In practice, Styling

Styling exercise: the brownie

After writing the first part of the Fundamentals series on light, I thought it would be a good idea to immerse myself in a practical assignment. I wanted to challenge myself to style and shoot the beloved brownie. Easily adaptable to almost any dietary restriction, it is not surprising that brownies turn up in the feeds and on the plates of many. Choose the recipe you like best, make sure your pantry and fridge is stocked with your brownie ingredients, and on a relaxed Saturday, bake the brownie and start shooting. Practicing lots is the surest way to improve and grow both as a cook/baker, and a photographer, plus we get to eat the props!

f/5.6 1/100sec 60mm ISO1600

Before I get into the nitty-gritty (or the ooey-gooey) of it, please let me state right away that I am on a learning journey, just like you. It is highly likely that you’ve seen better brownie images, and if you have, then by all means, use those as a learning opportunity too. I can only share what I know, and I am -humanly, naturally – limited by the extent of my own experience and abilities. I hope that you can still learn something here, and if you do, that makes me happy. Whether you use a phone, or a camera, these ideas are equally applicable, and the principles still valid. So let me dive right in.

Unlike a colourful salad or a beautiful frosted cake, for example, brownies present a few photographic and styling challenges (and now I am kicking myself for not tackling something easier, like a salad or a cake!). These are:

  • they are mostly flat, with little dimension or surface texture
  • they are monochrome (i.e. all brown)
  • they are dark (so when you focus on them, your phone or camera will want to over-expose the rest of your image)

I’ll start with the last bullet point, since it is the easiest to mitigate: whenever you shoot something dark, make sure that you check your exposure, and possibly under-expose a little compared to the exposure settings suggested by your phone or camera. Pay attention that the detail in the brownie is well visible (i.e. not too dark), but at the same time any white elements in the shot are not too bright (blown-out).

What can we do about the other two challenges? We have to add interest to an otherwise less-interesting subject. They may be moreish and addictive, but if we can’t translate those qualities into an image, then we have failed as photographers, and food-story-tellers. The goal is to make the viewer go “Oh, I need THOSE brownies asap!” I’ll get right into it and explain how I tried to mitigate for these challenges.

No 1. Telling a story

I started thinking about the shot I wanted even before starting to bake the brownies. I knew that the surface of the baked brownie would be uniformly brown/dark, and there’d be little indication of texture, or any “interruption” in the landscape of the brownie. I thought I would make it easier on myself right when baking it by adding a bit of “interest” to the top. One can add any number of things: crushed/chopped/sliced nuts, large flake sea salt (that’s what I choose), chocolate chips, mini-marshmallows or small lego toys (just kidding! Don’t add legos to your brownie!!!). You get the point. This surface detail already adds a little visual interest. The next part was to help things along with props, or with garnishes.

My first instinct after I baked it was to rush in (“rush in” is my default setting, unfortunately), cut up the freshly baked brownie, lay it on a flat surface and shoot it from above: and that is what I did on my first try. It didn’t occur to me until later that I could have been more patient, and started in a different way: why not style a scene with the brownie still in the pan? To make the viewer go “Oh look, she’s just pulled a pan of brownies from the oven!”

f/2.8 1/125sec 60mm ISO500

The props help to tell the story: a kitchen towel/napkin used to hold the hot pan, a knife to cut it as I was too impatient for it to cool before I dove in for a sample. Cool almond milk to wash it off. A small dish with Cyprus salt to gently flick on top, for contrast in flavour (sweet-salty) and texture (fudgy-crunchy). Maybe I was just arranging some flowers in a vase when the timer beeped (I added the tulip to diversify the colour scheme a little bit, since brownies are uniformly… well, brown). And that is how the picture above came to be. The moral is to be patient and think about the story you want to create before you start manipulating your subject very much.

No 2. Showing off the food, to inspire or bring joy

Sometimes, the shot you want to create is less about a story, you just want to show off a beautifully executed recipe. That’s what the next image is all about. “Brownies bring me joy, therefore I am sharing them with you in hopes that they do the same for you” is what this shot says. Or, “the brownies this recipe produces look like this from above.” I added a bit of interest with a melted chocolate drizzle and some quinoa puffs (maybe I wanted to make it a bit more “healthy” too lol). Any kind of light-coloured, small-sized garnish can work (if they make sense), and if you’ve sprinkled on some chopped nuts before baking, they will help you here.

Here’s an overhead shot of the “brownie soldiers.” I crumpled up some wax paper, then lay the slices down, garnished them, and then I took the shot.

f/4.5 1/125sec 60mm ISO640

No 3. A change of perspective to reveal texture

One of the most frequently extolled virtues of brownies is that they are fudgy. How can you tell if the brownie in the picture above is appropriately fudgy? You can’t. The angle the image was shot from leaves it to your imagination to fill in that particular gap. But if this is something you want to unequivocally express with your images (I did), then you change your perspective, and go for an eye-level shot. I inverted the empty brownie pan, stacked the slices on a corner, then placed a small bottle of almond milk, a glass of almond milk, and a napkin (the same from the first shot) in the background.

f/5.6 1/100sec 60mm ISO1600

This vertical shot was one of my initial plans. I’ve always loved a good stacked-bars shot, and I wanted to create one. I made sure the aperture was appropriate to leave the front of the slices in focus, while at the same time blur out the milk bottle and cup in the background (this is harder, though not impossible to do with a camera phone. Install a good photo app, and learn how to use the controls to create that blurred background which suggests depth). This shot really shows off the texture of the brownie, adding interest through height with the tall stack, which seemingly is waiting for someone to dive right in. You can be thinking “Apparently, someone has no self-control when it comes to fudgy brownies!” But then you smile because that someone might very well also be you!

Small human touches, like a bite, add interest to the image f/6.4 1/80 60mm ISO1600

There is always the option of adding a moving element, and turn this into an action shot – meaning, something is happening while you take the picture, and you are capturing that action in the shot. This was the first brownie, unacceptably cakey (ok, I probably overbaked it), and I thought why not gild the lily and add chocolate syrup for a motion shot? Here is what I got:

f/2.4 1/100sec 60mm ISO1250

I took the pictures for this post a couple days ago, and having given myself space from seeing them for a while, there are two things I wish I had done:

  • I should have taken some horizontal shots of the stacked-up brownies (i.e. landscape orientation, not just portrait orientation)
  • I should have taken some shots from a greater distance to the subject, to give the subject some “breathing room,” as the shots feel a bit too close, too tight.

Maybe I still would have chosen these out of the bunch, but at least I would have given myself more images to choose from. I guess the take-away for me (and maybe you, too) here is to move around more when taking the shot, to try more than just the one angle I had in mind initially, to try closer and farther shots too. You never know which angle or distance from your subject will create that brilliant shot.

Bonus: other ways to tell a story

When I was brainstorming what possible stories I could tell with brownies, several other scenarios presented themselves: a box of neatly packed brownie slices near Christmas paraphernalia suggesting a holiday cookie swap. A bitten brownie slice on a plate near an open book and a cup of coffee, to tell the story of someone having a snack while they cozy up with their favourite read. Brownies neatly arranged in a box with a bunch of flowers and car keys suggesting that someone is taking a hostess gift to a party. And so on. Food is intertwined in so many stories, that one can always find fresh ways to shoot a particular dish. Think about the story you want to tell with your brownies, and start shooting. And when you are done, go ahead and eat the props!

What are your best tips for styling and shooting a brownie? Please share in the comments for us all to learn from! As always, tag me (@fxmaman) and use the hashtag #craftandmuse if you decide to make and shoot a plate of brownies – I’d love to see the story that you tell with your food. Until next time!

4 thoughts on “Styling exercise: the brownie

  1. Love the idea of “telling a story” — so many things that never cross my mind when taking pics. Your post has reminded me to slow down and be more mindful of the process! Can wait until your next instalment 💚

  2. Thank you for your comment, Kris! I myself need frequent, and I mean FREQUENT reminders to slow down. I read sometimes posts from accomplished photographers who say “this dish has taken me x minutes to make, and three times as much to photograph!” and with me it is often the other way around – so clearly I’m doing it wrong. If the pros take their time, then definitely I should learn that too. Slowly, slowly, hoping I will get there someday! 🙂

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