If you want to style your images like a pro, then you need tools like a pro. In this blog post, I show you how to assemble a small styling kit, and how to use the tools in it to make your food look stellar on the plate.
Ready, set, go!! The food is cooked, baked or frozen to perfection, and now there happens a mad scramble to photograph it before it inevitably dries, melts, wilts or otherwise slumps into a state we no longer want to capture. If this is the reality of how you create your images, you are not alone.
When I started getting serious about food photography, I wanted to make it easier for myself to get organized, and get THE shot before the food expired before my eyes. I found, through experience, what works for me:
- to think about the direction and intensity of light, or how to manipulate it effectively
- try and choose the background and props even before (or at least while) I cook the dish
- to create the layout for the shots (positioning of props) before I bring the food to the camera
- to have a small toolkit ready for food styling so I don’t rush to the kitchen a million times while I am actually shooting the dish. This is my styling kit.
Before I unpack my toolkit, I have to say this: a styling kit will NOT turn a disaster on the plate into photogenic food porn. That time I forgot the sweet potatoes in the oven and turned them into a charred mess? There is not a styling kit in this world that can fix that. So start with good-looking food, and use these tools as you would a makeup kit: to emphasize what is already GREAT about that particular dish.
A while ago I borrowed from my public library the book Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Delores Custer. It is a tome of 400+ pages that goes into excruciating detail on its subject matter, down to positioning every single sesame seed on the top of your burger bun just so, to make it look perfect for the camera. Delores’s toolkit (accumulated during her more than 30 years in the biz) is incredibly elaborate, and it includes many items that essentially render the food inedible, from shoe polish to school glue. This is not my jam; when I cook to create an image, I also fully expect to eat the food, even though it is likely stone cold by time I get to the eating part. Can you relate to this? My toolkit reflects my preference to not tamper with the food itself too much – only enough to add interest, that wow factor that makes the image memorable.
Paint brushes in various sizes, spoons, small paring knife, tweezers, spray bottle and squeeze bottle, small offset spatula, kitchen towels and q-tips, small tea infuser, large flake salt, pepper mill, pencil and note cards. Not specific to styling, but VERY useful: extra battery and charger at the ready, and a small level.
Some of my favourite tools, bought inexpensively at Ikea. Use them:
- to moisten with water, lemon juice, syrup or oil the (cut) surfaces of food so that it looks moist and fresh. If the fruit or veg I am photographing is oxidation-prone, then I use the lemon juice. Most often, I use water for veggies and sometimes water mixed with a few drops of maple for adding sheen to fruit. Oil is suitable for foods like veggies pre- or post-oven, roasts, essentially food that would naturally be cooked with the addition of oil.
- to brush away excess crumbs, flour, chilli flakes, or sprinkles from the plates or the background, or even the food itself as long as the brushing will not ruin the food’s surface (i.e. the icing layer on a cake).
The items I probably use most often are the spoons and teaspoons. I keep a couple here so I don’t have to keep trekking back to the kitchen. I use these spoons to lay things on plates more gently, or positioning more accurately. In my smoothie image below, I used the spoon to smooth the surface of the smoothie and pop some of the bubbles, as well as to lightly drop toppings where I wanted them. I use my fingers too, obviously, but the spoon is a bit more precise. The spoons are the natural choice when applying moist/sticky garnishes, so I keep my fingers relatively clean for when I need to handle the camera.
If you want to get even more precise than with a spoon, my other favourite is a pair of tweezers. They may seem like the ultimately pretentious utensil for styling food, but nothing can fish a mis-placed garnish out of your otherwise perfect bowl of soup like a tweezer can. If you have any dainty or minuscule garnishes to position, tweezers are your ticket. I purchased mine for $3 in Toronto’s Chinatown, and you can also find them at craft stores, around the jewelry-making section. I strongly prefer the longer tweezers, as they work better and can even reach down to the bottom of tall glasses, if need be. Tremendous bang for your buck.
Spray-bottle and squeeze bottle
Mine is filled with water, and I am very trigger-happy when it comes to using it. The brushes I mentioned above are useful for moistening flat surfaces like cut fruit, but if you have something like a lettuce or kale leaf, they are ineffective; you could also dip them fully in water, but I don’t always like the result. Instead, I use the spray-bottle. The craft store or dollar store is your best bet for finding one, and do not buy the half-quart plant misters, as they are simply too powerful and may shoot the lettuce right off your plate, instead of just gently misting it with water. If veg is peaking out through the surface of the soup I am shooting, I’ll mist it. When I am styling greens in a salad, I’ll mist them. And when I use fresh produce for ingredient shots, yup, I’ll mist them too. Told ya I was trigger-happy with the spray-bottle!
The squeeze bottle I don’t use very often, mostly because it’s a pain to wash. It is extremely useful for applying liquid garnishes like the cashew cream on the pumpkin soup image above, or the perfect drizzle of chocolate sauce exactly in the pattern you want, whether circular, or zigzag or whatever.
This one’s for chopping herbs, chili peppers, lemons or other fresh garnishes at the last minute, right before clicking the shutter. Sometimes I add ingredients of the dish right into the scene, to better tell the story. I’ll chop something like some rhubarb to lay beside a rhubarb-strawberry crumble, or apples to lay besides a pie. I also use one to trim the sides of a slice of cake/brownie/freezer fudge, to create a cleaner cut for the camera.
Kitchen/paper towels and q-tips
In all the years I’ve known her, my grandmother never laid in front of us a plate whose rim was not scrupulously clean. Every serving dish she brought to the table had a clean rim, no splashes or stray crumbs, as she methodically wiped them away with her kitchen towel before bringing them forth. I adopted this pet-peeve of hers, and this is where the towels and q-tips come in. Also, if I spill something on my (possibly expensive?) backdrops, I’ll want to have something withing arm’s length to wipe away the spills before the food can stain/mar/affect the backdrop.
Tea infuser or small strainer
Ikea sells these infusers for maybe $2 apiece, and I always buy one because I seem to misplace mine constantly. I make alot of tea, apparently. It’s real good for dusting powders on food; think icing sugar, cocoa powder, or ground cinnamon. I used a strainer for the cinnamon doughnut image below, and it can work better than an infuser, especially for larger food items like a cake, or even a stack of doughnuts.
Salt and pepper
I keep large flake salt (large flakes are more obvious in the image than fine grains) and a pepper mill in my kit, too. Both can add just a bit of interest, or contrast, to an otherwise plain food “landscape.” Think about large flake salt on top of a brownie (white on dark), or a dusting of black pepper on a smooth, soft yellow corn soup (dark on light).
Pencil, note cards, extra battery, charger
These are not exactly part of the food styling process, but they are useful. ALWAYS have a fully charged, spare battery ready. Your battery will run out when you are using your camera, meaning during your photoshoot, and your food might be long-departed in the land of no-shoot before your battery charges sufficiently to resume your work. I plug in my charger, and charge the depleted battery as soon as I am done with my current shoot. As for the pencil and note cards, they’re available to me in case of some photographic epiphanies that may arise while I am photographing: new settings I discover while photographing (like the Power Boost function on my camera, yasss!), or just styling ideas for next time.
If, after reading, you still feel that having a food styling kit is pretentious, then you are of course entitled to your opinion. But take the time to think about what could/would make your styling/photography process a little bit easier, and try to integrate what you’ve found into your next shoot. I hope your next one is amazing! Please let me know in the comments if there are any tools/tips/tricks you use to make your photography process a little easier, I’d love to hear them!
Until next time!