The INSIDER Summary:
- INSIDER spent a day shadowing a stock food photographer, a prop stylist, and a food stylist to learn the tricks of the stock food photography trade.
- Both photographers and food stylists use many tricks to make food look incredible for marketing and advertising clients.
- Sometimes meat is soaked in oil to make it look juicier than it is.
We’ve all had the unfortunate experience of eating a disappointing fast food meal that looks nothing like the tempting advertisements that made you crave it in the first place. But how do photographers make the food you see in advertisements look so incredible? Strangely enough, the answer is never just Photoshop.
INSIDER spent a day shadowing professional food photographer Steve Giralt, whose work can be seen in Shutterstock and Offset (the high-end offshoot of Shutterstock), as well as food stylist Emma Feigenbaum and prop stylist Paola Andrea. The three of them worked together to create stunning photos of steak and lambchops for Offset.
Keep scrolling to learn the ‘dirty little secrets’ behind food advertisements and stock photos.
Many advertisers will let you do practically anything to make their food look good
“A lot of companies have the policy of ‘as long as you’re using real food, no matter how you dress it up, it’s fine,'” Emma Feigenbaum said. “If a diet or frozen foods company uses bell peppers — say — you’re allowed to swap them out for fresh peppers […] Sometimes, I’ll dig through 200 packages to find the perfect combination of photogenic ingredients and make a Frankenstein food.”
The food is hardly ever perfectly fresh
For the Offset photoshoot, Feigenbaum made the food right on set before Giralt shot it live, but oftentimes when food stylists and photographers work for advertisers, the perfect-looking food can be a few days old.
“I was doing a Thanksgiving dinner shoot for a clothing advertisement and we made three turkeys at the beginning of the four-day shoot,”Feigenbaum said. “We had to leave them outside, and every day that they didn’t use them, we had to juice them back up and make the turkeys look like new. When they finally put the turkeys on the table, they smelled so bad that everyone was gagging. Weirdly enough, they didn’t even end up using footage of the turkeys!”
Meat is soaked in oil so it looks plump and juicy
Have you ever seen a commercial featuring a burger where the meat looks like it’s dripping in juices, but then you get the real thing and it looks too dry to even eat?
“Sometimes you have to soak the meat in oil to get it to look juicy when it’s dry in real life,” Giralt told INSIDER.
Photos of cold drinks are not actually cold… they’re made to look that way with a glycerin mix
Feigenbaum has several spray bottles at her disposal: One for oil (to make that burger look juicy), one filled with water, and another filled with a glycerin mix.
“When I’m making cocktails or other drinks for a shoot, I just spray on this glycerin mix and it suddenly looks cold,” Feigenbaum said. “Plus, it doesn’t go away and won’t leave fingerprints.”
Outdoor scenes are usually shot indoors
Even the most beautiful food can look bland against a boring set. For Giralt, it all comes down to lighting (and several hundred thousand dollars worth of camera equipment).
“We can do anything you want,” Giralt said. “It can be as simple as a backdrop or a fake window. I just did something for Women’s Day magazine for Halloween, they wanted it to feel like the outside of the house looking in, and we had tree branches to make shadows. The whole thing was done with lighting.”
Melted chocolate is often a chemical mix found in laundry detergent
“We sometimes use fake chocolate… this gel that’s the same stuff they use to make slime,” Giralt said. “You add brown food colouring to it and cocoa powder and it looks just like chocolate, except you don’t have to worry about it cooling down or melting. It will just stay the perfect consistency.”
For the record, that “slime stuff” is known as borax, a chemical ingredient that is also used in laundry detergent.
Heat guns are used to perfectly char or melt food
Most likely, your food stylist was unable to perfectly melt or char the star food for a photoshoot. But let’s say you want that grilled cheese to look a bit more melty, or that frozen pizza to have more of a natural charred look, you’d use a heat gun.
“My heat gun can get up to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Feigenbaum. “With this thing, I can hit the exact spot that I want so you don’t have to re-cook the entire dish.”
Burritos in stock photos and ads are super-glued shut
“I always bring super glue with me,” Feigenbaum said. “If a burrito isn’t holding together for example, I’ll glue the actual tortilla so it holds together, so you don’t have to sit there for 20 minutes trying to roll it perfectly.”
This is exactly why Giralt says that you always ask the food stylist before sampling any of the food from a shoot.
Marinades and glazes are usually made from corn syrup
“Most food stylists don’t want to admit this, but karo syrup [aka corn syrup] is very important,” Feigenbaum said. “Adding karo syrup can make your food look browner, and if you thin it out it can be a glaze. If you leave it thick it can also look like a glaze or marinade.”
These are the final results from Steve Giralt’s steak photoshoot, using many of the techniques listed above.
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