Behind the scenes of a food shoot

In my spare time, I am an amateur hobbyist photographer at best, and an ambitiously optimistic home cook. It’s one of the reasons I have this blog. But in my full-time vocation, I am a graphic designer who occasionally gets the wonderful opportunity to work with the real food industry professionals. These people, the chefs, the photographers and the stylists and their assistants are exceptionally good at their jobs, and I am in awe of them. They have a militaristic attention to detail, a sixth sense for the invisible strand of hair or speck of dust that the average human might never notice. They take the most unassuming of ingredients and elevate them to such visually spectacular heights that you can almost taste the food just by looking at the photo. These are the people behind the food magazines you salivate over, the food commercials that make you dash to the fridge and the books that inspire you to make the stove and kitchen your empire.

I get sent on these shoots in the capacity of an art director. I design the concepts for whatever medium requires the food shots, be it recipe books, ads or in-store promotional items called Point of Sale. Those concepts (or scamps, as they are sometimes called) are either illustrated or designed with mock photos. When my initial concepts are approved by creative director and client, I put together a shoot brief. The brief outlines what the project is about, what formats the photos will go into, what lighting and styling is required. I sometimes need to go into great detail, specifying the kind of surfaces and props I want, how the food must be prepared, the angle the images need to be shot from and their depth of field (how much of the image must be in focus or blurred out). Each shoot is different. But each shoot requires a shoot brief which is then sent on and discussed with the stylist and the photographer.

Thereafter, the actual shoot takes place. And I thought it would be fun to share some behind the scenes images so I shot a few of my own pics. Due to contractual obligations, I am limited to what shots I can show and, sadly, cannot reveal the brand or the concept illustrations, but the few images below will give a good indication of what happens.

IMG_7151While the photographer sets up the surface, tests lighting and arranges his equipment, the stylist and her assistant will already be busy prepping the food. The shoots I’ve been on, the food is cooked properly where possible, so as to be authentic. Consumers are not stupid, they can spot a fake chicken, and brands want their product to be perceived as good, without having to synthesise anything. In the past, consumers wanted the images to look “perfect”, the flawless, glossy appearance that can only be achieved with glycerine and styrofoam and other horrid things. Now the expectation is reality. What can be achieved at home. Sometimes even rustic and relaxed in style. I love it.

IMG_7170 IMG_7169

Once the surface, props, and food are ready, test shots are taken and then examined on computer. Things are adjusted accordingly, like exposures, reflectors and diffusers, the focus of the lens and the actual food can be tweaked. I will do something my boss calls a “sense check”. I check the image to ensure that it is adhering to the shoot brief, the client requests and that it is in alignment with what the brand wants and needs to communicate. I will also check that there is cohesion between the concept artwork and the final photo result. Sometimes the concept needs to be adjusted if the real execution can’t achieve it. I have to make those decisions and sometimes check with the account executive that the client is happy for such adjustments to be made.
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Occasionally, some things do need a little manipulation. In this case, we were shooting a butter product. But in order for several test shots to be taken and the styling and arrangement of the food to be correct, we at first needed it solid and not melted yet. So it was frozen first, and then the cut shape placed in the correct position. Once everyone was satisfied that the lighting and styling is correct, it was time for the butter to be melted. For this, a heat gun was used. It points a small, controllable amount of direct heat at the butter, allowing us to melt the parts of it that would look appealing and not render it an unidentifiable, grotesque blob (like we had at first when we used the microwave to melt it…).

Once everything is perfect, final shots are taken. Sometimes, if time allows, they would be emailed to client for approval.


Sometimes, in order to look as real as possible, it has to be faked a little. It’s not possible to have, for instance, hot cross buns, stay exactly the right level of heat to steam adequately in the shot. Sometimes, it’s summer and the surrounding temperature is too warm or humid to show steam. So we have to improvise and shoot steam separately. One trick is to microwave a water-soaked tampon, as it retains heat well and the steam is small and organic, and shoot that. Another is to heat up a metal surface on a gas burner and splash water until the right effect is achieved. Afterwards, the steam is overlaid in the final images.

Once everything is done, where possible some of the food is consumed (for lunch). The rest given to staff or charity. That’s a nice benefit of having to shoot as realistically as possible, is that there is much less wastage than in the past.


Photo by Michael le Grange

Got any questions about the post? Let me know in the comments section and I’d be happy to answer. 🙂

Blog Comments

That is so interesting Shirley. Thank you for sharing. Who would have thought of heating a water soaked tampon to create steam. Being a food stylist looks like bloody hard work! 🙂 xx

Thanks Tami! I admire how stylists are great chefs too, always getting the food right. A lot of them actually have cheffing experience or education. It’s quite high pressure as there are so many variables and so many things about food that can go wrong. But when it looks good in the end, and it usually does, it’s so worth it.

Thanks for sharing that, Shirley, it’s very interesting to hear all the detail of behind the scenes. One of my daughters has a vague idea that she might want to go into design, so I can show her this to give her an idea of one aspect of graphic design. She also want to be a photographer, so ditto for that.

That’s great, Kit. Nowadays, working in the creative industry as a designer is pretty dynamic as you can branch out to almost any field in the industry. It’s a good foundation to start from.

Wow Shirls, I’m so impressed! Looks like a lot of work but fantastically creative too. 🙂

I think it has somehow come across a lot more glamorous than it is 😉

Great post, Shirley! I’ve often fancied I’d love to be a food stylist for photography… but at some point I was made aware of how much work is involved! It’s not all quite as delicious and carefree as the photos end up looking. Your job sounds awesome! 🙂 Thanks for sharing this.

Thanks, Fathima! The stylists really earn their paychecks, it aint easy. I have huge admiration for them and the photographers. They make magic together. Blows my mind.

What an opportunity to be on a shoot like this! Love the tampon idea for steam, never heard of that one. Very interesting post.

The tampon trick has been around for years, hehe. They also sometimes use cigarette smoke, although I haven’t seen it used for food before as the colour and consistency of cigarette smoke isn’t right for that usually.

You lost me ar water soaked tampon. My pregnant brain got stuck there.

Also now I want hot cross buns with butter.

Your pictures as usual are amazing Shirls

Thanks Jo! Hope you get that warm, toasted hot cross bun! 😉

You have a pretty cool Job. And I’m still sniggering about a steamy tampon.

It really truly sounds cooler than it is. Steaming tampons and melting butter for a living is less glamorous than it sounds. But only by a smidge 😉

Hey Shirley

Who was the photographer and stylist? Did you shoot in Durban or Cape Town?

Hey Sarah! We shot in Cape Town with Flat Art Studios.

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