Current Food photography styles and trends

Food photography now has a much more creative outlet, much like fashion photography and significantly relates to today’s lifestyles.
Overall, my research for my dissertation and this blog has allowed me to conclude that while there is not a specific comprehensive history on food photography, there is still a substantial amount written about it, reflected by increased consumer interest in food and diet in today’s Western, consumerist society. While the genre has been constrained to commercial realms, we have seen that it is slowly becoming credible in the art world with notable exhibitions and highly creative features appearing in popular food magazines. I hope that there will be a continuation of this in the future as the subject is so prolific with possibilities that it is fruitless to stop now. 
I’ve already stumbled across some great writing on current food photography styles and trends on this great blog called Desserts for Breakfast. Using a (rather delicious-looking) chocolate cake, Anita Chu and Stephanie Shih look at different styles in contemporary food photography, across the whole spectrum; from product/packaging to various editorial styles used in a wide range of publications – mirroring the moodier photography style used in ‘Food and Travel’ to the more bright and propped seen in ‘BBC Good Food’

This ‘Chiaroscuro’ style image, the clear contrast between light and dark, highlights the strong influence from still life paintings like Caravaggio and the Dutch Masters.

You can read more about their blog post here 

And you can read more about the team behind it and their newly launched magazine ‘Sated’ here 


What to Cook and How to Cook it – Jane Hornby & Angela Moore

Another example of a cookbook that focuses on ingredients is What to Cook and How to Cook it by Jane Hornby. Images are photographed in the same bird’s eye view style. Arguably, this appeals to the consumer more because it is their view as if looking down at the dish before sitting down at the dinner table.
Angela Moore, Cinnamon Rolls, in what to cook and how to cook it, 2010.
Following the photographs at each stage of the recipe, the reader sees how their food should look at each stage. A focus on ingredients has grown; they are being photographed alongside recipes in magazines and cookbooks. Perhaps people in the UK cook less, but read more cookbooks and watch more cooking television shows. There’s always a place for beautiful cookbooks, whether the recipes are cooked or not. (Dillon, S. 2010 [radio]) The reader still consumes the cookbook while not necessarily cooking from it. Food photography is being noticed for the artistic visions in the images – not just because people want to eat.

Food Porn

Food photography shifted in 2004 when Marks and Spencer‘s memorable television campaign pushed ‘food porn’ into the spotlight. No longer were we seeing shots with shallow depth of field and clean white backgrounds; movement and texture became the key aspects of interest. Seductive voice-overs accompanied oozing, chocolate puddings, drizzled sauces and meat being craved. Juices trickled in slow motion, intensifying the portrayal.

Still from “Not just food, M&S; Food”, RKCR/Y&R;, Launched August 2004

‘Food porn’ had been used in food photography since the late 1980’s but was coined as “Gastroporn” by Michael Boys, a food and female nude photographer. His term described sensually provocative and intentionally alluring imagery in cookery books. The imagery appeals to “basic carnal desires” (Plimmer, C. 1988, p20) Food writer Nigel Slater recalls a shoot for French Marie Claire magazine, where chef, Jean-Louis created a dish of pears in red wine. The photograph captured a trail of sauce dribbling down the side of a pear. (Dillon, S. 2010 [radio]). Such images were so popular with “advertisements telling us that we can ‘indulge’ in eating things that we ‘shouldn’t’. The cunning and powerful allure of food reaches us covertly” (Kuehn, G. in ed Allhoff et al, 2007, p166). These tempting, visual stimuli of erotically suggestive food greatly increased the popularity of food. Jane Lerner remarks, food porn “turns something relatively mundane into a fetish, as if we’re seeking an idealized version of food that’s prettier, sexier and more outrageous than what we’re going to get at home.” (2009, p20). Typing ‘Food porn’ into Google today returns 17,300,000 (744,000 in 2010) results. Launched in January 2007, Tastespotting, an online archive of user-submitted images compiled by a team of editors describes itself as “our obsessive, compulsive collection of eye-catching images that link to something deliciously interesting on the other side.”(2007, [online]) Similarly, websites Foodgawker, (launched in June 2008), Recipes2Share and Open Source Food fill the demands for mouth-watering images. Photographer Tim Hill shared this desire to stir viewers’ senses. “If you look at a shot and your mouth waters, I’ve won. When you eat the food you can see it, smell it, taste it, touch it. I can’t show all that. I can only show what it looks like. I’m trying to make the image as graphic and interesting as possible so that it says ‘Eat me’” (Hill, T. in Smyth, D. 2007, p15) 1.

Around the same time, came a contrasting trend of much more natural-looking food that wasn’t so pornographic.  There were two very different styles of photography but there is always going to be room for both, largely due to the audience who buy food magazines. If you take a look at images in what was formerly Waitrose Food Illustrated (now Waitrose Kitchen) and compare them to FamilyCircle or Good Housekeeping it’s like viewing porn magazines to needle patterns. 

(1 sourced from Diane Smyth, (2007) “Food Rules”, British Journal of Photography, Vol. 154, July 11, pp 14-16.)


Food photography in the 90’s – Overuse of Shallow DOF

By the late 1990’s, the Donna Hay style was being used excessively, with little of the food in focus. Food publications were “going berserk…People were using shallow depth of field that you couldn’t see what the food was” (1. David Munns in Smyth, D. 2007, p15). The images were reminiscent of still life paintings as shallow depth of field gave food products a soft, natural look. Dickerman (2006, [online]) noted, “Selective focus is particularly handy for creating visual interest in blobby food like casseroles” But like David Munns, she too saw that “Eventually, it seemed that nofood was photographed without selective focus”. New Zealand photographer Ian Batchelor was an early adopter of short focus. Upon reflection, he too thought the technique was used and abused. For him, the thinking behind it was to draw attention to the important aspect of the photograph separating and framing it with the bokeh effect. He had seen this used to great effect and also the opposite where the effect has been used without any understanding and a quite random part of the image has been in focus. Yet this style influenced cookbooks like MarieClaire Kitchen, published in 2004. Photographs by Petrina Tinslay create not only a beautiful cookbook but also a giant food picture book. Over half the pages display a full-page image spread and the images much larger than those in magazines.
Petrina Tinslay, in Marie Claire Kitchen, 2004
Since then, the extreme receded slightly. Olivemagazine, launched in 2003, tended not to use it; ‘It’s not in fashion but also we want to show all of the food because we tend to be illustrating recipes.’ (2. Hayley Ward, in Smyth, D, 2007, p 15) The aesthetics of the style remain; daylit images are still much ‘in vogue’. Instead, Olivemagazine uses shallow depth of field to suggest narrative to the image. This cover image shows the front dessert in focus, while the back one is not, suggesting a dessert course for two, although the viewer will only actually eat one. The shallow depth of field allows text to be incorporated flawlessly.
Olive, Issue 1, December 2003
(1. & 2.  – sourced from Diane Smyth, (2007) “Food Rules”, British Journal of Photography, Vol. 154, July 11, pp 14-16.)

Donna Hay

The aesthetics of food photography were completely revolutionised in the 1990’s by Australian magazine editor and food stylist Donna Hay. Instead of everything in the image being in focus, shallow depth of field was used. Having only a fraction of the food in focus meant that it didn’t matter what was in the background so much as the food was the centre of attention.

Con Poulos, Chilli chicken burger, n.d

Food stylist, Stephen Parkins-Knight remembers everything was immaculate, on white, shot either above or from the side, minimal, with fabulous colours and considers food photographer, Con Poulos as a vital advocate in the substantial trend and is still looked upon as the most influential food photographer of the 1990’s. Along with Donna Hay magazine, they pioneered this technique of using shallow depth of field. Only a small part of the food was in focus so often photographers would not need a food stylist. It also meant they could work in natural light using a wide aperture, because more light could get into the lens, allowing food photographers to work anywhere, not just in the studio. Instead of harsh tungsten lights used in the 1980’s, there was a progression towards using just a single soft box, which then moved onto photographers using natural daylight in the late 1990’s.The style moved to the UK around 1997, into magazines, cookbooks and advertisements. It was also at this time that BBC Good Food magazine celebrated its eighth birthday and food magazines became more popular. Many publications expanded their cookery coverage, supermarkets started to launch their own magazines and there was a rise in food cookery shows on television. This is significant as the demand for food photography greatly increased since the release of the first issue.

The 1990’s technique to feature close-ups of naturally lit food in highly selective focus, significantly contrasted to the ‘everything in focus’ and highly styled images of the 1980’s. The relaxed manner of the images gave consumers the idea that anyone can make good food. By having that blur in the photo, the dish appears softer, less concerned with objectivity and more with artistic impression.

This led to a significant change in the sales of cookbooks. By the late 1990’s illustrated cookbooks became more popular than those that were not illustrated. It had gone so far that “a bookstore owner lamented to me that although she kept steering newlyweds to un-illustrated cookbooks with thousands of recipes, no one wanted them. They wanted the full-on close-ups of perfectly placed chanterelles or even French toast. They expected to be made hungry between meals.”(Shakely, L. n.d. [online])


Food photography in magazines

Food photography as a genre proliferated as magazines dedicated to food started to appear in the late 1980’s. “A food magazine’s cover photography should convey something about the way we eat, or the way we’re supposed to eat.” (Dickerman, S. 2006 [online]) Food photography in the 1980’s shifted from mere illustration to lifestyle, reflected by society when many had a higher disposable income; there was a trend of very heavily dressed lifestyle shots. Gourmetmagazine, in particular, always had a glossy cover of a debonair dish with detailed props. Dickerman remembers the “tablescapes of the ’80s when, in the thrall of both nouvelle cuisine and an Aaron-Spelling-like consumer exhibitionism, presentation mattered.” 25 years ago magazines and cookery books ran double page spreads with several dishes in them, the emphasis being on an atmospheric photograph. The focus then was on ambiance and lifestyle, rather than just the single food product.
In the 1980’s, everything in the frame was glossy and in focus. While Gourmet magazine conquered the US market, such lifestyle images paved the way for magazines dedicated to food in the UK. In November 1989, the first food magazine was launched, BBC Good Food magazine, which published recipes from a number of BBC cookery shows, like Food and Drink (1982 – 2001). What is significant about this is that prior to the release of Good Foodmagazine, there were no magazines dedicated to just food, yet the popularity in cookery television shows sparked a consumer demand for such a magazine. While the picture content of the first issue is rather minimal, the magazine was filled with glossy food advertisements in order to fund the magazine through its first issue. 
Laurie Evans, BBC Good Food Magazine cover, Issue 1, November 1989.
After the first few issues in 1990, the magazine grew its picture content, funded by bigger budgets. The covers always had a white background, with the food shot in studio, showing a single dish, sometimes with a side or decorative plate. This consistency was arguably to establish brand recognition in the consumer market, rather than a lack of aesthetic experimentation. The magazine proved popular and, after running for five years, coloured backgrounds appeared on the cover with multiple food dishes, emphasising lifestyle (shown below) and not just the single food dish.
Martin Brigdale, BBC Good Food magazine cover, Christmas issue, December 1993.
The brand became well established after the success of the annual BBC Good Food show in Birmingham, responsible for the popularity of celebrity chefs like Gary Rhodes and eventually launched a sister magazine, Vegetarian Good Food.