When I first started photographing food, I was solely focused on the light. I ignored many other elements of the final image because I wanted to get the light right.
This is not an incorrect approach, but it is an incomplete one.
Styling food is as equally important as the lighting in creating the final look and feel to the image. How I want the image to feel is often the foundation for how I choose to style a dish. The feeling I want to evoke can be the result of the food itself (the type of cuisine), the environment I’m shooting in (indoors versus out), as well as the purpose for which I’m shooting (client, editorial, or personal).
When it comes to styling food, I am self-taught. Although I’ve had no formal instruction and have no certification in food styling, I’ve read countless books and blog posts, watched online workshops, participated in online forums and absorbed a million tips and tricks for styling food. Over time, I developed my own system and approach from all that I’ve learned.
At the foundation of that system and my food styling approach is this philosophy: The food should remain authentic and edible. I am not spraying down food with motor oil, or hairspray or any other inedible/toxic substance. If I’m photographing food for my personal portfolio, I eat what I’ve photographed 99% of the time (because who wants to waste good food?!). The exception to this rule is if I’m photographing a dish that spoils quickly over a long period of time. In that case, the food might end up being inedible for food safety reasons by the time the shoot is finished, but it is not inedible because of something I put on the dish.
Food is not always the most cooperative subject. It’s true that food can’t talk back to you, but it also can’t follow directions. You have to make the food shine. Whether you’re shooting for your personal portfolio, a travel/food blog, or a commercial or editorial client, these tips will give you some inspiration for your next shoot and help you create some mouthwatering photographs.
1. Start with the background/environment
The background, or environment, is my first element to styling the image. Am I going to shoot outside or inside? Do I want a studio-style shot or a lifestyle shot? What season am I shooting for? Do I want the food to look polished or rustic? Do I want the image to look moody or bright and cheerful?
These are a few of the questions I ask myself before choosing a background. If you’re still exploring and trying to define your style, play around and experiment. I love the outdoors and often shoot food outside when the weather is nice. However, I live in the South and most of the year it is too hot to shoot food outside, so I will often shoot indoors and create a bright and sunny feeling with my use of background boards. I also find it fun to shoot the same dish with two different boards (a darker version and a brighter version) to see which mood I like better for a particular dish.
Once you’ve chosen your background/environment (indoors vs. outdoors and bright vs. dark), think of the color of the dish you’re going to photograph. Brown foods can feel flat and boring while colorful foods demand immediate attention. If it’s a brown pecan pie or a soup with little color or texture that you’re photographing, think of colors that will make the dish stand out to the viewer. If it’s a salad with a bunch of colors that is the star of your photograph, think of a color palette that won’t compete with all the colors going on in the dish.
Remember the color wheel? It is so helpful in choosing backgrounds and other styling elements that will enhance your dish. Choose colors that complement, rather than compete with the color of your dish. Think of those “What to Wear” boards we put together for portrait clients. You can apply the same color principles to your food styling.
3. Layers and texture
I like my food photographs to have layers and texture, both within the background and within the dish. This doesn’t mean you have to have a lot of elements in your photograph. A simple linen napkin layered under a plate or peeking into the corner of the frame can take the image from feeling basic to more styled. Texture can also be added with other props such as utensils or a serving tray with great patina. Look around your house/kitchen and try to utilize things you already own in a new way. Some of my favorite layering/texture elements are scraps of fabric I’ve purchased from the remnant bin or the oddball linen napkin I’ve purchased on the clearance rack at Pottery Barn. I also love hunting through antique shops for unique and vintage kitchen tools.
When it comes to texture within the food, sometimes all the dish needs is a garnish. Of course, you want to use something that is relevant to the dish so think about what you would put on the dish if you were eating it. Fresh herbs or a drizzle of sauce is sometimes all you need. When dealing with sauce, use a plastic ziptop bag as you would a pastry bag. Fill the bag with a small amount of your sauce and push it all to one corner. Then, cut the tiniest corner off that end of the bag (it’s best to do this away from your actual setup on a cutting board). Now you have a way to drizzle the sauce onto the dish right where you want it, without making a mess. For thinner sauces, cut a tiny hole and for thicker sauces you can cut a bigger hole.
4. Size matters
When you’re photographing food you can distort perspective a bit by how you place things in the frame by your choice of lens and composition. Don’t feel like you always have to photograph full sized dishes. I often use smaller dishes when photographing food because I’m often working off of small backgrounds in a small space. I just photograph the dish so that it looks larger than it actually is to the viewer. This makes it easier if you are planning to eat the food you’re photographing because you can work with a small portion of the dish you’ve made. Also, it helps for the dish (plate or bowl) to appear to be full of the food. Blank space on a plate, or in a bowl will immediately detract attention from the food. You want the food to appear bountiful, as if there is plenty to go around. It’s kind of like that diet trick of selecting a smaller plate for portion control because you’ll feel like you have more food than placing the same amount of food on a larger plate.
5. Simple tools to keep in your kit
Chopsticks, bamboo skewers, toothpicks, a sharp knife, paper towels, a mini blow torch and ziptop bags are all great tools to have.
When you notice that one tiny element of the food needs to be adjusted, making adjustments with your fingers is not always the best option. This is why I LOVE and always have chopsticks on hand. I buy them at the grocery store and keep them handy for moving things once the food is in place and I’m nearly ready to take the photograph. I love toothpicks and bamboo skewers for holding food together and keeping food from flattening out. Just remember to angle yourself so that these “helpers” aren’t visible from the camera’s view, unless of course it’s your intent for them to be invisible. Just remember to remove the helpers before eating your dish!
A sharp knife is a MUST if you’re going to take photographs of a slice of a cake or pie. Before making a cut, make sure your cake or pie is somewhat chilled in the refrigerator. Then, heat your knife under hot water. Wipe away all the moisture with a paper towel and then make one cut. Rinse the knife under hot water, removing any residue, wipe with a clean paper towel and make your second cut. If you need a golden look added to your food, try placing the food under the broiler (just keep your eye on it!), or use a mini blowtorch to brown your dish in just the right spot. The blowtorch is especially helpful for meats, fish and veggies. I bought mine at Bed, Bath and Beyond and it is made for kitchen use.
6. Use the food
While linens, background boards and fun props like wooden spoons are all great styling elements, don’t forget about the food itself! What went into your dish? Use those ingredients in a different way in the frame. This is especially helpful and important if your dish renders certain ingredients unrecognizable, as in the photo of this protein smoothie (made of bananas, almond butter, chocolate and coffee). In this shot, if the glass was there by itself, how would you know what type of drink you were looking at? By having some of the ingredients within the frame, you have a better idea of how the drink tastes.
The same is true for this caprese salad. While it might seem obvious that the chopped up green herb is basil, I wanted to make it extra clear what herb was used in the dish, so I added the whole leaves to the frame as well.