements whole birds always look plump, juicy and golden brown and as you may have guessed it’s not because advertisers hire world-class chefs to cook up amazingly photogenic birds. In fact the whole birds you see in advertisements would not be delicious; they wouldn’t even be edible! The birds used for these photo shoots are barely cooked; just enough to make them more sturdy. Then they’re typically stuffed with paper towels to puff them up before being sewn shut. Areas that still look a little saggy can be pumped up with those mashed potatoes, and then the entire bird is painted by an airbrush artist to achieve that perfect golden brown tone. It makes for a delectable looking bird, but this technique probably won’t work so well for your next Thanksgiving dinner!

A fluffy stack of pancakes with warm maple syrup is a great way to start the morning, and advertisers know that this image will get your stomach rumbling. The problem with getting this on camera is that almost all pancakes absorb syrup pretty quickly enough, making it tough to get across how rich and thick your syrup is. To avoid this, photographers will spray down each pancake with a coating of fabric protector like Scotchguard, keeping them from being too absorbent, but sometimes even this isn’t enough. Regular syrup can heat up and become runny under lights, and doesn’t always photograph well. This is why many of these types of advertisements don’t use real syrup. It’s motor oil getting poured all over those flapjacks. Sure, they were already ruined by the Scotch Guard but somehow that just doesn’t seem right. But as long as it looks right, that’s all that matters in photography!