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Totally Together

Food Photography, Realism, and False Advertising

June 22, 2012 by  

photo credit: Why Photos of McDonald’s Burgers Look So Much Better Than The Real Thing

Are food bloggers and food magazines practicing false advertising when they spend lots and lots of money and time staging finished food photos?

A part of me thinks, No. This is the matter of the business. People need to be lured in by the photo in order to stick around to read the recipe.

But another part of me thinks, Yes. Unless you’ve spent a few hours carefully cutting and assembling and plating and styling a regular ol’ home cook is not going to achieve the same results.

Is that false advertising? Or do home cooks and consumers just acknowledge that’s the way the world works?

What I Really Think.

(hey, I’m a blogger, we’re all just narcissistic navel-grazers, right?)

I don’t think I’ll ever be known as a food photographer. I get an email almost everyday through the slow cooking site by an “up and coming” food stylist/photographer (not the same person, different people— that would be weird if it was the same person every time!) who offers his/her expertise in food photography and styling to make my after photos “more appealing.”

I’ve read *numerous* food photography articles, online and in books. I’ve attended seminars.

but at the end of the day, I’m happy with my current method of pulling the food out of the pot, throwing up a light here and there and taking a picture.

My photos have definitely improved since I began my 2008 year— you can see a marked difference between my January shots and my August shots, and that is because I took Kalyn and Elise’s advice and got a new lens and a tabletop photo studio. We already owned a DSLR.

this is currently the set-up I have which costs a grand total of $608 (amazon affiliate links):

canon rebel, 50 mm lens, and a table top photo studio (note: my set is by Lowel EGO and they don’t seem to have the set I bought 4 years ago for a reasonable price anymore.)

it’s a lot of money.

and I still am not “good enough!”

My big concern with excessive food styling and photography is when the results no longer look the way it would when the home cook recreates the recipe.

I like honesty. I like seeing something and then doing it on my own, at home, and having the same results— regardless of whether or not it’s a recipe, craft, or a DIY project.

This is why I turn to blogs and not magazines. I KNOW magazines have a room full of stylists and lighting directors to get “the perfect shot.” I’ve worked with them. I know what they do.

I know that if I pull my roast out of the pot at 6 hours it will retain it’s shape and photograph better. But it’ll TASTE better at 8 hours, and that’s what picture I’ll snap.

This is where I fall behind my fellow food bloggers. Photography isn’t a hobby of mine; and for many it is— that I understand. What I don’t understand is the desire to style a plate for a few hours by using tweezers to place a sesame seed here or there, or spray a bit of oily water on lettuce to make it shine.

I don’t care if the photo will be “pinned” more. I’ve already written about my concerns with Pinterest.

I’ll repeat myself again: This is real life, not a magazine.

So I ask:

do we as food bloggers want to put out an end result that isn’t achievable by many/most? Do we want that on our conscience?

My friend Jen and I have talked about this quite a bit. She is an actual photographer with way more expensive equipment and expertise than I’ll ever have. She knows how to style and light, but she agrees, as I do, that the extra pageviews aren’t worth compromising integrity. Look at her side-by-side comparison of the Barbie Cocktail making the rounds on pinterest: not cool.

not cool at all.

What To Do About It.

Honestly, what I’d love is there to be a standard understanding that what-you-see-is-what-you-get when it comes to food blogging and photography. I’d love a disclaimer about how many pans of brownies were destroyed trying to get that perfect, no crumbly edge, brownie stack with wax paper. Where did you get the wax paper squares, anyway? How did you measure them out perfectly?

How long did it take you to get that “perfect shot?”

How many times did you say “just a minute” to your kids? How cold was the beef stew when you finally got to eat it? Did you scoop it right from the pot, or did you wash off some of the potatoes and carrots to make them not slimy and place them in a pretty way?

How many photoshop tweaks did you make? Did you improve brightness? contrast? color? did you rub out the slightly burnt corner?

am I making too big of a deal about this?

maybe. probably. but whatever. I was hit hard with the ethics stick. :-)

Post a comment · 13 Comments »


13 Responses to “Food Photography, Realism, and False Advertising”

  1. Kristi R on June 22nd, 2012 8:09 pm

    I completely agree with you. I have often mentioned to my husband that I think it’s false advertising to show this big, thick, piled-high burger or sandwich when what you really get doesn’t even remotely resemble it.

    Same with frozen meals. There isn’t enough food in the average frozen meal to create the “serving suggestion” photo.

    I love your pics just the way they are. :)

  2. The Cocktail Lady on June 22nd, 2012 11:47 pm

    Steph you KNOW how I feel about this issue! I am in 100% agreement with you on these photos. I’m glad you typed it up and posted this article. I know I have run into another cocktail or two (besides the Barbie……but the Barbie being the worst of them all) that didn’t turn out like their pictures online. It frustrates me, but I’m happy to know that all of the photos I post are legit. I sleep better at night =)

  3. Susan T. on June 23rd, 2012 5:16 am

    Keep your photos as they are, Steph.

    The first McDonald’s burger I bought was a real disappointment when I compared it to ads/posters, even right there in their “restaurant”. When I am buying with money, I would prefer to have truth in advertising.

    When I try recipes from the internet, cookbooks, and so on, I want my result to look like “their” result. When I feel that same disappointment over the appearance of my result, will I turn again to that blogger or food site when I want another recipe? Sometimes not.

    Spending my time cooking something that results in looking like I made a grievous mistake, is not an experience I would choose. Then too, when I try a recipe and it doesn’t measure up in appearance, I begin to wonder if the developer of that recipe was being honest in what ingredients they used, and so forth.

    Taking honest photos helps us identify with you, the recipe developer. If I don’t have as pretty a platter to use or a fresh sprig of parsley for a garnish, I can readily see that those differences are why my result is not as photo-ready as yours. But a roast that collapses and doesn’t resemble the photo which inspired me to try the recipe? Nope, that source loses credibility.

    Thanks, Steph!

  4. Anne on June 23rd, 2012 9:10 am

    Amen! Keep it real! It is the same line we have gotten for years with photographs of fashion models and homes – no one and few houses EVER REALLY look like how they are photographed (or photo shopped.)

    Thanks for sharing. :-)

  5. Kristi Powell on June 23rd, 2012 11:36 am

    Preach on, sister!! I’m with you!! I was hit hard with that ethics stick too. My husband is funny (but TOTALLY embarssingly so!!). He’ll order french fries from a fast food joint and tell them “make sure you fill it full, JUST LIKE IN THE PICTURE”. If it’s not to his liking, he’ll send it back and get reimbursed. Needless to say, we don’t eat out much.

  6. Caralyn @ glutenfreehappytummy on June 23rd, 2012 11:50 am

    what a great post! i agree. I definitely try to practice that principle. I make me plate for dinner, allow myself 2 minutes to take photos, and then dig in — it’s just not worth a cold dinner!

  7. Sarah Russell on June 23rd, 2012 6:05 pm

    Thank you! I too have a food blog (it’s a small one) and I cannot take good pictures. Mainly because I have four kids who will knock over anything I try to set up. I just either take picture of the ingredients, tools I use, or the finished product. And sometimes it ain’t pretty. But it tastes good. I don’t get many hits on my blog, but that’s okay. I want to be me and me is not a photographer!

  8. Suzanne on June 25th, 2012 2:36 pm

    You are so right on this one and I couldn’t agree more! Thank you for your honesty. It’s one of the things that keeps me with you. And this is right up the same alley as another of our fights – I would love for “gluten free” to ALWAYS mean GLUTEN FREE! Wouldn’t life be easier to navigate if everyone kept it real??

  9. Karen S. on July 2nd, 2012 2:26 pm

    I totally agree!!! My husband was so disappointed in a pie he ordered at a local
    resturant recently, it showed in the picture this slice of banana strawberry pie, when
    it came, it looked like someone had sat on the piece of pie and he told the waitress
    so. It is very disappointing to see all of this going on, if it is a fashion model, a home
    or food. It would be nice if everything was represented just the way it is, then we
    would know what we are getting it!

  10. Carol on July 4th, 2012 8:17 am

    Having assisted in food photography years ago, I laugh at some of the pictures I see in restaurants and magazines. You don’t realize that what might look tasty in the photograph is totally inedible in real life. Your photographs are perfect for the audience and the dishes look delicious just the way they are. It’s going to be good if it’s served on paper plates or fine china.

  11. Briana C. on August 20th, 2012 6:54 am

    Yes! Thank you for this! I especially appreciate you questioning how many times we have to shoo our kiddos out of the kitchen. I’ve had to remind myself that Martha Stewart has no family to interrupt (or be interested in) what she’s cooking/sewing/harvesting, but rather a full-sized faculty compiling ideas, doing the grunt-work, and editing the finishing touches. No, I’d rather have my family happily interacting & learning along side momma and enjoying our hard work at the dinner table together! Besides, have you ever seen how fast that “perfect” pan of enchiladas gets annihilated by six hungry kids & a hubby? I’m not sure they even look before they eat!

  12. Catt of the Garage on November 7th, 2012 6:46 am

    It’s a funny one.

    On the one hand, McDonald’s should clearly be prosecuted. The difference between the photo and the actual burger used to annoy me. Now it makes me laugh. Especially the time my husband got given a burger with the bottom bun missing. It actually looked more like the photo than many others, at first!

    On the other hand, I love good-looking food photos. I don’t mean those perfect ones where everything’s set up beautifully (they look less tasty to me, anyway). I mean the gnarly Jamie-Oliver-style shots where everything is crumby and drippy and oh-so-artfully burnt at the edges, with carefully-chosen chipped dishes and holey tablecloths. I know someone spent ages setting it up, but I don’t mind, cos it makes it look tastier and I love looking at pictures of tasty things. In any case, with that artfully messy style, I’ve got a shot at it looking like the picture!

    I don’t even mind the wax-paper-brownie trick, cos again, it makes it look tastier, and my brownies could look like that if I could be bothered cutting the paper out and stacking them, instead of just eating them right away.

    But there’s a fine line. Like you say, taking the roast out at 6 hours when it should be cooked for 8 – that’s lying. Washing off the potatoes or varnishing the salad, that’s lying too. Photoshopping it to look bigger or smoother is big fat pants-on-fire lying. A bit of lighting, a bit of stacking, a bit of tableware selection, I have no problem with. Like you said, it’s a question of what are my chances of making it look like the picture? If less than 50%, no fair.

  13. Larry R on November 10th, 2013 11:57 am

    I agree with almost all you said in your article. I too do food photography. I prefer to show the meal as cooked by the chef for the restaurant’s customers. I like to respond to inquiring restaurant owners ‘yes, the photo I captured of the food was real and was served as is to the restaurant’s customer’. The part I somewhat disagree with you on is your reference to post production. I shoot raw and always take the shots into post production for touch up. I see nothing wrong post production as long as it is not over done.

    PS: I enjoyed your article and I am glad to see someone else that believes in displaying real food in their food photography.

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