I’ll admit that “truth in advertising” is a bit of a contradiction in terms. But one of the great advantages, as well as responsiblities, of photography is that most people view photos as representations of reality. Or at least they do on a subconscious level. Those of us in the industry, and certainly anyone who’s spent 7 hours making a shrimp cocktail look just right, know that reality is flexible. Deciding how flexible is where you can get into trouble.

Perhaps nowhere else in commercial photography is this more scrutinized than in food work (although fashion is gaining quickly.) Popular history abounds with stories of glue in cereal, marbles in soup and fake ice cream. Hard and fast legal rules are hard to come by. Most people can’t even tell you which division of the federal government is responsible for handling claims such as these (FTC.) And as far as I can tell, enforcement is near zero. Claims are only pursued when a complaint is made by a third party. But just because you won’t get caught cheating is no excuse for doing it.

Figuring out exactly what is allowed is very difficult and time consuming, after all, that’s why lawyers get paid so much. But a simple rule will keep you in the clear for the most part.

1. Shoot what you’re selling, no more, no less.

not a 4 ounce patty
not a 4 ounce patty

That’s it. If you’re selling a 4 ounce burger that comes spec’d with two slices of cheese, one slice of tomato, two leaves of lettuce that’s what you shoot. Not a 6 ounce burger, not a 3 ounce burger. Sure, you can make that 4 ounces look bigger and the cheese look extra melty, but don’t add or subtract ingredients. If you’re shooting an ice cream sundae because you’re selling an ice cream sundae, shoot the ice cream sundae. Yes it’s a pain and it’s probably best to try and shoot in the walk in but that’s how it is. Of course if you’re selling the chocolate sauce, or the nuts, or the dish, use all the fake ice cream you want.

Laws and regulations determine what we’re supposed to do. Whether or not we follow those rules determines our ethics. What we do in the absence of rules determines our morals. Photographers have a crappy reputation already, don’t add to it by cheating.

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