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Food that looks good enough to eat

But, sometimes you can't eat it.


Food styling, back-lighting and fresh foods are only some of the ingredients that went into this Jambalaya picture.
Food styling, back-lighting and fresh foods are only some of the ingredients that went into this Jambalaya picture.

Have you ever wondered how food can look so juicy and succulent in some photographs, yet when you try to get the same effect with your own photography, the dish looks dry and unappetizing?

Several tricks of the trade were employed in making the appetizing-looking photographs shown here for Tilly’s Galley, whose Cajun Jambalaya Mix (left) is just one of their many fine food products.

WHAT KINDS OF TRICKS OF THE TRADE?

Well, the chicken used in making the studio jambalaya is actually inedible since it was undercooked to retain its plumpness and juiciness for the camera. Food coloring was used to give it a browned, properly-cooked appearance. A light coating of glycerin was applied to the meats and seafoods so they would have an attractive sheen. Although the composition appears to have been almost thrown together, it is actually the result of careful design by Manuel "Manny" Medeiros, a master chef experienced in food styling for photography.


He and an assistant from Manny's first-rate Blue Heron Inn Restaurant spent several hours in the planning, preparation and set up of the photograph above, with a fine eye for detail, such as where different colors should be placed in reference to the camera angle, and ensuring that the viewer’s eye would be drawn towards the product package while making the food look appetizing.

The photograph on the right promoting Tilly’s Thai Fried Rice Mix seems to break the adage “Red and green you should never see except upon a Christmas tree.” A thin coating of glycerine on the seafood makes it seem juicy.

The black background in the picture below ensures that the red and yellow colors of the dish jump out. The composition is balanced by similarly-colored flowers just slightly out-of-focus in the background.

Red and green are usually ill-advised colors unless it's Christmas, but they work well in this image of Tilly's Galley's Thai Fried Rice.
Red and green are usually ill-advised colors unless it's Christmas, but they work well in this image of Tilly's Galley's Thai Fried Rice.

Careful composition on a black background is the key to this picture.
Careful composition on a black background is the key to this picture.

The arrangement of elements plays an important role in this image. The model’s hand in the picture on the left psychologically blocks the viewer’s eye from going to the flowers, with the fingers leading it instead back to the center of interest - the dish of food itself.

In the beer bread image (below), the lively look of the beer and its frothy head come from a liberal dose of table salt and a quick swirl of the beer using a fork a second before making the exposure. It was done deftly to avoid spilling any drops in the setting. A light aimed to strike the bread through the beer provides the bread with warm coloration.


FOOD IN PICTURES MAY NOT BE FOOD AT ALL

Photography of food can be full of substitutes.

  • That delicious-looking dish of ice cream may actually be made from a scoop of mashed potatoes tinted with food coloring.
  • Carefully-formed shortening is another substitute for ice cream.
  • Real ice cream can be hardened to withstand the heat in a studio by super-freezing it using dry ice.
  • The rich-looking syrup being poured over flapjacks might be motor oil.
  • Rosewater may be used to provide a sheen to fruits, like cherries and apples.
  • All-purpose white glue is often used in place of milk or cream, and for cake decorations.
  • Meat can be blow-torched, stained using furniture stain, only partially-cooked, sprayed with a glycerin/water solution, and colored with food coloring to look more juicy and succulent.
  • Sliced brown bread may be lightly toasted to stand straight without falling over, and to look warmer and more inviting.
  • The bubbles in a wine glass are likely floating glass beads.
  • The ice in a beverage is probably acrylic in order to better refract light.
Acrylic "ice" also has the advantage over real ice in that it does not turn to water like ice does when it's out of the freezer for a while.

A little salt and a little swirl give the beer in this beer bread mix image a lively look.
A little salt and a little swirl give the beer in this beer bread mix image a lively look.

Acrylic
Acrylic "ice" cubes do not need to be stored in a freezer, but can be kept in a drawer.

NOT EVERY PHOTOGRAPHER USES SUBSTITUTES

Food photography is a specialized field. So specialized, in fact, that photographers often employ a food stylist to design and prepare food to be photographed and a prop stylist to prepare the setting.

When using substitutes, a food stylist is attempting to make the food or beverage look more convincing and appetizing in collaboration with the photographer. Not all stylists or photographers employ food substitutes in their photography. Indeed, some just flat out won't, preferring instead the challenge of taking appetizing pictures of food prepared in the normal way. Some might say they are purists; others may feel, tongue in cheek,that they are simply hungry.


As for those stylists and photographers who do use food substitutes, they are not setting out with the intention to specifically deceive the viewer. They are being practical. Food substitutes can be more easily controlled and will withstand the warmth of a studio setting. And many substitutes simply look much better than real food when photographed.

Many foods are intrinsically difficult to work with, and some just do not photograph well. Ice cream, for example, loses its fresh-scooped look within seconds of being placed under studio lights. Coffee is one product that rarely photographs appetizingly, so other brown or black beverages, such as cola without bubbles, are frequently substituted for it.

Acrylic ice is available at different levels of quality and various prices.
Acrylic ice is available at different levels of quality and various prices.
Further information...

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