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Food Styling Basics

There is no single right way (or wrong way) to style food, but there are some things that many food stylists and photographers do to make the food look its best. Before I get into the how, I'll start with the what—in other words, some of the gadgets and tools you can use to make it all happen (Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 These are a few of the tools I use regularly when styling food.

Gadgets and Tools

I use a lot of little gadgets and tools when styling food, and many of them are just everyday kitchen utensils. Here is a list of some of the basic tools I use often and wouldn't want to be without:

  • Tweezers: I use tweezers to place small items (such as mint leaves or sesame seeds) or to reposition things on the plate.
  • Prep bowls or ramekins: These are really useful for holding garnishes and sauces near your dish or workspace. You can also place them upside-down in bowls to add bulk to foods.
  • Plastic spoons: These are useful for mixing and stirring, and also for applying things like sauces, sour cream, or any kind of liquid. Because they are extremely light and thin, I find that they give me more control than using metal spoons.
  • Paper towels: I always have a full roll of paper towels sitting near my workspace when styling food. They're handy for cleaning drips on plates, and if you're styling food in the spot where it will be photographed, you can place them under the plate to catch accidental spills.
  • Brushes: I often like to add shine to food items such as cooked veggies or meat, so I'll add some oil to a prep dish and use a brush to "paint on" the oil.
  • Spray bottle: I have a little spray bottle filled with water to add mist to food like salad or fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Grater and peeler: These are great for preparing garnishes, such as Parmesan cheese or lemon zest.

Using Stand-Ins

If you're familiar with movie or television production, you know that the lights need to be set for each scene, which usually takes quite a while. So, instead of having the main actors sit or stand on the set while the lights are being moved and measured, "stand-ins" (people who have a similar look to the actors) take their place so the actors can relax, have their makeup fixed, memorize their lines, or simply stay in character. A similar method is used in food photography.

When you style and photograph food, you usually have to work very quickly so the food stays fresh. All food has a limited lifespan, which is even more apparent when you're photographing it. Shiny food loses its luster, oils and sauces soak into cooked meats, and foods such as herbs and lettuce wilt away very quickly (Figures 4.5, 4.6, 4.7, and 4.8).

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 This mint was bought the day it was photographed and is fresh out of the refrigerator.

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 This was photographed 30 minutes after I photographed .

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7 This was photographed 45 minutes after I photographed .

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8 This was photographed 1 hour after I photographed .

When I photograph food, I always use a stand-in. I do this so I can set the lights, composition, props, and so on ahead of time so the food doesn't lose its luster by the time everything is ready to go. I don't even do any cooking, styling, or preparations until the light is ready. That way, once the food is prepared I can drop it into place, make a few minor adjustments, and start photographing within seconds of the food being placed on set.

A stand-in can be anything. An extra piece of food that doesn't require cooking (such as a hamburger bun) usually makes a good stand-in. Or you could use something totally random that has similar tonal qualities as your prepared food will have (Figure 4.9). Try to use something that is the same shape, width, or height so you can set your composition in the camera (especially handy if you are using a tripod).

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9 Because their color is similar to the "hero" food, I used a pile of small sweet peppers as the stand-ins for this scene.

Maintaining a Clean Environment

When I'm preparing a plate of food for a photograph, I do most of the work away from the location where it will be photographed, usually on my kitchen counter or at a table that sits nearby. This is so I can get very close to the dish and have all of my tools, food, and garnishes nearby, and it doesn't matter if I make a mess.

There will be times, however, that you won't be able to do all of your plating off set and will need to style the dish as it sits in front of the camera. In those instances, you need to be very careful to protect the environment from drips and spills. A perfectly prepared photo setup can easily be tainted with an unwanted stain. The simplest solution is to place a few paper towels around the area, which will likely save you from having to quickly re-create your scene (Figure 4.10). This also allows you to focus on the look of the food without worrying about making any messes.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10 Before adding the final touches to these dishes, I placed paper towels under and around the plates to catch any spills that would stain the tabletop and napkin.

Styling from Camera View

When photographing food, the only area of the food that you need to really pay attention to is the side that's being photographed. It's always best to put yourself in the position of the camera and style the food from that perspective. If you're photographing the front part of a dish, it doesn't matter what the back of the dish looks like, so long as it's not in the image.

Another useful way to style food (and set up the overall scene, too) is to use the Live View feature on your camera (most of the newer DSLR models will have this as a standard feature). Using Live View makes it so easy to place things in the scene, add garnishes, and even just frame and compose the photo. The downside to Live View is that it drains the battery more quickly than just looking through the viewfinder. It also will sometimes cause interference when firing strobes and flashes wirelessly. If you run into that problem, you'll need to turn off Live View temporarily to trip the shutter and create the photograph.

Following Your Instincts

Overall, much of styling food involves using what works for your situation. There is no one way to do everything, and, depending on how the food was prepared or how you want it to look, you'll probably have to get creative.

You also need to make sure that you are deliberate in your approach to creating your food and developing its overall appearance. When I style food, everything that ends up in the photograph is there because I want it to be there. A crumb that looks like it landed naturally on the plate may have been placed with small tweezers, or it crumbled off on its own and I just liked the way it looked. Often it's the things that may be considered small and unimportant that can actually take a photo from average to amazing.

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