Food Photography – Then and Now

Since I started working at Flat Art Studios, predominantly a food photography studio, the first question anyone asks me is “can you actually eat the food?”. Now this may seem a strange question considering the sole purpose of our photography is either to encourage potential readers to make (and yes, eat) the meals or else to consume the advertised product. However, taking a brief look into the history of food photography, maybe this isn’t such a strange question after all.
An Ancient Roman painting of a fruit bowl. Image taken from

Food in art has been around since as early as the Ancient Egyptian era. During this time it was depicted in tombs in belief that it would become available in the afterlife. Later, in Roman times, the rich would display decorative mosaics, usually a glass bowl of fruit,  to show off the food of the upper class. In the 19th century food photographer’s work was very much influenced by still life paintings.

During the first half of the 20th century food photographers made use of strong diagonals, repetition, tight cropping, and close-ups in their work. Below Man Ray imitates the heat element of the then modern appliance the oven, by placing a coiled spring on top of  a sheet of photographic paper during exposure. Interesting? yes, appetizing? um…

Roast poultry a la Man Ray. Image taken from

In the latter half of the 20th century, with the growing popularity of colour photography, food photography jumped out the field of art and into the fire of the commercial fields of advertising and cookbooks. Unfortunately, the most simplistic concept of food – that it is edible and we like to eat it – also got caught up in the flames. In the ’60s and ’70s toxic products such as glycerine were used to add a tantalizing shine, hairspray to keep tasty morsels in place and cigarette smoke to simulate that straight from the oven goodness. This could all then be washed down with a glass of milk-resembling-glue. Mmmmmm

The lighting techniques used were very different from what they are today. Shooting with 4×5 film cameras with long exposures, the cookbook photographers needed to be more in control of the light so as to create a consistent look. Flash and tungsten were used regularly. The style of the food changed according to the era but topshots were favoured and everything in the photograph was in focus. Little was left to the viewer’s imagination and little was done to create a mood for the food.

"Chicken Puff" Printed in Your Family Best Recipes Magazine. Exact date not given. Photo: Frank Kunzner.

These day’s natural is in. People want to make food that looks just like the picture, a comment that is considered utmost praise for the amateur cook. People can’t believe that often it is just light from a window, carefully placed reflectors and a little splash of water or olive oil that makes the food we photograph look so appetizing. Of course it’s not as simple as it sounds though and an educated understanding and mastery of light is crucial.

"Chicken Pies" featured in Your Family July 2011. Photo: Lee Malan.

We’re entering an era where food takes centre stage and it tastes as good as it looks. Photographers and stylists revel in the simplicity of the plate and natural lighting shines the way. They say that fashion always comes back around but let’s hope for the sake of our pallets that natural and edible stays in season and noxious products stay in the garage and away from the kitchen.


About Flat Art Studios

We are a tight-knit group of photographers specializing in food photography in the Cape Town area.
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