Secret recipes

Peek under the lid of some delicious food photography

By Stan Sholik
Images By Stan Sholik
First Published in June 2006

Photographers specializing in food are likely to have a professional kitchen and an array of props and tools, but most professionals can execute an appetizing food photograph with equipment in their studios.

Food has always been an important subject for photographers. Among the earliest photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot is an 1842 shot of a basket heaped high with fruit. But it wasn’t until the advent of color capture that food photography was taken beyond the realm of fine art into commercial illustration. Now specialized food photographers all over the world are, with arrays of helpers, creating mouth-watering images for magazines, newspapers and advertisements.

Photographers who specialize in food are likely to have a professional kitchen and an array of props and tools at their disposal, but most professional photographers can execute an appetizing food photograph with the equipment already in their studios. One diffused light source, a few fill cards and mirrors, and a professional camera can suffice.

Even the food-prep tools can be bare bones. I’ve heard tell of a photographer who had a hotplate rather than a stove, an ice chest rather than a refrigerator, a Styrofoam chest of dry ice rather than a freezer, whose client loved the photos. Successful food photography boils down to the two most important elements: a knowledgeable person to prepare the food and a knowledgeable photographer to shoot it.

You might pride yourself on being a good cook, but food photography isn’t about preparing food for consumption, it’s about preparing it to look perfect—same recipe, different approach. This is your big hurdle when you’re shooting food for a restaurant or hotel. The resident chef prepares food to be eaten, but what you need is a home economist or food stylist to prepare the food to be photographed.

Stylists, like photographers, can be generalists or specialists. For years I worked with a home economist who styled only ice cream. She was the best in Los Angeles and in constant demand. She could scoop out perfect bowls nearly every time, and she knew exactly how to create the ruffles around the scoop in an ice cream cone.

Similarly, I have a specialist in Mexican food preparation, who for years has been the principal stylist for Taco Bell. Home economists prefer to work out of fully equipped, spacious food studios, but they’ll work their magic with whatever’s available. This stylist worked out of a motor home with hot plates and Coleman stoves for the “Run for the Border” campaign a few years ago.

Preparing food for photography is like making magic. There are tricks to it, like making grill marks on steak with a red-hot rod that’s been heated over the stove, or turning shortening and flour into “ice cream” that won’t melt under the lights, or making a coffee or tea stand-in look dark and rich with brown gravy color additive, or soaking mushrooms in bleach to make them white, or my favorite, getting that beautiful brown glaze on the skin of baked turkey by basting it with brown gravy coloring mixed with liquid soap, then cooking the bird just long enough for the skin to look perfect. You would definitely not want to eat these foods.

There are also a few tricks to make your photos look real. For example, combining certain chemicals to make smoke, or creating bubbles around the rim in a “freshly poured” cup of coffee with floating plastic bubbles or a dash of dishwashing soap, lightly beaten with a small whisk. And it’s always handy to have at least half a dozen plastic ice cubes available for “cold” drinks.

Cooked vegetables are lightly steamed to bring out the color, then cooled and immersed in ice water, carefully arranged on a plate, then coated with cooking oil to make them look hot and appetizing. Hot drinks are rarely hot and cold drinks are never cold. Condensation on the glass holding a “cold” drink is carefully applied with a brush dipped in glycerin.

As you can see, little of the food you photograph will be what it looks like in the final image. All of this magic and all of these tricks are designed to give the photographer time to capture an image that represents the ideal vision of the food.

With all of the effort it takes the stylist to prepare the “hero” for the photograph, the photographer needs to be prepared to shoot as soon as the food is ready. That means preparing a stand-in exactly like the one he’ll shoot. The home economist will fashion the stand-in from the worst looking items on hand, saving the best for the actual shoot. You’ll need as least twice as much of every item that will appear in the final photograph. If the budget permits, procure four to five times as much for the best chance of finding the perfect hero. The props gathered by the prop stylist, the client or the photographer are added once the stand-in is on the set.

Some food photography studios are famous for having enormous collections of china, glasses, silverware and props, gathered over the years, which lands them assignments. But with the high cost of studio space these days, props are gathered for particular shoots and then returned. The advantage of using a prop stylist is that the he or she knows where to borrow props and will pick them up and return them. Over the years, I’ve found many stores will loan, rent or let me buy and return props, so this is certainly and option worth trying.

When the set is dressed, it’s time for the photographer to light it. The goal is to make the food look as three-dimensional as possible. In commercial food photography, the lighting is typically above and to the rear of the set, with softer fill in front. The 3-D look cannot be accomplished with on-camera flash, two lights at 45-degree angles, or practically any kind of main light from the front.

For maximum contrast and color saturation, the light source should be roughly the same size as the subject. So for a single plate, a small soft box on a boom and reflector cards for fill work fine. Larger sources that soften the light might be necessary if the subject is shiny, while smaller sources, including mirrors, will highlight the texture in non-shiny foods such as stuffing.

Electronic flash is the most widely used light source, but continuous light sources, including quartz lights, mercury-halide discharge and the latest color-balanced fluorescents, are also used. For many foods, keeping the heat down on set will keep the food fresh longer.

Large sets require more complex lighting of course, with heads and grid spots replacing mirrors, and bare bulbs behind glassless “windows” to simulate daylight streaming in. After setting up the basics, there’s no limit to what the photographer can do with lighting, but it all has to be done before the hero food arrives on set.

Once the hero is in place and the first test shot is captured, the stylist, the client and the photographer will evaluate it, make changes, and keep the food looking alive until everyone is satisfied. The final images are made, and the result of hours of food preparation meet their destiny—the trashcan. n

Federal regulations
Prior to the 1950s, photographers and home economists played fast and loose in creating food photographs. Campbell Soup Co., for example, had marbles placed in the bottom of soup bowls to raise the solid ingredients above the liquid, making the soup look heartier. Then the federal government stepped into the picture.

The result is a set of regulations that generally say that the food item(s) in the photograph must be the actual items the consumer buys, and that they must appear in the quantity, size and manner that the consumer will experience if they are prepared according to the maker’s instructions. That’s why soup advertising now pictures the solid ingredients and a little broth in the bowl of a spoon suspended over a dish, rather than soup in a bowl.

If you’re photographing a pie to go on packaging, you must use the actual pie or a slice of it. If it’s topped by a scoop of second-party ice cream, the ice cream doesn’t have to be real. Likewise with other props in the shot, such as coffee or milk, but if anything other than the actual pie is pictured, the words “serving suggestion” must appear near it on the package. The consumer must not be misled to believe that the package contains anything but the pie.

Now, the pie itself can be prepared by a home economist, and it need not come off the production line. But the stylist must use the same dough as the manufacturer and the same amount of filling.

These same regulations also apply to photos on menu boards at fast food restaurants. If you’ve noticed the disparity between the items pictured and the food you are served, you can see how much fudging can be done while complying with the letter of the law.

Stan Sholik has been a commercial photographer in Santa Ana, Calif., for more than 30 years. His clients have included Jenny Craig, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr., the California Avocado Commission and Thrifty Ice Cream. His Web site is

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