Every industry has its own set of language that makes no sense to those who are unfamiliar. Food photography is no different. There’s all kinds of strange food photography terms. Some make sense when you think about it. Others, not so much.
A Little Photo Assisting Story
When I was first assisting, let’s just say, I worked with some rather “difficult” photographers. One in particular took the cake. Oh, do I have stories, anyway, one day on a large job with 4 or 5 other assistants, this photographer decided to test me. I was on set, turned around and everyone was gone, except for the photographer which is very odd when lighting a large set, and that made me very nervous.
He starting spouting off photo terms and bizarre photo grip names for equipment. He said something like, “grab a pancake, put a baby plate on it with a 650 and a full CTO”. Well, he didn’t realize I completely knew what all that was (luckily), so I immediately asked, “ok great, where do you want that light?”
He did this several more times and had me put lights in strange places so I quickly realized it was all just a test. He walked off the stage, I was by myself, then all the guys (assistants) came back in. One of them said with disappointment, “looks like you passed”.
When you are first starting out, this new language will will seem odd and intimidating but over time, you’ll get used it and if you don’t know what something means, just ask. I assisted in some environments that were not friendly for beginners, so hopefully you’ll learn in a much warmer and fun environment that will support your learning.
Wacky Food Photography Terms
So, let’s get down to it! Here are 10 very common food photography terms and what they mean.
1. Stand In Food: Stand in food is food that you just throw on a plate to rough in your camera angle, your set, your props, and your lighting. When you have food that will wilt quickly, this is a must. You can’t rush your set up. Get everything sorted out with your stand in food. This term is also used for actors when the huge, famous celebrity isn’t really necessary for the shot.
2. Hero Food: Hero food is the final dish, the perfectly styled dish that will be used as our final shot and given to the client. When shooting with clients, after the “stand in” is used to set up the shot, we get the “hero” shot done first, and only then do variations if requested, and only if there is time so that we can keep to the schedule. If you have 6 shots in one day, then you have to break those 6 shots down in your 10 hour day. I am hard core when it comes to our shot count for the day because all it takes is two variations to suddenly take a turn, and then two hours go by and now you are behind with you shot count for the day. Our hero food is also called the “beauty dish” or “beauty shot”.
3. Mark The Plate: There might be other terms for this, but I’ve always told my crew to “mark the plate” before moving anything so that when they take our plate off set, then we will know EXACTLY where it needs to go when it’s brought back in. You mark your plates with wood blocks or something that will show you where you plate needs to go when you bring it back into the same set. This saves sooo much time, I can’t tell you. I always know when I’m working with a young stylist who rips the plate off set without marking it. I turn around and have a blank set in front of me with no blocks :(. Then we take several shots to find where we were supposed to be when they bring their plate back in. Mark Your Plates!!!
4. Spritz It! When working with food, it’s so important to make sure that no matter what it is, that it doesn’t dry out while it’s on set. Depending on what the food is, it might need a light spray of water from a tiny bottle, or have some oil painted on with a brush. Either way, the whole idea is to make sure that the food looks fresh, or juicy, or whatever to say it’s fresh. If it’s a steak, I might say, “Hose it down!”. Animal proteins really soak up moisture so you really have to make sure you have tons of oil/water on it to keep it looking juicy.
5. Bacon Ribbons: Bacon ribbons are pieces of bacon that are not flat. There’s a couple of ways to make these. The easiest way is to lay your bacon onto foil that is set up as pictured to the right, or you can also roll up the foil into rods, then lay the bacon on those.
6. The Crown & The Heel: Clients will have their own words for food products. A common set of food terms for many burger clients is to call the top burger bun the “Crown” and the bottom burger bun the “Heel”, as it’s much faster to say those words instead of, “get me a new burger bun top”. The stylists prep the crowns and heels differently depending on how they will be seen in the shot.
7. Food Rigging: Many times with food photography, our food is not doing what we want it to do. This may require some sort of rigging behind the food or even inside the food to make it stay in the position we want it to be in. These cherries have toothpicks holding them all together. There is also a wooden skewer hidden behind them supporting them from the back – like a little kick stand. The camera is on a tripod so that it never moves while I hide my rigging behind the cherry stack. A tiny move one way or another, and you can see my rigging.
8. Cheese Pulls and Cheese Walls: I’ve shot a ton of pizza. It’s one of the hardest things to shoot. I learned all about it from my photo assisting days. This shot was from a Dominos Pizza shoot where we had to do 175 shots in 4 days. Crazy.
Pizza has its own set of weird language to describe different food elements on a pizza. The most common would be the cheese pull and the cheese wall. A cheese pull is the act of slowly removing a slice of pizza from the whole pie and pulling it out. This is extremely difficult to style. The stylists have to make a cheese wall. This is an extra amount of cheese along the line that has been precut under the top layer of cheese. While the pizza slice is being pulled out, the cheese wall must be able to stretch nicely. Then the ad agency usually retouching the images a ton as well. Just my food crew would be about 5-7 food stylists, depending on our shot list for the shoot. You need to think twice before agreeing to photograph pizza!
9. Toasties: Toasties are the crispy bits of cheese on a pizza. The stylists will use very small sharp scissors to cut them out of the cheese. The toasties stored on a wet paper towel and are organized by size and darkness of color. Then they are laid on top of the hero pizza. Next, they are hit with a little bit of oil and possibly heat from a heat gun. This makes them look like part of the cheese they are sitting on top of. We will often just take photos of cooked cheese just for compositing later. This image is of some cheese baked on parchment. The toasties are the darker round blotches of cheese. The stylists will harvest what they need out of it, and the retoucher will do the same digitally later on.
10. The Martini Shot! Usually the favorite shot of the day. The martini shot is the last shot of the day or shoot. Many agencies really expect a dog and pony show. I always say it’s like a 12 hour party. We make sure that everyone has everything they need throughout the day. This includes food and drinks and there’s always great music playing. We celebrate our martini shot with a drink. Beer, wine, booze, I make sure we have it there. It’s a great end to a fun shoot.
So there you have it! Some wacky terms that we use in our industry. There are many more than what I’ve listed here. Please leave your comments below with some that you use often.
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If you want more food styling tips, you can find them in my ebook, Food Photography Tips and Trick.