Retro vs Contemporary Food Photography

August 28, 2013

The final week of the photo composition class I’m taking at the Genesee Center just ended, and our last project was to compose a photo series. The type of series was left open-ended: it could be repetition of similar objects, a chronological series documenting an event, a documentary of a specific place, or illustration of a general theme/idea.

Since I’m always photographing food for this blog, I knew I wanted to do something with food photography, but every idea I thought of seemed really commonplace. Food preparation steps? Nah, tons of people do that already and it’s not really artistic enough for where I wanted to go with the project. Photographing the same meal but in different styles? That seemed promising, but what sorts of food photography styles are there? Then suddenly I had it: I would do my project on how food photography has evolved over the past 40-50 years!

Anyone would notice at first glance that food photos from 1960s and 1970s cookbooks are glaringly retro, but what exactly makes them appear that way? (Besides the content of the food itself… oh man, so much jello. Gross jello. Salmon jello or mustard jello, anyone?) I went looking for scans from old cookbooks (finding this hilarious blog in the process) and came up with this list of common photography elements in the retro photographs:


  • Garnishes everywhere (parsley, radishes, olives, toothpicks!)
  • Busy patterns (wallpaper, napkins, towels)
  • Plants/flowers/candlesticks/saltshakers/random crap in the background
  • Small food (rice, vegetables) arranged in a tight, even circle around main dish (like pot roast or goulash)
  • 45 degree angle above food (generally no shots from directly above or on the same level as the dish)

Technical aspects

  • Deep depth of field (everything in these photos is in focus, no blurred backgrounds)
  • Sharp shadows under dishes from strictly artificial lighting
  • Low degree of contrast (no pure blacks or whites, everything looks a bit flat)
  • Warm tones

Now that I had a general idea of what would make a food photo look retro, I could begin my photo series. During the past week, I took two photos of each dish I made: one in a retro style and one in a contemporary style. I didn’t go out of my way to make any retro recipes (so no jello); my goal was to take the food I usually prepare and see how different I could make the same dish look just by changing the composition and lighting.

So here it is! I’m really happy with the way my series turned out, and I hope you enjoy looking at it just as much as I enjoyed photographing it!

Egg Noodles with Cabbage and Onions



Easy Vegetarian Tostadas



Nectarine-Almond Crisp



Black-Bottom Devil’s Food Cake



Sweet and Sour Potted Meatballs


Sweet and sour potted meatballs


  1. Wonder how dated today’s look will be in the 2050s!

    • Exactly! It will be interesting to find out what technical aspects of food photography will be seen as the “defining features” of the early 21st century… seems like it’s difficult to spot trends in something like that when you’re living through it right now. I’d say the shallow depth of field for sure, as well as general overexposure. But stylistically it’s harder to say, like are there certain types of props or compositional elements that will stand out as “retro” or “vintage” in 50 years? So many photos today are purposefully taken to look “vintage” and yet they’re hardly vintage in the same style as I was attempting to replicate (because a lot of old photos are actually really ugly by today’s standards, haha)! :)

      • You did a great job replicating the look. I think stylistically the whole “rustic chic” and final dish with few photogenic raw materials perhaps – who knows!

  2. Love it! I think I have to say I like today’s style better.

    • Thanks Mary! Definitely looks more appetizing to me also, haha!

  3. great comparison. I think instagram (and other) filters make everything look good because they are a combination of these two – modern composition and warm retro colours!

    • Thanks! I agree… vintage filters certainly make food look more “homey” and approachable. I definitely see a trend in food magazines away from the “molecular gastronomy” craze of a few years ago to a more rustic style (especially with the locavore trend happening currently). Several years ago in magazines you’d see food presented perfectly plated, now the trend seems to be photos of dishes that have been dug into already, without minding crumbs, etc. :)

      • true about the half-eaten plates, and there’s now the new trend of the finished, empty dish!

  4. […] next class, but so far I’m not experiencing any moments of brilliance. I could continue my retro food photo project from the summer, but that feels a little bit like cheating. Since I wasn’t coming up with […]

  5. […] staged style of the 1960s/1970s. Her final images and research/thought process can be viewed on her blog. I encourage you to look at her wonderful images and fun approach to food […]

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