Saturday, September 30, 2023


The truth about cereal photography

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!

“The Dunk.” Photo credit: Nanci Dixon, courtesy of General Mills

Digital photography

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.


Nanci Dixon
Nanci Dixon
Nanci Dixon has been a full-time RVer living “The Dream” for the last six years and an avid RVer for decades more! She works and travels across the country in a 40’ motorhome with her husband. Having been a professional food photographer for many years, she enjoys snapping photos of food, landscapes and an occasional person. They winter in Arizona and love boondocking in the desert. They also enjoy work camping in a regional park. Most of all, she loves to travel.


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Thomas D
1 year ago

Leave the sunglasses there.
No mention of uv protection which is very important

1 year ago

Nanci, good brief description of the real process.

Let me ask one question, though. Do you believe the buying public scrutinizes cereal box or cereal ads to the degree that that much process was necessary to get them to buy the cereal? I mean arranging individual flakes multiple times???

McDonalds show pictures of stacked high big beef burgers (similar process, I’m sure) but yet we all know that one can hardly see the contents protruding from the bun in reality. And yet people buy the product, knowing it will never be as pictured. I would call their extreme pictures false advertising.

In the case of cereal, I would think it would be hard to NOT make it look like a real bowl of cereal to the undemanding eye of a normal consumer. I’m sure it’s my marketing ignorance, but wouldn’t much less effort still yield a very valid and appealing result?

As you can tell, much of my career was Finance and Cost Engineering! 🙂

Last edited 1 year ago by Spike
1 year ago

Very interesting. Thanks for the clarification.

Jim Sute
1 year ago

Nanci what a great career. Wish you would share some of your work. Also would be interested in photography advice while traveling. Thanks, JShute

1 year ago

Thanks Nanci! Loved this and all your articles.

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