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Styling Considerations

When we photograph our food, we want it to look beautiful, mouth-watering, 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. Does every food photographer need to work with a food stylist? It depends.

If you are the photographer for a big production (one with a large budget or for a high-profile company), having a stylist is a good idea. Even if you have the chops to style the food yourself, doing both the photography and the styling would probably be overwhelming. Hiring a food stylist ensures that your main focus stays where it should be: creating the photographs. 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. Later in this chapter I will show you some of my favorite tools and techniques that you can use to make food look beautiful all on your own.

Ethical Considerations

When it comes to styling food, there are some ethical 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. If the advertisement is for a particular brand of ice cream, then you can’t photograph fake ice cream and pass it off as the real thing.

But let’s say you are hired to photograph sprinkles and toppings that go on top of the ice cream. In this case, the product that is being advertised is not the ice cream itself, so you could use fake ice cream because 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 do your own research and also seek legal advice if necessary.

Styled Food vs. Real Food

When you see an advertisement with a photograph of a fast-food hamburger, odds are that a food stylist had a heavy hand in making that hamburger look as juicy, plump, and deliciously messy as it could possibly be. If you go through the drive-through and order that same hamburger, however, you’re likely going to be underwhelmed by the looks of the actual food that you receive. Although the beautiful hamburger in the photograph may in fact have been “real” food (with some added stylistic effects), it sure as heck was not realistic.

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 enhance the look of food, such as using aerosol starch and motor oil on pancakes, or soap bubbles in coffee or on bacon. The reason those types of styling options are popular is because they photograph well, look realistic, and also have a longer shelf life on set. My own definition is much more liberal because 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 (Figures 3.1 and 3.2).

Figure 3.1

Figure 3.1 These images show how using something as simple as a cookie cutter to refine the edges of a small cheesecake can make a huge difference in its appearance. The integrity of the food was not compromised in styling this dish; rather, it was just prepared carefully so that it looked more elegant for the camera.

Photographed with an iPhone 6+

Figure 3.2

Figure 3.2 To style this dish, I used a cookie cutter to shape the cheesecake and then topped it with pomegranates and candied lemon peel.

Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 2 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

You see, styling food doesn’t mean you need to compromise the integrity of the dish and contaminate it with nonfood 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. 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.

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 website that showcases recipes and food, you might want to make your dish look as real as possible and only edit or style it to represent the recipe both truthfully and attractively. 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 own personal style.

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