Take A Bite

The art of food photography requires skill in several disciplines, not least of which is diplomacy in dealing with the client. Above: A rich chocolate dessert lit to eliminate any distractions.

Lou Manna’s book Digital Food Photography is a comprehensive guide to the fine points of professional food photography. In this excerpt from the book, you can get helpful tips on some of the most important aspects of this specialized class of image-making. In a challenging business climate, being a good food photographer is a chance for a pro to be able to pick up some extra work and add to the studio’s bottom line.

An advertisement featuring Stön Vodka.
An advertisement featuring Stön Vodka.

Who’s Digesting It: Advertising, Packaging, Public Relations And The Media

Image is everything in food photography. We’re a generation of visual people, and we’re naturally stimulated by what we see. Beautiful food images conjure up all the human senses. We can be comforted by nostalgic images that recall our past and can be stimulated by pictures that present food in exciting, new and colorful ways. In other words, we respond to images that have appetite appeal and look fresh. Enthusiasm, fun and spontaneity are contagious, and I try to convey all of this in my photographs.

Throwing certain objects out of focus, tilting the frame, soft lighting and tight close-ups are some of the techniques I use to get the viewer’s attention and achieve desired effects. Most of the time, simplicity rules; less is more when it comes to food photography.

Because food is perceived differently among diverse audiences, photographers need to vary their approaches and styles depending on how their pictures will be used and who will be looking at them. Advertising images are designed to communicate feelings and messages that are different from those in news stories and magazine articles. For example, a photograph that was taken for use on a billboard won’t necessarily be appropriate for a newspaper recipe section, a fitness magazine or an industry trade publication. In addition to factors such as composition and prop styling, there are technical aspects, such as lighting, contrast range and file size, that need to be considered for different types of usage.

A simple, graphic composite image.
A simple, graphic composite image.

This might mean producing several variations of a picture, for example, a “beauty shot” for glossy ads, a version showing explicit brand identification that can be used in trade publications and product catalogs, and another version in which the brand name or label is only partially visible that can be distributed to newspapers and consumer magazines.

Because short deadlines and quick turnarounds are common for food photographers, speed and accuracy in a shoot significantly affect the client’s profit margins. That’s why you need to go into each shoot with a firm sense of who will be “digesting” your pictures. You need to know before you begin what your pictures are going to be used for—advertising, the media, public relations or packaging—to most effectively plan and execute the shoot.

Simplicity is the key to emphasizing the main subject.

Fortunately, digital photography simplifies the creative process without compromising quality, and it increases your ability to more quickly produce a better picture that’s ready to be used commercially.

The Digital Reality Check

Advertising, media and public-relations clients have a lot invested in their products, both financially and emotionally. As a result, they can be very literal in their demands for the final image. For example, clients often want to include too much in a photo, or sometimes don’t understand the needs and realities of different media usage.

Battling that literal nature is the photographer’s plight. Saying “I’ll do whatever you like!” is often the best way to begin your relationship with your client. Diplomacy, patience, humor and depth of understanding go far in determining the best way to convey an image.

As a digital photographer, I’ve been able to reduce the amount of negotiating I have to do with clients in order to give them the pictures that best suit their needs. Digital photography enables me to show clients what they think they want to see and then show them what works better visually. It’s absolutely true that a picture is worth a thousand words—everyone reacts to visuals! The picture is most often the hook that draws attention to an ad, article or product package. Important differences in the purposes and needs of advertising, packaging, media usage and public relations dictate the approach you’ll take in your digital food photography.


When taking photos that will be used in advertising, you aim for perfection in every aspect of the shot. Advertising pictures are designed to depict the product in an ideal state to entice people to buy a product. These pictures can be placed in a wide range of media, such as magazines, newspapers, TV, posters and the Internet. In addition, these images also can be found in many other kinds of media, such as product brochures, restaurant menu boards and retail point-of-purchase displays.

Food manufacturers invest a great deal of money to generate customer loyalty and establish an emotional bond with the consumer. There’s far less creative freedom in advertising photography than in shooting for media or public relations. Advertising photographs, as well as photos used for product packaging, must explicitly reflect the art director’s vision and layout without deviation.

Art directors create the concept of the shoot, after which a photographer is selected and the creative process begins. Food and prop stylists create the perfect look that will grab the audience’s attention. In especially large or high-budget projects, the stylists might in turn hire additional staff members.

Advertising involves far more intense attention to every aspect of the food, props and lighting than any other area of photography, and is by far the most labor- and time-intensive. The art director and client are almost always present, and provide nearly continuous input and feedback during the shoot. The food stylist and prop stylist constantly adjust and fine-tune the food and set to ensure perfection in every detail. Although advertisements must always show the real food, it can be tweaked and accentuated in appearance.

Product Packaging

Packaging is designed to convey the “personality” of the brand, and food-product packaging is an art form unto itself. The package is what you face at the point of purchase. It’s the hard sell. The image and brand awareness have to shine brightly. Imagery, color, logos, words and graphics all work together to create a selling package. Photos on food packages have been steadily increasing in size to increase the “saliva factor” and grab the consumer’s attention.


Taking photographs for packaging requires strict adherence to a very precise layout because space needs to be reserved for type and other graphics. When shooting for packaging, the contrast range is lower than normal in order to ensure that proper detail is maintained when the image is reproduced on a variety of surfaces, such as plastic, paper or cardboard.

Generally, the package photo is a close-up view of the product, and in sharp focus. Props are kept to a bare minimum, so attention is on the product itself, but sometimes a little garnish such as a sprig of parsley or fresh herbs will be added to give the product more “appetite appeal.”

Although these photos had a stylist, an editorial shoot usually doesn’t have the budget for one, so you need to be able to act as your own at times.
Although these photos had a stylist, an editorial shoot usually doesn’t have the budget for one, so you need to be able to act as your own at times.

In addition, the food stylist always works from the actual product to bring out the best of what the consumer will find in the package. Often, the stylist will open many packages to find the best examples of the product, and then will carefully enhance and arrange the various elements so the food looks its best.


One of my long-standing clients has been McIlhenny Company, makers of the iconic Tabasco Sauce. The photos simultaneously evoke contemporary and traditional feelings. These photos, and hundreds of others I’ve shot for this company, have been featured in recipe cards, newspapers and magazines across the country for more than a decade.

Part of a PR campaign for McIlhenny Company’s Tabasco Sauce.
Part of a PR campaign for McIlhenny Company’s Tabasco Sauce.

For one assignment, I produced photographs illustrating several recipes using Tabasco Sauce that were distributed to newspaper and magazine food editors. The pictures were also used by Family Features, a media company that widely distributes photographs and articles written by public relations agencies to local newspapers. Newspapers receive the material free of charge, and use it as filler between their own editorial content and paid advertisements. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Tabasco doesn’t pay the price for an advertisement, and the paper receives a high-quality article that’s ready for publication.

Advertising, packaging, media and public relations are similar in that they all seek the consumer’s attention. Whether you’re flipping through the pages of a magazine or newspaper, passing by a billboard or surfing the web, compelling visuals are what attract your attention, whet your appetite and pull you into the subject.

Barilla Pasta

Another wonderful working relationship has been with Barilla Pasta, the only national brand of pasta. Barilla’s strategy is to remain loyal to the heritage and culture of Italy, while at the same time strengthen its image with a contemporary branding that communicates the product’s superior quality.

Simple textures add to the variety of images for Barilla Pasta. If you’re in New York, you can see Lou Manna in person through Adorama, which frequently sponsors seminars with him.
Simple textures add to the variety of images for Barilla Pasta. If you’re in New York, you can see Lou Manna in person through Adorama, which frequently sponsors seminars with him.

Barilla has expanded traditional methods of marketing pasta through the use of public relations, advertising and innovative packaging. The company has worked to develop a strong national brand identity through print media, an award-winning website, product information sheets and sponsorship of large events such as the New York City Marathon. One of my photographs was used on a banner at the Barilla Marathon Eve Dinner at Tavern on the Green!

Lou Manna is one of the most sought-after food photographers anywhere. You can see more of his work and his blog at his website, www.loumanna.com. His book Digital Food Photography is available in bookstores.

Leave a Reply