Ugly but Tasty

It’s a conundrum that anyone who’s cooked even the bare minimum of meals has undoubtedly run into; the tastiest dishes are often the messiest, homeliest, and downright most unattractive of foods. Not an issue for the eater, who can simply close their eyes and take that first tentative taste, to realize the potential concealed by such an unassuming first impression. For a photographer, however, the added difficulty stems from the fact that viewers can only eat with their eyes. No matter how delicious you think your recipe for chili casserole is, without proper styling and propping, it will never look like anything more than muddy beans in a dish. Some foods are naturally photogenic and need little if any makeup before making their photographic debut, but others need a bit of love, and a whole lot of finesse.

Oatmeal is one particularly tricky food to capture in an appealing way. Lumpy, beige mush that goes on forever. It’s all about the toppings in this situation. Sparingly sprinkle berries (always lovely and great for color), nuts, or even chocolate chips if you want to give it a more decadent feel around the edges of the bowl. Make sure you leave enough of the actual oatmeal exposed so that it doesn’t end up looking like a bowl of fruit salad, though- If need be, add more of those beautifying ingredients around the bowl itself, as if there were so many extras, they’re simply overflowing. Move them into the background to reinforce what went into the oatmeal, sort of like a subconscious reminder.

Soups, stews, and other lumpy, semi-liquid meals share many of the same difficulties as oatmeal. You have more options here though, as any colorful veggie will instantly brighten up the picture. Green peas are my go-to addition whenever possible. Take frozen peas out of the freezer and simply thaw them under warm water. Add them after the dish is completely finished cooking so that they don’t turn brown, and leave a few out until the final plating. Insert your last few peas individually to make sure that they’re visible, but try to blend them in with a thin layer of sauce, so they don’t actually look like they’ve been placed there after the fact.

Everyone always loves seeing chocolate, but it can pose a few problems for a photographer. It’s one of the items I get many questions about, as chocolate bars in particular often give others trouble, looking more like dog droppings than candy. Isolation is key here, so that the brown-ness doesn’t just continue to blend into the background and look like a crappy smudge (pun intended.) No wood grain backgrounds for me, thanks! Go with a light, bright color or simply white to provide contrast, and most certainly a white plate if you plan to use one. Cut-away photos are always a big hit if possible, so that you can let viewers see inside the chocolates and understand the contents (and thus flavors) better. A grouping of a few chocolates can also be effective, but be careful not to overcrowd the scene.

Ice cream is a legendary troublemaker on the set, but I have to say, I don’t find it to be such a pain to work with.  Though most people wouldn’t categorize it as “ugly food,” it goes from lovely and all made up to a droopy, gloppy, and unappetizing mess in mere minutes.  The key is speed and efficiency; Have your set all assembled and ready to go, white balance and exposure adjusted, and bowls empty and waiting before you take the ice cream out of the freezer. Limit yourself to a maximum of two bowls or scoops in the beginning, because it takes too much time to get that “perfect” sphere so many times over. As soon as the ice cream hits the set, snap like the wind; take as many photos as you can, from as many different angles, so that you can have a large number of greatly varied shots to choose from. Ideally, this should give you a better likelihood of getting that winning photo in one go. And don’t worry if the scoops don’t look perfect- They shouldn’t look dry and immaculate like colored mashed potatoes! A bit of melting or dripping fudge sauce makes for a mouthwatering effect.

Food in jars, no matter what the main ingredient, has the odds stacked against it. Typically long-simmered or preserved to a mummified state, they lack the brightness that fresh produce could offer. The key is to bring light, and plenty of it, into the frame. Try to shine light directly through the glass jars from behind, to give it a warm “glow.” Add fresh ingredients around the jars, to give viewers an idea of what vibrant produce went into making those pickles or jam. Remove some of the contents of the jars, and style them as you would expect to eat them; on toast, in a sandwich, etc.

The list can go on until the end of time, but these are the top five that come to my mind first. What are your ugliest dishes, and most difficult foods to photograph? If I get enough suggestions, perhaps there can be a part two for styling tips and tricks for these unphotogenic edibles!

44 thoughts on “Ugly but Tasty

  1. These photgraphy tips are incredibly helpful. Thank you!

    I’d love to see a series of tips from you, including favourite lenses, lighting, aperture settings, etc.

  2. This was super handy to read! By and large, I find photographing burritos to be a big pain. Maybe it’s because I eat them so often! But first there’s the rolling, and then attempting to reveal the inside without making a huge mess on the plate. Burritos are my (very delicious) arch nemesis.

  3. Great tutorial! My husband often says my food looks like muddy beans in a dish or some such comments. He won’t try my soups, as many have looked like dishwater! He certainly eats with his eyes. Luckily he loves oatmeal and won’t go a day without it! I love the chocolate bar picture. Is it one of your recipes?

  4. Thank you for this great post! I always love to see how some of my favorite bloggers get those mouthwatering shots. I’ll second the posts above and say that I’d love to see more about food photography here.

  5. Wonderful tips. Thank you. I find fish to be very difficult too. I made such a wonderful salmon dish recently but the photos just looked SAD. Any fish photography tips?

  6. i just tried taking a picture today of a chocolate bar and it was being so stubborn!!! lol.. couldn’t find the right angle and i gave up after 10 minutes…which seemed like 1 hour when i think about it lol


  7. Thanks for the great tips! Especially the one about the chocolate bar. I will definitely use a bright background for the photo, I wouldn’t want a perfectly good shot to go to ‘waste’! (oooo! Sorry, couldn’t help myself)

  8. That is one amazing post Hannah..thank you so much for sharing and I would love to see more tips and advice from you…really helpful..I’m sharing this on facebook

  9. Thank you thank you THANK YOU for the tips! So helpful– photographing pudding was a problem until I figured out that swirling it like fro-yo and adding mint leaves and a strawberry (color, like you said) and some chocolate bar squares in the background made it much better.

    For me, photographing cookies, cupcakes and the like can be tough– they are single units, uniform, don’t always have bright colors in them, and they don’t always have theme that can add interest to the photo (such as Christmas or birthdays). I mean, there are only so many times you can picture a pile of cookies or a feature shot of a cupcake. You always seem to be able to add that “magic” to your baked good photos– any tips?

    1. Hm, I’ll see if I can do a future post on cookie styling. I’m hoping to make a regular series of this since there was so much interest, and cookies were definitely one of the things that came up as a trouble spot a couple of times.

  10. a much needed tutorial!! and those are totally not ugly!
    I am struggling with icecream, misshaped cookies and curries.! curries unless spiked with some colorful toppings or in colorful bowls are just one color throughout.. just like oatmeal..
    and the misshaped cookies cant really be stacked.. so i cant think of the overall composition around it.
    Thanks for the post Hannah!

  11. You are such a master. I should shoe you the photo of a dish I mae involving coconut milk and pomegranate on shrimp. It was so freaking delicious but ugly as sin. I look at the picture now and again. I want to post it but then I am like, nah, its too ugly!

  12. Thank you for the great tips from a new blogger! I made a stew that was a mess! I posted the picture anyway, but the next one will look so much more palatable thanks to you! I’m putting my vote in for more tips as well!

  13. I always have a hard time with soups and stews. I think that most of the time vegans have the advantage of colourful food as opposed to meat dishes with brown sauce. Anyway, all your pictures are gorgeous.

  14. Your tips are so helpful, Hannah, thanks for sharing them! I know exactly what you mean…I recently made refried lentils which were none too photogenic, lol. It really is a shame though, because they tasted incredible!

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