We all know how important it is to be a skilled photographer, but when you are doing food photography for instance, an extensive technical knowledge on your gear is not enough for success. A perfectly lit and processed image can be quickly ruined if the hero is looking average or even bad, but thankfully an experienced food stylist can help to overcome these challenges
In this episode of the 'Let's Talk About...' blog post series you will learn more about the work of a professional food stylist at cookbook productions through the first-hand experience of a professional food stylist of award-winning cookbooks, including detailed insights of the whole production as well.
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.
WHAT DOES A FOOD STYLIST DO?
A food stylists showcase food for photography, video, or on-air productions. Their job is to source the ingredients, prepare, cook, arrange and treat the food in a way that it looks visually appealing, delicious and fresh. In addition to their basic tasks, one of the biggest challenge of their workflow is to preserve the beauty of the styled dishes during the entire production. This is not an easy task, so these professionals are always equipped with special tools and smart methods that help them succeed and provide the desired results.
The expertise of a food stylist is often required for cookbooks, magazines and various commercial projects, and they are working together with a team of other professionals, such as art directors, chefs, authors, photographers and other talent. Although, in some cases the food stylist is also taking care of other aspects of the production and provides an all-inclusive service to their clients.
Many food stylist are starting out as assistants to already established professional food stylists. When they skill-up, gather high level of expertise, learn the necessary practices and build a versatile portfolio, they start offering their food stying services on their own as freelancers, or they become the in-house food stylists of publishing houses, marketing agencies or individual brands.
Exercise: CREATE YOUR OWN, PROFESSIONAL FOOD STYLING TOOLKIT
Nearly all of us food photographers must skill up as food stylists at the very beginning of our careers. In addition to nice props and backdrops, we will start gathering practical little tools that makes our food styling process easier. In this exercise I would like to help by listing the items you can very likely would find in a professional food styling kit. These items will be game changers if you never used them before.
- Tweezers - shorter and loner tweezers will help you with strategic placing and fine adjustments
- Paintbrushes - you can use different types of brushes to remove crumbs, dust off surfaces (san brush) or precisely apply oil or liquids (other artist brushes)
- Foam wedges - perfect for slightly tilting items on set
- Q-tips and cotton swabs - perfect for cleaning up small drips, spills or fingerprints
- T-pins, toothpicks, skewers - they are meant to hold items, layers and complex vertical compositions together without being visible
- Syringes - gives precise control when adding/removing liquids and sauces
- Funnels - use them and forget messy pours into glasses and bottles
- Blue or white tack - it keep things where they meant to stay and avoid items to slide or roll, easy to keep it hidden from the camera
- Spray bottles - use it for spraying water or diluted glycerine/glucose to items to make them look freshly harvested, or make lifeless dry-looking items look lively
- Chef's squeeze bottles - precise control for pouring liquid and sauces
- Eye dropper - perfect sized drops on set and precise control for action shots with liquids
- Paper towels - they quickly soak up spills but also protect your props if you place them under the food, try to find a lint-free version, so you can save a significant amount of time on retouching your items
- Glass wipes - removes grease, dust and fingerprints with one wipe and leave your props in their best state, try to find a lint-free version, so you can save a significant amount of time on retouching your items
- Glycerine and liquid glucose - dilute them 50/50 with water, spray or apply them on your items and enjoy the long-lasting water droplets on set
- Cooking oil - apply it on items that are meant to glisten
- Matte spray - apply it on shiny items to reduce reflections and glare
- Food colourings - you can utilise them for simulating certain drinks or apply more saturated colours to food items
- Kitchen torch - for browning, caramelising and burning elements on set
- Heat gun - for heating and melting elements on set
- Small vacuum cleaner - remove crumbles, small particles and dust from your backdrops and props and clean up quickly after a messy shot
- Spatulas - use them to lift and position items or spread and texture cream and fillings beautifully
Please take a note, that you can still do awesome food styling without having to buy all of these things, they are simply meant to make your workflow easier and more efficient.
I invited a professional photographer & stylist friend who recently worked as a food stylist on award-winning cookbooks. Welcome, Éva Bóta on board!
Who are you and what is your photography specialty?
I'm Eva, from Budapest, Hungary. I specialise in food & prop styling and food photography. I also do social media management for restaurants.
How did you END UP FOOD STYLING AWARD WINNING COOKBOOKS?
I would say accidentally, but I believe everything happens for a reason. :) I started a food blog in 2017, which landed me a few smaller projects as a food stylist, with a local photographer. At that time I experimented a lot, explored different styles, from moody scenes to hard light, and searched for my visual identity. Not having a recognisable, aesthetic Insta feed gave me so much anxiety and impostor syndrome, so I never pitched to any brands. Then one day, out of nowhere, Ágnes Solymos, the art director of Boook Publishing messaged me on Instagram that there's an upcoming photoshoot for a cookbook and they need a food stylist ASAP. The author was Tamás Náray, a famous fashion designer, so I went crazy nervous. How can I style for a man who is THE style himself?
Luckily I had the best team ever, and the photographer, Gergely Kaszás was holding my hand the whole time. A year later, Viva Espana won the 1st prize at the Gourmand International Awards, in the best Mediterranean cookbook category.
Since then I had the chance to work with many talented authors and photographers.
HOW DO YOU PREPARE FOR A COOKBOOK PHOTOSHOOT?
- We always start with a kick-off, when the art director sends me all the main information about the book.
- Then we have a meeting together with the photographer, the cook, and the author, where we brainstorm a lot.
- At this point, I have a clear image of the style and the props. It's very important to know the serving size of the recipes, as well as the shape and size of the baking dishes.
- I select the props I need from my collection, photograph them, and upload them to a project folder.
- Then I visit the shops where I want to rent or buy some new ones.
- I paint backdrops if needed, study the recipes, and make notes.
- I like to make a Pinterest folder for plating ideas. Usually, I share this with the art director and the photographer and they pin their ideas too.
- Then, 1 day before the shooting the packing starts. I label and carefully pack everything and this is the point I usually have a mental breakdown. Okay, just kidding. :) But wrapping plates for 70 recipes is a nightmare and the only part of the job I hate. :))
WHAT TOOLS ARE IN YOUR ESSENTIAL FOOD STYLING KIT ON SET?
My best friends are my big tweezers and blue tack. I also have scissors, pins, brushes, gloves, oil and water spray, and of course sharp knives.
Nothing crazy for a cookbook because the food is edible and fresh.
COULD YOU DESCRIBE HOW COOKBOOK PRODUCTION WORK?
- In Hungary, the author finds the publisher with the idea.
- They do market research and if they decide to publish the book, the art director takes over.
- They have an important job choosing the right people for the project and building a team.
- Besides the AD (art director) and the author, there's a cook and 1 or 2 assistants, depending on the projects, and the photographer on set.
- About timing... Well, if I have 1 week to do the prep, I'm lucky. :)
WHAT ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES ON SET AS A FOOD STYLIST?
- Usually, the cook makes the food and prepares it for me.
- I create the set by choosing the right props and plating the food.
- When the photo is done, the AD and the author have to approve it.
- If they all like it, I take it down and start to prepare the next set.
WHAT UNEXPECTED TASKS WERE YOU GIVEN WHEN WORKING AS A FOOD STYLIST AT COOKBOOK PRODUCTIONS?
I think I never had any unexpected tasks. Sometimes if we have a brilliant idea, and hold on to it, we go very far to make it happen. Once we bought a 10 kg bag of sand for a photo with 1 cup of Turkish coffee. In the end, the photo was not included in the book. We also built sets like a garden with a huge branch, a bar, or a Turkish bazaar.
WHAT WOULD YOU SUGGEST TO FELLOW FOOD STYLISTS WITH AN AMBITION TO WORK ON COOKBOOKS?
One of the art directors who I worked with also found me on Instagram. He said he liked my playfulness and experimental attitude. It turned out my messy Insta feed made him think, I can style a pretty pie with flowers, but also lungs with bread dumplings (Hungarian szalontüdő) if needed, which is the most disgusting Hungarian food. Art directors are looking for a unique vision rather than an aesthetic Insta feed.
So my advice for getting a food stylist job is to build a portfolio and pitch. Don't be lame, like me! :)) Also, it's not how many people follow you, but who follows you. Find industry professionals, art directors, photographers, and build relationships. Pitch to marketing agencies, and production companies instead of brands, because it's their job to build a team for photo and video production. Experienced food stylists might need an assistant, so you never know. It's all about connections. People like to work with creatives, who they already know, because shooting days can be really long with a lot of tension, and you have to work as a team, hand in hand. It's hard to get into the circle, but once you are in, and work hard, one job will lead to another.
Last but not least, play with your food. A lot. :)