Food photography and manipulation in advertising: Why do we accept knowingly being lied to?


The rise of photo manipulation is changing our perception of the images we see all around us, but are these changes for better or for worse?
“I am far from saying that a photograph must be an actual, literal and absolute fact…but it must represent truth.” – Henry Peach Robinson. Photo manipulation covers a spectrum of techniques used within a wide variety of industries. It is often referred to as “retouching” or “airbrushing”.

Common practice within the media; photo manipulation has lead us to think that airbrushing is essential to improving every image we see. Images of the world, objects and individuals have been a key source of beauty for as long as there have been images to see. We instinctively capture what we think is interesting to us, usually falling into being aesthetically pleasing to the eye and/or provokingly to the mind.

Manipulating photos is connected to current technology. We view the pre-Photoshop era as a time when photographs were depictions of an indisputable truth at a given moment in time. In current media we are lead to believe that beautiful women don’t have wrinkles and beautiful landscapes aren’t tainted with rubbish. With easy access to photo manipulation programs, are we abusing this tool and therefore subverting the whole point of a photograph in the first place?

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. However, the beauty being portrayed in images shows a heightened version of reality; as opposed to a raw, realistic depiction. We seem to be setting ourselves up for constant disappointment and appear to be rather accepting of this ‘new normal’.

Food photography is something I personally find rather fascinating. The tricks used to make food look more appetising on camera often include inedible items (as the meal is not to be consumed). The following are ten examples I find particularly curious.

  1. Using eye-liner to create false grill marks
  2. Adding dish soap gives to milk/soup to give a fresher look by adding bubbles
  3. Coating bread with polish to stop it drying out
  4. Applying lip-stick to strawberries to make them look riper
  5. Using white glue instead of milk to stop cereal appearing soggy
  6. Applying matte spray in order to make a glass or bottle look cold
  7. Spraying a varnish onto pancakes so that syrup doesn’t soak into them
  8. Cotton wool balls can be soaked in water and microwaved to produce steam for several minutes which when strategically placed gives the impression of searing hot food/drink
  9. Deodorant can be used on vegetables to create a high gloss effect.
  10. Using mashed potato instead of ice-cream to prevent it melting under hot studio lights


“You can’t use a normal roast chicken because from the second that it’s out of the oven it starts to go wrinkly, so what you do instead is plump up an uncooked chicken by injecting it with boiling water. Then you either use wood varnish or a mixture of honey, Fairy Liquid and gravy browning and you paint the bird to achieve the roasted colour you want.” (Shanahan, 2006)

While not all food stylists and photographers use such tricks, the norm is certainly to do so.


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Our reaction to food photography at the big fast food outlets is particularly interesting. The bright colours, promise of fresh, tasty ingredients and oh-so-satisfyingly hunger quenching food shown within their advertising is an illusion we (as consumers) are only too aware of. The venues themselves often plaster their walls with photographs of huge, juicy looking burgers (often hanging right next to your table). You need only open your eyes to find the vision the sad little burger (in it’s limp bun with yellowing lettuce) in your grasp should look like. We accept this, we don’t expect our burger to resemble the one advertise, why do we accept this misinterpretation? Are we that used to being lied to?

The food industry’s attitude towards photo manipulation seems to be exclusive in the consumer market; you don’t find adverts for the latest laptop looking any better than the one you receive when you purchase it. If this happened with any other product purchase, many would likely protest according to the Sales of Goods Act: “The buyer shall be entitled… if the goods are, or are to be, sold by description, that the goods will correspond with the description.” (Legislation, 2013) As consumers we seem to accept that this is okay when it’s applied to food.

I would conclude that photo manipulation has definitely skewed our idea of beauty, from women to food. It has heightened our expectations yet at the same time made us skeptical and less accepting of the media’s version of the truth.

Melissa Kirby
Design Intern
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