Food Styling for Photographers: The Hamburger

Adapted from Food Styling for Photographers (Focal Press)

By Linda Bellingham, Jean Ann Bybee

If you plan to photograph a hamburger or hot dog without a stylist, you are indeed brave. What might seem to be an easy project before you begin will surprise you at how complicated and difficult it can become. If, knowing this, you still plan on forging ahead, the information in this article might save you from some common pitfalls. My recommendation is that you read the entire section on buns and burgers and make sure you have a good understanding of the techniques before you proceed. This is all part of being prepared.

A photographer I’ve known for many years recently shared a story with me about his styling endeavor to create a hamburger for an editorial piece. There wasn’t a budget for a stylist and the person in charge of the editorial article instructed the photographer to go to a hamburger restaurant, purchase a hamburger, and shoot it. Fortunately, the photographer knew that scenario was a disaster in the making and called me for advice. Because he was 2,000 miles away from where I live, I did my best to talk him through the process. With my best wishes, and I’m sure his too, this article is for the brave explorers in the world of hamburger styling and photography.

Finding the Perfect Hamburger Bun

There is a process stylists go through during the prep phase of photography that is called the hero process. The hero process is the process of looking through lots of one kind of item to find the perfect, or hero, examples of that item for your shot.

The most difficult aspect of making a burger or hot dog for photography can be the task of finding a hero bun. Ideally, you should purchase a tray of freshly baked buns from a local baker. Realize that the baker may need a few days’ notice to meet the order, so be sure to call several business days before you actually need the buns. If you don’t have that option, it is possible to find a prepackaged hero bun. In fact, the buns used to create the hero for this article were taken from prepackaged buns.

Preferably you should shop for buns early on the day of photography; if time doesn’t permit that, then shop the day before you plan to complete photography. Regardless of when you actually buy the buns, you need to scout out the best place to shop for buns well before the day of your shoot.

The search criteria you must follow in order to be successful finding hero buns isn’t tough, but the stares you may get from fellow shoppers at the market could be embarrassing, so wear blinders as you shop.

When you handle buns, a light touch is absolutely mandatory. Even picking up a package of buns can make dents in the buns and requires a gentle hand. Common sense will tell you that hero buns will be on the top of the grocer’s display. Chances of finding a hero bun in a package of buns that has another package on top of it are very slim. Prepackaged buns normally have two layers and are usually presliced, thus the top layer will likely be the only place you’ll find a hero bun.

As you start to search for the hero buns, keep in mind that the heroes will need to be perfect on the crown. Look for buns with smooth crowns or domes that are blemish free, have no creases along the edges, and have a consistent golden coloring. When you find a bun qualifying as a hero candidate, don’t worry if the edges where the bun was sliced between the top and bottom bun overlap a little. This imperfection can be corrected later at the studio.

When you do find a package that looks like it could contain a hero bun, treat the bag as gently as you would a newly born baby. When picking up the bag, a process that works well for me is to pinch the plastic packaging on two opposite ends of the bag to offer just enough control to lift the package. Gently place the bag on the flat box or paper bag surface in the cart—single layer. Do not stack the packages!

Tricks of the Trade
Once hero buns are identified, they need to be protected. Buns are easier to manipulate and heroes are more easily viewed if each bun is on a separate paper plate. The plate and bun assembly will slide into a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Carefully inspect all of the heroes and mark numbers on the plates or bags to indicate #1, #2, #3, etc., in order of hero preference. This technique provides a quick reference when building the hero, so if anything happens to damage the hero during styling, the next contender can be quickly identified. Remember to save some of the non-hero buns so you can practice bun treatments later and for stand-in purposes.

My rule of thumb for buns is to choose three or four hero buns for each burger or hot dog in a photo project. Determine how many bun packages to purchase based on the number of hero candidates you can identify through the packaging. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and find more hero buns in the packages after you open them back at the studio, but don’t count on it. The non-hero buns will be useful because they can serve as stand-ins or guinea pigs for the bun treatments. You’ll want to practice all of the bun procedures on a stand-in and get comfortable with the techniques before you work on the hero bun.

When you are ready to check out at the market, ask the clerk not to handle the bun packages. (Yes, you’ll have to share your story about doing a photo shoot, yada yada.) Consider purchasing a non-hero package for the clerk to scan, allowing you to transport the hero packages undisturbed to your vehicle—it’s worth the price! I usually transport the buns in boxes on a flat surface, for instance, in the trunk of my car, so they will be less likely to slide around.

Once you have the bun packages at the studio, be aware that exposure to air and poor handling techniques are a bun’s enemies. You are now the keeper of the buns, their guardian, protector, and their personal bun beautician. Designate a large flat surface with good lighting where you can sort through the buns. I prefer to sit on my God-given buns while working through the purchased buns because this process takes time.

Using a non-hero package you should practice and get comfortable with bun handling before addressing bags that may contain hero buns. This exercise will also get you into the mode of handling the buns carefully. With scissors, cut the plastic packaging covering the buns so you can lift the top layer of buns out of the package. Slide your hands under the top layer of buns and remove them from the package. Be aware that some bakers use a technique that causes the buns to connect slightly. If the buns you’ve purchased are attached, you will need to support the entire layer while removing it from the packaging. Place the layer of buns on the work surface and, using a serrated knife, gently separate the buns. No squeezing the buns, please!

Using sharp scissors, trim the portion of the bun that has overlapped along the precut edge. Hold the scissors at an angle matching the precut edge angle. The scissors will be parallel to the flat surface of the bun. Trim away the excess bun edge. Make sure you cut a smooth edge that looks very straight and natural. It may be necessary to trim the edges of both the top and bottom of the hero buns. When this step is completed, place the top hero bun, resting cut side down on the paper plate, back into the Ziploc bag. Place the bottom hero bun resting with cut side up on a separate plate in a separate bag. Mark the plates of both top and bottom buns according to the bun’s hero ranking.

Safety Note
Electric charcoal lighters become very hot. Follow the manufacturer’s manual for safety procedures and instructions on how to use such a lighter. I use a landscaping stone as a surface for food items whenever I apply a torch or electric charcoal lighter to the food. The stone absorbs some fats that might be liquefied during torching or branding and it also provides a safe non-flammable surface as you work. The stone is also a safe place to lay the charcoal lighter to heat up and cool down before and after use.

We decided to toast the hero bun top and make grill marks on it. If you want to follow this approach, use a clean skillet or griddle surface heated to medium-low heat. Brush the cooking surface with melted butter. Also, brush the cut side of the top bun with melted butter and place it on the preheated cooking surface. Do not mash the bun. It will brown along the edges that touch the pan. Use a nylon cooking spatula to lift the edge of the bun to check the color of the bun several times during this process. Remove the bun from the pan when the edges that touched the griddle are golden. Preheat an electric charcoal lighter. I had my charcoal lighter customized so that one side of the heating element is narrower. I used the narrow side of the hot lighter to make grill marks on the bun as shown below.

Once you have three or four hero buns for each bun represented in your shot as well as buns reserved to use as stand-ins, you can turn your attention to other elements in the shot. Working with a stand-in burger, determine the arrangement of food elements in your burger. For instance, starting with the bottom bun and building upward, our burger’s order of elements is bun, lettuce, meat, cheese, tomato, red onion, and top bun. You may want a different building arrangement. This decision should be made during the planning stage. A few words of advice: Cheese is easier to handle and looks more realistic if it is applied directly on top of the meat rather than elsewhere in the burger.

Prepping Burger Components

Let’s assume that you are planning to build a burger similar to the burger image in this article. Here’s what you will need and the techniques you can use in achieving this look.

For a typical burger construct, I normally purchase two heads of either romaine or leaf lettuce. Normally the outer leaves of the lettuce head are not hero quality, but under those leaves you are likely to find the leaves best suited for burgers. Hero leaves will be a rich green color with unblemished ruffle rimmed edges. Remove the hero leaves from both heads of lettuce. To store the lettuce until you are ready to build the hero burger, place two or three whole leaves together in a gallon-size Ziploc bag. Refrigerate the lettuce in bags in the vegetable drawer of your refrigerator.

For your first time building a burger, I recommend that you use one large-diameter tomato slice rather than overlapping slices, which are more complicated to build into a burger. In the future, with one burger experience behind you, you may choose to use more than one slice in an overlapping arrangement. But as a good place to start, one slice is best. Prep the slices to be 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick. When a tomato slice is placed on top of cheese, juices from the tomato might run onto the cheese. This is a problem because the moisture will discolor the cheese rather quickly. If the interior surface of the tomato slice will not be visible to the camera, you can avoid this situation. With a spoon, remove the juicy interior of the tomato leaving the outer meaty edge only. Be aware that this technique might not work if you plan to put overlapping tomato slices on the burger.

If you choose to add additional elements or overlapping elements like red onions or pickles, keep in mind that they will contribute to the height of your burger. Depending on the camera angle and the dimensions of your shot, the height of your burger could be an important issue to consider.

My favorite cheese for burgers is prepackaged, individually wrapped cheese slices. Yes, that’s right, prepackaged slices. They look good to the camera, handle well, melt well, and are very predictable. Because the fat content and ingredients of prepackaged cheese slices are very consistent, they make a good choice for photography. Also, they are thin enough so that you can overlap two or more slices with the corners offset, creating more visual interest.

Prepping Burger Patties

Tricks of the Trade
The easiest way to make the patties the correct size and to keep them uniform in size is to make a pattern or guide. To determine the size for your burger patty, place a stand-in bun top, with cut side down, on a piece of paper. Trace around the outer edge of the bun top. Around this circle draw an additional circle 1/4 inch larger in diameter. This line will create the guide for the patty size. Tape the pattern on the table surface where you plan to work as you shape the patties. Place a sheet of plastic wrap over the paper pattern and tape it securely to the table. Use the pattern as a guide as you form the patties.

When purchasing burger meat for a photo burger, choose ground beef with 10% fat. You will want to make two or three patties for each hero burger in your shot as well as stand-in patties. Purchase 1 pound of meat for every four burger patties you plan to make. You can shop for the beef the day before shoot day.

Look at the go-by shots you’ve collected. Normally the only parts of the burger patty that are visible to the camera are the edges or sides of the patty. Notice the shape of the edge of the burger patty. Some are very square and appear almost premanufactured, whereas others have a rounded edge, making them look more custom or handmade. After deciding which appearance you want to achieve, it’s time to form patties for the hero burger. Even though the burger patties will not be thoroughly cooked during the prep process, some of the diameter of the patty will shrink up when the patty is cooked.

I normally make patties 5/8 to 3/4 inch thick. You will need to make patties match the thickness as determined by the look you have chosen for your burger. Form the patties so the meat is tightly packed together. If there is a lot of air remaining in the patties, they tend to fall apart. Pay attention to the shape of the patty edges in order to create the look you want. The patties can be seared at this point, if you are ready to build the burger, or wrapped individually in plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight. When you unwrap each patty, confirm that the patty edges have remained in the desired shape.

Safety Note
Transfer the patty to a flame-resistant surface. For safety, I use and highly recommend a landscaping stone. With a torch, lightly brown the edges of the patty so they no longer appear pink. Refer to the torch manufacturer’s operating and safety guidelines before using it. As a precautionary measure, keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Perform the torch tasks under an exhaust fan since smoke will be generated by this procedure.

You need a hot griddle or large flat skillet to cook the patties. Brush the cooking surface with vegetable oil. Preheat the cooking instrument to 350 degrees. Place one beef patty on the cooking surface until it is no longer red and releases easily from the cooking surface. It is not your goal to cook the meat at this time, but rather to brown the meat only until it no longer appears red. Carefully turn the patty over using a spatula. Cook the patty until the down-side is no longer red. The edges may still be pink. That’s OK.

As you work with the patties, you will need to select heroes. As you finish torching each patty, place it immediately into a disposable aluminum baking pan that is filled with 2 to 3 inches of cool vegetable oil. Keep the patties in a single layer and use additional pans of oil if necessary to accommodate all of the hero patties. For easy identification of heroes, you will want to mark pans containing the hero patties. All of the patties need to be completely submerged in the oil to delay discoloration. Cover the pan with plastic wrap so that it touches the oil surface, and set the pan with oil and burger patties aside until you need them for the building process. Because you will be building the hero shortly, store the patties in oil at room temperature.

Adding Color to the Burger Patties

At this point, the burger patties appear cooked on the outside, however their color is not appealing. You will be brushing color onto the hero burger patty right before placing it on the hero burger assembly. There are several ways to color meat patties. Here are two methods I often use.

You can purchase hoisin sauce from the market. The sauce is thick as it comes from the jar. Put some of the sauce in a small bowl and stir it well. Normally it can be brushed onto the patty at this point. I realize using hoisin sauce sounds like a quick-and-easy approach, but the results may vary depending on several factors. My favorite, and a more reliable method to color patties and meats in general, is to make a coloring agent. Pour about 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil onto a plate. To the oil add 1 teaspoon of gravy coloring and 1 teaspoon of Bitters of Angostura plus 1/4 teaspoon of clear liquid dish detergent. Mix the liquids together using an offset palate knife or pastry brush. The liquids will need thorough mixing and should thicken during the mixing process. With an artist’s brush, brush a small amount of the color on a stand-in patty. Check the color. More brown can be achieved by adding more gravy coloring and a redder color can be achieved by adding more Bitters of Angostura or a tiny amount of liquid red food coloring. The color can be diluted by adding more vegetable oil.

Building the Hero Burger

Up to this point, you have used a stand-in burger to prepare the set and to perfect the lighting as far as you can. Before you begin to build the hero burger, you must be happy with the lighting and the set because the hero burger will have less than a 15-minute life on set. Use the stand-in burger as a reference for the hero burger build and for the placement of cheese corners in relation to the camera. Before you remove the stand-in burger from the set, mark the camera front on the stand-in with a little piece of tape for reference as you build the hero. To build the hero burger you will need a work surface that is large enough to hold many items and to give you ample space to work. Assemble burger components, tools, stand-in burger, and supplies on that table, and find a stool to sit on as you work. Remember your eyes will need to be at camera height in relation to the burger as you build. To achieve this, adjust either the height of the hero build area or your stool height to get the correct relationship. This adjustment might be accomplished by using a wooden box of the right proportion under the hero plate.

Place the hero burger bun bottom on a clean dry surface or on the clean hero plate. Take one leaf of hero lettuce from the bag. Beginning at the stem end of the lettuce, carefully tear around the stem and rigid center vein to remove it from the leaf. This technique will give you a flexible length of lettuce while maintaining the attractive ruffle edges. Lay the resulting lettuce strip on the bun with the ruffle edge on the outside, making it curve to conform to the curve of the bun. The lettuce ruffles should break over the edge of the bun in a few places. Gently move the lettuce into a good position. Secure the lettuce to the center area of the bun with toothpick halves. Insert the toothpick pointed end first through the lettuce and bun at a diagonal angle. After completing the lettuce arrangement around the bun, tear or cut away any excess lettuce that may be on the back side of the burger. Snip away any toothpicks that extend more than 1/8 inch above the surface of the lettuce.

Using a nylon spatula, remove the #1 choice of meat patty from the vegetable oil and place it on a work plate. Pat the top and edges of the meat with paper towels to remove excess oil from the patty surface. Brush the coloring agent onto the patty with a large artist’s brush. Take care to completely cover the top and side edge surface with color. You will most likely need to add additional color mixture or oil to the meat patty before final photography takes place, so take the color mixture and brush to set. The meat should not look dry to the camera.

Pick the patty up with a spatula and hold the meat closely above the bun assembly. Make certain you have identified a side of the patty as hero to face the camera and you are indeed holding that side toward camera. By approaching the bun assembly slightly from the back or off-camera side, as you place the patty, you should be able to nudge it up against the back side of the lettuce ridges closest to camera. This maneuver will help ensure that the lettuce ridges are not trapped by the weight of the burger. Be careful not to disturb the lettuce position or to transfer coloring from the meat to the lettuce where it is visible to camera.

Safety Note
Transfer the patty to a flame-resistant surface. For safety, I use and highly recommend a landscaping stone. With a torch, lightly brown the edges of the patty so they no longer appear pink. Refer to the torch manufacturer’s operating and safety guidelines before using it. As a precautionary measure, keep a fire extinguisher nearby. Perform the torch tasks under an exhaust fan since smoke will be generated by this procedure.

Now you are ready to shape the cheese using your steamer and place it on the hero. Unwrap one slice of cheese and place it on the spatula so two or three corners of the cheese are overlapping the spatula edges. Be sure to use a spatula without slots. A spatula with slots won’t work for this task since the cheese will melt down through the slots and hold that formation. If you are using more than one slice of cheese in your burger, at this time place the additional cheese slices on the spatula, positioning the slices with the corners in the arrangement you chose, because during the steaming process the slices will stick together, making later repositioning impossible. Maneuver the spatula near the steam so the cheese is in the direct path of the steam. Hold it in this position just until the cheese corner goes limp. Rotate the spatula if necessary so each of the corners of cheese the camera will see is steamed until limp. Place the cheese onto the patty so the wilted corners of cheese are visible to camera in the predetermined position.

Gently brush the wilted cheese edges with a soft artist’s brush dipped in liquid household cleaner that has a pine or orange oil ingredient base. It seems strange, but a light coating of liquid cleaner helps the cheese look freshly melted for a longer period of time and slows the drying process. If the cheese starts looking dry, it will need to be replaced.

Because the tomato on our burger is a one-slice arrangement, I shopped for rather large tomatoes. However, the tomatoes were not quite as large as I would like for the proportion of the burger. Three hero slices were cut immediately before building the burger. To get the biggest diameter slice, one slice was taken from the widest part of three tomatoes. The slices were placed on separate paper plates. I rotated the plates to see all of the edges of the tomato skin, chose a hero, and found the best side of the hero tomato for camera front. Because the interior of the tomato would be visible to the camera in the shot for this chapter, I could not remove the juicy interior of the tomato slice. Therefore, I knew the juices from the tomato would eventually discolor the cheese and I had to move quickly to ready this burger for final photography.

There is a trick that will make the tomato slice appear slightly larger in diameter to the camera if necessary. Determine the edge of the tomato that is to be toward camera. With a sharp knife, make a cut beginning in the center of the slice and going through the tomato skin on the back or off-camera edge. Lift the tomato with a spatula and place the hero tomato on the burger, making sure the cut edge faces the back off-camera part of the burger. Gently spread both sides of the cut edges of the tomato apart. As you spread the tomato apart, keep looking at the camera side of the tomato to make certain the movement isn’t creating any ripples in the edge. You can only push apart the tomato wedge so far before affecting the front. If it ripples, you may have to discard that tomato slice and select another. Using toothpick halves, pin each side of the tomato through the cheese and the meat patty to hold it in place. Snip any toothpick ends that extend more than 1/8 inch above the tomato surface. You will need to occasionally brush the edge of the tomato with an artist’s brush wet with water until final photography is completed.

On Set with the Hero Burger

The burger is ready to go to set. The burger is sturdy and easily transported at this stage. Any additional elements for your burger, such as onion slices or pickles, should be added on set because they are more difficult to stabilize, making the burger more difficult to transport.

Make certain you have the necessary tools and supplies to complete the prep on a table near the set. You’ll need the burger bun top, additional hero lettuce and other burger components, mustard or mayonnaise in an applicator bottle (optional), small containers of burger color, oil, water, and an artist’s brush for each liquid, paper towels, cotton-tipped swabs, and tweezers.

After positioning the hero plate on set, protect the area of the set around the plate by laying a few paper towels in front and to the side of it. Arrange any additional burger ingredients on the burger and secure them with toothpicks. Place the bun top on the burger. Take a capture shot to check the positioning and build of the burger. Make any adjustments needed. You need to keep the meat and vegetable components moistened with the appropriate liquids until final photography is completed. This helps to ensure the elements will maintain a fresh appearance.

When you are pleased with the burger on set, if you are embellishing your burger with condiments (mustard, mayonnaise, etc.), identify where you want to place the condiments on the hero burger. It’s difficult to make a precise decision for placement of these condiments prior to this point because of variables in lettuce and other ingredients. But you should have a basic idea of placement based on viewing the stand-in previously on set. Use an applicator bottle to insert small amounts of the condiments. Take another capture shot for a final check of the hero. Before final exposure, refresh the meat with dabs of the coloring agent using an artist’s brush and be sure to wet the tomato and onion edges with an artist’s brush dipped in water.

Supplies used to complete this shot:

  • Henckels kitchen scissors and 3-inch paring knife
  • Totally Bamboo cutting board
  • Messermeister tomato knife and nylon slotted turner
  • Presto Tilt’N Drain griddle
  • Ziploc bags, gallon size
  • Le Creuset reversible griddle
  • Bernz-O-Matic Professional Culinary Torch
  • STRETCH-TITE plastic food wrap
  • Toothpicks
  • Small wire cutters
  • Landscaping stone
  • Electric charcoal lighter
  • Paper plates
  • Work plate
  • Optional: Dijon mustard and applicator bottle

Photographer's Comment—Notes on the Hamburger Set
This hero burger is a beauty. It’s a very tight shot with only a small Chimera lantern for lighting placed directly overhead with the black skirt attached to knock light off the background. I have a white fill card to the left to fill the front of the burger. This little ball of light wraps beautifully around the hamburger and does not blow out the bun.

Printed with permission from Focal Press, a division of Elsevier. Copyright 2008. "Food Styling for Photographers" by Linda Bellingham, Jean Ann Bybee. For more information on this title and other similar books, please visit this site