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Styling Considerations

When we photograph our food, we want it to look beautiful, mouthwatering, and delicious. But there are several issues to consider before you go full speed.

Using a Food Stylist

Food stylists are extremely talented artists, most often with a culinary background. Their job is to make food look fresh and appetizing for the camera, so an understanding of how food acts and behaves is a must. They know all the tricks and techniques to create beautiful-looking dishes and use their skills to make the food look as delicious as it tastes. But do I think that every food photographer needs to work with a food stylist? My answer is: it depends.

If you are the photographer for a big production (one with a very large budget or for a high-profile company), it's necessary to have a stylist. Even if you have the chops to style the food yourself, doing both the photography and the styling would be overwhelming. Styling food on set is a one- or maybe two-person job, so when you are in an environment where time is limited (or there are several food items to style and photograph), then you are probably better off working with a professional food stylist.

On the other hand, if you're a food blogger or you just want to photograph food for fun, then it's likely you don't have the budget to hire a bona fide food stylist. In that case, it's up to you to learn how to style your food and present it so that it not only looks appetizing, but also looks good on camera.

Ethical Considerations

When it comes to styling food, there are some "legal" restrictions that you must adhere to, mostly when you're photographing food for commercial purposes. The basic guideline is that if you're photographing food for advertisements (such as an ice cream image for a specific brand of ice cream), then you need to photograph the actual product, which in this case would be ice cream. You can't photograph fake ice cream and pass it off as the real thing.

But let's say you are photographing the sprinkles and toppings that go on top of the ice cream, and the product that is being advertised is not the ice cream itself. In this case it should be OK to use fake ice cream, since ice cream is, after all, one of the more difficult things to style and photograph. With all that said, I am not a lawyer, so if you find yourself in an unclear situation, it's best to seek legal advice.

Styling . . . vs. Not Styling

So what exactly is food styling? If you ask me, it has a broad range of definitions. Some people may consider food styling to encompass only the "weird" things that can be done to food, such as using motor oil on pancakes or soap bubbles in coffee. My own definition is much more liberal, since I think that we all style our food. Every intentional adjustment you make to your dishes, whether it's for food you're going to eat or to photograph, is styling. When chefs prepare meals at restaurants, they also style their dishes. Presentation is extremely important with food, especially when it's going to be photographed; when you can't smell the food, hear it sizzle, or hold it in your hands, its appearance is everything.

You see, styling food doesn't mean you need to compromise the integrity of the dish and contaminate it with non-food items in order to create a stunning photograph. To me, nothing is more beautiful than real food, but it still takes a bit of work to make that food look good for a photograph (Figures 4.1 and 4.2). You can also create your entire dish and do a bit of "editing" to the plate, which can be as basic as taking what is in front of you and moving things around to make it look more appealing.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 This food was cooked to be eaten and I did no styling to the dish. While it doesn't look bad or unappetizing, you can see a clear difference between it and .

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 The food in this photograph was fully cooked, but it was styled and prepared to look bright and colorful.

The way you style and present your food is up to you, and the ultimate purpose of your photograph will also play a role in the presentation. If you run a Web site that showcases recipes and food, you might want to make your dish look as real as possible and only edit or style it so that you represent the recipe as truthfully as possible. Or, if you just love food and want to create beautiful dishes for the love of photography, sneaking in a few "tricks" may not be such a bad thing. There's no right or wrong way to style food; just do what fits the purpose of your photography and your personal style.

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