Why Doesn't My Food Look Like That?

If you've ever seen any food commercial for something like the burger above, any cookbook, or any other advertisement for food, you've no doubt wondered at some point why either what you got from the store or fast food restaurant doesn't look like what's pictured, or why what you've cooked never seems to look like the photo next to the recipe. The good news is you're not crazy and it's probably not because you aren't trying hard enough to get your recipe to turn out right, but the bad news is, more often than not, it is literally impossible to get your food to look like what is pictured because, well, most of what's pictured ISN'T EVEN FOOD AT ALL!

Food photographers have one job, and that is to make the food you see in ads look absolutely perfect and entice you to buy the products or eat at a chef's restaurants. The truth of the matter is, they must work with products that melt easily, sweat, burn, deflate, and otherwise lose their luster often under the heat of the sun through an open window, or bright bright studio lights that don't help food look or stay it's freshest and most presentable. So in order to maintain the look of the food, a chef will prepare a dish fresh and a picture will be taken. From there, the photographer will then use his or her tricks of the trade to help re-create the look of the dish often employing inedible ingredients.

1. That's Not Milk With Your Cereal

In order to get the classic shots of perky looking flakes and clusters of cereal on your cereal boxes, a food photographer will go through a box of cereal and select only the perfect bites of cereal with no cracks, or broken pieces. Then they will take a standard bowl, place something inside like another bowl, to help perk up the cereal on a platform of sorts, and then pour glue in to act as the milk. Why glue? Glue is white like milk, and under bright studio lights, it will maintain more easily than actual milk and the bowl will not sweat with temperature changes. Then all they have to do is use their tweezers to artfully place the cereal, literally sticking it into place. The same method is employed when you're looking at the spoon shot....more glue...more perfect flakes.

2. Would you like some oil with your pancakes?

Yup, that delicious drizzle of syrup over a stack of pancakes is not syrup at all. Syrup is really runny, and the color can often be too muted to really show up well in photos, so motor oil is often a good substitute. First a stack or real pancakes is created. Each layer is slightly propped up with some sort of paper product and or toothpicks to make each pancake hold it's shape and not sag down into each other. Then the pancakes are sprayed with hair spray so that the "syrup" and "butter" will stick. For butter, which would melt too quickly under lights, yellow candies like Starbursts are rolled out into shape and then placed on top. Yum!

3. You scream, I scream, we all scream...for potatoes?

Once again, this is an issue with bright lights and melting food. There are two real ways food photographers photograph ice cream. One is to take a can of cupcake frosting and freeze it solid. It rolls out nicely and has that same texture of ice cream, but doesn't melt as much because of the high butter content. The second, is to use mashed potatoes which also have the same textured look as real ice cream. All they do to both is add food coloring, and nuts and sprinkles and such to make the product mimic the real thing. If you want some "ice cream" to drip down a cup or cone, you guessed it, more glue is used.

4. Meat is never cooked

Don't let that turkey or steak on the cover of Food Magazine fool you. That bird is raw AF! Food photographers just about never employ cooked meat. Skin starts to shrivel up after a while, turns colors, settles, sweats under lights, you name it. Any time you see meat, know that it is raw and either frozen or completely at room temperature. To maintain the shape of the bird or meat, it is usually stuffed with anything that can be used to keep it looking plump. Next it is sprayed or basted with any number of things in the brown family like soy sauce, hoisin, or shoe polish. To create steam it is stuffed with heated moist cotton balls or alternatively they use this rod that they will place behind the bird/meat, that let's off steam as it heats to give the illusion it's coming from the meat itself. Those nice grill marks, eh-eh, still on raw meat. They use something akin to a curling iron to just sear the spots they'd like.


5. Even the water is fake

Again with those bright lights...ice melts, other cold liquids will sweat, so fake plastic ice cubes are employed. They have a range too from solid cubes to the slushy kind of ice. They just plop these into a glass of room temp drink, and it looks so cold and refreshing. Add to that some shiny shiny glycerin to give the illusion of beads of water on the glass and/or dulling spray can be used for creating the illusion of condensation. You can see below that these apparent ice cold glasses aren't sweating or leaving rings on the table below at all.

6. Fruit Paint

The best fruit is selected of course to star in food photography shots, but even the best, sometimes aren't really the best. FP's will take nail polish or other similar paint and cover any white spots, scars, scratches in the fruit so it looks perfect. To get that glistening look, they will spray fruit with glycerin spray because water would simply just slip off the fruit and dry under bright lights. If you see fruit on cake or other food, it's usually tooth picked into place.

7. Let them eat cardboard!

If you see a full cake in an advertisement, 95% of the time, it's nothing but Styrofoam or cardboard that has been covered with frosting, fondant, other decorations and the rest is your imagination. To get the perfectly perky slice of cake, they do employ real cake, but rather than let the cake naturally settle as cakes tend to do, again, cardboard or other stiff material is used to create layers where frosting is used to cover up the cardboard. The cake is often frozen as well, so that it will maintain it's stiff shape.

8. Your Juicy Hamburger

Now, back to that burger and why your burger never looks as advertised. The link below is possibly the longest and most complicated explanation of how that simple looking image of the perfect burger is obtained and why your burger will never look like the one you see in an ad.

http://www.graphics.com/article-old/food-styling-photographers-hamburger


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BeeNee is a GirlsAskGuys Editor
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What Guys Said 17

  • 2mo

    My food doesn't look like that either 😛

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  • 2mo

    Anybody ever see the moving "Falling Down" with Michael Douglas?

    There's a part where he gets a burger at some fast food place and freaks out when he sees it, and compares it to the glossy picture on the menu board. :P

    This has been a big problem for years and has led to millions of ill-informed people believing that food should look artificial. Real flavors don't have fluorescent freakin' colors; i. e., soda shouldn't have any color at all, and neither should candy just because it's flavored a certain way. That's all cancer-causing crap like Red 1, Blue 40, etc. The sheer amount of it we ingest is just insane and it's absolutely everywhere. As far as I'm concerned, all artificial food coloring should be outlawed; it serves no purpose and is only harmful.

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    • 1mo

      I liked the part where he went to get the can of coke at the convenience store.
      I don't remember the scene where he gets the burger.

  • 1mo

    Thanks, very informative.

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  • 1mo

    Well can't I just eat the nail polished, glycerine sprayed fruit?

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  • 1mo

    This is worst than when I found out Santa wasn't real :-( I actually thought food like that existed, my heart is broken :'(

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  • 1mo

    Nice take!
    Just to add the plants you see/buy in a nursery are also sprayed with a food coloring to give them a shiny glow & color.

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  • 1mo

    Not surprised. It's always about marketing and first impressions. Make the "product" look the best it possibly could and as appealing as possible and the consumer would buy into what they are advertising and trying to sell you. You're right about them being nothing but a bunch of illusions such as photos and pictures on the box, in magazines, or on tv, etc.

    But if you are able to prove that they had misrepresented how the actual food should look like then can't you say that they had been using false advertising methods? Or false advertisement technques?

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  • 1mo

    Haha nice one. That's horrible

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  • 1mo

    Well done. This is very interesting.

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  • 1mo

    No idea, you just have great taste.

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  • 1mo

    Very interesting, great Take :D

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  • 1mo

    Wow, I'm glad, that my food doesn't look like that then, if you get what I mean :P

    Amazing take! Thanks a lot! Very informational and good to know!

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    • 1mo

      Ha! Yes, be glad you have the real syrup and milk there and ice cream that actually melts.

  • 1mo

    I'm always astounded when people bitch about their food not looking like a 100k+ commercial for it.

    Good take though.

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    • 1mo

      yes, it's definitely a good kind of impossible to achieve

  • 1mo

    Wow. Mary and Joseph on a tandem trike.

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  • 2mo

    I suspected there was some chicanery but it is good to know some of the tricks.

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  • 2mo

    Everything I know is a lie 😭

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What Girls Said 17

  • 1mo

    Nice take. I learned about the perfect burger pic a few years back, still baffled me that they put so much effort into it.
    Kinda reminds me of the fake food they have on display at some restaurants in Japan.
    upload.wikimedia.org/.../Food_samples_1.jpg

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    • 1mo

      Thanks! My Mom used to work in Health and she would often have to do fake food demonstrations, and I would love looking at the stuff because it was incredibly realistic. You would have to be thisclose to tell the difference.

  • 1mo

    I already knew all of this.

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  • 2mo

    Damn!
    Great mytake! Interesting. =)

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  • 2mo

    This was really interesting. :)

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  • 1mo

    Wonderfully Done, @BeeNee.
    I used to be the Chef of the Century, Could Cook anything under the Sun, hun.
    Although Everything was Tasty and Delicious as all Hell, I always would Admire the beautiful Magazines that Provided... "Lights, Camera And... Action" on the Food at Hand where it would Stand.
    Good luck and Great going. xx

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    • 1mo

      lol What I notice Most is on TV on the Cooking shows or they are a Guest on Someone's Show, Making it Look so Easy to Prepare. xx

    • 1mo

      Thanks. Well at least on tv, I think people kind of know things are edited for time because most segments on news are much too short, and those on tv are about an hour long and a lot of dishes take longer. I guess you can call food magazines and recipe books, fantasy fiction!

    • 1mo

      lol But Finger licking. xxoo

  • 2d

    yGood post

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  • 1mo

    Very informative and well written.

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  • 1mo

    Are these methods used in the cooking shows and segments where they show the beginning preparation and then pull the finished product out of the oven?

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    • 1mo

      Not usually. Television shows, especially abbreviated news segments simply don't have time to properly cook an entire meal given the a lotted time. Usually shows employ a whole host of people behind the scenes that have pre-chopped and cooked everything, except what is currently being shown, and then in between commercials or during the segment the finished products come out.

    • 1mo

      Ok, good to know, thanks. This was a really good Take as well.

    • 1mo

      Thank you :)

  • 1mo

    Your takes are always interesting to read 👍

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    • 1mo

      Thank you. What a nice thing to say. Appreciate that.

  • 1mo

    Everything I've ever known is a lie! :( I'll never see food commercials the same way again..

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  • 1mo

    Very interesting. Thanks for this!

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  • 1mo

    I found this really interesting. I am a photographer so this was an eye opener! I've never done food but not sure I want to!

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    • 1mo

      Thanks. Well, if you are still interested, there are food stylists who do do all of the above, and those that strictly take the photos of said food or some combo of both. So if you just want to take the food shots, you can do that. It's also not to say that you have to use these methods. Most shots you see on pinterest or instagram are really people shooting real edible food stuffs.

    • 1mo

      I run a company that does photography among other things, and one of the things i want to do is product photography. For me, it would be more about making a meal look good on a plate but not unrealistic.

    • 1mo

      The best advice I can give you would be to set your lighting up first, natural or artificial, using a stand-in for the food. Take a few shots, and when you think the lighting works, get ready to shoot fast and hard when you ditch the fake, for the real food. It's the only way to get a decent photo of realistic food that doesn't look like it's wilting to death, especially really hot or really cold food.

  • 1mo

    Very interesting. And you weren't kidding on the info regarding the perfect burger photo. My eyes glazed over in the bun section.
    Thanks for sharing.

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    • 1mo

      I've seen it done, but I thought I'd read about it, and yeah, that explanation is what I feel is required for someone learning how to do open heart surgery, not snap a photo for a magazine.

  • 1mo

    https://youtu.be/xO1oEaN03lc

    This guy make a fake sample cabbage and Tempura. It looks realistic more than a real one. :P

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  • 1mo

    You eat with your eyes first. Marketing will do whatever it takes to get you to buy their food.

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  • 2mo

    Dude, the lies. All the times I've marveled over Bon Appetite pictures :'3

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    • 1mo

      You and me both! I remember cooking my first ever chicken years ago from a recipe in a food magazine and it was browned, but I kept looking at the picture, and their brown was like a crisper brown and so I let mine go on in the oven, and it ended up really really dried up. Come to find out, that's just shoe polish on a frozen bird.

    • 1mo

      They owe you a chicken!

  • 2mo

    that's really interesting lol. "tv hacks" eh? lol

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