A Feast for the Eyes, if not the Stomach

food style
iStock / igor_kell

Ever order a burger or some other food that looked mouth-watering and perfect in the advertisement, only to be disappointed by the sad, disheveled pile of slop you were presented? It makes you wonder why the real thing can’t look as good as the picture.

Well, it could, if you were willing to wait a few hours and pay hundreds of dollars for a food stylist’s time. Even then, the burger would likely be cold, and possibly sprayed or dabbed with substances meant to enhance its visual appeal, not its flavor.

I used to be an advertising art director with a lot of food clients, so I witnessed many times the mixture of art and science it takes to make food look tasty on camera. Though I should keep my former clients confidential, I can talk about the process in general.

It’s not unlike those photographs in the celebrity magazines where the paparazzi catch some gorgeous cover model looking sallow and frumpy without makeup or the benefit of flattering lighting. Everyone can use a little help.

Lest you think the burger/model comparison is a stretch, at a photo shoot the client’s product is as coddled as a movie star. Not only does the burger (or ice cream or pancakes) get its own stand-in so it doesn’t wither under the hot lights, the plate that is to be used for the final shot is referred to as the “hero.”

But it’s the food stylist who’s the real unsung hero of any shoot. I’ve watched in awe at the patience and ingenuity it takes to coax food into looking perfect—but not so perfect that it’s no longer appealing. A well-placed drip (applied with a paintbrush or eyedropper) can do wonders.

I can’t speak for movie or magazine food, but in the ad world you are governed by truth in advertising laws. That means you can’t present faux food as your own product—if your burger comes on a sesame seed bun, you have to show the actual buns you use, not some brioche you picked up from the artisanal baker down the block. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sift through a hundred packages of buns looking for the plumpest, perkiest one. Whether that’s really truth in advertising, I’ll leave for you to decide.

I remember one cat food shoot where the food stylist had emptied a bunch of cans into an aluminum tray. She sifted through with long tweezers looking for the best morsels, which she then carefully piled into an attractive mound (OK, as attractive as a mound of cat food could be). When she was satisfied, a Polaroid was taken so that the photographer, the client and I could scrutinize it and point out any weak spots (things like, “Can we rotate that morsel just a little so you can see more of its striation?”).

I picked up a few tricks of the trade over the years. For instance, nothing is ever the temperature it appears to be. If you see steam, it’s probably dry ice. There’s a saying in advertising that you don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. Of course, the sizzle in a commercial is probably coming from a chemical reaction, not steak on a hot grill.

Optical illusions also come in handy. Next time you see a burger ad, look at the top half of the bun. Does it look a little smaller than the bottom? That’s because of foreshortening. In order to make sure all the layers of the burger, from patty to pickle, are visible, sometimes the stylist will stair-step the ingredients so that the bottom bun is closest to the camera, with each successive layer a little farther back. Photographed from the side, you can’t tell that the burger isn’t vertically stacked.

For more about food styling and tricks of the trade, check out this informative site.

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