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4 Behind-the-Scenes Truths About Food Photography

If you’ve ever wondered why real food never quite looks like its photographed counterpart, you aren’t alone. In fact, the food pictured in ads and packaging is carefully created using a little bit of industry know-how and a lot of photography magic.

Food is a temperamental subject. Unlike other photography subjects, food has a very short shelf life. At most, food will maintain its shape, texture and look for two hours. Any longer and food fails to stay fresh, quickly losing its appeal.

Unlike restaurants or fast food chains, photographers can spend hours building a dish to extenuate the right features. Professional food photographers use industry trade secrets to get that “hero shot” — the one that is used in advertising or packaging.

In 2012, McDonald’s released a behind-the-scenes look at a burger shoot, showcasing the stylish tricks and tweaks done to enhance the features of their burgers. In the video, the fast food chain revealed that ingredients were purposely moved to make the burgers look more appealing to the consumer.

To make food and beverage photography look good enough to eat or compel people to buy, we reveal below the four behind-the-scene truths of food photography.

1. You must combine interesting additives
Certain ingredients simply do not work well under studio lights. And with food photography shoots taking several hours, they certainly can’t sit out that long. Milk, for example, can make food appear rather unappetizing very quickly.

In real life, milk and other milk-based products are delicious ingredients in foods like cereal. During a shoot, milk-based ingredients are simply a delicious mess. So how do food photographers solve this dilemma?

Enter food stylists. Part of their role is to make sure food looks ready for its close-up. They create delicious appeal by using inedible additives to keep food looking fresh in front of a lens.

In the instance of milk, glue, sunscreen lotion and white hair cream are used to stand in for milk. Unlike the real thing, these alternative, inedible ingredients won’t turn the cereal soggy. If you’ve ever seen advertisements for cereal and the cereal sits perfectly atop the milk, chances are, glue and other additives were used.

In fact, most liquid-based foods have photography stand-ins that help create the perfect shot.

To create the appearance of smooth-looking coffee, a combination of water, gelatin and Kitchen Bouquet (a browning and seasoning sauce) is used. When not photographed in a refrigerated space, ice cream is made with powdered sugar, food coloring, corn syrup and vegetable shortening or lard.

Other common inedible items to make food appear more appealing include motor oil (maple syrup), glycerin (adds gloss and sheen), antacid (fizzy drinks), shaving cream (whipped cream) and spray deodorant (gives food a frosty veneer).

While certain photographs will show the real deal, and brands do insist on featuring the products they’re trying to sell, in most instances, many ingredients are faked.

At the same time, there is also a special breed of photographers who shoot food in action, such as during the cooking or preparation process. Instead of using overly styled shots or fake food, these photographers focus on capturing the art and science of food in motion. These types of shots are often used for marketing restaurants, bars, hotels and other commercial food businesses.

2. It’s all in the setup
Composition, perspective and lighting are all critical elements to achieving that irresistible shot. To speak the language of food through your photographs, these elements must be well understood.

• Composition
Creating seductive photos of vividly beautiful food starts with composition. And to create the right composition and add interest to a picture, don’t forget about the Rule of Thirds. Using the Rule of Thirds ensures your subject matter naturally falls in intersecting points in the frame.

When starting out, keep the Rule of Thirds in mind as it will help your image really pop.

• Perspective
Certain ingredients and dishes will work best with a specific angle. A scoop of ice cream will benefit from a 45° angle as it highlights the subject’s three-dimensional contours. A burger, on the other hand, is best shot directly at eye level. A zoomed out bird’s-eye view shot on big spreads, like a charcuterie board, will create a more compelling photo than if shot directly head-on.

• Lighting
Food photography doesn’t necessarily need to be shot in a professional studio. Achieving great photos requires little space, but there must be good sources of natural light. Indirect daylight is the holy grail of natural light sources. It provides your subject matter a bright, even glow.

Direct sunlight creates a blown-out image, so best to avoid it.

3. Thoughtful styling goes a long way
After you’ve gotten the basics of food photography down, you can start getting creative with your photoshoots. Getting creative with certain styling techniques will help draw interest to the main subject of your photos.

Using certain elements, like a particular plate or eye-catching accessories, will add dimension and personality to the frame. Adding the right type of garnishes (condiments, toppings, herbs, etc.) will enhance the color scheme of the photo. When executed correctly, the right ingredients can serve as engaging background details, taking your images to the next level.

Get creative with your props and backgrounds. If you have a rather restrictive budget, visit a few thrift stores to find some awesome, unique vintage kitchenware for a few dollars apiece. The variety of items to be found in second-hand stores can be used across many different cuisines to elevate your images.

4. The right equipment matters
Investing in the right gear may help you create better images. For quality images and an efficient shoot, professional food photographers invest at the minimum on the common tools of the food photography trade:
• Tripod
• Bounce card
• Artificial light
• Blackboard

While you’re at it, get very familiar with your camera’s settings. Being able to shoot manual provides you with greater control. Develop your working knowledge of camera settings such as shutter speed, aperture (f-stop), ISO and white balance.

Having this working knowledge will enable you to manipulate your images to adapt to different situations.

Don’t forget the cardinal rule
There is absolutely no substitution for hard work. Taking photos in any style is a hard-earned skill. Food photography, like any other photography style, is all about experimentation. Don’t be afraid to be unconventional. Don’t be afraid to break the rules.

Remember, mouth-watering food photography comes down to a photographer’s eye. Go with your instincts and in no time, you’ll be creating stunning food photographs that will leave viewers hungry.

Barry Morgan is the creative force behind Barry Morgan Photography. His passions are photography, food and family, although not always in that order. He believes you should love what you do, to do exceptional work. Cooking was always a family affair in his home so naturally, once his passion for photography took root, he was drawn to food photography. Barry Morgan Photography now works with hundreds of clients, turning their tasty dishes into mouthwatering visuals.

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