We've all seen photos of the delicious looking chocolate dessert tempting us from a menu and the perfect pasta plate displayed in the cookbook. They can sometimes make us believe we can create such elegant and scrumptious foods.
However, often after slaving over a hot stove all day, the appearance of our creations can sometimes fall a little short of what we'd expect from the photos of the culinary masterpieces. The good news is it's not because we didn't follow the recipe. Those food photographers very likely had a lot of light, lots of time, tons of help and a few tricks up their sleeves.
Food photography is an art form that has developed out of advertising or maybe it's the other way around. It's a form of still life, but with the sales of cookbooks and magazines on the line, every picture has to be perfect. While some of the tricks used involve no science, others may use chemistry to ensure the food has the audience drooling.
Most of the time the photographer starts with the perfect specimen — it may be 20 apples before the one that looks just right is found, or 30, or 40.
FAST FACT: For careful placement of smaller food items like a piece of chocolate or a spaghetti noodle tweezers can be used.
Lighting is the easiest and most important way to naturally highlight a dish. Having the proper lighting so that the food appears in the correct colour spectrum is key. A variety of studio lights can be used.
FAST FACT: Each colour has a particular wavelength, which is part of a spectrum that includes visible light, along with x-rays and radio waves.
According to photographer, Meagan Welch, "Product photography is really about the lighting," and up to nine lights could be used to correctly highlight a single apple.
To darken the edges of the object in order to reveal shape, some backlighting may be required. If detail along the front needs to be shown, front lights or reflectors, may be used; the reflective properties of glassware may be used to strengthen (or sharpen?) edges.
FAST FACT: Backlighting can be created by placing an item on a diffusing surface such as an acrylic sheet and lit from below
But where the lighting ends, the kitchen chemistry begins.
A mixture of glycerine and water spritzed using a spray bottle can give the look of condensation to a "cold" bottle of pop. Glycerine can also be used to give the appearance of moisture droplets on salads or salsas.
Little white cotton balls can be soaked with water and micro-waved — they give off a lot of steam and work well in creating the illusion of steaming-hot foods.
A blowtorch can be used for browning the edges of raw hamburger patties, raw poultry, and hot dogs for that appetizing "grilled" look. A word of warning through, apparently if you use a blow torch on hotdogs they need to be simmered first to avoid a food explosion.
Adding saffron to boiling pasta will ensure the noodles retain a smart, yellow colour. This is one more natural way of making food look tasty, but there are many techniques used to make food look more appealing for photos, which usually render the food inedible.
Brown shoe polish can make a piece of meat look like it just came out of the oven and motor oil can replace syrup.
Whether a photographer keeps it natural or uses the ace up their sleeve the goal is the same — to create the desire to cook and eat a great meal.
Interview with photographer Meagan Welch. Dec 29, 2008
Set up your home studio, (1983) The Kodak Library of Creative Photography
Photocritic.org — a DIY Food Weblog
Dessert First - a blog about cooking and photographing great dessertshttp://dessertfirst.typepad.com/dessert_first/2006/05/food_photograph.html
Angela Hill BSc, BJ, is a journalist and photographer currently working at a daily newspaper. She has no patience with food photography and was a little scared by the thought of an exploding hot dog. She spends her time photographing people and hopefully exotic places.