In practice, Styling

Three pro tips for beautiful food styling

After the popularity of my pancake styling post, I decided to postpone the series on exposure in favour of another post on food styling, since it is something I (and possibly you, too) often struggle with. At the same time, I love that these tips and tricks are also applicable to people photographing with mobile devices. Beautiful food images are not the exclusive domain of camera owners; in fact, anyone with a smart phone can create compelling food images. So let’s unpack these three pro tips for beautiful food styling and photography.

Tip #1: Start with stellar ingredients

This should almost go without saying, but any food item/ingredient that will be in your image should look stellar. Beautiful high-quality ingredients will give you the best results not only in cooking, but also in food photography. I mentioned before that our perception is different than the camera’s, and the camera will record in excruciating detail all the flaws in our dish and/or ingredients. Did that strawberry have wilted leaves? Did that parsley look a touch tired? Did that orange have dry bits at the core, and now they sit atop our perfect orange creamsicle smoothie?

Here are some ideas to help you pick the best, and make the most of your ingredients. Share your best tips in the comments, too, so that we learn from each other! #communityovercompetition

  • when you plan a dish, try to keep it seasonal: seasonal means fresh, and freshness is key for photogenic food. Try to grow a few plants on your patio or balcony, especially herbs used for garnish, since these fade fast once picked. Find a farm where you can pick your own produce. Visit farmers’ markets, where good-looking food can be had without breaking the bank. Be picky, and take your time choosing each piece with your final image in mind.
  • keep leafy greens, herbs, microgreens, and edible flowers in a big bowl of water and ice. These should be among the last items added to your dish, right before you start taking the picture.
  • if you cut fruits or veggies, keep them cut side down on your cutting board or stack them, to expose as little cut surface as possible. Food with a subtle sheen looks more appealing to the eye, so you want to keep things looking juicy until you’re ready to press the shutter release. It is handy to prepare a small dish with water, and moisten the cut surface with a brush right before adding to your plate. That is what I did in this salad shot, using my brush to lightly moisten the fig’s cut surfaces, to suggest its juiciness.

  • fruits which brown should be cut at the very last minute, or else kept in a bowl of icy lemon water, to delay browning (but don’t keep your hopes up, oxidation is a fast b*tch).
  • before you start cooking, select and reserve a few of your ingredients to add to your final images, as props. I can’t explain how often it’s happened that I added all the rhubarb to my galette, or apples to my pie, only to kick myself later for not reserving a few stalks for pictures.
  • cut or chop ingredients in ways that best highlight its qualities. For the image below, I split the baby lettuce in half lengthwise, which I thought would be more interesting than if I’d just picked off the leaves; I cut the chiogghia beets crosswise to highlight their fantastic stripes, and I left the golden beets unpeeled to keep that nice contrast between their red skin and bright orange insides.

Tip #2: Add some va-va-voom!

When you go to a restaurant, every dish that comes out of the kitchen has a crucial component designed to immediately grab your attention, even before you take the first bite. This crucial component is the garnish. No good restaurant kitchen would dream of sending out a “naked” dish; in the same way, you should creatively employ garnishes to captivate your viewer, and help them understand what your dish is all about.

In this image of a green pea soup, I tried to bring out the character of the dish using the garnishes. The peas and the pea shoots are clearly indicating what the main ingredient is. Here’s where reserved ingredients become useful, to make the viewer understand your dish, your message. The purple basil has a double role: as a flavour accent; and as a colour accent. A garnish in a contrasting colour, when possible and appropriate, can beautifully enhance the colour of the dish itself, and that was my intention with the basil. The yogurt drizzle’s white colour is a point of reference not only for the eye, but it is also useful later on when editing for white balance. It further suggests creaminess and its tang contrasts the sweet peas perfectly. As for the cilantro flowers, I introduced them as an “anchor point” for my hand in the picture, to add the human element that brings scale and additional interest into the image.

A few tips for successfully va-va-vooming your dish?

  • make sure your garnish makes sense in the context of your dish. Try to stick with edible garnishes whenever possible, and ensure they are cohesive with what your dish/image represents.
  • think variety and interest! Sprinkle seeds, nuts, herbs, chopped chocolate; drizzle olive oil, or a flavoured oil (like chili or paprika), yogurt, cream, caramel or chocolate sauce, maple syrup; add whole edible flowers, microgreens, pea shoots, thinly sliced veggies, cooked grains or legumes. Think also about texture, and how something crunchy, for example, would enhance the experience of eating the dish.

Tip #3: Pay attention to colour

Colour is an incredibly important component of food and prop styling. Have you recently seen a black and white food photo? I will bet the answer is no. Robbing a food image of colour strips it of appeal, in most cases. Since food is so powerfully linked to colour in our mind, the choices that we make when styling are incredibly important for capturing our audience. Make sure to always, ALWAYS think about how the colours of your dish, garnish, and props will come together cohesively to create a compelling image. I didn’t (and unfortunately, still don’t always) pay attention to colour, and my images have suffered because of that. As an example, check out this image of a Thai green curry. I wanted to highlight the “green veg overload” kind of feel in this image, so I went with an almost monochrome palette. But because of it, the image is a little blah, it lacks “pop,” that wow factor that I definitely want my food images to have.

I think this image would have benefitted from a more diverse colour scheme (and also from NOT having the red brick wall of my neighbour’s house reflect red light into my scene, yikes!).

How to improve the colour story in your image:

  • contrasting pops of colour in the garnish (like the pink/purple basil flowers I used for the pea soup) highlight the main colour of the dish and give it dimension. Think creatively about your garnishes and how their colours can enhance your dish.
  • choose props with complimenting colours, and pay particular attention to strong colours or patterns that may distract from your hero dish. When someone looks at your image, does the eye go that colourful napkin first?
  • it is sometimes useful to add a white element in the image, as it can help with colour correction if you decide your image needs post processing (and I personally believe that all images benefit from some careful editing).

If you, like me, do not remember those brief colour theory lessons from grade 6, then here are two tools that can help you. The first is a colour wheel. You can find these inexpensively at arts and craft stores or art supply stores (here in Canada, at Michael’s and de Serres), and you can read here a brief article on how to use a colour wheel. The second, and a favourite tool is Design Seeds. I’ve linked to the category the author calls Edible Hues, but look around her website, and I am certain you’ll find colour inspiration there. Or follow Jessica on instagram @designseeds

These are my three pro tips for better food styling. Do you have any tips or tricks you employ to style compelling food images? Please share below in the comments, so that we all benefit! And remember to tag your images with #craftandmuse so I can see what you make and photograph!

Until next time!


7 thoughts on “Three pro tips for beautiful food styling

  1. Diana! These are all such useful tips — I find myself realizing that I need to pay more attention to some of these elements (like colour!) Another fantastic post!

    1. Hello, Kris! I am very new to blogging, and as such, I feel nervous every time I hit Publish on a post. You have been a constant support since the beginning, and I am so grateful to know that what I write is helpful. Thank you!

  2. I am thoroughly enjoying your food photography posts. I am learning so much!!! Thank you for posting such informative posts.

    1. Thank you so much, Linda! If feels so good to know that my work is useful. Keep close, there are many more to come :)!

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