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FOOD DRINK

The secrets of food photography

  • Photographers have a few tricks up their sleeves to make food look delicious and delectable.iStock

  • Shoe polish on meat gives it that just-seared look.iStock

  • Vaseline, when lightly applied to food, gives it a shiny finish, and makes water bead really well.

  • Hair spray on food gives it the appearance of having a little frost on it.iStock

Have you ever flipped through a magazine or browsed the web and salivated over the images of food: That glistening strawberry that looks so good you can practically smell its summery deliciousness; that sizzling steak that’s so juicy, you’d swear it was dribbling off the page; that action shot of a chef effortlessly doing a one-handed flip of veggies sautéing in a pan. 

Food photography (or food porn as it's deemed in this age of Food Network plate-ogling) can make you hungry with a mere glance.  But it’s not easy to get things looking so appetizing and alluring. It takes a ton of skill, timing, artistry, and even some house hold items you should never put in your mouth. 

“We have to make those tastes and smells turn on through a picture,” says professional food photographer Jon Davis. “We have to think how to visually stimulate the taste buds and nose through the eyes. We want your eyes to make your mouth water” How do they do it? Here’s a little snapshot: 

Shine On A shiny apple. A glistening leaf of lettuce. A juicy, fresh peach. While nature certainly has provided us with some beautiful edibles, the fact is they don’t always look like that in pictures. “Most veggies like tomatoes or peppers are ever so lightly covered with Vaseline and the just lightly wiped off. This gives it a great finish to get a beautiful highlight, and also makes water bead really well by just using a little spritz from a small spray bottle.” Another trick Davis uses? Flicking the bristles of a toothbrush across the Vaseline to give it a faux-fresh, water-beaded texture. 

Difficult Dishes How does a photographer make something unappetizing look irresistible? “I try to always work with a great food stylist. They are great resources for helping figure out what is the best way to deal with a particularly difficult food. One that I always find difficult is stews and boiled foods. They just don't seem to have the best texture and colors,” says Davis. “I deal with it by using lots of undercooked veggies, and meat that is just seared, and maybe colored with shoe polish or Marmite so it looks freshly charred on the outside. It’s also good to have extra ingredients on set to change things out.”

The Light Fantastic Perfect light doesn’t just happen; the pros employ a whole bag of tricks to illuminate the subject just right. “It's tricky and I love natural light, but most of the time in a restaurant it's just not enough. Or it's too harsh. Or it comes from three different kinds of sources, leaving part of your subject blue, part mauve, which is not very flattering. In a kitchen, it's almost always nonexistent,” says food writer and photographer Joe Ray.  “So, you bring a little toolbox. Diffusers will soften harsh light. Reflectors bounce it back at the subject so keep it from having too much contrast. Your own flash will put light right where you want it or fill in just a little bit where you need it. A tripod and a shutter release cable help keep the camera still and your shots crisply focused.”

Running Hot and Cold  How do make something look hot and sizzling when it’s not, or frosty-cold when it’s warm? First, the background makes a difference. For steam or smoke to appear on the page,  the subject (or in this case the food) must be lit from the back or side in order for the vapors to show up, offers Davis. You also need to use a darker background, because it becomes camouflage if the backdrop is white. Another trick he employs? Calcium turnings --which is an old special effect trick. “They’re poison! But when you add water to one, it will smoke. But you cannot eat the drink or food after that has been put on it.” A less dangerous method he employs: Modifying an old espresso machine steamer with a little extra hose to direct the steam where you need it. As for adding a chill, “Hair spray is a good one for giving things the appearance of a little frost on it.”

Getting in the Action Without Getting Burned Shooting in kitchens and restaurants can not only be tricky, it can be downright dangerous. How do you get in the action without getting in the way? “Restaurant kitchens are some of the trickiest possible settings to shoot in, but they're also pretty thrilling. Having worked in about a dozen kitchens helps a lot,” laughs Ray. “I look around and find nearby spots to keep my gear handy but out of the staff's way. You must always say, ‘Behind you!’ when you go behind someone, and I listen for it when I'm shooting, too -- you don't want to learn that one the hard way. You've definitely got to watch out for hot surfaces, open flames, and knives.” Still, says Ray, if you can err on the side of savvy caution, restaurant kitchens are filled with oddball details that make for great photographic moments. “There's usually some fun detail to capture: a tray full of beautiful meringues waiting to be part of a bigger dessert, an incredibly old and still functioning telephone, a "Do Not Touch" sign in the walk-in with a hand-drawn skull and crossbones.”