Tricks of the trade in food photography

Here are a few little tricks and gadgets regarding food photography and commercial photography in general. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a stylist and don’t claim to be. I’m a photographer, and as a photographer, I need to be able to fend for myself whenever the food stylist isn’t around.

Pure Lemon Extract. Ya know that blue ink that the manufacturer prints on most bottles, usually indicating the lot number (I think)? There is only one thing that will take that type off. Not bestine, not rubbing alcohol, not Goo-off, only pure lemon extract. You can find it at any old grocery store.

Bestine – Before you start playing with this stuff, read the label, nasty stuff! If you have a label on something you need to photograph and it’s giving you a hard time coming off, try some Bestime. A warning though… If the material the tag is stuck on is Plexiglas, or some kind of transparent plastic, or even a painted surface, be very careful. Sometimes bestine will melt (yes, melt) the material. This can be a real problem, especially if you need to return the product being photographed.

Dulling spray – My favorite brand is Krylon, but I’ve been having a hard time finding it these last couple years. As I become more experienced, I find myself using less and less of this stuff. If you spray something with dulling stray, it usually looks a little fake. There aren’t too many matt stainless steel sets of silverware on the market.

Fun*Tac – Basically, this stuff is like clay, only it doesn’t leave a residue on a surface once it’s removed. We use it for making things stick to each other. In food photography, Fun Tac keeps the fork where you want it instead of sliding down the plate where gravity says it should be. There are a million uses for this stuff. In the studio, it has a nickname, “Blue shit”, as in, “where’s the blue shit”. Everyone knows what you mean.

Tungsten wire – Now a days with Photogshop and everything, I don’t use this like I used to, but “in the old days” (back when the snow was deeper and the hills higher) we used to use this stuff to suspend small items. It’s basically very very very fine thread. Did I say how fine it is? Strong too. Now with cloning and everything, we just don’t use it as much as we used to.

Blocks of wood – Not one of the more glamorous pieces of equipment around, but we use them almost every shoot. Basically, we cut up a bunch of 1 x 4s and 2 x 4s so we have various sizes of blocks to prop things up on. Sometimes we prop up the backgrounds, sometimes the props or dishes, sometimes we prop up the food itself. The more blocks and sizes of blocks you have the better. Make sure that you have “sets” and just not random sizes. Sometimes you might need to use two blocks (one at each end) to prop something up and will need two of the same size block to make the thing level.

Fake ice cubes – If you don’t know about Trengove, you’re not a real food stylist. Trengove is a special effects store in New York. They have some really cool stuff there and one of the things a food photographer will use all the time is fake ice cubes. They come in all shapes and sizes and you might want to buy this stuff as you need it, or even rent it. I think that “top of the line” ice cubes are going for about $35.00 a cube. Don’t worry though, it doesn’t melt.

Ice powder – This is another product that Trengove sells. It’s some kind of gelatin that comes in a dehydrated form and when you add water, the substance becomes a clear slushy mess that very closely resembles ice. It’s very fine and it’s the stuff that Budweiser has sticking to the bottles on all their commercials and billboards. The fun really comes when it’s time to apply the stuff. We’ve found that the best results come when you “flick” the stuff on. Things get really messy fast, but it’s a darn good time.

Crystal ice- This is very similar to Ice powder but much coarser. When these things are totally hydrated, they can be an inch or so in size. One mistake that I always make is to pour way too much of this stuff in a container of water. Let me warn you, this stuff makes TONS more ice than you think it will. Also, it takes a while to totally hydrate, so give it some time (1-2hrs.?). The Ice powder blows up much quicker.

Glycerin – This is some kind of oily, clear liquid that is used to treat burns, I think. We in the land of food photography, we us it to make things look fresh. We dilute the glycerin in water (50-50 and then apply the mixture with either an atomizer or the larger droplets, with a syringe. The beauty of this stuff is that it will not evaporate. The downside is that it makes the food uneatable. We don’t use this stuff very often anymore. I guess that explains the new belt I just had to buy… Damn wife keeps shrinking my clothes!

Red Wine and Beer – If you’re from the IRS, this is an essential ingredient to food photography. I’m not sure quite how we use it but it ends up being one of the larger line items on the “supplies” column of my tax return. I confess it’s mostly for after the shoot. Ok… 2/3 of the way through the shoot. It’s 5:00 somewhere…

I’ll probably be adding things to this list from time to time as I think of them. If you’re interested, you might want to check back to see if there is anything new. I’m sure that I forgot a bunch of things.


Michael Ray

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© Michael Ray 2004