Some of the secrets behind great-looking food

By Sara Rider   |   February 19, 2016

Little-known challenges of advertising

It can be hard to make a turkey look good.  Or a roast chicken.  And getting the maple syrup to drip off the edge of the pancake just so—that can also be a challenge. Creating great-looking food requires more than being a good cook.

Advertising is a profession with hidden careers—and food stylist is one of perhaps the least known ways of making a living within the estimated $189 billion U.S. 2015 advertising industry.

But if you’re a food stylist, you deal with the vagaries of cheese, fruit, bread, and cakes whenever it’s time to take that perfect photo of whatever your client is promoting.  Whether it’s a restaurant, a supermarket, a national organization that promotes a particular food, or a cooking magazine, the food has to look appetizing, fresh, and irresistible.

Don’t try this at home

A food stylist often begins work as a chef—or at least starts out working in a restaurant.  Many stylists have to buy the ingredients for the photo shoot—and in some cases also prepare the food.  Depending on the situation, the food can either be cooked before it is photographed—or in other cases, cooked enough to look like it’s done, and then readied for its close-up.

I’ve had some exposure to food styling in photo shoots for hospitals or doctors promoting healthy eating (lots of fresh fruits and veggies in those photo shoots) and some for restaurants.  I became immediately fascinated by the art of making something look good—often by using things you’d never want to eat.

Tricks of the trade

So how does all that food come out looking so great in the photos?  A large part of it is the skill of the photographer.  But the stylist uses his or her tricks to help alter reality.

Hamburgers—according to those in the know, hamburgers are one of the hardest things to photograph.  Each element of the hamburger has to look wonderful.  The lettuce.  The tomato slice.  The gooey cheese (which is usually applied to a cold patty after being submerged in warm water to get the desired look.)  And those sesame seeds on the bun?  They may have been glued on individually after picking the perfect bun from more than one package.

cheeseburger tall

Turkeys—every year, cooking magazines are full of photos of beautiful turkeys, as are ads for the turkeys and the rest of the Thanksgiving feast.  The cooking magazines will actually cook the turkeys, but every turkey you see in a photo hasn’t actually been in an oven.  Turkeys can be sprayed with food color—or with shoe polish and water—before using a blowtorch on the outside to get the right look of crispy and delicious.  The inside can then be stuffed with paper towels to make the bird look plumper.  (It’s a little disillusioning.)

roast turkey

Ice cream—I first became fascinated by food styling when I learned that there were people who actually specialized in scooping ice cream for photo shoots.  Their specialty was creating the small “skirt” at the bottom of the scoop, and ensuring the smooth, even, appetizing surface.  I had friends who had worked as scoopers at ice cream shops, but this was a whole different skill set.  If an ad is for an actual ice cream, then the real ice cream is usually used.  But if it’s a generic photo promoting ice cream desserts or ice cream in the summer, the “ice cream” can be a mixture of fat, sugar, and food coloring.  Canned frosting and sugar can also be used.

ice cream and berries

You are what you eat

In the world of the food stylist, perception really is reality.  It’s a world where

  • Pancakes and waffles can be sprayed with Scotch Guard so the syrup drips off just so,
  • But motor oil can be used in place of pancake syrup,
  • White glue can be substituted for milk in a bowl of cereal,
  • Ice cubes are carved from plastic,
  • Hamburgers and sandwiches can have cardboard added between layers to make them look taller and more appetizing,
  • Soap can be used to create bubbles on that cappuccino or froth for the bowl of whipped eggs.

In some ways, the world of food styling is a little like the world of sound effects—the question isn’t, “what does it really look like” (or sound like), the question is, “what do we think it should look like?”  The next time you post that photo of your yummy dessert on FaceBook or Instagram, remember that your image is competing against the pros! Bon appétit!


Sara Rider

About the Author

Sara Rider, Vice President at DeLaune & Associates, has written extensively for the healthcare, financial, non-profit, and technology industries for more than 30 years.

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