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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). You can bulk up food in a bowl in a few ways. The first is to set a dome of Styrofoam in the bottom of the bowl and then place the food on top of it. This usually works best for slippery foods that won’t stay put, but one major 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 place a smaller bowl, such as a prep dish or small ramekin, upside down in the bowl and then pile the food on top (Figure 3.9). This keeps your food fresh and does a really good job of adding a little extra bulk. For soups, another good trick is to use clear glass stones at the bottom of the bowl to help bring any added items up to the surface, such as noodles or vegetables.

Figure 3.9

Canon 60D • ISO 100 • 1/20 sec. • f/2 • Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

Figure 3.9

Canon 60D • ISO 100 • 1/20 sec. • f/2 • Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

Figure 3.9

Canon 60D • ISO 100 • 1/30 sec. • f/2 • Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

Figure 3.9

Canon 60D • ISO 100 • 1/10 sec. • f/2.5 • Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

Figure 3.9 By placing a small upside-down cup in the bowl, I was able to “float” the asparagus tips on the top of the soup. Without the small cup, they would have sunk to the bottom of the soup bowl.

If you’re working with food that is flat, especially when you are stacking more than one item on top of the other, adding something between the layers can help make the food look much more full. In Figure 3.10, I placed two tortillas on top of each other before adding the carnitas meat and garnish. However, just having the tortillas lie flat on top of each other made them look lifeless. So I added torn-up tortillas between the layers to help bring up the front edges and make them look more appealing. You can use anything you like between your food to give it more life—cardboard, toothpicks, or even folded-up paper towels.

Figure 3.10

Figure 3.10 I added torn-up tortilla pieces between the two tortillas to add bulk and texture to the food.

Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 0.5 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

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 3.11). Just as adding herbs and spices will enhance flavor when cooking the food, adding them to your photograph can make it look livelier and more appealing.


Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/6 sec. • f/8 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Figure 3.11

Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/4 sec. • f/8 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Figure 3.11 Adding green onions and cilantro as a garnish helped give this photo a boost of color.

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. (Chapter 5 offers more suggestions on focus and composition.)

A Little Mess Is Okay

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 with a fork already dug into the food, makes the food look more real and attainable to the viewer (Figure 3.12). It can also add balance to the composition of the photograph. A little mess is okay; just pay attention to your crumb or drip placement so that it still looks appealing and delicious.

Figure 3.12

Figure 3.12 Adding a little bit of mess, like these drips coming off of the peaches, helps add realism to the photo.

Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 3 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Real Ice vs. Fake Ice

I use fake ice in many of my photographs. In fact, any time there’s a water glass in the frame (usually in the out-of-focus background), I’ve probably added some fake ice to the cup, usually without even adding water (Figure 3.13). I use fake ice so frequently because real ice has two major flaws: It melts quickly, and it can look very foggy when photographed. Fake ice, on the other hand, will hold its shape and stay shiny and crystal clear (Figure 3.14).

Figure 3.13

Figure 3.13 For this plate of pasta, I wanted to add something to the background. So I filled a glass with fake ice and placed it in the top left corner of the frame, knowing that it would end up blurred and slightly unrecognizable. The ice adds depth and a bit of sparkle to the background without being overpowering.

Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 0.7 sec. • f/4.5 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Figure 3.14

Figure 3.14 These two images show the difference between fake ice (left) and real ice (right).

Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/10 sec. • f/8 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Although there are places that create custom, 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.

Adding Movement

Another way to add to your image is to give the photo a sense of movement. You could do this by photographing the act of drizzling syrup onto French toast, sprinkling cheese over pasta, or even adding a utensil that is taking a scoop from the food itself (Figure 3.15). One of my tricks for adding movement is to use a Manfrotto Magic Arm ( By placing a spoon or fork in the jaws of this adjustable arm-like clamp I can mimic the act of someone taking a bite (Figures 3.16 and 3.17). The Magic Arm’s flexibility allows me a lot of control when styling and framing my scene while keeping the utensil firmly in place (Figure 3.18).

Figure 3.15

Figure 3.15 Drizzling syrup over French toast is a great way to add movement to an image.

Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 400 • 1/125 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Figure 3.16

Figure 3.16 I used a Manfrotto Magic Arm to set up this shot as if someone was holding a fork off camera.

Canon 5D Mark II • ISO 100 • 0.3 sec. • f/8 • Canon 70–200mm f/4L IS lens

Figure 3.17

Figure 3.17 The Manfrotto Magic Arm was used to create this image of honey dripping from a honey dipper.

Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/4 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Figure 3.18

Figure 3.18 This is a behind-the-scenes image showing how the Manfrotto Magic Arm was positioned to create the image in Figure 3.17.

Fuji X-T1 • ISO 2500 • 1/125 sec. • f/3.6 • Zeiss Touit 32mm f/1.8 lens

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