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Ad vs reality

May 17, 2010

I’m starting up a new series of articles that investigate the difference between the photographs of food used in advertisements and menus, and the real product. This phenomenon should be familiar to most people – who hasn’t opened a box of something yummy-looking and then went “…oh…” when seeing the actual food?

Not surprising, there are a few websites about this. My favourite has to be a German site called, that features a separate project about food ads vs reality. The photographs are really good, and they even use the same composition as in the original ad! To see the photos, just go here and klick nächtes. My favourites (=the worst) from this site have to be these:


Another funny site is Fast food: ad vs reality, that has pictures of fast food items compared to the menu pictures. Some samples:


And last but not least: I found this picture of a so-called heart shaped pizza at


There are a lot of neat tricks that food stylists and photographers use in order to get the food to look as tempting as possible. You can think of this as cheating and trying to scam the consumers – or as some neat, fun and interesting tricks of the trade (to be honest I’m not really sure what I think myself). I did some research, and found quite a few articles and websites about this. Some of this information may be outdated, and some may not be that accurate, but these are some of the tricks I found:

Neat tricks

– Steam: adding water to a cotton ball or tampon, microwawe it and hide it somewhere on the set

– hidden paper towels to avoid sogginess and mess

– using toothpicks or pins to keep different items together

– using pins to make buns “hover” slightly above the burger making it look less crammed, or to make some items on a plate stand out more


– looking through hundereds of burger buns to find the best looking one. if not good enough: glue on individual sesame seeds to get the look you want

– pretty obvious, but: choosing the best looking tomatoes/apples/lettuce/whatever

Replacing one thing with another

– using mashed potatoes or a mix of vegetable shortening, powdered sugar and corn syrup with dye instead of ice cream to avoid melting

– glue or cream cheese works better than milk for shots of cereal: it’s thicker, more “bouncy” and doesn’t make the cereals as soggy

– motor oil instead of syrup

– plastic ice cubes won’t melt!

Cooking methods

– only cooking meats for a short time, to avoid shrinkage and make it look plump and juicy

– if photographing real ice cream: use premade scoopes of ice that have been frozen for a while before the shoot


– using a syringe to add mashed potatoes chicken skin to give the birdie the perfect shape

– hair spray on a cake to give a fresh look

– spray deodorant to give fruit a frosted look

– fabric protector sprayed on pancakes to prevent syrup (or  motor oil) from soaking in

Sources and fun

Tricks of the trade at The Guardian, written by an anonymous food photographer

Tricks of the trade (I guess this headline is kinda obvious for such a topic, huh?) at Silver Chips Online

The dirty tricks of food photographers at

And last but not least: Still Life With… I love this blog! It’s full of amazingly beatuful food photos, and the writer often describes the whole process of choosing, styling and shooting the food.  Not so much about motor oil and fake fruit, just fun and clever methods of food styling.

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