What is a Food Photographer?

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  • Written By: M.C. Huguelet
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 26 November 2019
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A food photographer takes pictures of food for magazine spreads, cookbooks, advertisements, and packaging. His job is to photograph each food in such a way that the resulting picture suggests its smells, textures, and tastes. In order to do this, he must arrange each dish in a visually pleasing way, position his lighting to emphasize the dish features he wishes to highlight, and get his shot before the food has degraded in any way.

Before a food photographer can capture a dish on film, he must first style it. Food styling involves arranging the food to be shot as well as all background items such as silverware, tablecloths, and glasses. Often, clients prefer an artistic shot to a straightforward image of a given dish. Thus, the food photographer is encouraged to be imaginative in his styling choices, and he may create unexpected combinations such as substituting a book or a palm frond for a plate. Clients with large budgets sometimes hire a food stylist to do this work, allowing the food photographer to concentrate on his pictures.


Bad lighting can make even the most attractive foods look unappetizing on film. Thus an important part of the food photographer’s set-up work is establishing proper lighting. Generally, food is lit with soft lights that show the dish without producing a glare on the food itself or the surrounding props. The photographer must decide which elements of the dish he would like to highlight before placing his lights. An experienced food photographer can arrange his lighting in such a way that the bright areas and the shadows will work together on film, bringing out attractive features such as the curves of a strawberry or the juiciness of a hamburger.

One of the primary challenges faced by a food photographer is the rapid speed at which dishes lose their visual appeal. In a space of just minutes, freshly cut fruit can begin to brown, heavy sauces can begin to separate, and attractive wisps of steam can disappear. Preparedness is one of the photographer’s most useful weapons in the battle against time. He often sets up his shot using stand-in foods, waiting until the arrangement is perfect to bring in the real dish, which he can then beautifully capture as soon as it hits the table.

Another common technique is the use of various substances to slow the degradation of certain foods and enhance their appearance. Glycerin is often sprayed on meats or vegetables to suggest juiciness or dew, for example, and hot, water-soaked cotton balls are sometimes hidden behind foods to create the appearance of steam. In some cases, mock foods are used in place of a genuine dish. This is often true with ice cream, which is replicated with a shortening and powdered sugar mixture that closely resembles the real thing but does not melt. In the US, however, the use of fake or substitute foods in photographs intended for advertising purposes is prohibited by law.


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Post 2

I'm glad there are laws against faking food photos in this country. I think a talented food photographer should be able to arrange real food in an appealing way without resorting to tricks. I've heard a food stylist will go through hundreds of baked cookies just to find a dozen that will film well.

Post 1

I remember hearing stories about all the tricks a food photographer would use to make the products look better. Sometimes a bowl of soup would contain marbles so the ingredients would be more prominent. A lit cigarette or incense burner would give the illusion of steam rising from a hot dish. When photographing food like pies with whipped cream, the "whipped cream" would often be shaving cream. The lights would melt the real stuff.

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