Food Styling Basics
There is no single right (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. For instance, Figure 3.4 shows some of the gadgets and tools that I use (and you can use) to make it all happen.
Figure 3.4 This is a sampling of some of the tools I use when styling food.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 400 • 1/10 sec. • f/6.7 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens
Gadgets and Tools
I use a lot of little gadgets and tools when styling food, but 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 and 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, as well as for applying things such as sauces, sour cream, or any kind of liquid. Because they are extremely light and thin, I find that they give me more control than 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.
- Water: I use canned water to add a fine mist to salad, fresh fruits and vegetables, and the like.
- Grater and peeler: These are great for preparing garnishes, such as Parmesan cheese or lemon zest.
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 quickly so the food stays fresh. All food has a limited life span, 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 quickly (Figure 3.5).
Figure 3.5 This sequence shows how much a simple herb such as basil can change over the course of one hour—it goes from being crisp and green to dull and wilting.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 50 • 1/6 sec. • f/6.7 • Canon 24–70mm f/2.8L lens
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 and prevent the food from losing its luster by the time everything is ready to go. In fact, 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 (Figures 3.6 and 3.7). Try to use something that is the same shape, width, or height so you can set your composition in the camera (this is especially handy if you are using a tripod).
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/4 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 0.3 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens
Figure 3.6 I used a crumpled-up napkin as a stand-in for the yogurt in this photograph.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 0.3 sec. • f/6.7 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 0.7 sec. • f/6.7 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro len
Figure 3.7 A stand-in doesn’t need to look identical to your actual food. In this case, I placed a simple knitted cloth on the plate as a stand-in for the pasta.
Maintaining a Clean Environment
A perfectly prepared photo setup can easily be tainted with an unwanted stain. When I’m preparing a plate of food for a photograph, therefore, I try to 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 way I can get close to the dish as well as keep all my tools, food, and garnishes nearby, and it doesn’t matter if I make a mess.
Sometimes, however, 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 careful to protect the environment from drips and spills. The simplest solution is to place a few paper towels around the area (Figure 3.8), which will likely save you from having to quickly re-create your scene. This also allows you to focus on the look of the food without worrying about making any messes.
Figure 3.8 When working with messy food, such as this berry bruschetta topping, place paper towels over the table’s surface to prevent drips and stains.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/4 sec. • f/6.7 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens
Styling from Camera View
When photographing food, the only area of the food that you need to 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 have this as a standard feature). Being able to watch what is happening in your scene with 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 you’re 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 landed. Often it’s the things that may be considered small and unimportant that can actually take a photo from average to amazing.