Is that real Food?

Do you use real food in advertising photography? I get asked that question a lot!

You want to know a secret? In the world of food styling, in almost all instances, the food in the photograph is real.

Yes, that’s right. The food you see in those glossy pictures is usually real, not fake as a lot of people suspect.

Why is that? Wouldn’t it be easier to use fake food for things that melt and drip or go hot when you need them to be cold or cold when you need them to be hot? And isn’t fake food just prettier?


One reason real food is used, is that when you are advertising food items, it’s actually a requirement that the food that is being photographed and sold is the food that a consumer would actually purchase. This is part of the Truth In Advertising laws regulated by the Federal Trade Commission and just another reason why a good food stylist on any photo shoot is a must. These laws are strict.

It takes a pro to keep real ice cream frozen and looking nice and neat in a cone or bowl so that it doesn’t become a gloppy mess of liquid. And how about that hot and juicy cheeseburger? No one would want to buy that after an hour of sitting and going cold. Even if you think it still looks “good enough” to photograph, that coldness shows up on your final camera image and looks just plain yucky.

There are a few occasions where “fake” food is okay to use. For example, the food item that is being advertised must be real but supporting food might be fake at times. A good example of this, is if a client is selling a waffle cone, then the ice cream that is scooped into it isn’t being advertised. In that case, I would use fake ice cream (and I make a killer fake ice cream!) because the truth is in the accurate representation of the cone. Then I can have a stress free shot taking my time with making everything look pretty without worrying about melting ice cream. Yay!

Another approved use of fake food is faux ice cubes in a drink (unless we are selling the ice cubes), produce that is used as background prop for a plated dish or that cherry on top of the sundae if you are advertising the ice cream. As long as the food being advertised for sale and consumption is the real deal, it’s okay to fake some of the rest. But before faking something I always ask myself, is there a reason to do that? Are peaches out of season and you need a basket of peaches in the background? Will that ice cream sundae look better if we use fake ice cream and can work with it for an hour on set for an advertisement for whipping cream? Are there no apple leaves on the trees right now so you substitute a rose leaf which is very similar? There is always a good reason to use fake if we must. It’s not just for fun…although it can be fun!

Lastly, the other truth we must show is portion size and the proper amount of each ingredient. For instance, if we are shooting a 1/4 lb. burger that is being put in a print advertisement, that 1/4 lb. burger I make must weigh exactly 1/4lb. And if we are photographing a pizza for an advertisement that contains 4 oz. of pepperoni, 2 oz. of green pepper and 2 oz. of onion, I need to weigh out all those ingredients and make sure the toppings are accurately represented. These weights will be provided to me from the food company I am working with on most occasions. Sometimes I am given a proportion ratio. Say I have a bowl of mixed frozen vegetables, there will be many of the vegetables not visible because they are at the bottom of the bowl. In this case I will “eyeball” a ratio that I am given: 20% carrots, 40% zucchini, 30% cauliflower, 10% red pepper. It’s a little looser because much of the product is not seen but you do want your customers to get a feel for what’s in the bag.

So, food styling can be a little tricky and full of rules (who knew!). And yes, we make food look absolutely delicious so people want to buy it. But, I can also tell you that a professional food stylist like myself knows the guidelines and would never mislead a consumer with fake or inaccurate representations of the food they are buying. I am there to make the real deal as beautiful and mouth watering as possible.

Now, you know!