Maria’s Food Photography Tips: Styling

Now that we've got our props all set, what about food styling? As I said in the first article, most food photographers work closely with a food stylist, but it's any respectable food photographer's job to know a few styling rules just in case they have to do all the work.

Food styling is quite a challenging job, mostly because you're working against time: food will lose it's "fresh out of the oven" look very quickly, so you need to think and move fast. Here's a few tips.

Less is more

Photographers sometimes forget that the simplest compositions are also the most rewarding. Try styling food with as little props as possible, adding a pinch of contrast. Never forget that the food is the hero. 

Photo courtesy of Vulman Péter

Explore various angles

Before you start taking out the brushes, paint and oils, make sure that you've got your composition right. Styling isn't just real life Photoshop, it also implies a good setting and exploring multiple angles that make the food look as appetizing as possible. For example, if you're shooting a bowl of soup or a salad, the best way to capture that is from above, or, at least, at a 60 degree angle. 

Cooking tips

Make sure the food isn't overcooked. Actually, make sure it isn't fully cooked. Meat and vegetables look much better when they're undercooked, more rounded and glossy. You can choose to cook just the sides of a steak using a blowtorch, then create grill marks on the sides. Some food photographers use brown shoe polish for browning some types of meat such as chicken, thus creating the feeling that the meat was just taken out of the oven, when it actually has never been there. Magic, isn't it?

Photo courtesy of Betty Crocker

Photo courtesy of spinalmesh

Chocolate looks more appetizing when heated just enough for the surface to melt a bit. You can do this using a hairdryer (everyone has one around the house, right?), but you can also use a blowtorch around it. 

Photo courtesy of Betty Crocker

What about fake food?

Yes, it's true. Sometimes you won't be shooting the exact thing you'll find in the recipe. The problem with some food subjects is that they either melt or lose their shape and color quickly. In this case, there are a few tips you should know. For example, instead of using normal whipped cream that would melt and run, try adding some thickener in the composition, so it holds longer. Also, add more water to beverages so they give you better light and transparency and feel free to wax or spray with deodorant fruit and vegetables, for a more shiny surface. You might not feel like eating that food afterwards, but I guarantee that your viewers will be on their way to the restaurant or supermarket the minute they see your work.

Q Tips are you best friends

They will save you the trouble of cleaning all those hard to reach corners and unexpected stains that could ruin your composition.

Photo courtesy of Sofia Sofei

Tweezers

No matter how handy you think you are, you'll need a sleek instrument to move the smallest pieces of food around. Tweezers will serve as great extra fingers to pull and push things around without ruining the general arrangement. 

Photo courtesy Roshelen

Brushes

I recommend buying a set of paint brushes of different thicknesses. You will use these to paint over food with enhancing oils or wax, and sometimes dye. 

Vegetable oil

It's true that shiny things get our attention and this applies too food as well. Dishes look much more appetizing when they glisten. You can trick your viewers by painting over food with vegetable oil or canola.

Speaking of oil, did you know that some food photographers use machine oil instead of honey when shooting scenes of running honey? Still feeling hungry now?

Photo courtesy of C Mariani

Fake ice

Well, really now, how were you going to photograph those cocktails under the hot studio lights? Normal ice lasts only a few minutes and pretty much ruins any arrangement you made. Fake ice might cost more than you would expect, but it's very much worth it. 

Photo courtesy of Danny Laukaban

Fake droplets

Droplets make food such as fruit and vegetables look fresh and irresistible. But real droplets just won't do the trick. They'll do what water is supposed to do and drip off the surface before you even get to grab your camera. Glycerin can be sprayed on food to create or enhance beautiful details and it preserves the natural look. Spray it using a bottle you can find at any pharmacy in order to create beautiful (fake) droplets.

Photo courtesy of Anna Habich

The same principle goes for photographing bottles that have to look as if they've just been taken out of the freezer. You can achieve the fresh look by spraying the bottles with glycerin mixed with water, a combination that will last just enough for you to take all the photos you need. 

Photo courtesy of Andrew Potter

Fake steam

Would you rather respond to a photograph of a normal-room temperature coffee or a steaming cup of goodness? I thought so. Steam makes a great difference and, of course, it can be faked, as food doesn't stay hot forever. Food photographers use soaked cotton balls that they microwave, and then place behind the food subject. It's a cheap, but highly effective trick you can use anytime.