From the 1800s to Present Day: The History of Food Photography

Enthusiasm for food photography isn’t going anywhere. Discover the history of food photography and how visuals have changed from the 1800s to today.

Like any art form, food photography has a long history that’s evolved over time. From 1970s ambrosia salads to the proliferation of top-down acai bowls and latte art we see today we have photographed, shared, and enjoyed food for over a century. The earliest images we have of food photography started in the 1800s. These images depicted food in a way similar to a painting. Today’s food photography scene seems to be a place where anyone with a phone and a good eye can take an enticing food image in any given restaurant, at any given time—with the right skill set, of course.

In this article, we’re taking an in-depth look at how food photography has evolved from the days of daguerreotypes and “cookbooklets” to the current production of capturing your breakfast, lunch, and dinner and where it’s going tomorrow.

Photographers Integrating History
Photographers are integrating history into creating innovative food images of today. Image by Space_Cat.

The Late 1800s: Artistic Food Still Lifes 

The debut of the daguerreotype introduced photography to the public in 1839. Six years later, in 1845, William Henry Fox Talbot captured one of the first photographs depicting food. He captured a still life image containing baskets of peaches and a pineapple. 

Painting of "A Fruit Piece"
“A Fruit Piece” by William Henry Fox Talbot. Courtesy of The Met.

During the 1800s, food photography was largely influenced by still life paintings. Most images featured fruit, and the photographer used an artistic lens to capture the images. The images were, of course, in black and white. Photographers of the time were largely influenced by painters and other artists.

We still see similar visuals in modern food photography, where photographers use similar techniques of light and composition, arranging food in a way that looks similar to paintings of the past.

Composition and Lighting in Still Life Food Photography 

Still Life of Pears in a Vase
There are a lot of similarities between the still lifes of today and those that were photographed in the late 19th century. Image by Diana Tyan.

Early photographers focused on realism when it came to photographing food. They used a combination of composition and the effects of light to produce a photograph of food that rivaled a complex painting of food—the traditional artistic format in that time period. The power of good still life photography is that, often, it made subjects interesting that traditionally wouldn’t be. 

Early 1900s: The Introduction of Color

In 1910, photographer Wladimir Schohin advanced photography by successfully rendering color through autochrome. This difficult process uses a potato starch product to produce pigment.

One of the images Schohin produced through autochrome featured a cracked-open egg. That photograph showed the vibrant orange of the yolk and new detail to food photography that had yet to be cracked, pun intended. What’s most striking about “Stilleben” is that it’s indicative of the styles of food photography today. In this style, mess and the moments in-between are just as valued and important stylistically as perfectly curated images of untouched food. 

Wladimir Schohin's "Stilleben"
Wladimir Schohin’s 1910 “Stilleben.” Courtesy of Amatörfotografklubben I Helsingfors rf, Finland. Image via PDN Photo of the Day.

1920s: An Introduction of Shapes to Food Photography

Black and White Sugar Apple
In the 1920s, food photography slowly moved away from still life, while the shapes of food became a focus for the photographer. This is a contemporary example of that approach. Image by Nick Najib.

In 1927, photographer Edward Steichen further distanced the association of food photography as merely an output of still life photography by producing images highlighting shape, form, and shadow. No longer were food images photographed in their natural form and situations. Instead, photographs became dynamic. Now artists focused on creating intricate designs and shapes with food.

Here, food photography became not only an element of still life photography, but its own art form in itself. This proved that food photography could be an art form where intricate shapes realize themselves in unexpected and unnatural ways. 

1930s – 1940s: The Introduction of Color Advertising and Food Photography 

Old Mr. Boston's Slow Gin Ad
The introduction of color advertising meant that food photography had the opportunity to be more than just art, it could make money too. Image by Historia/ Shutterstock.

The 1930s introduced color advertising, so styles began to shift again. Food photography was no longer just an art form. Now it was also a commercial commodity that could be created and sold. This is where we’re introduced to cookbooklets, which depicted a few pages of colorful food photography.

n order to produce the images for these booklets—which were highly saturated, contrasted, vivid images of food—photographers used hard, direct lighting straight on the subject. This was a huge difference from traditional food photography, which used natural light and composition as a way to bring the image to life.

Food Photography Goes Unnatural

Drive-In Diner Food
In the 1940s, photographers and stylists began using additives to make food look better when photographed. Even if it meant the food was inedible. Image by Oscar C. Williams.

As food photography became more commercialized, food also became… inedible. Photographers hair-sprayed, varnished, glossed, soaped, and glued food to make it look its best. Some photographers even went as far as to replace beer foam with soap bubbles to maintain the foam longer.

This level of production was unlike anything previously seen in food photography, and we still see it today. If you look at a fast food advertisement featuring a $5 burger, does that burger really look like the burger you got in the drive-thru window? Probably not.

1950s – 1960s: Experimentation with Shutter Motors and Strobe Lights

In 1957, Harold Edgerton, an electrical engineering professor at MIT, experimented with shutter motors and strobe lights to capture a splatter of a milk drop in an experiment called the Milk Drop Coronet, essentially freezing a moment in time. This revolutionary image and technique led to the development of the electronic flash, changing photography—especially food and still life photography—forever.

Harold Eugene Edgerton's "Milk Drop Coronet"
“The Milk Drop Coronet” by Harold Eugene Edgerton. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago via Scientific American.

While this is a revolutionary time for the future of food photography, things didn’t change right away. At the time, food photography usually featured a wide shot of the entire meal in a rather bland setting. 

1970s: The Cheesy Era of High Fashion Food

1970s Ambrosia Salad
Images of retro ambrosia salads really don’t change that much, regardless of the era. Image by AS Food Studio.

The 1970s gave us more than bell-bottom jeans and peasant blouses. They also gave us a playful (albeit cheesy) era of food photography. Your kitchen staples became art, as unappealing as they seemed.

In 1979, Peter Fischli and David Weiss created “Wustserie” (the “Sausage Series”), styling sausages and pickles as if they were models. The pictures focused on the photographer’s interest in commonplace objects and humor. Aspirational cooking in the 1970s often involved a retro dinner party with your favorite kitchen delicacies, which might, unfortunately, include an ambrosia salad.

1980s: Introducing Props to Food Photography

Food Photography Props
The 1980s introduced props to food photography to create seasonal and/or theatrical food images. Image by Gligoric.

In the 1980s, food photography slowly started to shift into lifestyle. The lighting became more romantic, the angles more experimental, and the photographer started to use a shallower depth of field. Meanwhile, cameras got better and better.

This era also introduced props and backdrops to food photography images. Instead of just depicting the food itself, the photographer included props such as flowers, backdrops, and other food items to help create a storyline. They also began to use darker backgrounds, creative garnishes, and (plenty) of whipped cream. Retro food images in the 1980s were anything but subtle. 

1990s: Documentary-Style Food Photography

Sophia Loren Baking in Kitchen
Images depicting people, like actress Sophia Loren, helped tell the story of food images, and traditional advertisers started to implement them in campaigns. Image by Geoff Wilkinson/​Shutterstock.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, there was a theatrical presence to commercial photography in magazines, cookbooks, and traditional advertisements. However, in the 1990s, we saw a shift back to the natural image. Food was edible again, or at least looked edible. In the 1990s, we also began to see the introduction of people as a focal point for the overall storytelling of food, something we still see today in portrait shots of chefs and human element features in food photography. 

People in Food Photography 

Professional Chef Team
The 90s are really when storytelling came into play for food photography. The experience of food was now more than just the food itself, it was the people creating the food and the space they were creating the food in. Image by CandyBox Images.

Rather than glamor shots of food, advertisements started to feature documentary-style images of chefs in the kitchen, the mess in-between, and life in the kitchen and restaurant. During the 1990s, a cookbook became more than a cookbook. Instead it became a photo album of the chef and restaurant’s greatest work, accomplishments, and the lifestyle of the chef itself. 

2000s: Utilizing Digital Cameras for Better Food Photos 

Experimenting with Depth and Angles
As digital cameras allowed for more details to be captured in images, photographers experimented with shallower depths of field and new angles to capture detailed shots of food, unlike anything seen before. Image by Kolpakova Svetlana.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, digital cameras and lenses made significant improvements for photographers looking to capture details of food. Here, we begin to see food photographed in natural daylight again. You also only see the details of the food that the photographer wants you to see, rather than the food dish as a whole. In the 2000s, angles continued to shift closer to what we see today, with a variety of top-down shots or images from the side. They featured bright, vivid colors of the food, with only a few details in focus so as not to give away the whole picture.

2010s: The Social Media Era of Food Photography 

Lifestyle Photography
Mobile food photography remains one of the most popular forms of food photography today. Is your avocado toast ready for its big moment? Image by TatyanaNazatin.

The introduction of camera phones to photography meant that everyone had the potential to capture food imagery. Foodstagramming was officially born. What’s easier than capturing an image of your delicious dish on a night out, or your masterpiece after spending the day cooking? Food photography became widely accessible thanks to social media. The rise of cafe images such as latte art and top-down images of avocado toast through the sharing of hashtags like “#foodporn” continues to flourish. 

2020s: Focus on the Ingredients and a Return to Still Life

Today, as photographers work to differentiate themselves from the social media frenzy of on-the-go food photography, we’re seeing a shift back into the art of still life photography. Food-wise, there’s a new focus on natural, raw ingredients and breaking them apart visually with ingredient images.

So have we come full circle? As the new decade rolls over and brings new trends with it, food images are going simple again. There’s a renewed focus on ingredients and incorporating ingredients as props through the images.

Dynamic Imagery
The food photographer today is using their technical skill and expertise in the field to create dynamic imagery with a focus on natural ingredients and letting the food speak for itself. Image by golubovystock.

As we become inundated by visuals of food online, photographers are standing out by using their technical skills and experience in studios and interesting shoot spaces to create dynamic imagery that can’t be captured with a tap of an iPhone. As professional photographers rise to the challenge to outsmart amateurs on-the-go, there’s no telling where food photographers of the next generation will take us. 

Top Image by Alexander Raths.

Looking for more articles on food? Check these out: