You may do food styling parallel to your photography, but have you ever wondered what is like to have this area as your main expertise and become a professional food stylist? What they do, what are their responsibilities or how their projects differ from the ones when everything is done by the photographer?
In this episode of the 'Let's Talk About...' blog post series you will get your questions answered about food styling as a profession - including the planning process, the difference between restaurant and studio assignments and the pricing model used by food stylists.
If you are interested in learning more about camera angles, manual settings on your camera, composition, food styling tricks and tips, or even business practices you can check the previous episodes of this popular blog series by clicking here.
the Difference between in-house food styling vs. hiring a food stylist For a commercial photoshoot
These two different approaches has their own advantages and considerations.
- In-house food styling: when a commercial photographer takes on the role of food styling, they might have some expertise in this area, like food photographers certainly do, however in genres, like general product photography it is just not in the primary focus. A product photographer's' main expertise lies in capturing + processing the image and be the master of complex lighting setups, not necessarily in the minute details of food presentation - which approach may work well for pro product shots, but may lack the finesse and creativity that a dedicated food stylist can provide.
- Hiring a food stylist: a professional food stylist specialises in arranging and presenting food to make it look its best for the camera during the entire production. They have a deep understanding of food aesthetics, including colour, texture, and composition, and they use various techniques to enhance the visual appeal of the dishes in addition to designing its environment that can help expressing a certain mood.
- In-house food styling: when a commercial photographer takes on food styling, they may need to split their attention between arranging the food and taking the photographs. Without a specialist food photographer's experience on how to plan these photoshoots with great efficiency, this can slow down the process and in a few cases it can also lead to compromises in styling, photography or both.
- Hiring a food stylist: even through hiring a food stylist brings an additional cost to the bottom line, it also allows for a more efficient and collaborative workflow. The food stylist can work closely with the photographer to preserve the visual values of the food and beverages during the shoot, while the photographer focuses on working out the most complimenting lighting, angles, and capturing the shot. Dividing the work between two professionals often results in a more polished final product.
- In-house food styling: while commercial photographers can certainly be creative, their creativity may be more focused on the photographic and technical aspects rather than the food itself -unless they are specialised to food photography of course-, therefore they may not have the same depth of knowledge and experience when it comes to food- and beverage-related creative hints.
- Hiring a food stylist: food stylists are constantly innovating and coming up with new techniques to make food look more appetising and visually appealing. They certainly bring a fresh perspective to each project and can offer creative solutions to challenges that arise during the production.
- In-house food styling: maintaining consistency in food presentation can be more challenging for a commercial photographer who is juggling both roles (however, food photographers are doing most of the time), and this, in a few cases may lead to variations in the appearance of the food in different shots.
- Hiring a food stylist: a professional food stylist can ensure consistency in the look of the food throughout the shoot, which is crucial for projects that involve multiple scenes and products or shots of the same scene from different angles or the same hero at different scenes.
While there are cases where a commercial photographer can certainly handle food styling in-house -like food photographers often do-, professional food stylists can offer their specialised skill-set and expertise that can result in more visually appealing, efficient and consistent results. The choice between the two options fully depends on the specific project, budget, and the desired level of creativity and quality.
Exercise: RE-BUILD YOUR LUNCH
I would like to invite you to challenge yourself, and bring your lunch (or next meal) in front of the camera, and re-style it in a way that it becomes suitable for a magazine or commercial.
- Take the regular portion of your food/takeaway.
- Set up a suitable environment to your hero.
- Dissemble the food, separate the elements.
- Re-build the dish in a way that it "shows its best face" and volume to the camera.
- Boost the result by some added texture of greens or crunch.
- Re-apply shine or droplets of water for a juicy look.
You are, of course, allowed to replace certain elements if they turned a bit sad or lost their visual potential in the meantime.
Here is an extra free guide to bring you closer to your food styling goals: How to put together your own food styling toolkit?
I invited a professional food stylist friend who has created many amazing scenes for food and beverage bands and their unique campaigns. Welcome, Kelly Coxe on board!
Who are you and what is your specialty?
Hi! My name is Kelly Coxe and I am a Food Stylist and a Soft Goods Stylist. I live near Washington DC in Virginia, USA. I’d say my specialty is in bringing out the vibrancy of color in the food I style. I love making food look beautiful, fresh and of course appetizing.
How did you end up as a professional food stylist?
I had a short stint as a chef before having my daughters, so while raising them I continued to enjoy cooking and making amazing dinners for friends and family. With the advent of Instagram I started posting photos of my creations. That lead to a conversation with a professional photographer and finding out about food stylists and what they do. I then spent a good amount of time studying and practicing everything I could to learn the craft. This entailed reading, growing my kit, and practice, practice, practice.
My very first job was kind of a mystery -I had reached out to a friend who was a videographer and let him know that if he ever heard of a need for a food stylist to please let me know. Out of the blue I received a phone call from a PA in Las Vegas asking if I was available to work on a shoot in Washington, and that started my career.
What is the benefit of hiring a food stylist?
There are so many benefits to hiring a food stylist. I think one of the most important is the knowledge that a food stylist brings to the set concerning timing, viability of the ingredients, and trouble shooting all of the myriad of problems that arise on set. Also having a second set of eyes with different perspective for detailed shoots can mean the difference between a good shot and a fantastic shot.
What are the steps of your food styling workflow?
Workflow has been different for each client for me. But usually I get an email from a photographer about availability and if that works out then I ask for a shot list and any information I can get about the client. I then ask how the photographs will be used and where the shoot will take place. I then do research on the client, looking at their social media and websites.
Restaurant shoots are very different than studio shoots. In a restaurant shoot I’m working with the Chefs and talking with them about expectations, timing and needs. I usually ask for the food to be cold and not be plated so that I can make sure that each ingredient gets its time to shine. When shooting meats, I ask for the meat to be only cooked on the outside, as this allows for the meat to keep its plumpness and juices. I set the plate to what the angle the shot calls for, placing a stand-in for the food so that the photographer can set the lighting before placing in the hero food in front. I help arrange the plate and other props that help to tell the story being conveyed. I will step in to high-light (with oil or mists of water) any areas on the food that need high-lighting, checking that all greenery is fresh and not wilted. If drinks are needed, I make sure that the glass is pristine and that the liquid and ice are appropriate for the scene.
In a studio shoot, I might be shopping and bringing in the food and any props that are not provided by the client. Sometimes the client provides a chef which helps so that the food can be made ahead of time and we are not waiting in between each shot. If necessary, I build structures that will enable the food to stand tall or balance. Sometimes I also use paint brushes to enhance an area of food that needs help. One of my favorite things to do in studio is to work with edible flowers. I love how flowers can bring a dish to life.
Is it an industry standard for food stylists to have time-based pricing?
As far as I know, in my area, we use day rates and half-day rates. I do tend to have a higher half-day rate because most shoots are all day. So in essence I’m not going to fit another shoot in on the same day, but it does happen.
What are your responsibilities on set as a food stylist? Are there any extra/additional services you offer on top?
Some of my responsibilities include:
- Communication with the photographer, art director and the client.
- Setting the props.
- Building the hero food ( using whatever I need to high-light each ingredient ).
- Cleaning in between shoots and keeping everything organized.
Most important responsibilities are:
- Keeping a very positive attitude.
- Problem solving.
What food styling-related questions do you (or the photographer) normally address during a project discussion with a brand?
Usually, the discussions revolve around what the brand is trying to convey and how they would like to convey it through the photograph. Do they want it to be approachable or inspirational? Do they want to really focus on the food or the atmosphere? What color choices are within their brand that we can pull out with the highlighting of certain foods and so forth.
What are the topics you normally discuss with a photographer in order to have a successful collaboration?
Collaborations are my favorite! Its like play and work all rolled into one. I think for me as a creative when I get the opportunity to collaborate I’m looking to do something that inspires me or something that make me stretch out of my comfort zone. The stretch is so important for building your portfolio and getting those next level jobs.
All that to say is:
- What is the shared goal or theme? Portfolio/ Published - Ingredient / Style
- How many shots are we looking to accomplish?
- How to share the cost of food and props?
How photographers can make your work easier?
So far I have been blessed by with working with some of the best photographers. A happy work environment makes everyone’s work easier.
Do you have any tips or recommendations for others who are planning to work as food stylists?
Practice, Practice, and Practice more. One fun and easy way is to get take out and re-plate it to look like it would in a fancy restaurant. Also, try and learn about what a photographer does, it will help tremendously.