I am pretty sure that as creators, we all have a folder or a Pinterest board with photos that using the styling techniques we want to try or master on day. Are you wondering why food styling is an individual profession?
It has many layers and dimensions that need to be discovered, experimented with, and practiced time-to-time.
Nobody was born with such skills to deal with ice cream, cheese, drinks, casserole dishes or a roast turkey on set to preserve and present these heroes' best possible look... so liberate yourself from your own, high expectations, and give yourself the time to try, practice, fail and succeed. I will help you to provide you with the endless source of wisdom on this topic! You are asking: HOW?
What if I would ask your food stylist idols to highlight the most important food styling technique that had the biggest impact on their creative work?
Today is your lucky day! I've teamed up with the creators you admire the most, to ask them about these things and I will also share my perspective on this topic.
Today I celebrate the last birthday of my twenties, so I would like to express some emotions here...
I am considering myself super lucky because I have a big bunch of crazy-talented friends all around the globe. Instead of hard competitions, we are supporting each other, collaborate, play, doing challenges together, inspiring, and lifting each other. This is one of the best gifts I got this year! Thank you all!
And now back to the super exciting topic of this post! Let’s see the answers of many talented creatives about the most important things that had the biggest impact on their food photography!
When something doesn't look right, add another layer - a napkin underneath the plate, perhaps, or sprinkle some crumbs throughout the scene, toss a little parsley on top of the dish. Another layer almost always helps.
Becky Hadeed, photographer and host of The Storied Recipe Podcast
I love to use flowers once they compose a very delicate scenario and I always use them to fill an empty background when I work with 45-degrees shooting.
Don’t be afraid to start again. Taking several attempts to plate a dish is normal. If the food starts to look over-worked, it’s time to start again.
The most practical food styling technique I’ve ever learnt was styling to the camera, this term changed my perception of food photography completely, and once I put my camera onto the tripod and started to see the scenes from the camera perspective, I was able to compose better photos and find out the beauty of building compositions.
I think with every shoot I learn something new, but one of the most useful things I've learned to not burn myself out energy-wise and make shoots less stressful is to really cut up them up into chunks.
I start with a recipe or recipe idea and write down all the ingredients in my sketchbook. Then I write down which props I might want to use for it and sketch out a general layout of my shot(s). I like to sketch different angles, at least an overhead and 45-degree shot and maybe a head-on as well if I'm stacking, maybe even a silly selfie. Provided I have the energy to shoot more than one set-up. This helps me consider how I need to build and support the food if I'm doing something ridiculous, and also helps me feel centered when I am actually going into a shoot because I already know what I'm doing.
After apprenticing for a day on a professional shoot, I've recently added an extra step to this. I now set up my props, backdrop, and camera before I cook the food, usually in the morning right after I get up, so I can pretty much dump the food into the shot around lunchtime while it's looking extra fresh, get the shot in an instant and then eat my food while it's still hot.
The most useful food styling technique I ever learned was to photograph soup when it is cold so that the garnishes don't wilt on the hot soup as you are photographing them!
Besides humidifying the napkin to make it finally do what you want it to do? My go-to techniques that I use in virtually every photo are layering and adding spills and crumbs. Learning about layering (garnishes on top of food, on top of plate, on top of cutting board on top of backdrop for example) really took my photography up a notch. Using this technique, you can add a lot of depth and texture to your images, and it’s a very powerful tool to tell stories, if you choose the right props, ie the ones that tell the story you want to share. Adding spills and crumbs is something I do a lot as well because it reflects my personality. Even though I like things to be organized and beautifully arranged together, I am also a little messy and I like my photos to look “lived in”.
Fanette Rickert, food photographer and stylist, educator
The most practical food styling technique I've learnt is the idea of trying to tell a story. This, of course, depends on your own personal style. What kind of mood do you want your scene to have? What is happening? Is this food to be enjoyed heartily with a group of friends, or is it to be enjoyed peacefully by oneself and a cup of tea? Rustic, or chic and modern? That is not to say that food is singular in the role it plays; food plays a multiplicity of roles. However, you as the photographer can designate roles to the food you capture based on your styling and depending on what you are wanting to convey.
With photography, you're inherently not simply capturing your subject, you're capturing a mood and a message as well, so it's important to think about them when styling. Even in product photography, where it often may seem simplistic enough, a message is still being captured and conveyed.
For instance, if the product is a drink, is there condensation on the glass or bottle, or did they put ice in it? What kind of background are they using? Is it light, or dark? Are they emphasizing certain aspects of it? What angle are they using and how are they framing their subject? What kinds of props dis they use? These are all aspects that affect the mood and message of the image.
Before going into a shoot, it's good to look at photos that have the same mood, story, or message you are going for. Look at those aspects previously mentioned and what they did to create their scene and portray their mood in the image you're analyzing.
I would say that it was the layering of textures. There was a time when I did too much of that and basically ended up with something that was striped off its original personality. Now I take in the characteristics of the dish first, and only style in the spirit of dish and not for the sake of styling.
Using objects close to the camera that are out of focus. They create more depth in the image. It can be anything, like flowers, cutlery, Christmas lights… Works both with overhead shots and side shots.
Garnish is everything! It allows you to introduce textures, colours and contrast. It also makes the dish more delicious to eat when the shoot is over, which is a total bonus.
The Little Plantation
Putting a smaller bowl inside a larger one and just covering it with the food subject, like soup, so that ingredients and garnishes don’t sink to the bottom.
When styling soup, submerge a slice of potato in the bowl to ensure your beautiful toppings don’t sink!
I have studied them all, but in reality, I believe that the most common is the rule of thirds. I always try to keep this in mind when I compose, even if, with practice, I got used to understanding if a composition is harmonious or not just by a quick look.
Lucia Carniel, blog author
The most practical food styling technique I have leant is that when photographing liquid (in my case usually wine) I shoot either very fast or very slow. Liquid when viewed by the eye or shot on 1/60 1/250 looks boring to me. So I try to change its structure by using slow or ultra-fast speeds. Liquid can become almost plastic-like at 1/8000 or have crazy light streaks at 2 seconds or mist like at 20 seconds.
To add human factor because it sincerely gives the image a whole different meaning, it adds life and our viewers feel much more related to us.
One of the best and simplest food styling technique I have ever learned is styling with odd numbers. This makes scenes and photographs more balanced and appealing to the eye, while creating interesting tension.
I would have to say layering a scene. I start with my background and the style upwards by adding a napkin, a tray, the dish, some cutlery and then a garnish or flourish.
This is the basic principle of just about everything that I shoot and I strongly feel that it has helped me to establish a consistent look and style.
This is simple. I like to work with a mixture of water and glycerin. So I keep the salad visually fresher and can also simulate water drops.
When I am working with a liquid or thin elements such as leaves or a thin slice of fruit, I try and position them to get hit by the light from the back, so they will beautifully glow, which also means that the viewer can see an unusual profile of this element of the scene.
Reka Csulak, photographer, stylist & creative educator
Less is more. You don't need 4 types of flowers, 2 vases, 8 plates and all kinds of stuff on the picture. I always ask myself the question of 'what this picture is about', what do I want to tell. Does this prop add to the story or I just like it? If it doesn't support the story at all, I have to leave it, even though it hurts sometimes.
Salt Wine Friends
Focus on the hero. Really think about where you place the hero (I use dynamic symmetry grids in Lightroom to help with this), and how the light is hitting it so the eye is drawn exactly where you would like it to be. Then place props around/under the hero to help guide the eyes to it.
The use of lines, curves/arabesques in particular. And triangles too, I'd say. To me they are simple techniques to apply to several, different food photo scenes, that can really make your life easier when creating and shooting.
Less is more. I find it’s very easy to get carried away by either adding too many props into a single scene and/or using the wrong backdrop especially when you don’t have a specific direction you want to aim for. This could end up over empowering your main subject and taking away its importance. Starting off with zero props, going back to composition basics like the rule of thirds or the golden triangle and knowing which angle will best emphasize the subject always seems to give me guidance.
I am a fan of keeping things minimal, including styling the food because I am a food photographer, not a food stylist. I don't like the 'organized mess' on the image, often the food, our hero can get lost. Furthermore, my clients (restaurants and hotels) haven't got too much time for me to style a dish. Their main focus is to serve guests so I need to photograph the dishes as quickly as possible. On the other hand, I hate using restaurant tables as backgrounds so I have my own background sets I use. Sometimes I use available items from the kitchen, decorations, etc. I let the dish speak for itself, be the hero of the image. I use my lights to create interest and "style" the food, beautiful light and correctly chosen lens & aperture can add a lot to it!
Planning ahead! Simple but so practical - Whether it’s making a shot list I like to draw pictures of potential shot concepts or making a vision board with colour stories, prop ideas, ingredients, and extra touches, it never hurts to be prepared. I find I get lost in the moment and often end up missing things I wanted from the shoot when I don’t plan ahead.
Tanya Bates, food photographer & stylist
Extra For Avocado
It would be knowing what colors compliment each other. It’s great if you already know color theory, but if you don’t, I think this is a great way to learn. Before a shoot, I would go to Pinterest and look up color palettes that compliment my subject. My props, surface, backdrop, etc will be based on that palette. It also serves as a guide when I’m adjusting colors in my editing. It works!
The most practical food styling technique or tip is to always remember the food has to look delicious. I keep this in mind when styling and editing.
Learning about glycerin was a major game-changer for me! Glycerin is a clear, syrupy liquid derived from vegetables and can help create those beautiful water droplets that we all know and love. Simply combine equal parts of water and glycerin in a small spray bottle, shake well to combine, and then spray on fruit or veggies to get perfect water droplets that will stay in place during a shoot and gives produce a very fresh, just-washed look.
Alana Haldan, vegan blogger and food photographer
Food styling? You couldn’t say composition? :) Oh, boy…
I can’t say I am a master at food styling by any means. It is an art of its own. However, as I don’t have a food stylist on call, I do suppose I’ve had to learn a thing or two about it… The most practical food styling technique for me, would have to be garnish and ingredients.
Okay, that is two, but I promise they go together! When it comes to food styling you have to think about what will make the dish look the most appetizing, and that it is ALL about the details. It has to have that perfectly imperfect look.
We aren’t all pro food stylists, so I may not be able to twirl the perfect little ball of spaghetti, or know how to plate a dish. But fresh ingredients and garnish on top can help any dish look pretty. The thing about these ingredients and garnish though, they have to go with the dish!
See, I told you they went together! You wouldn’t put fresh cilantro on spaghetti or chicken parmesan, but you would put a fresh basil or oregano. Maybe a little parmesan too?
Utilizing garnishes, and adding different layers and textures to the food helps with both the food styling and composition of the entire photo. Those details matter, and they are definitely practical, since if you are following the rules and only adding ingredients that go with the dish, then you probably have them on hand already!
Elizabeth Dworkin, commercial food and beverage photographer
The most practical food styling technique I've learnt is layering; building up my shots with different components, such as a board, a plate, crumpled paper, a cloth etc to add interest and texture to the final photo.
Not necessarily a food photography technic, but I like to apply the rule of thirds somehow on my photos. I also like actions included, such as drizzling chocolate or caramel.
I cannot highlight any specific technique that would be extremely practical. But there is something unequivocal: there is no dish that cannot be photographed, but bad styling. Every dish has a jolly joker technique, but it is so fundamental that photography starts at sourcing: if you are working with small, immaculate ingredients, there cannot be big issues afterwards. (Right, photography starts at plating of the dish, but many customers already have a specific dish that the photographer cannot have any impact on).
Orsi Szöllősi Kiss
My best tip is to do what appeals to you, not what you think other people will like. Otherwise, you’ll always be playing catch up. It’s much more liberating to create your own style, and ultimately the person who sticks out most is the one who’s different!
One good tip I have learned for styling is using layers. I think that adds so much interest to a picture. Sometimes when a capture looks flat or boring, I try to think about layers and what I could add in the picture to make it more interesting and make the main object pop.
Triangles. Place your dishes/elements in triangles. You can't go wrong with this composition... it adds instant interest.
Maria de Conceicao
I’ve learnt over the last few years that the best approach that works for me is to keep things simple and let the food speak for itself. I always try to emphasize the natural beauty of the food, without making it look overly styled or fussy. Always ask yourself what is the biggest strength of the food or dish that you’re presenting, is it its colour, or texture, or perhaps its freshness? Very often you just have to keep moving things around until you feel there is a harmony of textures and colours.
Less is more! When I was starting up, my food will often get lost among all of the props and other unnecessary items. Over the years, I have learned to use as little props as possible and let the food shine and be the star of the show!
I cannot think about any right now. I am normally working with ready-to-eat dishes, and the other reason could be that it’s 5 am and I did not have a coffee yet. But to turn the things more serious, I cannot highlight any surprising or peculiar technique, the best practice is to shoot at home, try to figure out and prepare the dish as mouth-watering as possible, and also to choose the most immaculate produce at the market.
Oh, so many! But one that immediately comes to mind is when you're plating soups or anything with soup-like consistency like smoothie bowls. In your soup bowl, place a small upturned bowl, and then add your soup (ensuring that the small bowl is completely covered). Then when you go to place the garnish such as croutons or herbs on your soup, or berries and nuts on your smoothie, they won't sink to the bottom as they will be sitting on the upturned bowl. The small upturned bowl trick can also be used when styling things like granola where you don't want it to look too flat, but you don't want to have to use a mountain of granola either. Practical tips like that save a lot of frustration!
I can’t point out on single technique that is more important than the others. It’s different for different kind of foods.
Creating compositions with layers is my absolute go-to styling technique. Powerful storytelling with food is sort of my style & I use layers to achieve that. Composing with layers goes beyond simply placing a lot of props in a scene. It’s about the selection of appropriate props, their relationship to the hero subject, their placement with respect to the hero, their placement with respect to other props, their purpose in the composition & the value they bring to the story.
A successful composition with layers neither feels over-crowded nor does it look incomplete. It builds emotion & transports the viewer into the story.
Less is often more, so start small and build up gradually.
This is such a great question! But also a hard one.
There's so many techniques that are helpful it's tricky to choose the most important one—but I think it would probably be layering. Creating layers in frame automatically draws the eye to certain areas of the image, and it creates texture and linear shapes, too, which you can use to draw the viewer's eye around the frame. In almost every one of my images, the area of frame with the most layers (linen, serving tray, plate, food, etc) is where the subject is, to help draw the viewer's eye to the subject and make it clear who the "star" of the photo is at first glance.
Eva Kosmas Flores, photographer + author + educator
That less is often more. And I don't mean only with styling, but also with time. Unless I have a fixed time frame, my shoots go on for hours. And I do usually end up with my best frames in the end! But since time is a commodity I never have enough of, I've had to learn to use it in a more efficient and organised way. Giving myself less time to create makes me use my brain differently and be less perfectionist. It's hard, when you're aware of what you could create with all the time in the world! Feeling good about "less" is a project I'm still working on, but it's a goal I really want to achieve one day.
Placing a smaller bowl inside the dish you are going to serve the food in, turning a smaller bowl upside down so it is like a dome in the middle of the dish. You will find you use less food to fill the dish. You will have to try a few different sizes to see which works best. It is also a good idea to use a neutral colour for the smaller bowl. This tip works really well with soup, casseroles, rice bowls and oats.
I still consider myself a complete novice at food styling… But one thing that I found to be handy was to style a scene and then take something out - sometimes less is more. It’s not always the case, but often it works.
Pay attention to your composition. Some of my favorite, and most well liked shots are incredibly minimal. That probably wouldn’t be the case if it weren’t for basic composition techniques like the rule of thirds, which can help create intrigue for even the most simplistic of subjects.
When it comes to creating more elaborate scenes, I really like playing with different textures. Showcasing ingredients in a shot of a finished product tends to work well, but do those ingredients have to be in little bowls? Nah. Scatter them about! Or have a little bowl that’s absolutely overflowing with something. The possibilities are endless, so try different things as you shoot.
When I don't have enough time, I use minimal styling which also creates beautiful pictures.
There are too many useful food styling techniques but the one I incorporate a lot in my setups is the organized mess. And I find it sometimes difficult to set the right amount of messiness. My advice is to try to use tweezers in order to apply whether the crumbs or the stars as shown in the image (falling from stars).
Massiel Zadeh Habchi
I don’t particularly consider myself a food stylist at all and it is one area of my food photography that I am trying to work on to improve. A large majority of my work to date has been in restaurants and fast food establishments so most of the styling/plating is done by the chef of the restaurant and I try to keep dishes appearance in keeping with how the food is normally presented to the customer. One useful tip that I have picked up is to ask the chef to plate the dish from the angle the camera is going to view the dish from. This may mean plating the dish on a surface that higher up and maybe even eye level if I am going to be using a lower camera angle. An excellent example of this is a typical burger shot, it works much better from a low angle so that you can see the contents of the burger. It doesn’t matter how the burger looks from above or behind, the view from the camera is all that matters. The opposite will be true if the plan is to shoot a flat lay as all perspective of height is lost when shooting from above so it is more about shapes and patterns and it helps to also plate the dish from above to see the camera’s perspective.
Matt Stevenson, food and restaurant photographer
Use props and garnishes that compliment your main subject, not ones
that draw attention away. For example, if you use a plate that is red
and glossy, it's going to be very difficult to make the food that
you're trying to shoot stand out in the photo.
I mastered the practices of food styling in process, during serious commissions, and I acquired the knowledge and delicacy of this profession year-by-year, usually by experience. To keep the dishes fresh, to show their best, to choose the props and backdrops, to arrange things harmoniously in the scene, to create the balance or dissonance of colours and shapes requires constant focusing and also the fresh mind. The most important and at the same time most challenging task is: not to stick to one style, but being able to look at
the dishes with fresh eyes each time. It is really difficult for me to accept when a composition I created does not work, this is the biggest challenge: in this case you have to start all over again. But since I am aware of this, I try to warn myself of this.
It was Albert Einstein who said; “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it well enough.” That is why I like to keep things simple.
It’s only one “hero”.
Perfectly cooked food with good lighting should tell all of the stories.
No clutter is required.
I like to style my photographs using antique-looking backdrops and a lot of antique props. I feel antiques give dimensions to a photograph and make it more interesting and relatable.
Besides making sure the light is right, I think the most practical food styling technique I think for me was learning about leading lines. Realizing that that technique doesn't always mean an actual line in the photo! Paying attention to where your viewers' eyes are meant to follow was huge for me.
I do not have a single technique at the styling stage. I usually find quick and practical solutions at that moment, and these are very funny. :) I try not to spoil the naturalness of food, for example, sometimes I try to raise it with a small piece of folded paper. This is just one example, it is difficult for me to guess what the shooting time will require.
The most practical food styling technique I have learnt is, to sketch out loose versions of the final shot and the prep everything before starting. This will get down my ideas of the layout, the lighting and a list of the accessories needed to get the story across. Sometimes the photo doesn't require anything extra, but the sketching helps remove anything surplus and speeds up the process of evolving ideas.
Sheradon Dublin, food & commercial photographer
I was studying interior design and there I've learnt techniques I could use for photography too, like the rule of thirds and the importance of colours. Those 2 techniques I try to implement in every food styling. Simple and minimal pictures can be amazing only by respecting colour schemes and the rule of thirds....
My key styling technique has been to keep things minimal and clean. From technical aspect, applying custom white balance has changed my take on food photography. I always used to shoot with Auto white balance, which meant I often had to edit the white balance in lightroom. But now, with custom white balance, my editing time has reduced, and am able to focus more on the other aspects during my editing process.
The most practical food styling for me is layering my set up. By adding appropriate layers almost any frame will achieve a more desirable state no matter what kind of a dish is. Also in case of working on minimal styling the composition has the biggest impact that by focusing on it the image finds a new life.
I think that planning is the most important thing to me when it comes to food styling, planning my ingredients, my props, the entire mood of my pictures, planning the chromatic, visualizing everything before doing the shooting it really makes everything a lot easier.
Less is more. It’s far more difficult to style in a minimalistic way than to throw loads of stuff on the table. But the result is so much more stunning when the dish or lovely ingredients are the center of the photo not everything around it.
Regarding the food styling technique well that would be adding elements with texture to my images. Textures usually bring a lot of character in an image. Every time I see a shot that has elements with a lot of texture it makes me feel more initmate with the scene itself and the subject, it somehow makes me feel as I am present there. I often ask myself how does the subject feels at touch, the textures even make me think of the smell and sometimes sounds. Hope it makes sense.
Use smaller bowls and plates so there's less food to fill, and more opportunity to build a scene or tell a story. For simpler food shots, focus on building textures, layers, and colour harmony.
To add a dust of flour, icing sugar, or other subtle elements to give food more organic texture and dimension or even just capture that extra light necessary to highlight the subject. It sounds very simple but it's often all that is missed in some compositions.
The most practice food styling techniques I have ever learnt:
- Odd numbers
- Complimenting shapes
- Complimenting colours
- Different textures
- Rule of thirds
- Natural setting
These are the key things I think about when styling. But sometimes my best photos happen when I ignore all my general rules.
I used to be very regimented in trying to apply all the general rules for a great shot, but actually in the last year I have been more free with my styling, taking photos in a more natural, messy way and I prefer it. I tend to be more of a story teller with my photos, when things don’t have to be positioned in a pleasing way. It’s very different to the commercial style of photography.
Aimee Twigger, Twigg Studios
Always shoot in natural light. This is something that cannot be recreated or duped. Natural light is such a thing of beauty and can elevate any shoot.
My most practical food styling technique that I’ve ever learned was the half glycerin half water spraying technique that adds the water drops to your drink or cocktails and give it a refreshing look. This result cannot be always controlled naturally but with this technique even without the need of ice you will have that refreshing look you want to have in your shots, on your fruits, on your glasses etc.
Oh, there’s so many I’ve collected along with way.
Adding pops of green when styling plated food is probably up there. It creates a sense of freshness, liveliness and adds a little colour pop. A sprinkle of fresh herbs, mint, or green onions and microgreens can go a long way in making a dish look more visually appealing. And if it doesn’t happen on the dish, adding a little nature in the frame can also help; from flowers, to sprigs of rosemary peeking out in the corner.
Another one is that lines and layers are your friends. Anything in the photo, including props and ingredients play a part in how the subject is framed. Composing a shot with leading lines and layers allows you to guide your audience’s eye to the main subject.
Jessica Musslewhite, Mushrooms & Thyme
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