It’s happened to us all – we see a commercial, or scroll past a picture on social media, featuring a dish that makes our stomachs growl. Whether it’s a juicy burger topped with luscious melted cheese or a slice of rich chocolate cake so moist it almost glistens, chances are a lot of work went into making that food look as good as it does.
For restaurants and food manufacturers, there’s no better way to draw in customers than with visual imagery of what they serve. It’s the only thing, other than actually trying the food, that can give customers an idea of what these businesses have to offer, whether they’re seeing the images on Instagram or in an ad. And while casual food bloggers rely on things like natural lighting and camera angle, commercial food stylists stretch themselves a bit further. These are some of the tricks these pros use to make their food look good enough for us to buy.
Restaurants would never serve it to you this way, but during a photo shoot, many food stylists use slightly under-cooked food. When food is cooked it has a tendency to shrink. Chicken skin can pull taut from the meat, enormous cuts of steak shrivel as the fat renders out – you get the idea. Under-cooked foods just tend to look fuller and fresher, and color can be added to the under-cooked dish with a kitchen torch or via a quick trip under the broiler so that it looks fully cooked.
Food photos are often taken when the food is at room temperature, when it’s easier to deal with. Meats aren’t still oozing their juices, steam doesn’t fog up the camera lens – there are fewer variables to worry about. To compensate, room temperature food is often brushed with oil so it has that fresh-out-of-the-oven look. Raw veggies may be spritzed with water so they appear super fresh, and herbs or other garnishes are sprinkled on the room temperature food just before serving. Sometimes, especially on commercial shoots, food is even sprayed with WD-40 for an extra-shiny appearance. And corn syrup can be mixed into mashed potatoes, soups and sauces to give it extra body and sheen.
Food stylists want the food they’re photographing to look like it’s jumping off the screen (or page, depending on the medium). To do that, they create depth and dimension in the photo by stacking things.
In a restaurant or for a food blogger, this may mean arranging a slice of pork loin atop a mound of roasted vegetables. But for commercial shoots, things can get a little stranger. Cotton balls, sponges of different shapes and sizes – food is spooned, spread, and balanced on inedible props to get that extra height.
Other times, food ingredients are used to give the shots a vertical boost. Mashed potatoes are a perfect stacking agent – they’re light, moldable, and slightly sticky. Those abundantly full bowls of salad you often see in adverts are often made from just a few layers of lettuce and veggies stuck atop a mound of mash.
Tweezers, Q-tips, cosmetic sponges, even dental equipment – these tools help food stylists prop up and place ingredients so that the final shot looks good enough to eat.
Sometimes what you think you’re looking at is nowhere near the dish that it’s representing. Fluffy scoops of mashed potatoes (a food photography work horse, it turns out) double as ice cream, Elmer’s glue is subbed for milk to make creamy looking splashes or to keep cereal from getting soggy. These days food stylists are starting to edge away from using fake or replacement foods in their shoots for ethical (and legal) reasons, but it still happens.
Everything should look perfect in a great food photograph. Stylists are known to place individual sesame seeds on hamburger buns, create extra holes in Swiss cheese, brush the outside of a drinking glass with corn syrup and water to mimic condensation, or even to stuff one slice of pizza with extra cheese before baking it to get that ooey, gooey cheese pull that’s sure to sell a pie. This attention to detail is what makes the food photos you see in advertisements so irresistible.
Just because professional food stylists have the experience doesn’t mean that individuals or restaurants looking to up their photography game can’t take a page out of the pros’ book. Next time you’re trying to take the perfect food picture, keep these tips in mind and watch your dish come to life from behind the camera lens.
Justina Huddleston is a food writer living in Los Angeles. When she's not writing for Menuism or SheKnows, she spends her time in the kitchen creating both virtuous and decidedly junky vegan food. Buffalo chickpea pizza, anyone? She's also been known to eat a plain block of tofu or beans straight out of the can for lunch, but somehow those culinary adventures don't make it to her Instagram. You can follow Justina on Twitter or see what's cooking in her kitchen on her blog A Life of Little Pleasures.