When it looks too good to eat

Croissant

Crack open any cookbook or visit any major cooking blog (and even many minor ones) and you will see page after page of gorgeous food photos. The pictures make you hungry at a glance: each arugula leaf is expertly arranged, each seed in a berry is exquisitely highlighted, and vegetables shimmer ethereally. But, like photos of supermodels, some food photos are not true to life. 

That glistening tomato? It's covered in petroleum jelly and spritzed from a small spray bottle, coated with glycerin, or even rubbed with deodorant. The steam rising lazily from a steak? That's the result of water dripped onto calcium turnings creating a vapor (and rendering the steak completely inedible). Or perhaps the smoke is from a stick of incense hidden behind the food.

Food stylist Brian Preston-Campbell shares his secrets to building the perfect burger photo (undercooked meat, caramel coloring, and denture adhesive, among other tricks). In the same article, Deborah Mintcheff recalls preparing a bowl of cereal using vegetable shortening and lotion in lieu of milk, which would make the flakes soggy.

But even though advertising food photos still aim for absolute perfection, the trend in magazines and online is moving toward messy pictures: crumbs, pools of sauce, bites taken out of sandwiches. Instead of flawlessness, the goal is for food to look good but be approachable. Food stylist Victoria Granof, whose work has appeared in Bon Appetit and other top magazines, summed it up this way: "I make beautiful messes."

Whether you want your photos to be picture perfect, or perfectly messy, photograhper Kent DuFault provides tips for the aspiring shutterbug that don't involve deoderant or denture adhesive. His photo of the pastry above was taken in a crowded coffee shop. Kent advises that backlighting plays an important role, because it "accentuates the texture of the food and highlights important details." You don't need a fancy flash: the backlighting can come from a window off to the side and judicious use of mirrors and white cards. DuFault also suggests slightly overexposing food photos, because underexposure "makes food appear drab and lifeless."

Do you take photos of your food? If so, do you have any food photography secrets?

Photo courtesy Kent DuFault

3 Comments

  • wester  on  3/28/2014 at 3:11 PM

    I used to photograph a lot of food, usually macros of single ingredients. Check my pepper https://www.flickr.com/photos/wester/25218578/ lemon&lime https://www.flickr.com/photos/wester/307793009/ and cherry https://www.flickr.com/photos/wester/27980273/. But nowadays I hardly find the time to photograph (and select and edit the photographs). And if I do take a photo, it's of my daughter baking popovers https://www.flickr.com/photos/wester/4636642846/ or of the snozzcumbers we had for dinner ;-) https://www.flickr.com/photos/wester/7851826178/

  • Rinshin  on  3/28/2014 at 4:54 PM

    I take many photos of food I make and sometimes when visiting other countries. It's a great way for me to remember what I made. Mine are mostly posted in facebook to share with people. I also like to add photos when reviewing foods for other sites. However, I do not like the idea of embellishing photos with stuff that is not part of food. Now, I will never look at pros' photos the same way again.

  • Queezle_Sister  on  3/30/2014 at 10:42 PM

    Like Wester, I went through a phase of photographing my food. My best tricks were good natural light, remembering to not have a bunch of junk in the background, and using a camera setting for a shallow depth of field. Lately, my photos are of my on-going kitchen remodel (and there is precious little cooking going on....).

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