Mention that you are a food photographer and the question you hear most, by far is if the food is real. It seems a strange question but people that know anything about food photography have heard of old tricks from the film days for keeping food looking tasty under the hot lights. Tricks like using shortening instead of ice cream to keep from melting or marbles in soup to keep the big chunks of vegetables on the surface where you can see them. Though this kind of thing has mostly faded from food photography the myth survives. Largely because the difference between the product you buy rarely looks like the advertising that got your attention and your money. We have all been seduced by the colorful images of burgers at fast food restaurants only to face disappointment when we rip open the bag to the harsh reality of fast food truth. There are a few special foods that look incredible in the advertising photos and reality look like something a dog would turn it’s nose up at. The worst of these confounding confectionaries are burgers, microwave dinners and frozen pizza. That, my friends is where my Pizza Challenge begins!
So, here is the idea. Find a frozen pizza at the grocery store with gorgeous packaging. With a photo that makes the pizza look unbelievably tasty. Buy the pizza, and using nothing but the ingredients that come in the package, try and make the pizza look as delicious in my photo as it does on the box. Propping with items outside of the box is fine because it isn’t changing the actual product for sale. What is important is that this is exactly what you get when you buy this pizza, nothing extra can be added to add to the products appeal. In this case I decided to copy the props as closely as possible to pretend that for this challenge that propping was already picked by an art director, as it probably was for the packaging. To avoid any trouble I might get into by mentioning the brand or showing their packaging I have opted to leave it out. Which leaves the matter of deciding this challenge’s success or failure up to you the reader. But, with some careful investigative snooping I am sure you could catch a glimpse of the original during your next visit to the grocery store.
Opening the pizza package, there are some obvious challenges right away. I am pleasantly surprised at how good everything looks. The toppings look good and colorful but are a bit random in their placement. This won’t matter much because I am planning on removing everything but the cheese and sauce. I get to work removing the toppings and when I am finished I notice that there is a discrepancy between the package and the pizza. The advertising image has plain crust on the edges and the frozen pizza in front of me has sauce right up to the edge. This will need to be fixed, so once the pizza had thawed slightly I noticed that I could easily remove the sauce from the sides, so I wiped the sides as clean as I could get them. Then I smoothed out the cheese making sure to get a nice even coat, making sure to get it close to the edge. After finishing and reviewing my shots I think I could have done a better job of getting the cheese in a broken line over the crust to give it a more “asiago” look.
As I am starting to ready the pizza for cooking I have been getting the set ready. I have a second pizza as a stand in, so I can tune in the lighting. I feel like the shiny glossy quality is the key to the success of this image so I leave the plastic on the stand in to let me see the reflections created by the light as well as how the shadows will work. I have chosen a silver beauty dish as the key light, I like the slightly contrasty light especially on pizza where all of the action is happening in a very thin layer. It makes the toppings seem monumental. Then I am bouncing a strobe off of the white ceiling for fill. The fill is bounced from down set as well as the key to maintain a direction to the light and is very faint, just enough to bump the shadows.
The pizza goes into the oven and cooks, just the cheese and crust. Then in a skillet I cook the sausages and set them aside, then the pepperoni, just enough to make them shine. The peppers and olives and onions were simply washed, I looked at the packaging and they looked as though they weren’t cooked, so I followed suit. I think I could have cooked them slightly in a skillet but I cant imagine how that would have improved the way they look. After carefully watching the pizza cook, it was finally ready. I quickly placed the toppings as uniformly as I could, being careful to show the more colorful skin side of the peppers towards the camera.
Finally the pizza is finished and looks great. Out goes the stand-in and in goes the hero. Then I make sure everything is lined up properly by looking at the image in my iPad. I find it invaluable to shoot tethered to a computer or iPad when shooting food. It makes it so much easier to spot issues and correct them. Then I start shooting images and really studying the results. I will see some topping that looks off, or I will not like how the props interfere or interact and make small changes as I go along. It is critical that everything keeps looking fresh and hot so I will replace the basil once it starts wilting and I will use a heat gun on the food to keep it looking warm. The original package I was looking at for inspiration was square to fit the pizza. I ended up changing my image slightly for a horizontal by adding the tomato and the pizza cutter.
So what did I learn form my challenge? While, the original image is most certainly better than mine, it was created by a room full of people including art directors and assistants and food stylists. I think I proved that you can take a frozen pizza and by strategically making sure every element looks it’s best, make a really appealing picture that makes you want to take a bite.
Final image was shot with a canon 5Ds with a 90mm tilt shift lens. ISO 100, f14 1/20
Thanks for reading, be sure and stop by www.danieljacksonphoto.com to see more of my food photography. If you need great images to promote your food product or restaurant, I am a food photographer for hire and I would love to hear from you .