Whether you are a food blogger or starting out in professional food photography, you will need to develop your food styling skills. Food styling is inseparable from lighting and composition.
All of these components work together equally in the aesthetic of the final photo. If one of them is off, the end result will be disappointing.
This is why most food photographers work with a food stylist, who has specialised skills to make food look its best. However, when you first start out in food photography, you will likely work with small businesses that don’t necessarily have the budget to hire a food stylist.
This means you will have to do the styling yourself.
Like an artist needs brushes to paint, a food stylist needs a set of tools to get the job done. Even if you’re not doing the styling on a job, you still should have a tote bag or carry case of items you can bring to every shoot to address common styling issues.
The photographer and food stylist–and sometimes even a prop stylist–work together to achieve the final results. Each person has their role, but it’s a collaboration all the way.
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List of Items You Should Have in Your Kit
One of the most important tools in your arsenal, tweezers are crucial for strategically placing garnishes or nudging your food into exactly the right place.
The fingers are usually too inefficient for this. Aim to have at least two pairs–ones with a short handle, as well as some long-handled ones. Keep them in your kit and only use them for food.
Cotton swabs are perfect for cleaning up small drips and fingerprints or other marks on dishes and props.
Besides being useful for wiping your hands and picking up spills, paper towels can be useful to prop up salads or placed hidden under dishes to protect your linens or surfaces.
Put a couple of tea towels in your kit to periodically wipe your hands on as you work, or after you wash them. They’re also handy to spread on your work surface.
I use a tea towel to lay my styling tools out on, so I can keep them clean while conveniently having them on hand.
Have a variety of paint brushes ready to brush a bit of olive oil on meat or any unwanted crumbs off your set. A fan brush is particularly good for brushing off your surfaces.
Spend a bit more on good artist brushes. The bristles typically fall out of the the cheaper ones, which can annoyingly stick to your food.
Buy a few little water spritzer bottles to have on hand during shoots. You can buy empty travel bottles from the drug store. A spritz of water on produce can make it look freshly picked.
It can also give new life to certain food items when they start to look a little dry or lifeless. Different sizes will provide a different mist, so it’s good to have a few sizes.
Want those water droplets on the fruit to last? Spray it with a 50/50 mixture of glycerine and water. It will simulate water droplets but will not evaporate quickly like pure water will.
You can find glycerine in most drugstores in the beauty section.
Several squeeze bottles with different size openings are great to have when working with sauces for both savoury and sweet dishes.
They give you more control than a spoon or pouring the sauce from a small pitcher.
Before plating food, give your props a good wipe down with glass cleaner to ensure they look as pristine as possible.
Fingerprints or smears of grease on dishes can be difficult and time-consuming to edit out.
Mixed with water, this powdered form of vitamin C will create a solution to soak fruits and vegetables in to keep them from oxidising and going brown.
Be sure to soak the items for at least fifteen minutes before you need them. A couple of spoons dissolved in one cup of water should do the trick.
I buy ascorbic acid at my local cook shop and it’s also sold in some countries under the brand name Fruit Fresh. If you can’t find ascorbic acid, you can get MSG from an Asian grocery store. It does the same thing.
Besides being a necessary prop when shooting Asian food, chopsticks will help you adjust some larger items easier than tweezers can.
They can be particularly helpful when dealing with noodles.
Use for spraying onto certain food items like meat to make it gleam, or use it in cooking to prevent food from sticking to pans.
Some cooking sprays come in a butter flavor, which gives a nice golden colour to baked goods.
Use olive oil or any other type of cooking oil to brush on meats, lettuce leaves, or other foods you want to strategically make glisten.
Red food colouring mixed into water is a surprisingly good substitute for red wine, and a much cheaper one at that. Real red wine usually shoots too dark. You want your red “wine” to look somewhat transparent in photos.
Start with a few drops and then take a shot. Keep adding drops until you get a realistic colour that you like. You don’t want it to look like juice!
This is a liquid seasoning product used to brown and flavor gravies and sauces. It can be brushed on poultry, toast, or other food items you would like to brown or make look golden.
A few drops mixed into water will also substitute well for white wine. Most countries sell a version of this product, but if you can’t find it, try using soy sauce instead.
Having a couple of plastic funnels on hand will help you make smooth pours into glasses and bottles.
Splashes on the side of your glassware can look distracting and messy.
A variety of small glass bowls are perfect for holding your garnishes, lemon wedges, and other bits of ingredients that you should have prepared and ready for shooting.
Can be used to drizzle sauces or stir together ingredients in other liquids, like dressings. They do double duty as props alongside coffee or tea or certain desserts.
A Pastry Torch
A small kitchen torch such as those used by pastry chefs has a wide variety of uses and is a crucial item for browning food like poultry or pastries to make them look like they were just pulled from the oven.
Most of them are powered by butane and take a little bit of practice to use effectively. Make sure to bring the bottle of butane with you in case your torch runs out.
Syringes can give you the control you need when applying mayonnaise or ketchup to the edge of a burger bun or sandwich.
Use eyedroppers to give you greater control when dabbing or dotting sauces or other liquids onto your plate.
Toothpicks can help you anchor items together, especially with tall dishes like burgers or stacks of pancakes.
They can be hidden from view or edited out later in post-processing.
This may seem like a strange one, but I regularly use baby blocks to mark the position of certain items on my set.
If I move my dish to plate my food once my lights are set up, it can be difficult to put it back the exact way.
This is a sticky, rubbery product that looks like chewed up blue gum. It’s quite sticky and is also used to prop up smaller pieces of food that won’t stay where you want them.
Because the colour is so bright, you need to be careful that it doesn’t show to the camera. It is also called Fun Tak and can be bought at stationary stores or on sites like Amazon.
Dulling Spray is a product you can spray on items like glassware and utensils to reduce the reflections and glare caused by shiny items. It’s sold under the brand name Kryon and can also be purchased on Amazon or found in craft stores.
It can be used on metal, glass, plastic and ceramic. It’s removable, but not safe to ingest, so I would not eat from any dishes or utensils that have come in contact with this spray.
If you can’t find Dulling Spray, an aerosol hairspray will work similarly, though not quite as well.
This type of spatula is very useful when styling desserts involving whipped cream, frosting, or even ice cream.
It can be used to reapply or smooth out icing or fill in any unwanted cracks.
Pastry Bag and Tips
Although you might not be decorating a cake, having a pastry bag and a few tips can be helpful to have on hand when you need to do a quick repair job on frosting.
If you are doing any kind of professional photography involving beverages, you will need to get some fake ice–both cubes and shards. Trengrove Studios in the US is a trusted source for high quality fake ice.
It’s expensive, but cheap fake ice will not look realistic. Once you invest in it, you’ll have it forever. Our article on food photography props will give you more tips on investing in your craft.
Depending on the job, you may not need all of these items in your food styling kit, but it’s best to be prepared so you can work as efficiently as possible. Food styling is about problem solving and thinking creatively on your feet.
Having the right tools at your disposal can go a long way in ensuring that your shoots are stress free and that you get the best out of your food subjects.
Now you have some great styling ideas, check out our article for tips on selling your food photography.