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Food Styling “Tricks” Of The Trade

Why That McD’s Burger In Your Hand

Looks Different On The Page.


Food photography is an art all unto itself.  There’s a lot more to it than just a photographer standing behind his tripod yelling “Lights!”, “How’s That One Look On The Monitor?” or “Action on Set!” A great food stylist is the difference between an “Ok” image and a great advertising photograph.  While food is not my main specialty, as a still life photographer I do get to do food assignments once in awhile.  

People who see the photos in fast feeder ads all ask themselves “Why doesn’t that burger look the same as the one I buy in the restaurant?”  The simple answer is the product you buy in the store is made on a food production line, where the focus is on a standard of “good enough” quality produced quickly at the lowest cost possible – not on overall quality of appearance.  The product you see in an ad is hand-crafted to be beautiful; to have it’s picture taken – never to be eaten.  It’s crafted to look the part of the perfect burger – the one that we all expect to get in our very next order.  

Truth in advertising laws do now require that the food used in advertising must have the very same ingredients as what a consumer would buy in a store.  In days of old, often photographic tricks were used like substituting modeling putty for ice cream because real ice cream doesn’t last very long under hot photography lights.

What these laws still don’t address though is how this photographed food is prepared – the unstated “fuzzy wiggle room” advertising production takes great pride in exploiting.  The old “Smoke & Mirrors” Don Draper and his Mad Men lot are so famous for.  Today it’s not done to hide anything; It’s done to present the product in the best possible marketing light to sell you as a consumer an expectation not necessarily delivered on by the product itself.  Fast feeders as a group are no different.  They all sell inexpensive products in mass quantities, without the frills associated with fine dining – like a quality  presentation.

However, when not bound by a production time of only a minute and a half, these same ingredients can be carefully crafted into something special. Hope Bagozzi, Director of Marketing for McDonald’s Canada in the video segment below does an excellent job of answering a consumer’s online post, and at the same time reaching out to thousands of readers who are too shy to ask the questions themselves.

Hope doesn’t “show & tell” all the little craft secrets of the photographer’s trade used in their production, but it is good to see advertisers being more open than ever answering their consumer’s questions.  Effective social media marketing today demands not only consumer interaction, but honestly attempting to transparently anticipate what’s behind the consumer’s questions to provide information to the thousands who may read the answer but didn’t ask.  

It’s my opinion, so I’m just shouting a Bravo! to McDonalds Canada – and to Hope herself – for such a great example of how to do an excellent job of marketing an idea – setting the consumer expectation of perfection.  



Or what about Orbitz?  This ground breaking soft drink/floating “flavor” dots hybrid came to an fizzled end in 1997.  Who cares if it tasted like crap, the photographs – as did the product – looked so DAMN COOL!


Looking back over my own career, I think the best food stylist I have ever worked with was Chef Gonzalo Martinez, the Head Chef at  Casa de Sierra Nevada, an award-winning luxury boutique hotel, spa and cooking school in the heart of historic San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.  I had the pleasure of working with Chef Gonzalo and his expert staff in producing a series of photographs to promote this Orient Express owned property’s cooking school Sazon.  

Chef Gonzalo and I also collaborated  on a set of  images for the announcement of his latest creations in the hotel’s fabulous five star award winning restaurant Andanza.  He and his staff work tirelessly to make certain each and every course served at Andanza is as presentation perfect as the incredible flavors they contain.  So the challenge in styling the photography was to present as best we could the reality of what the customers would receive – near perfection.  It was a tall order indeed!

Two different advertising concepts, both difficult in execution.  One intended to give you the burger of your dreams, the other to give you the reality on the plate to be set in front of you.  We actually ate these delicious creations after the photography session – a little added “bonus” from this job. It’s just my opinion, but I’m saying that’s real truth in advertising!

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