For a food blogger, beautiful photos of your recipes are the way to get noticed online. Gone are the days when you could post a point-and-shoot snap of your Red Velvet Cake and have hordes of readers clamouring for the recipe.
To get ahead as a food blogger today you need better food photography. This means developing your food styling skills.
Food photographers always work with a food stylist on professional shoots. Food stylists have specific knowledge of how to get the best out of food to make it look great in front of the camera.
Here are some food styling tricks you can borrow from them to make your creations looks extra delicious.
1. Fake It With Ice
When shooting for your blog, you can use real ice, or you can get some fake ice cubes.
Real ice looks white instead of clear, and of course, it melts very quickly. This can create a hassle for you when you’re shooting.
Beverage photography can take a long time due to the difficulty of needing to manage reflections in the glassware. You may have to use stand-ins or switch out your drinks several times to get the lighting right, which may disturb your set-up.
Cheap artificial ice looks fake. Investing in some good quality ice cubes can make a big difference in your beverage photography. And these will last you for years to come.
If you decide you wan to splash out for some good quality fake ice, I recommend purchasing online from Trengrove Studios in New York. They sell a variety of artificial ice cubes as well as crystal ice.
2. Fake It With Drinks
Chances are, when you see a glass of white or red wine in a food editorial, it’s not actual wine in there.
Purchasing real wine adds unnecessary expenses to a food styling budget. And there is an easy and cheap way to fake it.
There are problems with shooting the real thing, too. For example, red wine often shoots too dark, so stylists regularly mix a few drops of red food colouring into water as a substitute.
As for white wine, a few drops of Kitchen Bouquet can make a convincing chardonnay.
Kitchen Bouquet is used for browning and seasoning meat. It is a liquid product composed of caramel colour and seasonings. It is an American product, but most countries have an equivalent. If you can’t find such a product, soy sauce also works very well.
Add it to the water drop by drop until you get it to a realistic shade. A little goes a long way.
When styling coffee or tea, you may want to show steam coming off the top of the beverage. You can do this in Photoshop, but it’s easier to create the look of steam in-camera.
The important thing to know is that you can only create this effect when using backgrounds that are on the darker side. Otherwise the steam won’t show.
Place a smaller cup or dish behind your subject. You will have to position your camera so it doesn’t show. This means you will likely be shooting your scene straight on.
Boil some water in a kettle and when your camera is set up and ready to go, pour the boiling water into the cup behind your coffee or tea and take the picture.
3. Add Condensation On Glassware
Nothing makes a cold beverage look more refreshing than some condensation on the glass. Think of a mug of beer or a frosty cola with water beading on the glass. You can spray the glass with some water to lend this effect, but that will last only momentarily.
A better approach is to use a mixture of gylcerin and water. Glycerin is a gel-like product that can be found in the beauty section of the drug store. Alternatively, you can try using corn syrup instead.
The ratio of glycerin to water will depend on how large you want the droplets. I find 50:50 to be a good start.
Mix the glycerin or corn syrup with water in a small spray bottle and spritz the mixture onto the glass. Use an eyedropper or a chopstick to place bigger droplets strategically. The mixture won’t evaporate or move when you’re trying to get your shot.
Note that this trick can also be used to create water droplets on fruit that won’t evaporate within seconds as they would do with a spritz of water. The glycerin can be rinsed off with warm water.
4. Grilling Foods
Foods like steak, chicken breast, and even some vegetables look great with grill marks, as if they have just come fresh off the barbecue.
When you see such items in magazines and advertisements, chances are they haven’t actually been barbecued but have been prepared to look so by a food stylist.
You can do this easily and inexpensively at home with a charcoal starter.
To create grill marks on steak or chicken, trim off any part of the meat that looks ragged and uneven and brush it with oil. Cook in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Use some oil to keep the meat from sticking and to encourage browning.
In order to get the food looking its best, you most likely will have to undercook it. Once the meat has browned, move it to a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil.
At this point, if you have a kitchen torch, you can strategically brown the edges where they would naturally be darker. Brown the surface of the meat if needed to look even and golden.
Take the charcoal starter and lightly press it into the meat where you want to create the grill marks. Use a slight rocking motion. This will help you create an even mark.
Be sure to space the marks out as evenly as possible, so it looks realistic.
You might find that you have to practice using the charcoal starter before you are satisfied with the results. Don’t press too hard. A light hand is all that you need.
Also, be sure to season the meat after it’s cooked, not before. Seasonings tend to burn when cooked in the pan. Brushing the meat with oil as needed will keep it looking moist and appetizing.
Oil will preserve the meat. If you are not using it right away, place it in a dish of oil. Otherwise, it will start to look unappetizing very quickly.
This is called “holding”. You can wipe off the oil before you place the meat on set. And touch it up with a brush where needed.
You can also use this grilling method on seafood and vegetables like zucchini.
However some of these items should be blanched, rather than browned in the pan. For shrimp, put them on a wooden skewer and place them into simmering water for a couple of minutes, until they turn a nice pink colour.
Then dunk them in a bowl of ice water before removing them to a tray. This will stop the cooking process.
You can use the same process with zucchini or other vegetables.
5. Styling Burgers
Burgers can be among the most difficult items to style. They can look very sloppy if you don’t take the time to “build” them properly, or if you’re unsure of how to do so.
Start by laying out all your ingredients and tools beforehand. Make sure your knife is very sharp and you have a small pair of scissors on hand. Cook whatever meat or veggie patty you will be using in your burger beforehand.
The top and bottom should look as perfect as possible, without any dents. You don’t have to use the top and bottom of the same bun if you have bough a bag with several buns. Always choose the best looking items.
Trim any raggedy bits from the edge of the bun, if necessary.
Preserve your lettuce in a bath of ice water. This way it won’t start to wilt before you can place it on your burger. When it’s ready to use, wipe off the excess water by gently patting it on a paper towel.
If you are using tomato and onion, cut pieces from the middle to get the cleanest and biggest cuts. If your knife is not sharp, you won’t get clean cuts. The liquid and seeds from the tomato will seep out, making a mess.
Tomatoes have a lot of liquid, so when you place your slices on the burger, be sure to not have them touching the bun. Otherwise, the bread will become wet and soggy very quickly.
One trick to prevent the tomato from ruining your burger is to tuck a small piece of cardboard or paper towel between the tomato and other burger elements.
For the cheese, squares of processed or “American” cheese work best, as they melt very well. To encourage a bit of melting before you place them on your patty, a bit of steam from a boiling kettle can start that process.
Finally, using an elevated surface like a cake stand will make building your burger easier. It will allow you to see how the burger will look to the camera.
6. Styling Soups
One problem with photographing soup is that it can look quite bland.
This can be remedied by proper styling. For example, with items like bread or croutons or garnishes.
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.
Bread in your soup shot will add texture and also create context by suggesting that it will be used to sop up the soup.
Place the bread where it won’t overpower your main subject and don’t use too big of a piece.
A plain bowl of soup can also be elevated with a drizzle of cream and a sprinkling of chopped herbs or seasoning like black pepper.
Colourful peppercorns can be strewn randomly on your surface, along with a smattering of coarse salt to add texture and interest. A little goes a long way. Too much can look messy.
When using herbs to garnish your soups, use the freshest possible and replace them as you shoot. They wilt or oxidise quickly.
While you’re shooting, you can keep your chosen sprigs of herbs in a bowl of ice water. When they are ready to use, pat them dry and place them onto your scene. You may have to change them out a few times as you go along, as they will begin to wilt quickly.
To store, place cut herbs in a mason jar filled with cold water and cover them with a plastic bag. If you change out the water every day, they will last up to a week in the fridge.
7. Styling Eggs
Eggs can also be tricky to style.
When frying eggs for your shoots, use a preheated dry, non-stick pan. Don’t use oil to make sure you’ll get nice edges and bright yolks. Crack each egg individually into a fine mesh sieve over a small bowl to drain and gently transfer into the pan. This will get rid of any water that can cause uneven edges.
Cook the egg slowly, over medium-low heat. Once the white is completely set, spray a spatula with a bit of cooking spray and transfer the egg carefully onto your plate.
To cook soft-boiled eggs, undercook them by a minute and then place them directly into a bowl of ice water.
When cooking soft-boiled eggs, you definitely want to cook more than you think you will need. Once you’ve set up the shot, spoon some of the runny yolk from an extra egg onto the hero egg. This is a great way to capture that runny yolk drip you see in soft boiled egg photos.
Sometimes an egg will sit too low in an egg cup. In that case, place a bit of tissue or paper towel in the bottom of the cup to prop up the egg and ensure that more of the egg is visible.
8. Breakfast Items and Baked Goods
Breakfast items come with their own set of challenges in food styling, as many of them are on the brown side and a bit dull looking on their own. This can be overcome with supporting ingredients and garnishes and the right composition.
When styling baked items like pancakes, waffles, muffins etc., be sure to make ones that are a nice golden brown–nothing too dark–and are uniform in size. Use the elements that would ordinarily accompany the food you are shooting. Butter and maple syrup with pancakes, or milk with granola.
If possible, add some extra colour and texture with some berries or other fruit.
One problem with using syrup in styling, is that it seeps into the food, making it soggy. When working with waffles and pancakes, you can prevent this problem by spraying them with Scotch Guard, a fabric and upholstery protector.
Of course, the food will not be edible if you use it.
9. Food Styling With Dressings and Sauces
Once a dressing is added to a salad, the greens will begin to wilt due to the acidity. For this reason, you want to have your lighting and camera set up and ready to go first. And add the salad dressing at the last moment.
Apply the dressing by drizzling it on with a small spoon or a squeeze bottle. There is no need to dress every leaf or component of the salad. You can also use a brush to add dabs of dressing or oil where you want to emphasise the highlights.
Too much dressing on a salad can drag it down.
10. Styling Ice Cream
Out of all the foods to shoot, ice cream can be the most difficult. In fact, there are stylists who won’t work on ice cream shoots.
For some professional shoots, ice cream is replaced by mashed potatoes or icing sugar mixed with conditioner and food colouring. These won’t melt.
Most likely you will have no desire to use this techniques, so let’s look at how to make your ice cream last longer on your setup.
When working with scoops of ice cream, place several scoops individually on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Put the cookie sheet back into the freezer for about twenty minutes.
You can also freeze the bowls or cups you’ll be using to plate the ice cream. This will give them a frosted or dewy look once you have them on set and they are starting to come to room temperature. If you don’t like how it looks, you will need to wipe them down.
Always make sure that your set is ready before you place your ice cream. It won’t wait while you are tinkering with your props. However, sometimes melted ice cream can actually look appealing, depending on the shot.
If you’re shooting ice cream in a cone, place a piece of crumbled paper towel inside the cone to keep it from becoming soggy. Fill the cone evenly with ice cream and then place your nicest scoop on top.
When you’re a food blogger, you have to do it all. You’re the photographer, the food stylist and the prop stylist, not to mention the recipe developer. It can be a lot to juggle and it takes time.
Being as prepared as possible, with everything laid out and organised will reduce your stress and help you have a smooth workflow.
As you can see from these tips and tricks, sometimes the dishes you shoot will not be edible afterwards. This can be hard to stomach if you’re a blogger and used to tucking into your recipe once you get your shot.
These days, the goal is to be as natural with food styling as possible. But getting the food to look its best often means using methods that leave the food inedible.
Food stylists use these tricks to make sure that the dishes look their best in front of the camera, which is what we all want.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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