Ethical Food Photography

Fake Food Have you wondered how milk in that photograph on the cereal box looked so thick? How is  white glue for an answer? How about that syrup on pancake photograph? Does motor oil sound good? There are many such examples of dirty tricks used in professional food photography. Now after knowing this, how tempting does the photograph of the pancake or that milk bowl with strawberry become?

I feel very strongly about these dirty tricks that some food photographers use to get a "perfect" picture. I feel that using fake food to make a photograph look pretty is like creating an illusion of something that doesn’t really exist.  Using fake food and these tricks seem like misrepresentation and cheating with the audience of the photograph.

Oh! But Its Just Like Real


Fake Eiffel Tower

How about this – say you buy a photograph of Eiffel Tower for your living room. You hang it in the room only to be told by one of your guest that it is not real Eiffel Tower, its from Paris – Las Vegas hotel. Would you feel cheated? Well it looks just like the real one, and there is no way to be sure of the difference between the real and fake, unless you are an expert on Eiffel Tower. I would bet most people would have a problem will getting a fake Eiffel Tower photograph in their living room, after buying it thinking it was real. Then why should you accept fake food photograph. 

Now some may argue that this is no misrepresentation, its just a replacement and real food can be used just like the fake one. We may even hear them say that, this is not cheating and that all this does is give a small advantage, like more time to photograph that fake ice cream which otherwise would melt quicker. Sure, use a mashed potato for ice cream but then don’t call it ice cream, call it just that – two scoops of mashed potato.

Some may even point out that fake food is more convenient to shoot. Sure, but so is the fake Eiffel Tower for those living in United States.

Food Photography Principle

I use a simple principle while photographing food – "If you can’t eat it, don’t use it." After you are done with the photo shoot, if you (or someone) won’t be able to eat that food or an ingredient in that picture, don’t use it. Here, it is not about using or not using edibles in food photograph. This is about what you put or use in the food and its recipe. In case of ice cream, even though photographers use mashed potato, which is edible, would you eat mashed potato as an ice cream (Never heard of ice cream that looks, smells and tastes like mashed potato, have you?) The idea here is that while shooting a dish, use only ingredients and styling that would naturally go with that dish.

This is the principle I strongly believe in and will stand by it. If in future, if you see me violating this principle, do call out and shout out so that I can get back on track.

Your Turn

Are you okay with using these tricks to make your food look pretty? What are your thoughts?

Fake Food by roboppy and Fake Eiffel Tower by C. E. Beavers

  • Bad photos can do more harm than no picture at all, so a good shot is crucial. This is where the games playing begins.

    I shoot real food and have “tricks” — like using crumpled tissue paper to set up an ice cream shot. Then I work like lightning when I place the real scoop in the dish. But the ice cream I use is real. Made by me. You can even see it melting in some shots.

    Because I don’t “cheat” with the pictures, I’ve had to accept that there are dishes I will never blog about because they’re just too ugly. No matter what you do, some food looks like it came out of the hind end of a dog.

    I, too, blogged about the issues of food photography tricks and find people get discouraged when they can’t reproduce the results they see in the photos.

    • I agree! it is better to not shoot some food than to fake it. I find one principle very helpful – if you can’t eat it, don’t shoot it.

      I guess there are some tricks, like putting a cotton ball behind the cup of coffee to show the steam. I think tricks like these are understandable and I am okay with that. But glue and shoe polish…. I would rather pass the opportunity to shoot, rather than compromise in cases like this.

    • wonderful and realistic blogpost you have. nice to see you here….

  • I am completely against using non edible things masquerading as food in food photos. It’s lying. I don’t enjoy the idea of salivating over motor oil. That said, my food photos are on the craptastic side of things, but at least they’re honest!

    • Erika,

      Can’t agree with you more. using non-edible things and making it appear edible is like lying.

  • Neel,

    Good provocative thoughts.

    Let’s go a step further. Lighting. How often do we as commercial photographers recreate what might look like early morning light coming in through a window in a small country kitchen … all within the neutral gray space with concrete floors we call our studio. We not only fake the lighting we also fake the scene with our plethora of props, backgrounds and sets.

    I’m very much a purist and absolutely enjoy capturing on film … er, uh … pixels … what naturally occurs when a wonderfully plated dish lands on the table in a fantastically picturesque location. If only all our commercial shoots could happen at a fine bed & breakfast as the sun reveals itself on a clear crisp morning.

    Unfortunately, commercial photographers are in the ‘control’ business. We have to control the lighting. We have to use stylists to control a dish that will die on set while the art director is trying to decide whether the onion should go on the left of right of the fish.

    I believe we have a great responsibility in working to make food look real and not misrepresent the actual product being sold. I prefer to use real food but not all circumstances lend themselves to this high ideal.

    Now, let’s open up even more debate … what about post processing? Should we accept what comes directly out of the camera with out any WB adjustments or contrast or dust removal? Yikes!

    At the end of the day, I think we simply need to look at ourselves as artists. And, as artists there is much responsibility and conviction about how we handle our art. It’s a very broad spectrum and honestly, no hard fast rules. There’s a place for it all, and the market chooses what it will accept depending on its mood.

    Happy shooting!
    – Kyle

  • As a general rule, I don’t think food bloggers resort to such food photography trickery. Apart from the old mashed potato masquerading as ice cream trick, I know of no other tricks, so all my food photography is real. If it’s ugly, I don’t post it, and as I don’t have any photographic equipment apart from my camera and lenses, I stick to natural light. Keeps things simple and real. As a published cook book author, I have worked with a professional photographer and there was no trickery of any sort involved with the actual food in the photoshoot I worked on, with him. I’m hoping this trend of trickery amongst professional photographers is dying out? Of course, I don’t consider photo editing or light manipulation trickery. Sometimes shoots have to go on, in spite of poor lighting and weather, so these come with the turf. I think everyone knows what you see in front of you often does not look as good as a final professional shot.

  • Isn’t this like decrying the Venus Fly Trap as morally negligent for deceiving insects? There’s not much honesty in Nature; God routinely manifests in all sorts of confusing guises, why expect forthright behavior from the marketing sector of the Crown of Creation?

    All those ice cubes in magazine ads (before alcoholic beverages became virtually illegal) has to be painted. Ice can’t withstand the lights. 1. Where do you ethically draw the line?, and 2. Why bother to draw one?

  • James

    I agree! it is better to not shoot some food than to fake it. all within the neutral gray space with concrete floors

  • I find it fascinating that pictures of what I thought were a certain food are actually a different food or not even food at all in an attempt to create “perfection” in there presentation. I ask this question to anyone who knows….when I watch chef shows on TV they show pictures of the chef’s creations and they look very appetizing. How are they able to do this. Or is this more trick photography?

  • john

    I also find the “if you can’t eat it, don’t fake it” principle as the best one to follow in food photography. Why fake a food that cannot be eat anyway? do you only want to cheat or what? But anyway, in the world of photography, nothing is really impossible.

  • I am not a purist in the sense that I would totally use real food for shots all the time. If you are trying to portray how your food looks at its finest and the environment doesn’t agree with the shoot, you have to do what is necessary. Don’t you people like to get paid?

  • Justin

    If you are looking for an online shop that sells [Made in Japan] fake food related items in English and ships all over the world, you may want to check out Fake Food Japan:

    All the best,


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