Visual stimulation : The art of creating food photography good enough to eat

Visual stimulation : The art of creating food photography good enough to eat

My love of good food and beautiful food photography have recently been well and truly put to the test. We’ve gone food shoot mad at the IF agency, regularly having multiple, overlapping campaigns that all require different styling and days worth of shooting.

You wouldn’t even think about it normally. You see an ad, online, in the street or on TV - wherever really. And that’s when your inner monologue starts... Mmmm, look at that burger, it looks really tasty, juicy, fresh and full of flavour. Bathed in sumptuously delicious light and surrounded by picture perfect crumbs, as if made just for you in that second. Take a moment to imagine it.  

(My mouth is watering just thinking about this imaginary burger shot). 

A true moment of serenity captured in megapixels and megabytes.

In reality that star of the show (the burger) is probably sitting in a stiflingly hot room, with a flurry of activity going on around it; there’s undoubtedly some poor mug balanced on one foot holding a large reflector just out of shot. The photographer is either hanging from the top of a ladder or lying on the floor just to grab the shot from the correct angle. The food stylist is buzzing around removing imperfect sesame seeds from the surface of the bun and smoothing out unsightly wrinkles from its edge, all whilst using a miniscule pipette to squeeze out the ‘perfect’ pea-sized portion of burger sauce to place under the lettuce; and only because we need more light in that corner of the shot.

The burger itself has been prodded, poked and caressed by about five different people and probably went cold about half an hour ago. Mere minutes before it was taking part in its own beauty pageant where it was judged amongst nine identical looking meat patties for blemishes, pertness and texture. The burger shouldn’t feel left out though, as every leaf, tomato, piece of onion and crumb has been through it’s own rigourous audition process too.

This singular shot will take between one hour (if things are really plain sailing) to two and a half hours (if the burger throws a strop, the bun gets soggy and we have to restart) when things are going slowly.

Look up ‘food styling tips’ on Pinterest and you’ll be presented by a thousand waspy looking women with massive DSLR cameras fitted with fancy looking lenses and beautifully art directed set-ups. The floors of their former industrial unit turned swanky hipster studio are spotless and there’s not a spare chip in sight.

Shot from: My Shooting Setup |

I’m sure these fairytale set-ups do happen, but I’ve never seen it. Generally, anything off camera looks like it’s been hit by a bomb as every work surface becomes an overflow area for discarded (read ‘ugly looking’) chips, peas and grains of salt. The rest of the space is absorbed with props from the previous shot that you daren’t tidy away incase they’re needed again. The room is littered with people including the chef preparing the next dish to be shot, the hallowed clients hurridly tapping away on laptops in the corner and of course those of us making the burger look beautiful.

Every surface covered in stuff!

Anyway this isn’t the reason for this piece, but I think it’s important to give a bit of background and context. As I said we’re “regularly having multiple, overlapping campaigns that all require different styling and days worth of shooting” (yes, I did just quote myself). And because of this, I’ve had to refine my process down to a ‘T’. So I thought I’d pull together my tips for a tip top food shot (mainly for my future reference) but it might aide others too.


Find out what you’re shooting. This may sound super obvious, but it has a huge impact. Puddings are an entirely different beast to burgers.


Decide on the style: modern, rustic, simple, light, bright. Again this seems obvious but once you’ve got a distilled and condensed idea of how you want it to look you can...


SCAMP IT OUT! Refine your shooting angles on paper, work out where you want your focus to lie and decide on any props you want to feature. If you can do a quick mock-up of how the final piece will look, you’ll know how many formats that shot will have to fit - this will also tell you whether you’ll need alternate set-ups of the same shot.


Once you finish your scamps, collate anything that isn’t a food item into a list. Including surfaces, cutlery, crockery, glassware. That right there’s your props list done and dusted.


Phone your photographer and stylist. Give them fair warning of what you’re doing and what you want to achieve. From here on in it’s all about team work. You will only survive if you stick together and work from the same sheet.


Work out what you’re wearing. This isn’t about fashion, it’s purely about comfort. If you’re anything like me you spend eight hours a day sat at your desk. You’re about to spend eight full hours on your feet.
Make sure you’ve got your comfiest shoes on; and clothes that are going to work when you become ‘the mug’ holding the light reflector, balanced on one foot and stretched across a four foot table.


Just keep swimming.

Everything’s going wrong, you can’t get the burger to stay plump whilst the lettuce is struggling to retain its structural integrity. Oh and someone’s just managed to tip a half empty glass of wine from the previous shot all over your set. It’ll be ok, you’re tired but you just need to regroup. Gee everyone up, and most importantly
make a joke about how you’re not saving lives.

It’s the last shot and the end is in sight. Your feet are throbbing and you’re knackered. Smiles all round, you’ve worked together like troopers and you’ve got through it and hopefully created some work that you can be really proud of. Well done. Just the selecting, re-touching , designing and artworking to do now!