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A food stylist reveals the secrets to a sexy burger photo

They say the camera makes you gain 10lbs, and that couldn't be more true in the world of food photography.

For decades, food stylists have been using specialized techniques to make deflated fast-food burgers look larger than life, and, in the process, they have helped make the average consumer much less camera-ready. To explore the secrets of the trade, we interviewed Delores Custer, an original gangster of gastronomy who has been styling food for 35 years, working with everyone from the James Beard Foundation to Julia Child in conditions as volatile as Mexican rain forests and Julia Child's kitchen.

Before we apply her wisdom to that super-sexy photo of a burger, there are a few things about the business that you should know. Most importantly, stylists are required to use the actual food ingredients depicted in the photo, but they go to crazy lengths to find the platonic ideals of those ingredients. That means digging through a bag of 500 buns to find a perfect one.

This ethical code keeps the truth in advertising, but does have a big loophole. If you're selling cereal, the milk doesn't have to be real. Only the primary product featured must comply to these standards, so those marshmallow Froot Loops are likely floating in a bed of Wildroot Hair Creme or sweet, delicious Elmer's Glue.

1. If buns arrive uncut, the stylist will slice them to an exact height. If not, they dig for the perfect top and bottom, and then place them in a plastic bag so they do not dry out.
If buns arrive uncut, the stylist will slice them to an exact height. If not, they dig for the perfect top and bottom, and then place them in a plastic bag so they do not dry out.
2. Extra sesame seeds are glued on.
Extra sesame seeds are glued on.
3. Lettuce wilts quickly, so a stand-in is always used until the actual shoot.
Lettuce wilts quickly, so a stand-in is always used until the actual shoot.
4. The meat is undercooked to look plumper, and it's usually only singed around the edges. It's sealed under plastic until the shoot to keep air from degrading it.
The meat is undercooked to look plumper, and it's usually only singed around the edges. It's sealed under plastic until the shoot to keep air from degrading it.
5. For product photos, the tomato is always cut from the middle so the edges are straight, but editorial shots like this one often play with asymmetry.
For product photos, the tomato is always cut from the middle so the edges are straight, but editorial shots like this one often play with asymmetry.
6. Ingredients are terraced so that everything is visible.
Ingredients are terraced so that everything is visible.
7. Cheese is melted with a hair dryer immediately before the photo.
Cheese is melted with a hair dryer immediately before the photo.
8. The flame background would never be used for a product shot because it distracts from the food. Editorially, though, it adds context and tricks the mind of the viewer. Because flames are badass and enticing.
The flame background would never be used for a product shot because it distracts from the food. Editorially, though, it adds context and tricks the mind of the viewer. Because flames are badass and enticing.
9. Black tape is used to create shadows and fill in empty space between ingredients.
Black tape is used to create shadows and fill in empty space between ingredients.
10. The final product is called 'the hero'. A stand-in is created to test lighting conditions.
The final product is called 'the hero'. A stand-in is created to test lighting conditions.
11. Sauces are generally the last thing added because they'll dry up in less than 10 minutes.
Sauces are generally the last thing added because they'll dry up in less than 10 minutes.
12. Paraffin wax is sometimes spread on the bun to keep sauces from soaking in.
Paraffin wax is sometimes spread on the bun to keep sauces from soaking in.
13. A small amount of oil is often placed between the burger and cheese to keep the elements separate.
A small amount of oil is often placed between the burger and cheese to keep the elements separate.
14. Water droplets are squirted on the vegetables using a model airplane glue tube.
Water droplets are squirted on the vegetables using a model airplane glue tube.
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  1. If buns arrive uncut, the stylist will slice them to an exact height. If not, they dig for the perfect top and bottom, and then place them in a plastic bag so they do not dry out.
  2. Extra sesame seeds are glued on.
  3. Lettuce wilts quickly, so a stand-in is always used until the actual shoot.
  4. The meat is undercooked to look plumper, and it's usually only singed around the edges. It's sealed under plastic until the shoot to keep air from degrading it.
  5. For product photos, the tomato is always cut from the middle so the edges are straight, but editorial shots like this one often play with asymmetry.
  6. Ingredients are terraced so that everything is visible.
  7. Cheese is melted with a hair dryer immediately before the photo.
  8. The flame background would never be used for a product shot because it distracts from the food. Editorially, though, it adds context and tricks the mind of the viewer. Because flames are badass and enticing.
  9. Black tape is used to create shadows and fill in empty space between ingredients.
  10. The final product is called 'the hero'. A stand-in is created to test lighting conditions.
  11. Sauces are generally the last thing added because they'll dry up in less than 10 minutes.
  12. Paraffin wax is sometimes spread on the bun to keep sauces from soaking in.
  13. A small amount of oil is often placed between the burger and cheese to keep the elements separate.
  14. Water droplets are squirted on the vegetables using a model airplane glue tube.

Dan Gentile is a staff writer on Thrillist's national food and drink team. He will never look at a burger the same way again, but will happily eat them the same way again and again and again. Follow him to deceptively attractive photos at @Dannosphere.

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