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Food Styling

The food photos you see in magazines and modern day recipe books all have one thing in common - Food Styling. Food Styling is making food look good for photo shoots. There are Food Stylists whose job it is to facilitate all aspects of food preparation for a photo shoot. They oversee the cooking of food, they assemble the food on a serving dish, and then they style it with garnishes, colors, and 'Keep It Fresh Looking' tricks.

If you are a successful photographer you would probably hire a Food Stylist for your photo shoots. If your a photographer whose just starting their business, you probably would be both photographer and food stylist.

The methods used by Food Stylists can be learned and applied to your own photo shoot. Most of their tricks are easy to use while others may require a bit of creativity. In this tutorial article, we'll explore common methods and tricks used by the pros so you can give your own dishes a mouthwatering and appetizing look.

Plating Your Food

Appearance of food is important to engage your viewer. A steak sitting on a large plate with too much space can actually take away from a photo. So, the pros recommend that you serve all food on the smallest plate possible, and assemble the food items so that all dish space is used. Buy some white salad plates, as these are used often by pro photograhers to plate anything and everything.

Use Salad Plates for Food Photographay

Typically, salad plates are used instead of dinner plates, and dinner plates are used instead of a platter plate.

Colored dishes should be used less often as can take away from your plate of food. If you do use a colored dish try one that enhances your foods' colors, but doesn't take away from your foods' colors or the food itself. You don't want them admiring the plate or bowl, you want them admiring your delicious food.

How To Keep The Food Fresh Looking

How many times have you seen a photo of a plate of food that just looks sooooo delicious! Was it chicken, ribs, steak, perhaps a casserole, or even a simple salad. Chances are that plate of delicious food was styled, restyled and probably restyled again, before and during many photo shots to get the perfect mouthwatering look. So how do the pros do it? Well, it's simple really, Food Tricks!

There are many interesting food tricks n tips. Lets learn about some of them.

Steak - any fried meat like a steak is undercooked to give it a fresh and moist look.

How To Cook Steak For Food Shoot
A fully cooked steak just doesn't have the same fresh, and moist look as one that is undercooked. In this sandwich steak photo, I undercooked the meat so it would have that pinkish, juicy look.
As well, a basting of oil or mixture of oil and soy sauce/gravy darkener is often used to give the outside of steak a better color and sheen coating.

Chicken Breast - Foods like chicken breast are kept moist looking putting olive oil over the entire chicken piece. This keeps it fresh and moist looking for the shoot.

Hamburger - A hamburger is undercooked to keep it's freshness and also can be basted for that yummy look.

Buns- Use buns that are wrinkle free, especially the top bun. To give them a more appetizing look you can paste the top bun with canola to give it a sheen which photographs better.

Greens - Salads For greens your using in a salad you can mist them with a spray bottle of cold water to give them a freshness look.
And, to have really fresh-looking salad leaves, put them into ice-cold water for about 15 minutes before your shoot, then just dry them with paper towels before shooting.

Fruit - For fruits, some you can mist like greens, and for certain fruits, like a whole strawberries; you can dip them in fruit glaze for a nicer look if your adding them to the top of a fruit pie or similar desserts.
Fruit Bowl

Cereal - For cereal with milk shots, milk often isn't used because it makes the cereal soggy too quickly, so instead they use White Glue, which keeps the cereal crisp looking longer. Also, vegetable shortening is used in bottom of a cereal bowl then a thin layer of milk added, then the cereal. Because the shortening resists the milk, the cereal stays fresh looking.

Mashed Potatoes - Used to replace food spaces in bowls where they don't want add an entire dish of something. And used to mold the shape for the foods in a dish or wraps, then the actual food is just placed at the wrap ends.
Example: Serving dish of rice and shrimp. You don't want to put rice and shrimp in the entire dish; so you use mash potatoes to fill most of the bowl, then you just add a layer of rice and shrimp on top of the mashed potatoes.

Glasses/ Drinks - Drinks glasses are often sprayed on the outside with a mixture of glycerin and water for that condensation tiny bubbly look and it keeps the look giving the photographer time to shoot lotz of photos; and ice cubes are replaced with dry ice cubes or fake ice cubes because they won't melt during a shoot.

Dry Ice - Dry ice is good to use for creating a steam look. Drop some frozen cubed dry ice into some hot water and watch the steam as it rises from them. This is used for adding the steam-look(foggy) to a hot food or cold food item; perhaps a just cooked roast out of the oven, (steam), or a bowl of ice cream (steam). For your shoot, the ice is placed behind the actual food dish (where you can't see it) and when the photo is taken; the steam is rising from the food. And, for this you would want to use a background that would enhance the foggy appearance like black or slate.

Liquids- Drinks are often just water with food coloring added.

Ice Cream - Ice cream is placed on top of ice cubes to keep it ice cold and to prevent it from melting. And, often stylists use vegetable shortening, corn syrup, and powdered sugar to make an ice cream alternative.
Ice Cream Shot, How To Shoot Ice Cream - Food Photography
And, if it does start to melt while shooting, they just use a straw to blow away the melted ice cream.

Replacing Space In shots of wraps and the like, they use foamy replacers like makeup sponges to fill in space. Used often in taco like wraps, where they want the wrap to appear open and then they just put some food on top of the sponges.

Photographers Tool Kit

Food Stylists and Photographers who style their own food, have a tool kit with accessories to help them style the food, and restyle, and keep everything just so before and during the shoot. Some of these items include:

Toothpicks To hold garnishes in place on certain food items like sandwiches, burgers, toothpicks are used. They can be cut to small sizes so they blend in with the food their holding in place.

Photographer Stylist Toolkit
Tweezers To carefully move small pieces of food once it has been assembled on a dish. That way they don't move other food out of place.

Small Brushes Like a canvas painter's brush; these small brushes are used to brush crumbs off plates, and wider styles are used to baste foods like chicken breasts, and cooked meats with oils.

Make Up Sponges These sponges are useful to fill in spaces where you would otherwise have food but don't want to. And, also used to keep food dishes at different angles when required.

Assembly Your Lighting, Camera, Tripod

Ideally, you would style your food dish area, and have your Softbox lighting in place, and your camera and tripod assembled as you like. Then you would bring out your food dish for the shoot. Usually, the actual food is not brought to the photo shoot area until all other considerations are done. Test shots are often taken with 'Dummy Food' basically a stand in for the actual dish, And, the actual dish is called the 'Hero Food'.

And, if your shooting a hot food dish, organize your time so that the dish is shot soon after it is ready. Fresh food, hot and cold, can lose its' appeal quickly. The sooner you shoot after it is prepared the better.

Style Your Food Dish Area

Styling the area around the food dish can be fun and you can get creative. Typically, colors are important here because you want to have colors that work together for your food dish and the area around the food dish. There are many ways to style your food dish area:

You can add plain or patterned placemats or dish cloth, or napkins or both, or none. The surface under your dish can be plain, textured, wood, plastic, metal, shiny, or dull looking. It can be any color.
You can have additional plates or bowls around your food dish. You can have glasses, cups, mixing bowls, rolling pins, frying pans; any dish you want as long as it complements the food dish your shooting. You can add utensils or not add them. You can place your dish on a board,(bread board size) and the food item itself on a board (depending on the dish of course- burger yes, bowl of soup no). You can put parchment paper folded next to your dish of food or under it, same for napkins. The best way to get ideas for arranging the food area is to look at food photos. And, the web has plenty to look at, and cook books, and magazines. These are all good sources to use to get creative.

Background Color

For you background, you can style it using a number of methods: You could have white or colored bristol board or a piece of colored cloth on the wall behind your shoot that complements your dish colors. You can use your Fill Board for a white background. You can also use craft colored paper squares for the background and dish side, which are available in many colors and patterns. I buy mine at Michaels for a buck each. You can also buy booklets of them which cost from $6 - $30 bucks.
Color Squares for Food Photography

If you don't have a wall directly behind your shoot, you can use your white Fill Board, and use 2 clothespins to pin your colored cloth, bristol board square, or craft paper squares to the top of the Fill Board (tall side), then just support it against the backside of your table. Most times the Fill Board will support itself against the table. Important here is that your Fill Board and the color square your using is positioned taller than your food item so it would show proper as the background color. Do test shots to practice your composition.

Color Squares Pinned for Food Shoot

Try Different Background Colors

Look at these photos taken of a chicken burger. Each has a different background color and beside the dish color.
Craft paper squares were used for the first two shots. A white fill board was used in the third shot.

The first shot has a slate background with a brown color square next to the plate. It doesn't blend so good with the chicken burger colors.
The second shot has a slate background with a lighter grey striped color next to the plate. These colors blend better with the chicken burger colors.
The third chicken burger has a white background and a white color next to the plate. It also looks good. For this shot, a white fill board was used in the background and under the plate.
Burger shots like this are usually shot from side angles so you can see all the delicious ingredients.

Chicken Burger Photo Shoot Background Color Chicken Burger Photo Shoot Background Chicken Burger Photo Shoot


Look at color palettes, get your color ideas, and then organize your color for your shoot. Use two or three colors that complement or contrast. Color craft squares are great because they have so many patterns, and color choices, and are an ideal size for background shooting. And,they are easy to implement. You can also use bristol boards, although they are limited in colors and you may need to cut them depending on your background space. Many food shots also use napkins-tea towels , plain, colored or patterned, and just as many use plain paper, parchment paper, and the like.

Strong colors are not recommended for your display area, unless of course your Food Item is all bold colors. Colors like red, yellow, blue. Pale colors seem to work well, and whites-greys, and sometimes just a hint of color works well also, either complimentary or contrast.

Chicken Burger Color Palette

Looking at the chicken burger photo example; the color of the top bun, the cheese, the deli lettuce, the tomato, the bacon, and the chicken burger, all are colors that blend with greys, so the light and darker colored grey colors I chose looked good for this photo.

If your not sure which colors blend, compliment or contrast well, or you want to learn more about colors for your food shoots; you can take a look at these two websites. They have color palettes arranged with photo examples that show us what colors, when used together, look good. Most palettes include three or four colors. You don't need to include all of them for a food shoot, but try to implement two or three of them into your food shots. Your food item has at least one dominant color; use that color to find other colors that complement or contrast.

Taste World Wines - Free Wine App

These color palettes are used by professional food photographers and designers and you can use them in your food styling to give your photos a more professional look.

Color Palettes with Food Photos
Color Palettes Including Food Photos

Style Your Dish

Pick the dominant color(s) from you food item, find palette colors to contrast or complement, then add one or more of these colors to your surrounding food dish area. Take some test shots, to see how it looks.

Once I know what food dish I'm shooting, I look at all my color squares (you'll have a collection once you start buying them), that I think would be compatbile colors to use. Then once I've selected a few, I try them in my shots for that food dish.

It's difficult to get a good read of your colors by looking at your camera's screen view, so I upload my photos to my computer; that way I can really see if the colors blend or not with my food item. Some might blend and look good, while others I've chosen may look really good. That's why it's a good idea to try a few colors while shooting.

In This Tutorial Article

In this tutorial article, we introduced you to Food Styling. Preparing your food, choosing fresh ingredients and keeping them fresh looking, are done by the Food Stylist. Matching and blending colors is also important to give your photo a more professional look. Knowing what colors can enhance your food dish and which can take away from your dish, is something all pro photographers learn from experience.

In our next tutorial article, you'll learn tips on Food Shots: Composition - Using the Rule Of Thirds to get your food display camera ready, Creating Blurry backgrounds, Assembling Your Food Ingredients For Better Shots, and Tips For Positioning Your Color Backgrounds.