Learn The Secrets Of Food Photography

The blogosphere is circulating a link to an awesome German food photography site today, which compares package photos of food with what’s inside for around 100 products. Sure, it’s all in German, but the Industrial Food Revolution is the same pretty much everywhere. We looked around for a good “secrets of food photography” and found this article at Photocritic which lists some of the staples any good food photographer has at every shoot, including motor oil, cotton balls, and brown shoe polish. Mmm!

From Photocritic’s “secrets” article:

Here’s some of what you may find on their shopping lists, and at least one reason each has its rightful place in the photog’s apron pocket:

Blowtorch, for browning the edges of raw hamburger patties, the goose-bumpy skins of nearly raw poultry, and hot dogs. (Caution: simmer hot dogs for a while before torching, unless your goal is an action shot of a pink-meat food explosion.)

Motor oil, as a stand-in for unphotogenic syrups.

Glycerin, along with various sizes of artist’s paintbrushes (to make seafood look like it was just caught that morning) and a misting bottle (to spritz lettuce salads, giving them that just-picked-and-rinsed look).

This alternate page of the German food photography project skips the original site’s tiny thumbnail layout and opens all the full-size images in one window, if you prefer that kind of presentation.

“werbung gegen realität” [Pundo3000] (Thanks to Ben!)
“The dirty tricks of food photographers” [photocritic.org]
(Photo: Pundo3000)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Parting says:

    Looks like these 99 cents frozen meals for sale.

    Appealing on the outside, unedible inside…

  2. B says:

    Advertising might be deceptive? Color me shocked. Although, this explains why drinking beer didn’t result in bikini models showing up.

  3. wring says:

    there was a tv show for kids during the 80’s that showed how ads are made. some kids even test them out themselves to see if they’re fun. i love that show! i’ve only seen 1 episode though.

  4. brendanm14 says:

    they’ve got some sick looking foodstuffs over there….even though I am sure they say the same thing about our stuff.

  5. modenastradale says:

    Loved the site, but I don’t think the tricks of food stylists is such a big deal.

    For one thing, a lot of these techniques — like glue instead of milk in cereal, and motor oil in place of maple syrup — are no longer used.

    For another thing, you have to bear in mind that food really isn’t a subject that is best represented on a two-dimensional visual plane without any means of perceiving its taste, smell, heat, or texture. It’s just a photograph. To give some impression of the total experience of the food with just a photograph requires that the food look far better than it ordinarily would.

  6. Fate'sBitch says:

    This reminds of this guy who tried to pick me up at a bar who, when I asked what he did, said he was a scientist. And I was all what kind of scientist? A food scientist apparently. After a lot of back and forth I found out that “food scientist” meant he made these kind of things, microwavable crap and all that. Yeah, scientist my ass.

  7. EBounding says:

    Heh, I remember reading something like this years ago in my “Zillions!” magazine.

  8. Zombilina says:

    Is Consumer Reports for Kids still in circulation? I remember food photography being the magazine’s cover story one month.

    I hope that thing’s still around. Great thing to have had when I was growing up.

  9. Zombilina says:

    @EBounding: Ah, thanks – it was Zillions!

  10. Remember that they can not substitute anything for the featured product. So while the “milk” may be paint/glue, the food is actually ceral. When you see a hamburger, it’s a real hamburger, they just use a hot plate to quick sear, and then make the lines w/ a exposed heating element.

  11. sir_eccles says:

    @ghanima: Well he certainly wasn’t a chef!!

  12. Narockstar says:

    Germans have way better frozen food options. Where can I get some of that curry wurst? Awesome.

  13. morganlh85 says:

    @Git Em SteveDave: That’s only here in the US…who knows if those guidelines apply overseas.

  14. ezacharyk says:

    I watched a show about this sort of thing. I remember these sort of things:

    Jello is quadruple the strength to make it bounce.
    Icecream is a flour substance to help it retain its shape.
    Lettuce on the hamburger is coated in varnish to keep it from wilting.
    Sliced turkey is thawed coated in wood finish for color and the one slice is steam to look cooked.

  15. jook says:

    When I went to McDonalds in Japan, the food i unwrapped and ate looked exactly like the posters…

  16. slowreader says:

    LOL @ the pistachio package. I mean, come on. What are they supposed to look like?

  17. nobodygrrl says:

    I always wondered why my great-grandparents left fairly prosperious families in Austria-Hungary for hard lives along the Guadalupe. Now I know that Grandma and Papa just wanted to spare future generations from all manner of ambiguous canned meats. Mach schnel un fuhren sie das schnitzel!

  18. kelmeister says:

    One of the products on the site is a cereal called “Nougat Pillows.” That may be the greatest cereal ever.

  19. Redwraithvienna says:

    @Git Em SteveDave:

    The rules are pretty much the same.

  20. evenkevin says:

    @Git Em SteveDave: Are you positive on that one? The only reason I ask is, like ezacharyk said, ice cream isn’t actually ice cream (all though I had heard they used mashed potatoes). This is because ice cream would melt under the lights required under a normal ad photoshoot.

  21. amccoll says:

    I heard somewhere they used mashed potatoes for ice cream. I look at food ads a lot different now.

  22. itmustbeken says:

    I work in design and if you had to spend 1 day with a food stylist you wouldn’t eat for a week.

    I did work for (very large upscale food retailer at a mall near you) and nearly become a vegetarian when the stylist applied shellac and Glycerin to steaks.

    Spraying deodorant on grapes & oranges to make them shimmer still makes me wince. oh god…(bleeeechhhhh)

  23. Kat@Work says:

    I’ve never seen so much soup, fish, and snack cakes. German cuisine baby.

  24. sgodun says:

    Soap works well when you need a shot of bubbles or foam, as on the top of a cappuccino.

  25. modenastradale says:


    Yep, you can shoot with real ice cream. One technique is to prepare the ice cream scoop, then, while it’s still in the utensil, hollow it out and fill it with dry ice. Then place it in a freezer while the rest of the set and lighting issues are resolved. The ice cream scoop will be frozen solid and can resist the heat long enough to be photographed.

  26. Pigmann says:

    @Git Em SteveDave:

    True that. I work for a company that makes vitamins and such. Occasionally we have shots of the natural ingredients on our product labels and they definitely have to be authentic. On occasion it’s sent us on out of state searches looking for the exact authentic exotic fruit we need so we don’t get sued.

  27. meepmeep says:

    That herring salad is atrocious!

  28. @evenkevin: They will use subs when the food is something other than the ice cream. But if they are advertising ice cream, they probably get the scoop perfect, then freeze it like modenastradale suggested above, but they can’t use anything but the ice cream. They could also shoot it in a cold room, as the lights enclosures would keep them hot enough, and they’re too hot to get condensation.

    @ezacharyk: It wasn’t wood finish, I believe it was a liquid smoke type deal. They used a curtain steamer to steam the turkey slice. I think it was a show called “How’d They Do That?”, and one of the hosts was Pat O’Brein. Also, the ketchup was 4x strained and was pretty much a paste that they applied w/ a syringe to get it in the right spots.

    I watched a article on TV about this guy who “assembles” the bowls of cereal you see on the boxes or in ads. It takes him like 300 boxes to get the “perfect” pieces to make the bowl. I give him credit.

  29. Parapraxis says:

    With Mac’n’Cheese advertisements, the bowls are prepared by a chef, and finished with a butane torch to make the tops look hot and crispy.

    The children in the ads have to spit out their mouthfuls of food into buckets under the table after each take.

    Sometimes, if they have to drink something in the ad as well, they are told to spit it out, lest they get full off the liquid. One time, filming had to stop because one of the poor kids spat his food out, but drank the juice, and ended up having to go to the bathroom three or four times.

  30. What I wanna know is, who makes those realistic-looking plastic food on display at my local deli?

  31. humphrmi says:

    “It’s a non-osmotic, non-nutrient food varnish, is what it is”

    –Clark W. Griswald

  32. I-Like-Cheese says:

    @ceejeemcbeegee (just debatin’ not hatin’):

    Probably these people [www.fake-foods.com] I just saw this on Unwrapped.

  33. @ceejeemcbeegee (just debatin’ not hatin’): Director John Waters collects those. I believe he gets them from Japan or some Asian country. Very big market over there due to all the sushi bars and the such.

  34. @humphrmi: Don’t forget that report, Bill.

  35. zibby says:

    The real story here is that in Germany you can get shish-ka-bob in a can. And it doesn’t look half bad!

  36. @zibby: Or you can get cheeseburger in a can! [gizmodo.com]

  37. notallcompaniesareevil says:

    I don’t understand the difference between manipulating the photos of food to look good and manipulating the ingredients to not match what’s on the side. Both should be illegal. No?

  38. @notallcompaniesareevil: And they are. You must photograph the food that you are advertising. You are, however, allowed to “pretty it up”. It’s just like glamor shots. It’s the same girl, but she looks a whole lot different when you meet her vs. her w/make-up, controlled lighting, and the camera angles a “pro” uses to accentuate her positives.

  39. FLConsumer says:

    I call bullshit.. I’ve NEVER seen a McDonald’s burger appear even remotely like the pictures on the menus nor the pictures on that website.

  40. Goya says:

    Ok, as someone who actually works on a lot of food photography shoots, let me call a big ol’ bullshit on a lot of the things being said here. Glue for milk? Motor oil on meat? Thats the kinda crap stylist did back in the 70s and 80s, it doesn’t happen any more.

    Sure, when they make the cake for the shoot, they don’t bother adding the sugar and salt, so it doesn’t taste good, but its not toxic. The chicken in the photo may not be cooked all the way through, but I repeat, there is no motor oil on the chicken.

    A lot of the things you’ll see is food stylist adding a little beet juice to the side of a steak to make it look a little bloodier/juicier. And yes, mashed potatoes are a food stylist best friend, but not for ice cream, (seriously, who can’t tell mashed potatoes from ice cream?) its often used as a base to build up bigger bowls, etc of food. For instance, a stylist will put down a bed of mashed potatoes in a bowl, then build up the pasta on top of it.

    Git Em is right though, they will often go through dozens and dozens of boxes of the product to find just the right pieces to use. Don’t worry, the jobs I work on, the leftovers go to local soup kitchens.

  41. glater says:

    Whenever I see frozen food-like products I always remember this song.

    “Cat Food”, by King Crimson

    Lady Supermarket with an apple in her basket
    Knocks in the manager’s door;
    Grooning to the muzak from a speaker in shoe rack
    Lays out her goods on the floor;
    Everything she’s chosen is conveniently frozen.
    “Eat it and come back for more!”

    Lady Window Shopper with a new one in the hopper
    Whips up a chemical brew;
    Croaking to a neighbour while she polishes a sabre
    Knows how to flavour a stew.
    Never need to worry with a tin of ‘Hurri Curri’:
    “Poisoned especially for you!”

    No use to complain
    If you’re caught out in the rain;
    Your mother’s quite insane.
    Cat food cat food cat food again.

    Lady Yellow Stamper with a fillet in a hamper
    Dying to finish the course;
    Goodies for the table with a fable on the label
    Drowning in miracle sauce.
    Don’t think I am that rude if I tell you that it’s cat food,
    “Not even fit for a horse!”

  42. notallcompaniesareevil says:

    @Git Em SteveDave: The difference is that you don’t buy the person in the glamor shot (there’s a NY gov joke here somewhere). Whenever you read reviews of food, the appearance (especially in a nice restaurant) is one of the criteria. Therefore, it’s germane to the overall enjoyment of the food. For Quizno’s (the name that comes to mind) to show a decked out, bursting with meat sandwich with neatly folded slices of perfect looking meat, doesn’t that mean that is what they are selling? To throw out a lop-sided, flat, fat-filled-meat monstrosity, I think, is bordering on false advertising. And it’s systemic, not a one-time error.
    Anyway, I know not to expect perfect looking food, but I wonder if it’s all part of the massive problem we have with food in this country. If it’s fine food, it should look fine on the advertisement, and we should sit down and enjoy it. If it’s just fuel, we should recognize that; perhaps we’ll eat less of it as well.

  43. @notallcompaniesareevil: Well, I expect the meal prepared for me at Quiznos to never look as good as the ads. For one, the ads are done by professionals who take hours/days to assemble the “subject”, where as in Quiznos, they make the sandwich in about 2 minutes. But I never doubt what I see on the ads, however prettier it may be, is what is actually on the sandwich. Now, if a $200 a plate restaurant advertises a hamburger, then yes, I expect the burger will look like the pictures. I don’t expect the teens in the back of a McDonalds to spend 5 minutes dressing the hamburger before they serve it. I think false advertising is when they drag models out on screen, and they tell you that they look THAT good b/c they use this makeup.

  44. skategreen says:

    ewwwwww…. I feel sorry for the Germans. It appears that all they have to eat is Instant Packaged Puke.

    Whipped beets with creamed spam and grey noodles. *Yum.

  45. arachnophilia says:

    all photos are lies. or at least damned near all of them.