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Styling Tips and Tricks

There are a lot of techniques you can use when styling your food to enhance its appearance. Here are some simple tips and tricks to help you make your food look great when it's being photographed.

Adding Bulk

When you place food in a bowl, often it will sink to the bottom and lie flat (especially with foods like pasta and chunky soups or stews). There are a few ways that you can bulk up food in a bowl. The first is to take a dome of Styrofoam, set it in the bottom of the bowl, and then place the food on top of it (Figure 4.11). This usually works best for slippery foods that won't stay put, but one downside is that if you're planning to eat the food after it's photographed, you're out of luck (unless you want little bits of plastic foam in your meal). Another method is to take a smaller bowl, such as a prep dish or small ramekin, and place it upside-down in the bowl and then pile the food on top. This keeps your food fresh and does a really good job of adding a little extra bulk.

Figure 4.11

Figure 4.11 For these pasta dishes I used a dome of Styrofoam to bulk up the food. Pasta can be slippery, so Styrofoam works well if I'm using the food only for photography (and not to eat afterward).

Another quick tip is that if you're photographing a bowl of soup with ingredients such as noodles, veggies, or meat, try adding a handful of decorative rocks to the bottom of the bowl to push up all the tasty ingredients to the top. I prefer to use clear rocks to avoid any potential colorcast in the image, especially in a clear or broth-based soup. That way instead of being sunk to the bottom, they're hanging out at the top of the bowl in clear view of the camera (Figure 4.12).

Figure 4.12

Figure 4.12 I used some clear decorative rocks at the bottom of this bowl to push the noodles and vegetables to the top of the dish.

If you're photographing a sandwich, one easy way to keep the sandwich from looking flat is to place small pieces of cardboard or foam board between each layer. You can also stick pieces of toothpicks into the cardboard to push up and heighten the sandwich even more (Figure 4.13).

Figure 4.13

Figure 4.13 By adding small pieces of cardboard and toothpicks inside the sandwich, I was able to bulk it up and give it fullness so that it looks more appetizing.

Using Garnishes

Adding a touch of color to a dish can do wonders, and I often do this by adding garnishes such as fresh basil, cilantro, or any herb that is appropriate to the food and its ingredients (Figure 4.14). This can make it look livelier and more appealing, just as adding herbs and spices will enhance flavor when cooking the food.

Figure 4.14

Figure 4.14 I used basil in this dish when it was cooked, but I wanted to make the colors more pronounced. Adding small basil leaves to the bowl added a color and vibrancy that didn't show through in the original photo.

This technique also helps create your point of focus. By adding a bright, colorful food item to the dish, you will draw the viewer's eyes to that location. And it's the perfect spot to focus on with your camera (there'll be more on focus and composition in Chapter 5).

Keeping it Real

One thing to keep in mind when you're creating your dishes is that they don't always have to look perfect. A few crumbs or drips to the side of the food, or even a dish where the food has already had a fork dig into it, makes the food look more real and attainable to the viewer (Figure 4.15). It can also add balance to the composition of the photograph. A little mess is OK; just pay attention to your crumb placement so that it still looks appealing and delicious.

Figure 4.15

Figure 4.15 I added a few crumbs and berries to the side of this yogurt parfait to balance the dish and give it a more natural look.

Putting It on Ice

I use fake ice in many of my photographs (Figure 4.16). In fact, any time there's a water glass in the frame (often in the out-of-focus background), I've also added some fake ice to the cup, usually without even adding water. The reason that I use fake ice so frequently is that real ice has two major flaws: it melts quickly, and it can look very foggy when photographed (Figure 4.17). Fake ice, on the other hand, will hold its shape and stay shiny and crystal clear (Figure 4.18).

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16 I used a drinking glass with fake ice in the background of this photo.

Figure 4.17

Figure 4.17 For this photo I used ice, backlit with diffused sunlight coming through a window.

Figure 4.18

Figure 4.18 For this photo I used ice, backlit with diffused sunlight coming through a window.

While there are some places that create custom, very realistic (and expensive) acrylic ice cubes, the ice I use is relatively inexpensive and purchased through an online retailer. If you are creating photographs that require ice and you don't have a big budget, this is probably a good option for you as well.

Faking Grill Marks and Charring Food

If you want to add realistic grill marks on cooked food but don't have the luxury of owning a grill (or you just want the grill marks to look really good), another option is to add them after the food is cooked. I like to use an electric charcoal starter, which is a handheld device that has a big loop of metal attached to a handle (Figures 4.19 and 4.20). You could also use a grill pan with a ribbed bottom to get a similar effect.

Figure 4.19

Figure 4.19 By using a charcoal starter, I was able to add grill marks to this already-cooked chicken breast.

Figure 4.20

Figure 4.20 I used the same method as in to add grill marks to this piece of steak.

If you have food that is already cooked but needs a little more visible cooking to be done on the surface, you can use a crème brûlée torch to "cook" specific areas of the food (Figure 4.21). This is also handy if you want to add charring to a food item to give it the appearance of being cooked, as I did to the asparagus in Figure 4.22.

Figure 4.21

Figure 4.21 This Cornish hen was fully cooked, but it needed just a bit more browning on the side that was being photographed.

Figure 4.22

Figure 4.22 I used the crème brûlée torch to char the asparagus to make it look as if it had been grilled.

Adding Steam

Food looks tastier when it's fresh, and if it's hot, it is more appealing if you can see that it's hot. Food that is fresh out of the oven or right off the pan usually has steam rising from it, but once it sits for a minute or two the steam dissipates. If you want to keep that "freshly cooked" look, you can always add the steam yourself.

A fun (and easy) way to add steam to a food item is to use a hand steamer. They are typically used for steaming and straightening clothes, but they work very well with food photography. In Figure 4.23 (left), I show how I used a hand steamer to give this shrimp the appearance that it is still hot and fresh, and after a few attempts I got the perfect "steamy" look (Figure 4.23, right). (See Chapter 7 for a behind-the-scenes on creating a similar "steam" photograph).

Figure 4.23

Figure 4.23 I used a portable hand steamer to add steam to this shrimp on a fork.

Making Vegetables Bright

If you want to give your vegetables a burst of color, the best way to prepare them for a photograph is to blanch them in boiling water immediately before you photograph them. Blanching is a cooking method wherein food is boiled very briefly (30 seconds to a minute or maybe more) and then cooled in cold water to stop the cooking process. When you blanch vegetables, you will end up with very bright colors that photograph beautifully. This is also a good way to add color to an otherwise boring-looking dish (Figure 4.24).

Figure 4.24

Figure 4.24 On its own, this beef stew was colorless, since the meat and vegetables had turned brown during the cooking process. To liven it up, I blanched some of the ingredients separately and placed them in the dish to add color to an otherwise boring-looking dish of food.

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