You can have the most beautiful, directional light, and a composition that perfectly follows the golden ratio, but if your burger looks sloppy or the maple syrup has soaked into your pancakes, the end result will be less than appealing. Food photography styling is essential.
It’s a food stylist’s job to prepare the food for a shoot and make sure it’s picture perfect for the camera. It involves a completely different skill set than photography, but it’s one a food photographer must also develop.
When you start out in food photography, you will need some basic food styling skills. The clients you’ll work with at this level will most likely not have the budget to hire a food styling professional.
Once you become an established photographer, you will still need decent styling skills to get the compositions you want and to work collaboratively with a food stylist and creative director. So there is no getting around learning how to style food.
Always keep in mind that the objective of food styling is to make food look its very best. Once food is prepared and handled, and sometimes left to sit out for hours on end, it will not be edible.
If you are a food blogger who is used to tucking into your food subjects once the shoot is over, you’ll have to get used to wasting a large amount of food when working on commercial shoots.
So without further ado, here are my top tips for food styling.
1. Use Natural Ingredients
There is a misconception out there that food stylists have some very strange tricks up their sleeves, like basting turkeys with motor oil.
Although a food stylist might soak some artichokes in ascorbic acid to keep them from browning, or brush olive oil onto steak to make it glisten, in general, natural products are used to enhance food items.
Most food needs a bit of doctoring to make it look presentable for the camera, which is why employing a food stylist is so important. A food stylist has intimate knowledge of how food behaves in front of the camera.
2. Use Fresh Food
In order to look appealing, the food you shoot needs to be as fresh as possible. When shopping for your ingredients, take care to buy the freshest and nicest looking items available.
Take your time and pick through that pile of apples to find the roundest one without dents or bruises. Get that steak from the butcher just before you shoot so it doesn’t go brown by the time it hits the set.
You should also have your scene, lighting, and camera ready before you place your food on set. When you are playing with your lighting and camera settings, use a substitute in a similar colour and shape as your food as a stand-in.
Replace it with your “hero” (your main food subject) at the last moment, so that it looks as fresh and appetising as possible.
3. Have More Than You Need
When shopping for groceries, be sure to buy more than you think you will need. Food dries out, melts, goes brown or otherwise begins to look unappealing within a short time in front of the camera.
It needs to be replaced with fresher items. Depending on the item, you may also need a lot of the items to fill the frame. This typically happens when shooting fruits and vegetables.
Herbs and spices, and items such as croutons, can enhance your food shots.
You can elevate a plain bowl of soup with a drizzle of cream and a sprinkling of chopped chives.
Sprigs of various herbs like rosemary can be tied together with kitchen string to make little bouquets you can use to add context to your food story.
Colourful peppercorns can be strewn randomly on the surface, along with a smattering of coarse salt to add texture and interest.
It might not be one-hundred-percent realistic, but it can give a candid and honest feel that has become popular in food photography in recent years.
The key is that whatever garnishes you choose, they must make sense within the wider context of your scene. If you’re shooting salmon with a lemon dill sauce, then don’t garnish it with basil.
When using herbs, use the freshest possible and replace them as you shoot. They wilt or oxidise quickly. Cut herbs can be kept fresh in the refrigerator much longer when wrapped in wet paper towel.
You can also put the herb in a jar of cold water and cover it with a plastic bag. Changing the water every day will ensure they will keep for several days.
While you’re shooting, you can keep herbs in a bowl of ice water until they are ready to use. Simply pat them dry and place them onto your scene when you are ready. Check your composition to make sure they are not looking bent or misplaced.
5. Undercook and Underdress
A lot of the food you see in photographs is undercooked. The poultry that looks so delicious in that advertisement would probably poison you if you ate it.
The reason for this is that if you cooked it until properly done, the skin would wrinkle a few minutes after you took it out of the oven.
Fresh vegetables are often blanched–cooked and then dunked in an ice bath–to bring out and preserve their vibrant colours.
Once you add a dressing to a salad, it will start to wilt immediately, due to the acidity. For this reason, it’s best to add it at the last minute, and to add just enough to make it glisten. You might even want to strategically brush it onto some of the leaves instead.
Similarly, sauces will also dry out or coagulate and start to look unappetising quickly. Add them only when you are ready to shoot and have decided on the placement of your composition. Make sure they’re not still too hot, though, or that will affect your hero.
Bread is one of my favourite food items to include in a shot, and I use it like a prop. Chunks of fresh sourdough, slices of French baguette, dinner rolls, and even the crumbs can really bring a food photo to life. It gives the viewer the sense that there is a wider story going on than what appears in the frame.
I almost always use some form of bread in my soup shots. It adds texture to what can appear to be a rather bland dish, and creates context by suggesting that it will be used to sop up the soup.
The key to using bread successfully in a scene is to place it intentionally and not use too much or too big of a piece. You don’t want it to overpower your main subject.
The same goes with breadcrumbs. Use a little in a small area where the placement makes sense. Trailing them around your scene can look messy and obvious.
7. Fruits & Vegetables
Some of the funnest shoots to do involve fruits and vegetables. They burst with vivid colour and their interesting shapes and textures add a lot of dimension and vibrancy to a food scene.
It’s easy to get creative with produce and there are so many ways to approach it during a shoot. However, whether they are raw or cooked, fruits and vegetables need to be handled with care to preserve their best qualities.
Think about how the fruit or vegetable should appear in the final shot. Are you doing a close up of sautéed asparagus? Or are you shooting a tray of roasted red peppers and want to highlight the cooking method with a coating of olive oil?
You can also use fruits and vegetables as a garnish. In the image below, I placed more raspberries on the tart to show what was inside, and to add more height and texture to my main subject.
Salad can be tricky to style, though it seems to require nothing more than dumping a bag of mixed greens into a bowl. However, you usually need something to anchor the lettuce leaves and provide a solid base for creating a fluffy-looking mound.
Food stylists often use instant mashed potatoes for this, but some wadded up paper towel will do the trick in a pinch. Just make sure the white colour doesn’t show through any gaps in between the lettuce leaves.
Styling a great-looking salad can literally mean placing each leaf onto your plate one by one. Greens are not uniform in texture and size, which can make your composition look disjointed if not dealt with carefully.
At the same time, you can use this to your advantage and create images with dimension and interest.
8. Fish and Meats
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Meat can be a nightmare to shoot. Inherently brown or beige, it’s the one item that has the most potential to look unappetizing and lifeless in front of the camera.
As you may have figured out, brushing a bit of olive oil on that steak can do wonders to make it look more juicy. Garnishing with herbs, like a spring of rosemary, can also add colour and texture to your shot.
A neat trick food stylists use to create grill marks on meat and fish is a heating element such as a charcoal starter. You can find this on sites like Amazon or at hardware stores and is used to start a barbecue with charcoal.
When dealing with fish, make sure you get the freshest fish possible. When selecting a whole fish, make sure the eyes look bright and clear, not cloudy and sunken.
The skin should be firm and bounce back when you touch it, and the fish should not have any noticeable odour. Ideally, fillets should be cut-to-order from fresh fish, as they begin to break down once cut. The cut should be clean without ragged skin.
As with a lot of food items, you will need to undercook fish and meat to look good in a photograph.
Sauces can be an appealing way to finish both savoury and sweet foods. You can use them as a garnish or mix them into the food, depending on the subject.
When the sauce is mixed in, I like to set some aside until I’m finished styling and setting up my scene, and then drizzle a bit extra onto my dish just before capture.
I also might put the remainder in an attractive jar or dish and use it as a prop. This helps the viewer identify what type of sauce it is and adds extra interest to the composition.
If you are using sauce as a garnish, think about what will make sense in terms of the recipe. Will chocolate sauce go best with that sundae? Will Hollandaise sauce work better for that salmon fillet than a Bearnaise?
If you are shooting for a client, you may have instructions on what kind of sauce to use and how to present it. If not, don’t be afraid to experiment.
Little dots of raspberry coulis on a plate, applied with an eyedropper from your toolkit, can look more visually interesting than simply poured over your cheesecake.
One thing to remember, whichever sauce you use, is that you’ll usually need to be make it thicker than you would ordinarily serve it. This will keep it from running all over the place.
Sweet things are my favourite to style. They are inherently pretty and visually appealing. Styling desserts also allows a lot of room for creativity in terms of props and backgrounds, as well as composition.
They can be easier to work with, though some items like ice cream can definitely be very challenging. In fact, some food stylists refuse to work on ice cream shoots!
One good tip for working with ice cream is to place several scoops individually on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Put them back in the freezer and take them out individually when you are ready to shoot.
Make sure that your set is ready before you place your ice cream; it won’t wait while you are tinkering with your lighting. Sometimes melted ice cream can actually look appealing, depending on the shot.
When working with other items like cakes or pies, plan your composition and any garnishes ahead of time. You can photograph a cake either whole or sliced.
The end result will look quite different and should serve the story you’re attempting to tell. A whole cake can look beautiful very simply shot and propped, but cake slices may need additional props and garnishes.
For pies, it’s best to make them the day before and refrigerate them. They’ll be a lot easier to slice. You may go through several slices before you find the one that doesn’t fall apart and will look good in front of the camera.
Pies are another dessert that can be tough to shoot. When working on a commercial shoot, the food stylist will often anchor the pie filling with mashed potatoes, similarly the way they would do for a salad, and will often bake several pies as a back up.
Pies and tarts look especially good with a dusting of cocoa powder or icing sugar, or otherwise garnished with a sprig of mint or a dollop of whip cream. Choose whichever garnish would work best with the type of pastry you are shooting.
Drinks like cocktails can be one of the most difficult items to shoot, as they are often shot in glassware. The reflections can be tough to manage, and this kind of shoot can take much longer than a food shoot.
Unless you have fake ice, ice can also present a challenge due to how quickly it melts. On the positive side, you don’t have to splash out for real alcohol a lot of the time, because it doesn’t show anyway. Instead of vodka, you can just use water.
When shooting coffee or tea, I often favour backlighting. This lighting style really highlights the liquid properties of food and drink, and gives a nice translucent gleam to the surface. Sometimes I add steam in Photoshop when it works with the image.
If you are working with a shot on the darker side, you can capture steam in the moment by hiding a small cup or bowl of boiling water behind your main subject. The steam will not show on a lighter background, so keep this in mind.
Plating is a topic that also falls into the area of prop styling, but bears speaking about here. An important consideration when choosing the dishes on which you will present your food is size.
Objects can look very different to the camera than to the eye and often look bigger than we expect. For this reason, it’s a good idea to choose smaller dishes than you would ordinarily use.
I usually use salad plates or dinner plates for presenting my main subject. Large plates can dwarf the main subject and dominate the frame.
If you have been frustrated with your styling efforts, hopefully this primer on food styling will give you some ideas on how to get the best out of your food.
Food styling has a bit of a learning curve, but with some practice and the right tools, you can learn to make your food subjects look their best. Now you have some great styling ideas, check out our article for tips on selling your food photography.