Food photography is a still life photography genre used to create attractive still life photographs of food. It is a specialization of commercial photography, the products of which are used in advertisements, magazines, packaging, menus or cookbooks. Professional food photography is a collaborative effort, usually involving an art director, a photographer, a food stylist, a prop stylist and their assistants.
In advertising, food photography is often – and sometimes controversially – used to exaggerate the attractiveness or size of the advertised food, notably fast food.
For a long time, food photographs tended to be shot and composed in a manner similar to the way people were used to encountering their food: laid out on a table setting and shot from an overhead perspective, i.e., from the point of view of the eater. Stylists accordingly arranged the food to appear good from above, with the items arranged flat on the plate and separated from each other.
In addition to choosing, preparing and composing plated food, stylists use numerous techniques to make it appear as attractive as possible. These may include:
- Creating steam with cool air nebulizers or a combination of chemicals that give off smoke with the appearance of steam;
- Spraying food with water or mixtures of water, corn syrup, or other liquids to keep it looking fresh;
- Making a mixture of solid shortening, corn syrup and powdered sugar (essentially a very stiff frosting) that can be scooped to simulate real ice cream;
- Using a variety of browning agents (usually mixtures used to brown gravies or sometimes heat activated liquids used in commercial bakeries) to enhance the color/brownness of cooked meats and poultry;
- Using heavy cream or even white glue instead of milk in bowls of cereal to prevent flakes from becoming soggy too quickly.
- Blanching green vegetables to just bring up their bright color, rather than cooking them completely. Other vegetables and foods may be cooked just to color, so they do not brown or become wrinkled if they must stand under the camera for a while.
- Adding water to beverages so light will filter through better and add sparkle to the drink.
- Lifting sunken vegetables in the soup.
The process of food photography begins with the purchase of the food and ingredients. Only the most visually perfect foodstuffs are acceptable and multiple backup or test items are usually needed. As a result, purchase of the food and ingredients is a very time-consuming process. The best-looking of the purchased items is selected and marked as the “hero”, i.e., the item that will be featured in the photograph. During the setup and for test shoots, it is represented by a cardboard stand-in.
The actual photography can take place in a studio under controlled lighting conditions, or under natural light. The light, background and setting is carefully prepared so as to present the food in an as attractive way as possible without distracting from it. The color and texture of the background is selected so as to effectively complement that of the food and to assist with its lighting.
Styled food is usually marked as inedible and discarded after the shoot, because it may have been handled or treated in ways that make it unsafe for consumption.