The Difference Between Editorial and Advertising Food Photography?

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The difference between Editorial and Advertising Food Photography?

As I see it, it’s all about the style of the photo…  I remember years ago, I fed-x’ed my portfolio off to the Art Buyer for Bon Apatite Magazine, just to see what would happen.  Who knows, maybe I could become famous or something… :o)  It didn’t take long for the package to return with a nice polite letter that said something like “This is really nice food photography, but it’s not the kind we use.”  Not the “kind”?  What the heck did that mean?  So I did a little studying of the magazine and I think I figured it out.

I’m an advertising food photographer at heart. That’s just my natural tendency. I like to light the food so that I can get the maximum texture, and to make the food as textural and appetizing as possible.  Like I mentioned, that’s my opinion and I’m sure others will disagree.  I  prefer to light the food and show as much detail as possible, and I’ve come to the conclusion that editorial food photographers have other preferences.  They are more concerned about the overall look of the photo, whereas I’m more concerned about the individual item of food in front of my camera.  To me, the set is secondary.

I say it like this, but I’m sure many editorial food photographers would want to weigh in on this description… (Leave a comment)

With advertising food photography, the food is the most important thing in the shot, whereas in editorial food photography, the beauty of the entire shot is the most important thing.  And here are some of the reasons why I say that…

In editorial food photography, the food tends to take up less actual image real estate.  The food is smaller in the frame in most editorial shots than they are in advertisements.  You will usually find more interesting backgrounds in editorial food photos than you will in advertisements.  The reason is that beautiful backgrounds tend to take the attention away from the food, and people selling food tend to frown on that a little… Beautiful / interesting backgrounds tend to make for more prettier pictures and are more entertaining to look at, which is what magazines and other users of editorial food photography are trying to do, entertain. Advertising is trying to sell that item of food, so it needs to jump off the plate.  You need to be able feel the texture and smell the food.  Okay, we don’t do smell, but I think you get the point…

So, in a nutshell, I believe that advertising food photographers are more interested in detail of the food and showing it off in it’s best possible light.  Editorial food photographers are more interested in making pretty pictures of food, where sometimes the food looks as though it is a prop in the photo instead of the reason for the photo.

So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  I’d be curious to know what you think of this.  Like I said, I’m an advertising food photographer at heart.  I do enjoy making “pretty pictures” and would love to shoot more editorial assignments.   I think they’re fun to shoot.  Before I leave here, let me say one thing that I think I’ll get a little disagreement on… I think it’s easier for advertising food photographers to shoot editorial assignments than it is for editorial shooters to photograph food for advertising. There I said it… :o)

I’d be curious to know what YOU think about this subject, so please leave a comment below and if you join my mailing list, I’ll send you more info from time to time.


  1. Jerry Deutsch · November 27, 2014

    Thanks for great comparison between advertising and editorial food photography. I agree about your last statement and I would like to offer some support. I have been working with many food photographers in our Food Photography Critique group and have made the realization that while both editorial and advertising photographers have both mastered the skill of composition, the advertising photographers have better technical skills when it comes to lighting – especially artificial light. Okay, let me take that back. There are many superb editorial photographers in our group with outstanding control of their light. I guess what I mean is that they almost always shoot in the same lighting condition…the food usually placed in front of the same window with the same modifiers and often with consistent results – and almost always natural light. I have often felt that advertising photographers more often use artificial light because every product would look its best under different lighting conditions. In addition, editorial photographers often use props and settings to tell a story. Advertising photographers use minimal propping and use light to set the mood and tell the story. And as we all know, “It’s all about the light.”

    I’ve set up in front of a window and tried some editorial style images but found the project less challenging than my usual style. The project became more about the food and the props rather than the food and the light. It’s not that I didn’t know how to shoot in that style, it is just that it didn’t excite me as much. It didn’t have the right mindset. If I had to do it I could…I just don’t want to. On the other hand, some editorial shooters may not have the equipment and technical know how to use artificial light, the appropriate cameras and lenses to be able to get close enough and sharp enough to the subject, and the post production skills needed to make an art director happy.

    Thanks again for a great topic.

  2. Kulsum · November 28, 2014

    Hi Michael,

    I’m an editorial photographer and love following your blog for different perspective and knowledge you share.I agree with a lot of what you said here because while a bit of my work has been used for advertising, I personally find doing a commercial advertisement a lot more challenging. But, that’s because I didn’t get in this business the same way you perhaps you did or Jerry did. We food bloggers turned photographers were at some point just filling the gap between meeting our audience through visual imagery. Which, in essence requires story telling and thus editorial photography. Some of us wanted to change this hobby into profession and we end up here.

    My point is, the professional editorial food photographers who’s work I follow, all if not most of them are equally good with advertising and most of them use a lot of artificial lighting and setting to create those fabulous images for magazines. They light their food and scene differently and it’s far more complicated. I know because it was a lot easier creating food for my blog, same setup, playing around props versus work where the quality and direction can be entirely different.

    What you say is true but you are comparing professional advertising photographers to amateur editorial 😉

    • Michael Ray · November 28, 2014

      You bring up some great points. I think what has happened is that there are just so many more food photographers than there was just a few years ago. In fact, I think that the trend in food photography needs has actually gone in the direction of the editorial look BECAUSE of all the new amateur shooters with their simplified look. I think it’s interesting. I have found though that everyone can compose to some degree but lighting is something a little more difficult to do. Because of that, I don’t think that too many editorial shooters will be shooting advertising, unless the advertising trend goes even more toward the editorial look. It’s a skill thing, not that advertising shooters are better than editorial shooters, it’s just that it’s a more highly specialized skill that commercial shooters develop early in their careers. If you shhot product, you have to be able to control light. Food is just another product that has a really short shelf life. IMHO

  3. Deepali Jain · November 28, 2014

    A great read and agree with what Kulsum says. I ended up ‘trying’ to be a food photographer because I turned a food blogger, the progression was natural and lucrative as a career. I also accept that I shoot in the same light, same camera, same angle most times as it is convenient.

    I don’t have the technical know-how and experience to handle different lights or detailing at this point but given time and opportunity I would not shy away from reaching out and exploring new ways. I am glad I read your post and it brings home the point, as food blogger turned photographer my skills need far more sharpening before I call myself a food photographer.

  4. Dan Erb · November 29, 2014

    Very interesting conversation. I was recently given a large stack of Bon Appetit ranging in date from 2007-2011 and a couple of Food Network Magazines.. As a photographer with an interest in food I went through the stack looking at the publishers techniques. There was a sharp line between 2007 and 2008 for Bon Appetit! Before 2008 they did a fairly good/not great job of lighting their food and after that it seemed like they used one light and little if any fill light. Some of the shots were a little hard to look at. I admit that my perspective was a bit skewed by the fact that I know how a fill light is used. The Food Network didn’t seem to make any change.
    They must have had a management change of mind at some point in 2007, maybe a cost saving thing?
    My point is that your conversation is between editorial and advertising. But the magazine is an ADVERTISING tool. They are selling products and a life style that uses these Kitchen Aids, Cuisinarts. and other tools, and the life style of the affluent. So they are also in the advertising business.
    Not that the change of it self really affected their circulation. I can’t speak to that.

    • Michael Ray · November 29, 2014

      I think that having and looking trough the magazines would be very interesting. I don’t think tough, that the magazines do sell anything, except more magazines. It’s up to each advertiser to sell Kitchen aids and such. Magazines are there to promote the concept of cooking, and do that through the editorial content, and I guess that means making pretty pictures.

  5. Robin · December 1, 2014

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for offering your viewpoint on this. I hadn’t though about it quite that way but I feel you may have hit the nail on the head. With regards to which style is easier to photograph, I’m not so sure. My instinct is the same as yours – I like to go in close and focus on detail and I think that reflects my background (as a chef) too. I also think there is a world of difference shooting for a blog where you have complete control of lighting, composition etc and photographing on location. A recent job saw me photographing pizza for a food manufacturer in the corner of an office – not ideal, but it turned out well! Incidentally I have three revenue streams – Consulting (recipe development for food manufacturers in the UK), teaching (cookery, I’m a registered visiting lecturer and teach regularly at a local college) and photography, not just food, but food / hospitality related. I’m currently studying for a BA (hons) photography and this is having a profound effect on my photography – as you can imagine. I’m sharing this with you because I like your blog and the way you present information and I sense I’ll find your site increasingly useful!

  6. Amy Dolego · January 13, 2015

    I think you hit the proverbial “nail on the head”, Michael, regarding the differences and reasons why. I might add that, in addition to natural lighting being easier (and less expensive) for the non-technical photographer, there are some other factors contributing to the differences. Many magazines don’t pay for photos at the rates they did in the past. Also, lighting is more complicated in typical interiors while the lighting industry goes through changes with varying color casts. Ambient is just an easier, less costly and less technically proficient solution. However, the outcome is that the food seldom looks mouth-watering, delicious or truly beautiful. Btw, what do you consider recipe books, advertising or editorial?

    • Rob · May 23, 2015

      Those are great points, Amy! However, I’m not sure if using natural light is easier, because the photographer has to work quicker in order to get the shots he/she needs. Because the position of the sun is constantly changing, this means that the photographer has to chase light and work quicker to get the shot. With flash or strobes, the photographer has complete control over their lighting and doesn’t have to chase light like he/she would if they were using natural light.


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