If the way to our hearts is through our stomachs, then the route to our stomachs is helped an awful lot by what we clap our eyes on. Bombarded by food advertisements plastered everywhere from billboards to bus shelters, not to mention all over our screens, we’re a nation that’s used to being lured to the table – or takeaway joint or delivery app – by the look of a dish.

Spending on digital food advertising shot up over 40 per cent in 2021 from the previous year, to the tune of almost £175 million, according to Statista. In industry analysis last year of the most impactful television adverts based on viewers’ emotional response and sales data, food ads dominated. We buy into burgers, breakfast cereals and butter when their branding makes us feel good – or hungry.

But how often are you disappointed that your dinner doesn’t look exactly like the image in the advert or on the product packaging? For a group of disgruntled Burger King customers in the US it’s a point of contention that has led them to file a lawsuit against the fast-food giant, accusing the chain of false advertising for misleading customers by displaying unrealistic photos of what’s actually on offer. 

The Whopper burger as pictured on the menu is alleged by the claimants to feature ingredients that “overflow over the bun”, giving the burger an appearance 35 per cent larger than the real deal. They say they regret forking out for the product, which turned out to be so much smaller. 

Burger King, meanwhile, has stated that “the flame-grilled beef patties portrayed in our advertising are the same patties used in the millions of Whopper sandwiches we serve to guests nationwide” – while arguing that it isn’t required to deliver burgers that look “exactly like the picture”.

Having assembled more burgers in my career than I care to remember, I know all too well what it takes to make this fast-food classic look appealing. As a food stylist working on recipes for images in books, magazines and for product packaging, it’s my job to primp patties and revive leaves wilting on set under hot studio lights. 

Decades ago, when I first worked as an assistant, a fair amount of trickery went on behind the scenes. I’ve glued sesame seeds on to the bald patches of burger buns, painted turkey skin with Marmite mixed with washing-up liquid, and made imitation ice cream variously from fondant icing, mashed potatoes and even lard to get around the troublesome tendency of the original to melt.

These days, such practices are frowned upon if not outright banned. When it comes to commercial photographs, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) states that “images which give an inaccurate impression about the product consumers will receive, for example, by featuring the wrong product, including extras, or by exaggerating the quality or size of the product, are likely to mislead” – no showing a fully loaded burger bun, then, when all it comes with is a sliver of gherkin.

My colleagues who earn their crusts building burgers for advertising shoots explain that the fast food pictured is the same as you’ll find in your takeaway bag, it’s just taken longer to put together. The burger is carefully constructed, usually on a turntable, with its “best side” positioned to the camera’s viewpoint. Several mock-ups are created before the “hero” is presented to the photographer; final touches, such as ketchup dispensed with a syringe, are carefully applied at the last moment before the shutter button is pressed. 

Because, of course, this is not solely the work of a food stylist. While the “nicest buns, the biggest pickles, thickest patties and smallest slices of tomato” are selected by them so that “everything is in perfect proportion”, the choice of lens, lighting and camera angle further boosts the look of a burger or any other dish. 

With the dawn of digital photography came the ability to shoot more quickly (though that melting ice cream is still a challenge), but also to clean up smudges, select optimum versions and transplant a perfect moisture droplet or runny-egg drip from one frame on to another in the editing process. The final image represents the real dish or product, just living its best life. 

In some cases, saturating the colours in post-production comes into it; “enhancing the food, rather than faking it”, explains Romas Foord, the photographer on the shoot for this feature. “Photography is just another form of illustration.” 

For items from branded outlets, a fellow food stylist tells me, “we even cook the food on the same equipment used in the restaurant so it’s as close to the real deal as we can make it.”

Those bygone work-arounds, then (think boot polish to darken roast meat and hair spray used to create a sheen on fresh fruit) have been replaced by techniques that bring out the best in the food rather than fake it. 

If I’ve written the recipe I’m styling for a photograph, I want anyone who cooks it at home to feel delighted with the result, not let down by its appearance. That means embracing the cracks and the crumbs, and even the melty ice cream – and if the baked cheesecake always sinks a little as it cools, then that’s what you’ll see in the picture. 

I do, of course, make everything look as appetising as I can. That might mean brushing a little oil or honey where it’s needed, just before the shot is taken. My tool kit of pipettes and syringes (in addition to an armoury of knives, peelers, tongs and spatulas) allows for precision placement where a spooned dollop would look clumsy; small paint brushes dust sugar on and off desserts; tweezers allow for herbs and leaves to be positioned (or removed from shot), just so.

Valerie Berry, who styles recipes for this newspaper, regularly relies on a small gas-fuelled pencil torch which can apply “a very low heat to the surface of meat without burning it. It’s super precise,” she explains, “and brings back to life steak that has been sitting on set for more than five minutes.” There might be people out there who still paint the turkey with Marmite, she says, “but if you baste it with a lot of clarified butter it will look a lot better. And it will be edible afterwards!”

Time was, we swerved restaurants that showed pictures of their dishes on their menus – a marker of homogeneity or mass-production; these days, we swipe and tap our way to dinner via seductively shot photos of food. How it looks that good is arguably a moot point if it delivers on the most important thing – taste.

Do you have any food styling tips? Let us know in the comments


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2023-09-02T08:03:49Z dg43tfdfdgfd