What Food REALLY Looks Like – The Ethics of Food Photo Editing

There’s always something in the news about deception in the media. Usually it is in reference to photoshopping the images of models or celebrities to make them look skinnier. On rare occasions they have even photoshopped an image to make someone look larger. In both cases though, we all recognize that in small amounts photo editing can be okay, even encouraged. Think about it- do we really want to open up a high fashion magazine and see a blurry, dark photo? And what about all of the cool effects that photoshop can do?

Certainly some fall more into the artistic lines of photo editing and I bet that most of us can all agree that in those cases it’s perfectly fine.

While there currently isn’t much in the way of guidelines on what should and shouldn’t be allowed in photoshopping, a line, albeit faint, is starting to be drawn. Simply, from my perception, photoshopping can be said to have gone too far when an image is altered and drastically changed from the original. Under marginal or even moderate changes that are acceptable could be saturation, exposure, lighting, and erasing (in the case of flyaway hairs or unwanted background extras).

photo-editing-before-after-family

Christmas pictures for 2013! We have more that I will have to share with you soon.

Drastically altered is when someone’s size is changed, their wrinkles/cellulite are erased to unrealistic proportions, and when the person in the image looks nothing like they did before.

While not everyone may agree with the list I just wrote out above (and just note that is in no way comprehensive, merely an example) I think we all have at one time or another at least thought about what should or should not be allowed when it comes to photoshopping people.

One thing that we may not have thought about is the photoshopping of food images. As social media users it is to be expected that a majority of us have used a photo editing software before. I personally use it for almost everything. My profile pictures, my family’s annual Christmas picture, vacation pictures, and yes, my food pictures. When I first started blogging I had no idea that photo editing software even existed, let alone that so many of the bloggers that I was reading were using it.

And if you look back to my first blog you will see that my photos were not just lackluster but very blurry and unappealing.

pancakes-unedited

Oy vey. Doesn’t that just make you cringe?!

Of course I’ve learned a lot since then though, and while in no way am I a photo editing expert, I do know the basics of improving a picture.

Isn’t it amazing how much better food looks after a quick touch-up?

pancakes-edited-1

Still not great, but a little better and WAY less embarrassing. I can’t believe I even posted the BEFORE picture on here.

Quick, make a guess as to which side is the before and after! πŸ˜‰

The same goes for a number of more recent pictures on this blog as well.

xmas-allergy-recipe-cinnamonroll-1

wiaw-collection-biscuits

Now, it’s easy to believe the recipes on blogs just naturally look that clear and crisp. I’m not trying to discredit the hard work and time that is put into setting up the food shots and then the time it takes to edit all of those pictures. Really, what bloggers do is incredible.Β But, similar to the question posed with photoshopping models and celebrity images, where do we draw the line with editing our photos of food?

before-after-microwaverollsbefore-after-biscuits-tallMy take has always been that I will make the food look as best as I can without altering it. I don’t try to deceive anyone with serving size, color, shape, texture, etc. My editing consists of clearing up blurry photos, fixing saturation, and occasionally removing some annoying little crumbs.Β 

I’ve always made honesty my policy and that’s why I am sharing these before/after examples to make my point.

before-after-cinnamonbread

before-after-biscuits

I enjoy photo editing. I think it’s incredibly fun and exciting. Making my photos look nicer makes me feel like a “professional” almost, even though I have a long way to go.

What bothers me is those who try to deceive readers with their food pictures. I don’t have anyone specific in mind when I’m writing this out, but I know that there are those out there that set up their food, and edit their photos in a way that doesn’t really reflect the recipe that they are posting. Have you ever followed a recipe 100% and it turns out looking completely different from the promised picture? I have and boy is it frustrating!

I do know that this also happens a lot with food advertisements. Take for example McDonald’s hamburger. If you haven’t seen this video yet, you really should.

This article also gives some great picture representations of food deception in the media.

And since WIAW is all about food honesty I am linking up with Jenn at Peas and Crayons today so I can hear everyone’s thoughts on this topic.

No questions for today. Just tell me your thoughts on food photo editing in blogs and in the media.

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31 thoughts on “What Food REALLY Looks Like – The Ethics of Food Photo Editing

  1. I’ve had it before when I’ve tried someone else’s recipe and its not as tasty or delicious as they described but sometimes I’ve put that down to my tastes being different to someone else’s. It is funny as I’ve read some of the food styling tips that professional photographers use and some of them are crazy. Like using a raw chicken or turkey and painting it brown and using a steamer to cook just the part of it they are photographing. Putting lipstick on strawberries to make them look perfect….crazy!

    I’ve never touched up my photos but on Instagram I do use filters and I know that can make some things look better. It is an interesting issue and I think that if a recipe isn’t that good you should consider not posting it rather than touching up the photos.

    • I think I may have heard that raw meat tip before, but that’s still so crazy to hear! And lipstick on strawberries? Wow. I would have never even thought to do that. And probably never will. Lol.

      Instagram filters are fun! And while it’s true that they do sometimes make pictures look better, I don’t think it goes nearly as far as trying to deceive viewers into thinking raw chicken is actually grilled and cooked…. Goodness. I still can’t get over that!!

      Completely agree about retouching the photos. If the food isn’t good on its own and you have to go to extreme lengths with editing, wouldn’t that make you feel guilty about posting a recipe? I know it sure would for me!

  2. I agree that looking back at some of my old photos makes me cringe (they’re still on my blog… but yikes what was I thinking!?)

    I think like you said a little editing can go a long way, especially in terms of lighting and cropping out those unwanted extras in the background (more often than not my brother’s hand now that he’s home). And I agree that a lot of real world photo styling sets expectations beyond what some of even the best bloggers can hope to reproduce.

    That being said I’m not sure I see it as bad. Blogging (and food photos by extension) exists for the purpose of advertisement and entertainment. I wouldn’t want to go see a big blockbuster movie without the CGI and post-production editing, they’re what make the movie “look good”. Likewise I’m more likely to click over to the link of a new blog (like in the WIAW lineup) if I see a photo that “looks good”.

    It may not be the best approach in the world, but if a picture is worth 1000 words then an appealing picture is worth 10,000. I’ve followed many a good picture to less than interesting content, and I won’t deny that many people (like you and I) who take so-so pictures (with some very stunning exceptions on your part) are capable of entertaining content πŸ˜‰

    Reading back up I’m not sure if I really made a coherent point on one side or the other… but there’s my 2 cents on the matter!

    • So I just looked back through some of your old pictures. I don’t think any can top the ugliness that is my yellow pancake picture above. Lol.

      I completely agree with what you said, and I think your comment was completely coherent πŸ™‚ Part of the reason that I read blogs, watch movies, look at magazines, etc. is to see the beautiful imagery. Sometimes I actually subscribe to a blog just to look at the pictures. I really have no idea if they are a good writer or not. 😳 Shameful, I know.

  3. WHOA DUDE!!! CRAZY!!!! I need to get some of these photo shop programs, LOL! All I got is instagram, which does help a little bit…

    Oh and PS: The model in the 3rd photo looks photoshopped in the first photo, LOL! How sad that they had to FURTHER photoshop her!

    • Doesn’t that just make you want to go out an buy some expensive photo editing software? Well, maybe if it was free. I just don’t have the money to buy ANYTHING. Haha. Only free stuff here.

      That’s what I was thinking too! I’m still not sure that I believe the first picture is actually the “before.” It looks more like an “after” already. But still, she looked amazing before, no need to change her further to look like a rubber bendy doll.

    • I’ve kind of become accustomed to editing most of my photos now, but like you said- it’s mainly just for fixing the lighting. And I usually do some sharpening too because it seems that I have a really unsteady hand and my photos are always super blurred around the edge. πŸ˜› What program do you use for photo editing when you do use it?

  4. Very, very interesting. I wish I had the skill (and the computer programmes) to make my pictures better. But for me it’s who I am – I’m the girl with the rubbish photos in the bad lighting. That’s just me and I’m not too fussed! I love your photos, I think they always look lovely and I don’t have anything at all against with photo shopping to enhance a picture (though I draw the line at models with ridiculous changes in magazines) but for me I just don’t have the time or inclination! Maybe in the future when I learn a bit more and have a bit more time I guess.

    • Oh, no skill here, promise! In high school I learned photoshop a little bit, but there’s no way I could afford to buy it on my own. All free and easy online stuff here πŸ™‚

      You are definitely not the girl with rubbish photos. Take for instance your beautiful cake pictures!

  5. Such an interesting topic! I’m no master of photoediting but I don’t see anything wrong with playing with lighting, saturation, clarity etc…The reality is that a camera cannot capture the colors of food like it is in person. I don’t see anything wrong with trying to make it more realistic. That being said making something look like it isn’t i.e. the big mac is not okay. Fortunately I don’t have those kinds of skills so I won’t be partaking in that anytime soon haha

    • That’s a good point. I was thinking along the same lines with food editing. We’re just trying to make it look as if the food is right in front of you.

      Definitely agree with your comment on the Big Mac. And I do not have those skills, photo styling nor photo editing, either, so I won’t be partaking as well. Lol.

  6. For some reason I love seeing edited photos before and after. It’s a weird thing to me that I love! Photo editing can do some crazy things! That being said, that picture of your family looked just as good before and after πŸ™‚ So glad we have editors though! You don’t realize how sharp a picture can be!

    • Thank gosh it’s not just me. I really like seeing before/after pictures too! That’s why I included so many in this post. So fun πŸ™‚

      Aw, thanks for your comment πŸ™‚

      Yes, thank goodness for editors. Whenever I think I have a really good photo on my hands and that it won’t need much editing, as soon as I bring it up on my computer I’m like “Oh, not as good as I thought.” But a quick run through a photo editor and it’s like new!

    • It’s good to hear that everyone agrees with editing. I’ll admit to playing around with my pictures and doing some crazy effects, but I’d never post them and try to pass them as being “real.”

      Even some of my favorite food bloggers I feel distort how they present their recipes. As in… there is no way that cookie is more than an inch wide while making 30 servings! Haha.

  7. This is so true! Food bloggers really do put a lot of work into making their food look amazing! I wish I could invest more time in learning photography and editing techniques but I just don’t have time right now! It’s something I’d definitely like to learn though. Pretty pictures make a world of difference!

  8. Personally, I don’t use any photo editing whatsoever for my pictures, simply because I don’t have the time! I just use my iPhone to take pictures, and if they turn out ugly, I normally just use them anyway;) After all, in regards to recipes, it’s how they taste that truly matters, not how gorgeous they look. That being said, I do sometimes enjoy looking at digitally altered images of food because they ARE aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and I can imagine that photo editing can be quite fun for some people. For me, though, it just feels like a waste of time to make my pictures look different from what they are. Still, I am not trying to say that it is a waste of time for everyone–if you enjoy it, go for it! As for food advertisements on TV and in magazines, I once read an interesting article on the tricks they use to make the food look more appetizing: using glue instead of milk for cereal ads in magazines, drawing grill marks with eye liner onto hot dogs, using a fake “ice cream” mixture for ice cream ads, using soap bubbles to make soda look more carbonated, and many more. It’s all a big scam, really!! The model picture is crazy as well, and just provides more evidence as to why very few women truly look that way in real life. Why on earth would they feel the need to make her more skinny?? She looked fine in the first picture. Anyway, thanks for the interesting post!

  9. Looking at my old blog photos is sooo embarrassing, lol! I’m a lot better at editing photos now, but I don’t go overboard. I mean, all of my blog photos are taken with my iPhone so a lot of the vibrant colors and sharpness get lost in the picture. And I would never use those tips listed by Jan.. that’s just absurd! It is important though for a blogger to have good photos. Even if it’s the best recipe ever, who’s going to want to make it if it looks nasty?

  10. That’s such an interesting post! I have recently started to edit my food pictures and of course there’s the lovely instagram, but I always forget how much the media photo-shops or enhances the images. I tend to assume models and objects normally look that put together, when in fact they do not πŸ™‚ Sometimes I get frustrated and realize they just spend more time editing their pictures.

  11. I don’t see anything wrong with enhancing pictures (saturation, brightness, white balance), but s line definitely needs to be drawn when the author is just being flat out deceitful. The truth is that quality pictures attract attention… we like to look at nice things… but the lengths that some people can go to — man, I never would have even thought of some of those things.

    Thanks for this. Super interesting to think about!

  12. I love this post- to tell you the number of times I’ve tried out recipes only to have them look NOTHING like the finished result….even though I followed it to a T!

    I do think though that if you do post a recipe etc- it is beneficial to play around to make it look appealing… but not to the level where it’s unrealistic!

  13. I totally agree with you about it being okay to edit pictures. Sometimes a photograph just doesn’t capture the colors and beauty of the moment so a quick boost of color really can help. Truthfully, I think the before pictures can sometimes depict food/people in a more unrealistic light than if you were to fix the lighting in Photoshop – does that make sense? The boost you can add in Photoshop brings life to the image you originally intended on capturing. An image that would be impossible to completely capture because cameras simply cannot – enter Photoshop! (Sorry about the wordiness of this comment. I’m having a hard time articulating what I mean but I hope this gets the point across to an extent!)

  14. I agree with your point of view. I think some photo-editing can be beneficial, especially since cameras don’t always capture what the picture looks in really life. (I’ve had my fair share of those before and after pictures that you shared.) Sometimes the picture is a little blurry or lacks color, and a little touch-up can make all the difference. One thing I don’t like is changing the entire picture — like the “foods” on commercials. Those are truly disgusting, especially since they look nothing like the real thing, the patty is raw, and it is quite fake anyways.

    Btw, I did a post some time ago that talks about if we can believe what we see on TV. A great compliment to what you said in this post.
    http://katshealthcorner.wordpress.com/2011/08/05/can-we-believe-what-we-see-on-tv/

    Thanks for bringing this subject up! It’s something important we need to be aware of. πŸ™‚

  15. Interesting post my dear Madison.
    As you know, my pictures have come a long way baby, and I do use Pic Monkey for saturation, color, clarity, the basic stuff. I don’t know how to remove crumbs, so you’ll need to teach me that one.
    I’ve often thought about doing a post dealing with the photography aspect of it. Revealing my little tips and tricks so to speak (for example, circle pancakes look great on square plates, also stacking things helps). I’d also like to do a comparison showing the Hubby’s plate compared to mine because they can look very different. He’s said before, my sandwich doesn’t look like that; I want yours. I waffle on actually doing the post though because it’ll be a lot of work to get all the pictures, and I don’t want to appear to come off as an expert on the topic because I’m certainly not. I’m pretty much self taught and to do a post on that subject makes me feel like I think my photos are better than they truly are and I don’t want to come off like that. Hell, Food Gawker still hasn’t accepted a single one. Bunch of grumble, grumbles.

    Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed it.

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