12 Food Styling Secrets to Learn from the Pros
Life is a beautiful mess, and so I love scenes—rooms, vignettes, place settings—that are perfectly imperfectly styled. Food stylists seem to have this nailed: highlighting a dish’s most gorgeous assets while also making things look a little rough around the edges, a little off. Of course, I realize it’s hard to make things looks so easy. So I turned to some of the finest food photographers around to find out what makes a meal picture-perfect. Read on below, and soon enough you’ll be earning scores of Instagram likes the next time you snap your lunch.
While the guests at your next dinner party may be ravenously hungry and help themselves to multiple servings, stylistically, it’s actually more appealing to offer a minimalist serving than an overcrowded plate. Why? Much like the matte on a framed artwork, the blank space of the plate provides your eye with some rest, offers contrast, and effectively “frames” your dish.
On the note of contrast, expert food stylists more often than not select dinnerware that contrasts with the food being served. Additionally, they’ll use a tabletop or other background surface that contrasts with the plate. Think: a blue bowl with a creamy potato soup on a rustic wood surface, a white bowl with squid-ink risotto against a green tablecloth, and so on.
This one requires skill and practice to get right; it’s where food stylists and photographers really sing! The idea is to make your dish look as natural as possible, and that requires a little mess. If you’re serving a salad with a poached egg and a little yolk oozes out, leave it. If you cut a slice of banana bread and some crumbs fall onto the plate or even the tabletop—let them be. If a piece of arugula wanders to the edge of your dinner plate, resist the temptation to move it back. This is where your serving, or photograph, comes to life. A touch of salt or bread crumbs in the corner of an image can also add interest to empty parts of the frame without stealing the show.
If your goal is to show off the food you’re serving or eating, it’s best to keep your dinnerware and flatware choices simple, so they don’t compete with the beautiful colors and shapes of the dish. Select pieces that are solid in color and don’t have a lot ornamentation.
If, visually, the best thing about your arugula salad is its vivid ruby red grapefruit slices, it’s wise not to bury the citrus under a bed of lettuce. Make sure they’re prominently placed on top of the salad where your guests or the camera can ooh and ahh over the. If you’re photographing a delicious cut of prime rib, don’t take a shot from above: shoot the meat from the slide so we can see all of its gorgeous color and juicy bits.
The process, activity, and ritual of cooking is just as beautiful as the finished product itself. By all means, photograph a friend as he or she’s drizzling au jus on a moist roast chicken. If you’re entertaining, serve your guests a slice of pie and then come around to each of their plates to top it off with whipped cream, so they can see you in action.
A food photograph looks practically unnatural unless there’s a fork navigating its way across a plate, a spoon edging its way into the frame, or a cake knife relishing in the fact that it just sliced into a decadent chocolate dessert. The trick is to place it as it would be used, as if you pressed pause during the middle of dinner; a fork, knife, and spoon photographed in a traditional place setting arrangement looks too sterile, and frankly, boring.
A napkin can add a touch of color, pattern, and texture to any food photograph. It also adds movement—arrange them with some messy folds; it’s the equivalent of a brushstroke. Instead of placing a napkin directly parallel to a dish, place it behind the dish to create depth and/or at angle to add some interesting lines to the frame.
While you certainly shouldn’t serve food to a guest that’s been eaten, in a food photograph it looks all the more appetizing because it sends the message the treat was too delicious to be resisted. Biting or slicing into food also lets the viewer see the inside, which can be especially important if it’s something like a medium steak or a blueberry nut muffin where all the goodness lies beneath the surface.
We’d bet the most successful photographs are those that show a trace of human life. We all thrive on personal connection, and there’s something about seeing a (well-manicured) hand serving a bowl of spaghetti or even a half-drank glass of wine that reminds of that. Be it consciously or subconsciously, remind the viewer that someone was here.
This is true of nearly all photography, and especially so in food photography. If you’re planning to shoot your meal (not just style it for the dinner table), shoot it in natural light or as near as possible to a window. This always gives it a glowy, irresistible look and prevents the ugly yellow cast you get from light bulbs.
Food doesn’t age well, and it tends to lose its bright, peppery colors and juicy, sparkly glow as it sits out—as well as its heat. So serve and photograph as swiftly as you can, or else you may lose the moment.
What else would you add to this list? Tell us in the comments below.