An Insider's Look At Food Photography
"If You Can Shoot Food, You Can Shoot Anything!"

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.

Roasted chicken 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 water droplets.

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.

Coconut 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 it glossy.

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!

Grilled salmon served with papaya salsa on a bed of green beans. Photographed for the cookbook "Bite This!" by Isabel Cruz.

Fake Food
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.