Shooting ice cream…

…and other frozen treats is delicate and very technically challenging. It’s also a lot of fun. Working with real food is always my preference when possible. I’ve found that the time spent in creating fake food is often better spent by making real food look better. Frozen and very cold items is one of my exceptions to this rule.

Ice Cream.
Working with real ice cream is a pain. It melts very quickly, especially the lite or low fat variety. The higher the fat content in ice cream, the slower it will melt. Also, the first things to go on something like this are the small details and texture of the edges. Food is texture, so once that goes, you’re done.

When possible we like to work with fake ice cream. There are as many recipes for fake ice cream as there are food stylists, but they all are variations on the same theme. Shortening and powdered sugar. I know one stylist who uses margarine instead of shortening, another who uses store bought cake frosting. But if you look at the main ingredient of all three it’s partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (mmm, trans-fats.) The basic recipe I use is…

  • 2 cups shortening
  • 2 lb’s 10x powdered sugar
  • Place the shortening and half of the sugar in a food processor and mix in pulses. Continue to add sugar in small amounts and continually check the texture of the mixture until it gets right. The total amount of sugar needed will vary depending on humidity and temperature. Also, if you over shoot and the mixture is too dry add small amounts of vegetable oil and mix.

Use paste based food coloring or actual food to make the proper color. (ie cocoa, strawberry syrup, etc.) The base recipe (white) is pretty shelf stable and it will keep fairly well.

Fake ice cream, real bananas, real chocolate sauce, real cool whip, fake cherry
Fake ice cream, real bananas, real chocolate sauce, real cool whip, fake cherry

When you must work with real ice cream there are a few tips that can help. Prepare several hero items, if possible prepare them in a walk-in freezer. Your fingers get cold but the food looks great. Work with a stand in and get things very very close to perfect. Bring out the least perfect of the heroes and shoot. Make any final adjustments and then bring out the next hero in line. Continue working along these lines until you’re out of heroes. If possible use ice packs to cool your shooting surface down prior to bringing out your heroes. A sheet pan stuck into the freezer for 30 minutes will also get very cold and is a great heat sink. Finally and obviously, move fast.



Slush and SnoCones
Ice cream melts fast, a frozen margarita, even faster. Pour a frozen margarita into a glass, and before you’ve set the camera up, it’s starting to separate. Luckily a few options exist to help us. First off, is ice powder. This special effects material is available from a number of photo suppliers, like SetShop. Mix this powder with water and in a few minutes, you’ve got “ice” crystals that will stay stable all day. Mix with food coloring or syrup and you’ve got a frozen drink. I’ve also heard of stylists using SoilMoist. instead of ice powder but I have no experience with this product. If you must work with real product, pre-chilling the glasses can be a big help and of course work fast. Pre-chilled glasses will fog very quickly, usually this is desirable but if it’s not, you’ll need to wipe the glass dry just before shooting to get the condensation off.


Working with cold items presents some special challenges that are easiest overcome with technology and some specialized supplies. Sometimes legal or time restraints can prevent you from using fakes, knowing how and when to work with real food is key.

Food styling by Harry McMann

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Hi, good post. I have been pondering this issue,so thanks for sharing. I will definitely be coming back to your site.

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  3. Thanks for the recipe. I worked with a food stylist who used lard in the past but cannot find that easily. I’m doing an ice cream food photography shoot this week!

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