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.