All Photos © 2004, Dennis Davis, All Rights Reserved
Food photography is considered one of the most difficult specialties for professional
photographers. There is a saying in the industry, "If you can shoot food,
you can shoot anything." The primary reason for this difficulty is how
little time you have to shoot before the food looks like garbage. Within 1-3
minutes after putting a beautiful plate on a table to shoot, whip cream runs,
wet food dries, fried food becomes greasy, ice cream melts, and steaming food
doesn't. Sometimes you only have time to get off 2-3 shots before the
food is no longer at its photographic best.
Two tacos shown with salsa and guacamole photographed on stone.
Food styling by Chris Oliver, known for styling food in movies
such as "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Nutty Professor
II," "Spiderman," and "The Rock."
So how do you achieve perfect composition and lighting with food that only
looks good for a few moments? You use a stand-in. Set up all the real props
on the table that are stable, such as napkins, glasses, silverware, flowers,
etc. Then put in a substitute for the real food that looks as much like it as
practical. If possible, place the stand-in food on the same color and style
plate or bowl as the "hero," or real food item. This way you can
finalize your lighting, place your reflectors, and check your exposure. If you
are shooting digital or have a Polaroid back you can look at test images with
the stand-in, and make adjustments to the arrangement and lighting then get
approval from your client. When everything is perfect, bring in the hero dish
and place it exactly where the stand-in dish was and shoot.
Food Styling Tips
My larger food clients always have a budget for a professional food stylist,
and I have learned a lot from these food artists over the years. The food stylist
creates the "hero" plate and often helps arrange props on the table,
so that I can concentrate on my photography. However, many cookbook, magazine,
and smaller corporate clients do not have the budget for a stylist, and so the
photographer's skills are called upon.
with sweet and Irish potatoes placed in front of a restaurant's
wood-fired roaster. Photographed with 250w tungsten modeling lights
on Photogenic strobes with softboxes. Exposure was 1/2 sec at
f/11 to capture flame with a Fujifilm FinePix S2 Pro digital camera
and a Nikon 28-85mm zoom lens.
One thing I always take to a food shoot is a bottle of glycerin and several
sizes of artist's paintbrushes. Glycerin can be purchased from larger
pharmacies. Food dries out quickly sitting on a table under 500-1000w of modeling
lights, and the glycerin makes it look wet, shiny, and fresh. I use glycerin
on meat, fish, fresh and cooked cut fruit, and cooked vegetables--almost
anything that should look wet and have lots of highlights. I have also seen
stylists use vegetable oil or corn syrup for the same purpose, but neither of
them last as long. Glycerin mixed with water and put in a spray bottle is also
good for salads, salsas, and other large areas where you would like long-lasting
Steam makes food look hot and appetizing, and can be created in a variety of
ways. Cotton balls soaked in water and microwaved will give you up to one minute
of steam. Dry ice placed behind the food item works well, but gives off more
vapors if you place the dry ice in water. A cigarette or piece of incense is
another option, but you must blow on the smoke to make it look like steam, and
not smoke. Some photographers have an assistant blow cigarette smoke through
a straw placed behind the food. Movie prop and special effects supply houses
sell smoke pellets that some food stylists use, but once again you must blow
on it so that it is not so strongly directional. I have used all of these options,
but have found dry ice and smoke pellets the most useful.
French Toast, signature dish at the Cantina Panaderia restaurant
in San Diego. The tattooed arms belong to a regular customer of
the restaurant. Glycerin was painted on the fresh fruit to make
A small propane blowtorch can be used for quickly melting butter on waffles,
creating grill marks on meat, or reheating a skillet or wok without returning
it to the stove. I once requested a turkey prepared for a photo shoot and the
food stylist painted the turkey with kitchen bouquet--a brown gravy base
sold in grocery stores--and brown shoe polish, then browned the legs with
a blowtorch, and varnished it. It was photographed raw, but looked beautifully
cooked and glossy, ready for Thanksgiving dinner!
salmon served with papaya salsa on a bed of green beans. Photographed
for the cookbook "Bite This!" by Isabel Cruz.
There is a law in the U.S.A. regarding truth in advertising. It requires that
advertisements about food show the actual food item that a consumer would be
able to buy and eat. However, the food surrounding the item being advertised
can be artificial, and food used to illustrate cookbooks or magazine articles
can be bogus as well. It is often easier to work with imitation food than with
the real thing.
For example, ice cream base is often made with mashed potatoes, or with Crisco
and powdered sugar. Fruit pieces, chocolate chips, and food coloring are added
to make various flavors. Cereal can be photographed with white glue instead
of milk, because the cereal does not get soggy quickly and the flakes stay where
they are placed. Whipped cream might have thickener added, pies have glue holding
them together, and vegetables that appear to be cooked are raw and touched with
a blowtorch and coated with glycerin to make them appear cooked.
Diablo chicken was backlit and painted with glycerin to create
shiny highlights. Photographed for the cookbook "Bite This!"
by Isabel Cruz.