News: 20 Nitty Gritty Secret Ingredients for Mastering Food Photography

20 Nitty Gritty Secret Ingredients for Mastering Food Photography

Giveaway Tuesdays has officially ended! But don't sweat it, WonderHowTo has another World that's taken its place. Every Tuesday, Phone Snap! invites you to show off your cell phone photography skills.

Submit your best shot to our weekly competition for a chance to win an awesome prize. Phoneographers only—both Android and iPhone welcome! Check it out now.

For this week's Giveaway Tuesday, we've asked you to submit your best foodie shot—impromptu or staged (details here). We're open to all styles, whether you opt to painstakingly compose your "prop" or casually capture an amazing candle-lit dessert while you're out with your friends.

In the world of professional food photography, subjects are never photographed off the cuff. The techniques for creating delicious, mouth-watering photos often require the nastiest, most in-edible "ingredients". We're talking Elmer's glue, sponges, WD-40, wax, and more—see for yourself in the video below.

From Adorama's web series, "How'd They Do That?", food stylist Kim Krejca and photographer Rick Gayle discuss the unappetizing materials required for making food shots shine.

To inspire this week's challenge, I've assembled some of the most unexpected food photography "secret ingredients" used in the industry. But before you scroll down, here are several sources you can check out if you're interested in getting more comprehensive instructional information.

Food Photography Resources

  • The interface of Michael Ray's Food Photography Blog may look somewhat out of date, but don't be fooled—it's a an expert guide. Ray has some wonderfully thorough and specific tutorials.
  • Scott of Seattle Food Geek attended a workshop hosted by the Ryan Matthew Smith, the head photographer behind Nathan Myhrvold's epic Modernist Cuisine. He has compiled his takeaway into two different articles—Part 1 covers photographing specific objects, and Part 2 goes over post-processing Photoshop tricks.
  • Peruse a plethora of tips and tutorials from Food Bloggers Unite! (Try starting out with their definitive guide to the basics).
  • Taylor Takes a Taste has a beautifully presented library of 14 different tutorials covering several aspects of the craft.
  • Matt of Wrightfood has written a great post on the more technical elements of using your camera.
  • Deb of Smitten Kitchen offers conversational advice on how she captures her beautiful photos.
  • Sylvie of Gourmande in the Kitchen teamed up with a couple pros to present a 4-part series; check out the individual segments on Visual Elements of Design, Principles of Design, Prop Styling, and general Q&A.
  • 10 quick tips from veteran food photographer, Ree of The Pioneer Woman.
  • For more general tips, explore Digital Photography School's Intro to Food Photography, plus 10 additional tips for building upon your foundation. You may also want to check out Photojojo's basic tips.
  • Always a wonderful resource, Serious Eats also offers the basics, but goes a bit deeper than Digital Photography School and Photojojo.

20 Nitty-Gritty Secret Ingredients for Mastering Food Photography

1. Invest in a blowtorch or a heat gun for your meat and poultry shots. You can brown edges and surfaces of nearly raw hamburgers, steaks, chickens, turkeys, and hot dogs. Working with nearly raw meat keeps your props looking juicy and plump. You can also create grill marks, and quickly melt other food groups, such as cheese, butter and chocolate.

2. Pick up a can of brown shoe polish for faux-burnishing your nearly raw, "roasted" turkeys and chickens.

3. Unwilling to splurge on a blowtorch? You can use a hairdryer for the aforementioned softer food groups (cheese, butter and chocolate).

4. Glycerin (yep, you read right—soap) is used to make straight-from-the-garden produce and mouthwatering meat look juicy, fresh and glistening. Mix the glycerin with some water in a spray bottle, and mist your produce. For meat and fish, try applying the mixture with a paintbrush.

5. Motor oil is the perfect substitute for any kind of viscous substance (honey, maple syrup), which when in its natural state, is generally non-photogenic or problematic. For example, if you're photographing delicious pancakes with maple syrup, the pancakes will quickly become a soggy mess. Replace with motor oil, and you're good to go.

6. For scenarios like the pancakes mentioned above, spray-on fabric protector is necessary for creating a primed, adherent surface before you pour on the motor oil.

7. As seen in the video above, grab that handy can of WD40 to create shine and texture for baked goods like brownies, and other foods.

8. Dig that bottle of Elmer's glue out of the drawer to substitute milk or cream, or repair crumbly messes. Keep seeds on a bun in place, or glue a cherry to the top of your sundae (which is undoubtedly made with fake ice cream—often times a mixture of powdered sugar and shortening). The best thing about Elmer's glue is that it dries clear!

9. Elmer's glue not working? Then try Vaseline, or any kind of petroleum jelly. You can use it to apply shine and as an adherent.

10. Got a spare can of spray deodorant or hair spray sitting around? For produce that could use a frosty, fresh look, or cake that's beginning to look a bit dried out, these products provide another option for fabricating the appearance of freshness.

11. Sometimes a can of dulling spray is handy for reflective items or for creating the illusion of condensation on a "cold", frosty glass.

12. Fun Tac or Blu-Tac is a versatile putty used by industry veterans to adhere and prop up silverware and other objects.

13. You can find fake ice cubes at Trengove, a SFX store in NYC (order online here). You can also pick up ice powder and crystal ice. These products create more of a "slushy" ice effect.

14. Colored wax can be melted to look like sauces such as chocolate or butterscotch, or you can rub it on fruit and other hard surfaced produce to create shine.

15. Need more plumping? Mashed potatoes can be used to make baked goods and meat look more full and juicy.

16. Pick up a syringe for squirting the above mentioned mashed potatoes into the skin of a chicken, or a full, delicious looking pie.

17. Cardboard can be cut into small squares and placed in between organic matter to prevent smashing, wilting and melting.

18. Paper Towels and sponges are along the same vein of the mashed potatoes, but provide a stiffer support. You can also use paper towels for protecting and layering, as mentioned with the cardboard squares.

19. Use toothpicks to prop up food—camoflouged within the shot, of course.

20. Need a steam-filled shot? Cotton balls are your secret weapon. Soak and microwave them, and place within or behind the food to create artificially-induced steam. There's a wonderfully thorough tutorial with other options over at Michael Ray's site.


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I like the mashed potatoes one because you can still eat your work

wow, the list of non-edibles that go into making edibles look delicious is crazy! microwaved cotton balls is pretty brilliant.

Mashed potatoes is also my favorite.

Instead of Cotton Balls, i've heard of people who'll soak (unused) tampons and then put them in the microwave because they absorb so much water...

Here's one- If photographing broccoli, before you take pictures, drop it in hot water for about 15 seconds- it turns it bright green!

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