The Best Kept Secrets of Food Photography

Why is it easier to take an impressive photo of food rather than anything else? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Archie D'Cruz, Editor, Designer, Writer, on Quora.

There's really two questions here, and I'll address both.

First off, there's a difference between taking an impressive photo and a photo of an impressive subject. Much like with a beautiful woman or a breathtaking landscape, sometimes well-plated food lends itself to a photograph that looks good, but this has little or nothing to do with design rules.

It does not necessarily mean the photograph itself is impressive; rather, the subject is. The challenge with food - or any type of photography really - is how do you create something that draws the eye when the beauty is not all that apparent? That is where the skill of the photographer comes to the fore. If you see a food photo that scores well on both the subject and the quality of the image, chances are the photographer already has a sense of what works.

The second question (listed in the details) is more interesting to me. Why do stock photos of food look so good?

For several years, I worked at an advertising agency that had an attached photo studio. A couple of our clients (both national brands) occasionally needed food images to be taken, and it was fascinating watching the stylist set up a shot.

You'd be surprised to learn about some of the tools and techniques used to make those ice-cream cakes, perfectly browned chicken and oh-so-dreamy cannolis look so mouth-watering...in fact most of the food used in those images would have to be trashed right after the session.

Why? Because food photographers sometimes use ingredients you wouldn't really want to be consuming. Like WD40. Shampoo. Hairspray. Glue. Marbles. Soap. Incense sticks. Cardboard. Shoe polish.

Take this shot of a seemingly moist, juicy, just-out-of-the-oven turkey, for example.

Would your appetite still hold up if you knew the bird was mostly raw inside and had been stuffed with wet paper towels (so it would steam), and brushed with dish soap? [1]Some photographers might also use shoe polish or wood stain to get the effect they want.

Or how about this soup with a consistency so thick and even that the asparagus floats perfectly on top?

Turns out the photographer had to use a little bit of help.
There's something very appealing about this photograph of strawberries in a basket.

Chances are, though, there has been lipstick used to ensure there are no white spots on any of the fruit.

There's plenty of trickery likely to have been used in this one from a stock photo website... That ice? Plastic. The frosting on the glass? Deodorant or hair spray. The fizz inside? An antacid tablet dropped in. The wooden table? A vinyl sheet with a table-top print.

The good thing about food photography is that it really is pretty accessible to non-professionals. Food is something you consume every day (so no shortage of subjects), it doesn't require travel, and it doesn't require people to sign model releases.

You can make do with accessories you have at home (plates, silverware, napkins); all you need is an appetizing-looking dish and access to good, natural light.

If you do want to step it up a notch and pick up some accessories, some of these might help:

  • A light tent kit. The one pictured here goes for around $100, but I have seen smaller ones for as little as $30. Or pick up a couple of pieces of inexpensive white foam board and use it near a window to add reflected light for more interest.
  • Table-top backdrops. Around $20 for vinyl backdrop sheets, or look around and find some real wood for free in your neighbourhood.

Finally, some resources you might find useful:

Footnotes

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