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Food Photography: When Food Looks Perfect, It Doesn’t Look Good.

Yes, I took that photo myself. How did you know? How did you know that wasn’t the work of a professional food photographer? I mean, the food doesn’t look perfect, that’s for sure—isn’t that the point? (Um, it’s a little more complicated than that.)

Every issue of Food & Drink since Summer 2011 has contained one of my columns. Here’s the latest one, from the Summer 2016 issue. (NOTE: The image is unique to this blog entry.)

Brains are funny. Workin’, all the time, hard to fool (until we make them think too hard) and quick—they analyze and reach conclusions on an unconscious level and never bother to let the logical, conscious, wide-awake brain know a decision has been made. It happens every time you look at a photograph of food.

Before you even realize, your brain has declared, “Nope” or “Doubt­ful” or “Hey, remaining four senses—would you-all find out more about that thing we just saw? The pleasure center representatives and biological survival crews up here are kind of in­terested in seeing what we'd have to do to negotiate a piece of something that looks like that.” It‘s the latter re­action, of course, that your food pho­tographer is going for.

Here are some attributes of food photography that will make your quick-­to-judge brain interested in finding out more.

1. The food is not fake-y.

Okay, it can be beautiful and per­fectly lit and well photographed, but the food itself should have a realism that makes it seem like it could be eaten. With utter symme­try, squared-off corners and surgi­cally sliced meats, our brains are immediately suspicious of some­thing that seems artificial.

Consider This Next Time: Crumbs, sloppiness on the sides or a little drip that couldn't be controlled included in the final shot.

The brain takes these cues as proof that what we're seeing is real—a lit­tle chaos in the salad or the toppings matches our actual experiences with the best food we've had. A complete­ly controlled, rigid presentation can be beautiful, but it isn't natural. Brains trust a little imperfection.

An Exception: I'm thinking of an old poster for the “Got Milk?” campaign that shows a cupcake on which every aspect of the icing and cake has been presented as overly stylized per­fection, and it looks reallllllly good. Generally, those early “Got Milk?” billboards had food photography that made you want the peanut butter sandwich or cookie or brownie, de­spite being idealized.

2. The food has context.

A couple of current TV commer­cials from the QSR world use con­textual clues well. Arby‘s wants to be thought of as the expert on meats. So even with the most min­imal of backdrops, they include a hand-model outfitted as a (cleaned-­up) butcher-type character and a cutting board. KFC is showing its food in all kinds of nostalgic set­tings—a modified TV console, an old serving tray—to recapture the glory of the Colonel's heyday. Over in casual dining land, the pubs are still making things as neutral and unidentifiable as possible: a few clumps of uncut vegetables to one side, a pepper mill, a tablecloth, knives flashing and flames crack­ling. Everything blends together.

Consider This Next Time: What does your restaurant truly

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