Inside the Curious World of a Food Stylist
We’re currently experiencing an artistic renaissance of epic proportions. The still life has returned, and it is more popular than ever. This century, however, instead of impressionist painters like Cézanne spending hours and hours hunched over an oil-painted canvas, we are able to document our curated food presentations in less than a second with the click of a thumb.
If you spend any time admiring the endless stream of #ButFirstCoffee Instagrams, the crisp photography of countless blogs and print magazines, or the glossy pages of mouthwatering cookbooks, you know that capturing food is still very much an art form. When it comes to food styling, some have the gift and, sadly, others do not.
We have long been admirers of food stylist and artist Sophia Green. Her seemingly effortless photographs convey a yearning for the food she presents and an appreciation for their natural ingredients. Since we keep hearing about the bizarre tools and techniques of food styling (e.g., using an eyebrow pencil to give undercooked meat the charred look, mixing motor oil with cream for an extra-buoyant texture, or spraying Scotchguard on pancakes to keep the syrup from absorbing too quickly), we wanted to know about Green's method, and lessons from years of cooking and styling.
With our detective hats on, we caught up with the food-art master to uncover the myths and styling secrets behind her impeccable photography.
MD: What is your least favorite food to photograph?
SG: Salads in general. You’d think they’re easy, but depending on the number of ingredients, they are a pain in the butt. For commercials, every shot is a different salad, but I always use real ingredients.
MD: What is your favorite food to photograph?
SG: Huge slabs of meat. Served on large plates or platters in a simple setting, I think meat looks plentiful and appetizing.
MD: No eyebrow pencil contouring for you?
SG: No, the more natural the look the better. It can look dirty. But there is a fine line between gross dirty and like it was actually cooked dirty.
MD: What’s the best time of day to photograph?
SG: The best would be an overcast day. It really depends on where you live, but in L.A., we have foggy mornings. If I’m going for natural light, which is most of the time, that’s when I shoot.
MD: How do you create a makeshift studio?
SG: Never shoot in direct sunlight. Have a shade drawn, or troubleshoot with a super-sheer white sheet—just something to cover the window.
MD: What are your favorite food styling tools?
SG: My hands, number one. Just like when I’m cooking.
MD: What do you bring with you to a shoot?
SG: Water spritzers, tweezers, and baby wipes. Baby wipes are amazing. They are the easiest, fastest way to clean your hands; you can wipe anything off a plate, and it won’t leave any lint or paper residue; and they are always super accessible.
MD: Do you ever eat the food after a shoot?
SG: Absolutely not. Everything is over-handled and oftentimes, like in the case of my meat slabs, undercooked because that photographs better. When I want a fruit to look fresh like it was just washed, for instance, I take a little Vaseline, rub it all over my hands, and then rub my hands all over the fruit. Then I’ll take a water spritzer and give it a spritz. That way the water drops stick to the surface of the fruit and look good for the camera. I’m definitely not going to eat a tomato after all of that styling!
MD: Let’s talk more about preparation. How long does it take you to prep food for shoots?
SG: Every ingredient for dishes has kind of a process it undergoes. It always depends on what you’re shooting, for print and digital. For tomatoes, I do the trick I just explained. For lettuce, I use “stay fresh” powder that they sell at food supply stores so my avocado and lettuce don’t wilt.
MD: What’s the main difference between shooting print versus digital?
SG: The length of time. For print, it’s much faster, but it’s so dependent on circumstance. For commercials, it’s a full production. There is an enormous amount of food and a full team on staff. The client is very involved. The oddest thing I ever had to do was for a commercial shoot. I had to assemble a four-foot hot dog on a conference table. I had to cut off the ends of several hot dogs and sew them together so it would look like one continuous dog.
MD: Do you ever use fake food?
MD: How do you style “ugly” foods like chicken, soup, etc…?
SG: I call those foods the brown food. Sometimes there is nothing one can do. I can try garnish or chopped parsley, but for the most part I accent the dish with pretty linens, or a glass, or something inviting. I’ll probably put it on a white plate, maybe a little color.
MD: How do you achieve your signature balance between styled but not too styled?
SG: My mentors have taught me to go natural with my styling. The best thing is to put stuff down on a plate with your hands. As soon as you start overworking, it shows. If you throw salad on a plate, you could obsess over it for hours. Let the food do its thing—don’t overwork it.
MD: How do you handle time-sensitive foods like ice cream or a soufflé?
SG: There is fake ice cream that you can make. It looks good. Especially for commercials. But I pre-scoop real ice cream, lay out my scoops on a baking sheet, and put them in the freezer. Dry ice usually isn’t necessary, unless I’m doing popsicles. My strongest tools are speed, lots of backup product, and as much advanced planning as possible.
MD: Any takeaways you’d like to give MyDomaine readers?
SG: Keep it simple. Use your hands. In which case, just make sure they’re clean!
Shop Green's styling must-haves below!