The Wherefore and Why of Food Photography Faux Pas

Food photography
By Laura Reyes
November 20, 2013

Martha Stewart’s Twitter account (@MarthaStewart) recently caused a minor uproar in social media this week when she tweeted some…interesting pictures of her food. You would think that the great Martha Stewart would know when food pics are a good thing, but it seems that the concepts of good lighting and a favorable angles are lost on her. Let’s take a look at a couple of her pictures:

As you may have noticed, a lot of these look like the aftermath of a meal rather than the beginning of one. The color profile of most of these shots ranges from a gag inducing yellow to a stomach churning brown. Definitely not my idea of a photo-worthy meal.

Most food photographers appear to avoid some of Martha Stewart’s faux pas by playing up the food’s best textures and colors to make sauces look smooth and sumptuous rather than mucosal. Color plays an especially important role in perception of food. In these other more appetizing photographs of similar dishes, there is a wide spectrum of colors, even if the predominant colors are still browns and yellows:

It turns out that colors play a larger role in our feelings of aversion and disgust than one might think. A 2004 study by Val Curtis and colleagues investigated the link between risk of disease and disgust. In their study, they provided subjects with an array of pictures and the subjects rated these pictures based on their level of disgust with the contents. Pictures were matched in pairs, with one picture showing a “disease irrelevant” condition, and one showing a “disease relevant” condition, as seen below:

In one case, a fluid was used to test this hypothesis. The disease irrelevant condition included a blue fluid while the disease relevant condition included a yellow fluid that was made to resemble bodily fluids. The yellow fluid was consistently deemed more disgusting than the blue fluid. It may not need mentioning, but the yellow fluid looks a lot like one of Martha Stewart’s twitter meals.

Color can also give cues about food flavor. Charles Spence and colleagues (2010) reviewed a number of studies that looked at flavor and its perception in two ways: how the intensity of a flavor varied by color, and how the identity of a flavor varied by color. The color of food does not strongly affect flavor intensity, but it can alter the identity of the flavor. These findings show how something can actually change tastes based on perceived color. Although pictures of food don’t necessarily stimulate taste receptors, their colors can give clues about how a food might taste.

Taking all of this into consideration, we can now see why Martha Stewart’s photos are so strikingly gross:

  1. The color of the food strongly resembles something someone expelled in some way and reminds us of disease, triggering disgust.
  2. Because the food looks like bodily fluid, we think it might taste like bodily fluid, triggering even more disgust.

So remember everyone, if you’re going to try to tweet pics of your food, make sure that it doesn’t look awful. And if it does, try a pretty Instagram filter to clean it up. Bonus points if you can make your nasty pile of food look like it is actually moving away from the viewer.


Curtis, V., Aunger, R., and Rabie, T. 2004. Evidence that disgust evolved to protect from risk of disease. Proc. R. Soc. B 271: S131–S133.

Spence, C., Levitan, C., Shankar, M.U., and Zampini, M. 2010. Does food color influence taste and flavor perception in humans. Chemosens. Percept. 3(1): 68–84.