Do Food Stylists Use Fake Food?

Is this ice cream real or fake?
Is this real or fake ice cream?

This question, “Do food stylists use fake food?” always comes up with people who are not intimately familiar with the food styling and photography field. And, my answer usually surprises people.

Since food styling became a creative culinary skill, there has been a lot of mystery surrounding it. There still is to some extent. Food stylists typically don’t share their techniques and food styling is still a profession that is hard to acquire the skills for and get hired for. With this mystery is a lot of misinformation. To answer the original question, most food shown in food photography is real. Let me expand on this.

Truth in Advertising

One of the main reasons real food is used, is that when you are advertising or selling 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 and just another reason why a good food stylist on any photo shoot is a must. There are laws and guidelines for how we work. Some are legal issues and some are client preferences.

A Photo shoot Example

Let’s say we are shooting a particular brand of pizza topped with pepperoni, olives, red peppers, cheese and mushrooms for an advertisement. The first thing the food stylist needs to learn from the client is what are the specs of the pizza? In other words, how much of each ingredient should be on the pizza. It’s really important to showcase those ingredients and proportions accurately. If there are suppose to be 15 pepperoni slices then that’s what we show. And, it’s not uncommon to have someone at the photo shoot from the company to assure this is done appropriately. Also, all of these ingredients are typically supplied from the client and are the actual pieces or components that are manufactured for the consumer. We don’t get special food for photo shoots. The food may come frozen or fresh depending on the client and the product. If it’s a restaurant chain we may get product from the restaurant itself. My job as the food stylist is not only to style the food but to pick out the best pieces of each ingredient so that photographed food looks the best and most delicious possible. Believe me, my assistants and I have sorted through a ton of food product just to pick the best most photogenic ingredients. And it’s a trained eye that knows how each piece will photograph.

When Is Fake Food Used In Food Photography?

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 may 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.

Another few approved uses of fake food is faux ice cubes in a drink (we aren’t selling 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 item being advertised for sale and consumption is the real deal, it’s okay to fake some of the rest. But typically, there would need to be a good reason to use fake. Like ice melting too quickly to capture the drink or out of season produce not being available so a great looking fake may be used in the background.

In conclusion, it makes sense both legally and visually to use real food where required first, and when it serves the photo making process second. Fake food is never as pretty, especially to the trained eye. A good food stylist has the skills to create the food in a way that lasts on set and the techniques to keep it looking good for the time it takes to get that perfect delicious shot. So, next time someone asks “Do food stylists use fake food?” you’ll know the whole story.

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