A few weeks ago in this newsletter we ran a trivia item about cereal photography that read:
“The next time you watch a cereal commercial, take note. You’ll notice, and perhaps you remember, that the milk looks oddly… perfect. Well, that’s because it’s not milk. It’s Elmer’s glue. For years food stylists have used the popular Elmer’s glue in place of milk in cereal ads and commercials. And, actually, it runs kind of full circle. You may recall that the Elmer’s logo is of a bull, Elmer, the mate of Borden’s advertising mascot Elsie the Cow. The original formula for Elmer’s used casein, a byproduct of milk.”
It is NOT glue in cereal photography
I was a food photographer for 30 years with General Mills, THE cereal company. It’s not Elmer’s glue, or any glue for that matter, at least not back then. We had high standards for the photography and we always, always, always used milk. Whole milk. Sometimes we added half and half for the drips from the spoon, but it was still milk!
A milk splash would take days of setting up and timing and a whole lot of film (remember that stuff?). We pioneered using the same laser trigger photo device used in horse racing for milk splashes! At that time we were shooting with 4×5 sheet film and we sure used a lot of film and a lot of Polaroids to get the splash. We also did a lot of scrubbing the studio down after! This is one of my first and favorite splashes. All one shot—no retouching!
After graduating to digital photography, we used much less film and less time. But the process was similar: Set the milk up so it would pour onto something hard, like the bowl or the spoon. When it hit something hard it would splash, which would trip the laser trigger. The photo would be taken and we’d check the results to see if we caught the splash.
If we weren’t doing a splash, food stylists would style the cereal in a bowl for the correct serving size, arranging and picking the most attractive pieces of cereal. We would then light the cereal, shoot and check the arrangement. The stylist then made adjustments and we did a final no-milk shot. We’d add the milk little by little and take additional images, hoping that not many cereal pieces moved. The final images were examined and the best was chosen to go to the design firm that places it in an ad or on a box. Of course, that is the simple explanation and doesn’t count for the number of people involved and the number of approvals needed along the way!
Does it still look too perfect? In today’s use of Photoshop and digital imaging there can be a lot of retouching going on—add a piece of cereal here, clean off milk there, add some more milk in the bowl, put in a bit of splash or drip, but in the end it is all MILK.
Real cereal and real milk.