Styling Pro's Secrets to Gorgeous Food Photos

Feb 022011
 

Food Stylist Denise Vivaldo

For every food blog with gorgeous photos, 10 others need work.

So I’ve asked Denise Vivaldo,  founder of Food Fanatics, a catering, recipe development and food styling firm based in Los Angeles, to come to the rescue. She has styled food for television shows including The Tonight Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Inside Dish with Rachel Ray.

She helps authors with their cookbooks, including Mariel’s Kitchen by Mariel Hemingway, cookbooks by Suzanne Somers, and The Date Night Cookbook by Meredith Phillips.

She also teaches food styling (sometimes with photographer Matt Amendariz), and is the author, most recently, of The Food Stylist’s Handbook, based on her decades of food styling experience.

Q. What is the definition of a food stylist?

A. It’s the food stylist’s job to prepare food for the camera. The food is not necessarily consumed but prepared just for the camera. The majority of tricks we use are to manipulate the food so it’s still edible.

Now that’s different for food bloggers. You develop issues about food when your family’s going to eat it. You want it to still be hot, to make sure nothing gets into it to contaminate it, and you don’t want to waste it.

So if I were making strawberry ice cream, I would pick out a quart of strawberry ice cream at the grocery store and shoot that. That way I might not feel panicked about working with it.

Q. Where do food bloggers go wrong about food styling?

"We put the green beans going in different directions. It's a platter like my mother would have brought to the table. We blanched the onions first, then sautéed them to preserve their color. We undercook everything."

A. A blogger in a class I was teaching once said to me, “I just throw it on the plate. I have four kids to feed.” You need to understand composition.

I’ve found that bloggers don’t read the instruction book that comes with the camera. I tell them to take off the automatic setting and learn to focus the camera themselves. Take the automatic flash off and learn how to harness light.

They don’t get close enough to the food. You want to be able to lick that photograph! Props and food trends come and go, but less is more in photographs.

Q. What if I don’t have a whole cabinet full of pretty plates and dish towels?

A. Then get close to that food!

Also, food needs color. Get gorgeous colored napkins: vibrant blues, pinks and orange. Then mimic the colors. Use a lavender background and put the food in a bowl with lavender in it. That’s a good technique for colorless foods such as mascarpone or vanilla ice cream.

Q. What are the three hardest foods to photograph?

A. Meat, chocolate, and things that are dark. You have to know how to light the food. Take a little plate of food around your house and find the prettiest light. Go to six places at different times of day. Where does it look the best and most natural?

We take the back of a sheet pan or a piece of aluminum foil and reflect the light from the window, bouncing it back to our food.

Q. How can any photo of food be improved?

A. Get in close and keep it simple. Shoot one beautiful blueberry muffin. If you have three or four muffins or a basket it causes you to lose focus. You need good composition. Break the muffin in half, heat a knife on the stove, and put a pat of butter on the muffin.  Or use a hairdryer to soften the butter on the muffin.

Q. Most food is brown. What is your tip to make it look more appealing?

"Add color to brown food. That’s what the piece of fresh bay leaf is doing in the photograph. Green food makes it appear fresh and homemade."

A. Put the food in its best light. Plan for garnishes. Use parsley. Cut some green onions on the diagonal and sprinkle them on top of the stew or soup.

Before your family is going to eat the stew, take out a small bowl of it. The camera does not know what size bowl it is. A tiny bowl is contained; you have reduced the surface. Show one piece of meat and one piece of cooked carrot for brighter color. Rinse off a piece of onion and place it on surface of stew for definition and color.

Q. How do you photograph ice cream?

A. Real ice cream is tough. It gets condensation in the hot air, but you can wrangle it. If I’m going to shot real ice cream, I need 40 scoops in the freezer and five bowls, so I can keep switching them out.

Q. What’s the best way to dress a salad for a shot?

A. Use layering. Tear the lettuce into pieces. Toss a little bit and put them on the plate. Add undressed lettuce. Layer so the camera’s eye can pick and choose, so it won’t look like one messy thing. Make some drips with a teaspoon so it looks pretty.

Manicured reality is what we call it.

Q. What is your secret weapon?

A. Pam. Food dries out. Just as women need lip gloss and moisturizer, food needs Pam. So if I have a dry chicken breast, I spray with Pam, then brush it with a paintbrush so there are no pools. It gets glistening and has highlights.

Q. Any last tips to offer?

A. You’ve made a gorgeous pie. But when you cut it, the filling goes all over. Let it cool and freeze it for 10 to 15 minutes. Then when you cut the piece out it won’t fall apart. Or use a bakery pie and put your own meringue on it. You don’t have to use the exact product.

Food photos courtesy of Jon Edwards Photography.

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  81 Responses to “Styling Pro's Secrets to Gorgeous Food Photos”

  1. I bought the Food Stylists Handbook a while back and I have to say this short article was more helpful than the entire book due to the fact that this directly addressed my needs. Although the book made me want to be a Food Stylist!
    The tip about the small bowls is great. I started doing that a while back for soup and ice cream. I am also a big fan of pureed soups. I actually like to photograph them cold as any garnishes don’t sink as much once the soup has cooled.

    • The book is aimed at people who want work as food stylists, and it does a super job of that. Since this post is aimed at food bloggers, I thank you for telling me I hit the nail on the head!

  2. Hadn’t thought about reflecting the light as she suggests. Or filtering the light. I keep struggling with light reflecting off the food and that may help a lot. I am trying to blog quite a bit though, so I’m not sure I can truly make every shot frame worthy :-)

  3. Denise is a talented food stylist- I have her book and there are some good tips here. BUT. I do not at all agree when she says you don’t have to use the exact product in your photo. If you are a blogger, I think that you do. If I learned that a blogger used store-bought ice cream as a stand-in for a the homemade ice cream featured in the recipe (or did the same with pie or whatever) in the name of getting a better photo, I’d be disappointed. This may not hold true in the world of cookbook food photography, ads, etc., but I believe that if you are a blogger, then your photo should indeed be of the exact product. There are many bloggers who have excellent food styling skills and I’m pretty sure they don’t ever resort to using stand-in food.

    • That’s an interesting question, Winnie. I don’t think anyone would care to admit it, that’s for sure.

      I knew someone would object to what she said about buying commercial ice cream. She’s a pragmatist, not a purist.

    • This is exactly what I intended to say. Excellent tips, but I think the better food bloggers photograph the actual dish they’re writing about. Cookbooks and food blogs are held to different standards — on a blog, you don’t expect a recipe has been tested 36 times, but you do expect to find the blogger’s personal experience with said recipe, and that includes the photo.

      • Another voice singing the same tune: I’d rather see *real* food on a blog rather than overstyled prop food.

        • Isn’t the point of a cooking blog to demonstrate, relate and show how the recipe a home cook prepares turns out in reality? Reality being the keyword for the reader who may wish to follow the same recipe.

          • Typically the real point of a blog, no matter what kind, is to entertain its readers. We can always hope for more.

        • I’d like to see appealing photographs of real food.

      • Good point, Liz. I don’t think most recipes are tested at all, outside of the blogger making them once.

    • I must agree with Winnie –I’ve never even thought about using any fake food in photographing! I also feel it would be pretty disappointing if the reader then attemped it and it looked nothing like the picture! Especially with ice cream as texture and consistency can be so varying and visible in the final product.

      If i were making strawberry ice cream I don’t think I could get my ice cream to look as smooth and commecial/professional as say Haagen Dasz or as crappy as some over-aerated less-expensive ice cream…

      I love a little meltiness or messiness or icecream spill-over! ^__^

      • Maybe her thought was — by the time you get it in a bowl with some berries on top or a mint sprig, you can’t tell as much. But on the other hand, I really don’t know.

  4. When actors and actresses give up hair and make-up, when politicians, give up speach writers,when bloggers give up give-aways and free trips, I’ll give up prop food.
    LOL.

  5. Great piece- appreciate the tips & hyper-respect Denise Vivaldo. Her styling is Midas-like, but as a “blogger” i don’t anticipate finding spherified creme brulee & duck confit cappelletti at the grocery store to buy & photograph so as not eff up my own hard-earned molecular gastronomy baubles.

    And if i made rustic things like strawberry ice cream I imagine i’d find it less gauche than that of ben n jerry so i wouldn’t want those imposters standing in for my shuksan quenelles anyway.

    Tho to her point re my homegirl Winnie’s response- I guess most people prefer botoxed Gwyneth and tampon-smoked steak. Us bloggers and wrinkled peaches should just realize we’re relegated to the domain of indie-ugly beauty and be proud of our loud, brown roux’ even when they don’t make the cover of Saveur or OK.

    • Ha. She’s definitely high end, for the pros.

      But keep in mind that our frame of reference is the beautiful food shots we see in magazines and books, so the bar is higher than you might think. So how hard is it to spray Pam on a chicken and place a bay leaf beside it? Although in your case, molecular gastronomy photos must be so much more of a challenge.

    • What the heck is “tampon-smoked steak”–??

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Winnie Abramson, Mairi Herbert, Christopher Henson, Molly Folse, Dianne Jacob and others. Dianne Jacob said: Wanna ramp up your food photography? @DeniseVivaldo's got secrets to share. http://bit.ly/i4PuoO [...]

  7. Great tips thanks. I always feel dis-heartened when I see fabulous food blogs with beautiful props but I feel better about my close up shots and stick with it and keep practicing.

    • She’s all over the close-up as one of the best ways to shoot, so it must be working for you, Alli.

  8. I agree totally with Winni, it’s about honesty. I’d like to know more about which camera people are using. Has that been covered? I review restaurants and getting close ups of dishes is very difficult.

  9. Thank you for a great piece. We’ve been fortunate to work with some GREAT food stylists and photographers and they are truly artists. When it comes to our own blog…. I love @saltyseattle’s comment about being “indie-ugly”. I’m just becoming friends with the camera and I know I’ve a long way to go. We eat the food that we write about and although I would love to always have great pictures, in our family, it is more important to have great taste. It is a high wire balancing act.

    • Oh yes. We can’t all be experts at everything, although I truly admire the bloggers who are both excellent writers and excellent photographers.

      These are simple tips anyone can use. Since so many of us are A-type personalities, we’re always trying to improve.

  10. Great piece, Dianne. The one thing that I’ve grown to dislike is the uniformity in food styling on many food blogs to the point where certain bloggers become just a stereotype of their own style. I love Denise’s suggestion about getting up close and personal with the food and not necessarily following what has become the norm in food styling for food blogs: the pretty scene, the flowers and ribbons, etc, even though that style is very pretty. I think bloggers (not talking cookbooks here) need to know that it is okay to be original and not necessarily style the way the “big” bloggers do. I am guilty of not yet reading my camera manual, but whether food writing or styling & photography, we all need to find the style that works for us. She is spot on and her tips are great! Thanks!

    • Agreed that you all need to find a style that works for you, but it has to work for your readers as well! I’ve seen some pretty awful stuff. People are just trying to find their way.

  11. Great tips. Denise is right about reading camera manuals and turning that dial to “M”! While I prefer to photograph “real” food in all its not always beautiful freshness, I understand about food stylists resorting to “professional tricks”.
    They do have to meet the demands of the client to produce a perfect food picture which is ultimately what sells the product!

    • Oh yes. She told me about spending $8000 on food for a shoot for an infomercial, and while that’s a mind-blowing amount, the product sold $120 million all over the world. It’s all about selling.

  12. Great interview and post, Dianne, and thanks so much Denise for such an insightful set of information! You echoed several of my “tricks” as a food blogger – I don’t have many props, so I always try to get close and have lots of bokeh instead so that the food has a chance of standing out, and I’ve used everything from foil to placemats to even mirrored makeup compacts as reflectors to add light :) I thought it was interesting that as a food stylist you also very focused on the lighting, as I’m sure any photographer would be as well. It would be really interesting to me to see how a photographer and stylist work together to handle balancing such decisions when doing a food shoot. Thanks again for a lovely interview!

    • She’s learned a lot about light from working with photographers all these years. Take a look at her workshops — some involve a photographer close to our hearts, Matt Armendariz.

  13. This is a great article and very timely. I struggle with food styling every time I do a post. The reality is that most bloggers are shooting their food right before they eat so they don’t have alot of time to style. One thing I’ve learned is to set up my shot before I start cooking or while the food is cooking. That gives me time to think about how it should look. As far as lighting is concerned, Most of my shots are at night so I’ve had to improvise. Lowe’s work lights with halogen bulbs, work wonders.

    • Thanks for the tips, Janet. Denise advises taking out the food before it’s cooked and shooting it then. She says food stylists undercook everything on purpose anyway, because the color is better.

  14. Great post and interview. I will check out her book. Thanks for sharing

    • You are welcome, Alison. Her book is terrific for people who want a career as a food stylist.

  15. Great post, and thanks for thinking of sharing this topic with bloggers. Just a caution about the last comment on purchasing a pie for the shot. If the post is discussing a manufacturer’s product this would not be ethical.

  16. These are some great tips, and I’m also enjoying the followup discussion. I’m new to this, and one thing I have struggled with is that I want to stay true to my own mission as a blogger, which is to write about how to affordably fit healthy food into busy family life without compromising ideals, but, there’s a temptation sometimes to only feature recipes that photograph well. And on the same note, when I’m telling my readers “you can throw this together at dinner time and feed your family!” but then I feature said dish with an elaborate and entirely unnecessary garnish, I question whether I’m undercutting my own message. That issue is specific to me, but I think everyone has to find their own balance.

    Also, thanks for the site, Dianne; it has been a tremendous resource for me so far.

    • Thanks Dani. These are some good questions. I’m not a fan of elaborate garnishes. I don’t think Denise is advocating anything more than chopped parsley, chopped green onion or some fresh leaves for color. Re only featuring food that photographs well, you might be selling yourself short.

  17. To all of us buy diflucan cream I.

    Some great tips, though I, too, agree with Winnie. I tend to do most of my shots close up, mostly because I don’t have a massive collection of props and the tiny square of sunlight I get in my kitchen doesn’t allow for much space. However, I have noticed a recent trend among food blogs for highly styled, full-tabletop (or picnic blanket, or whatever) shots that include several props and different plates of the food (such as those on the astonishing Canelle et Vanille–http://cannelle-vanille.blogspot.com/). Of course, the rest of us can only dream of such pictures!

    • The rest of you are not professional photographers, either, I would suspect. She doesn’t do that all the time, though. I just looked on her blog and her photos are gorgeously minimalist.

  18. I agree with Ricki. Over the recent months, some images have become considerably more stylised – but I believe in some instances it is over the top, distracting from the focus of the image.

    Aran at Cannelle et Vanille is a beautiful photographer, and as a long time reader of her blog I would like to point out she has certainly built up her craft over many years (same is true of many other popular food bloggers).

    I don’t think anyone is expected to have a collection of props similar to a professional, and even like some of the food bloggers we love and admire, they too would have built their collection up over time.

    I used to spend more time finding little pieces for my images, often just picking up odd plates and bowls etc. from charity stores and garage sales etc. (so it doesn’t have to be expensive). But since having a baby, I don’t have the time to even “set up” the images as I once did, let alone browse bargain props. I usually spend 10 minutes maximum on images now. And that includes lots of close up! (Just as Denise suggested.)

    Also, most of the time now I just don’t have the time to get that perfect lighting, which is disappointing because I truly think it makes or breaks a photograph. (Baby doesn’t know that mummy has a very small window of time to get a good shot!)

    Great article, Dianne. I’m inspired to try and do more again. When I can! :)

    • It sounds quite challenging, Julia, to keep up your blog right now. Ten minutes has to be enough time for the shot. You’re probably sleep deprived on top of everything else!

  19. Thanks so much for this post! Those tips were really helpful, especially the one about lavender backgrounds for white foods. I have had so much trouble photographing things like sugar, flour etc- they just look like nothing.

    I agree about getting close to the food and not using flash. I don’t have any props except a cutting board and whatever plates/bowls I have on hand and I always find that photographing outside, keeping it simple, getting in really close and making sure the focus it spot on makes for good photos. Thanks again!

    • You’re welcome. Glad to be of service. Photographing outside in natural light (weather permitting) is a great idea too.

  20. Some great tips, thanks (finally a use for the ruined sheet pan my partner learned does not survive an hour on the high heat hob). Tips from professionals such as in this interview make food photography feel accessible for a dabbler like myself.

    • I’m sure she had to tone it down for us mere mortals. You should see what contortions she has to go through in her business! She outlines it all in her book.

  21. I don’t like to write negative comments and I think this post is great but isn’t this the same Denise that wrote the scandalous article in the Huffington Post about Sandra Lee and her infamous Kwanzaa cake recently? Not the most professional behavior….

  22. I appreciate these tips, particularly about adding color to brown foods like chicken. I am learning that when photographing for my blog, it’s worth going the extra mile to add a garnish or to angle the food nicely on the plate. Yes, I agree that blogging is about honesty and showing real food. But when I have company or am making food for a special occasion, I always take the extra step of plating the food nicely. Why shouldn’t I do the same for my wonderful blog readers?
    Great conversations, and thanks, Diane for a wonderful resource. I was hooked on your material after a few pages of your book. Your blog never disappoints!

  23. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bridget Davis and Heidi Dean, Alaiyo Kiasi. Alaiyo Kiasi said: RT @Bridget_CooKs: Styling Pro’s Secrets to Gorgeous Food Photos http://ow.ly/3PXZX [...]

  24. Very interesting and informative interview, thanks for sharing it.

  25. [...] For every food blog with fab photos, there are 10 others that could use some help, so Dianne Jacobs of the indispenable Will Write for Food blog asked food stylist Denise Vivaldo to share some tips on how bloggers can get gorgeous food photos. [...]

  26. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by thewholegang, Stephanie Stiavetti. Stephanie Stiavetti said: Hey food bloggers! Check out Styling Pro’s Secrets to Gorgeous Food Photos: http://bit.ly/hvPnih via @diannej [...]

  27. Excellent tips that we can put to use immediately. I have a collection of food-props starting to take up much space but you have no idea what food props are til you see Lou Manna’s studio! As a food blogger, I totally agree with the fact that, you should shoot REAL food, not stand ins. You’ll never find me using glycerine, fake ice cubes, or Elmer’s glue. Simplicity, Lighting, and making the food drool worthy are the key ingredients to a good shot. Happy Snapping!

    • Yes, I’ve had the same experience seeing props in a prop stylist’s truck and in a photographer’s studio — pretty amazing. What a great license to buy stuff! Glad you found the tips worthwhile, Jen.

  28. Thanks for posting this Dianne. These are great tips! I recently took a Food Styling and Photography class at the Institute of Culinary Education in NYC and also assisted recently on a cookbook photo shoot and we used all these tricks Denise talks about!
    The best tools a Food Stylist can have is a blowtorch, a steamer, Gravy stain, tweezers, Q-tips, mirrors, a big kitchen and a really good eye and good photographer to work with! It was a great experience and I think the best way to make food look beautiful is detail, detail, detail..keep shooting until you get the right angles and light and composition!

  29. Really, really helpful post. Some of these tips I learned the hard way already, but some are brand new to me. The only thing she didn’t address is how does the blogger have time to spend this kind of effort on the pic, when the recipe has to be created, re- tested, & made for the beauty shot; the text has to be written, edited and posted; and the blogger also has to tweet, facebook, sing, dance, tell jokes and respond to e-mails and comments, too :-) And never mind trying to take on paying assignments or write books at the same time–whew!

    • Ha Ha Ha I love your comment! But one thing you left off is that as a blogger the food the is seen on our blogs is usually eaten by a waiting family… which is also a heavy constraint on time, energy, patience and space.

      • I thought Denise addressed that, by saying to photograph the food before it’s finished cooking, whenever possible.

  30. Very helpful! You always share the most practical info on this blog. Thanks for yet again posting something I can put to use right away.

  31. This was a great interview! As a blogger, I think we’re all trying to find new tricks and tips on how to make our photos pop more. Quality content is what drives people to our blogs, and I think the better the photo, the more likely the visitor will come back.

    I don’t have her book, mostly because I have two other food styling books and one of them (Food Styling) is really geared toward professional food stylists and I was fearful that her’s would also be geared toward the pros. The other book, Food Styling for Photographers, is much more geared toward laymen and mere mortals who aren’t looking to pursuing food styling as a profession but need to style out of necessity. I found it much more useful as a blogger.

    Obviously though, there is a hole in the market though. Denise should consider writing a follow up book on how to style food for the food blogger or the home chef!

    Thanks for the great informative interview once again Dianne.

    • Good to know, Irvin. Her book is extremely practical — it shows you how to create an invoice, find clients, etc. I was impressed by how thorough she was, and she’s a terrific writer.

      Don’t know if there’s a big enough market for the blogger and enthusiastic home cook, but it’s a great idea.

  32. Thanks for the post. As someone who tends to go for the severe monochrome colored dishtowels, I’ve had to re-train my brain to look elsewhere when I’m at Sur La Table.

  33. Thank you for covering this topic, Dianne. I really appreciate Denise sharing years of expertise in this consice summary. It’s good to know that I’m not alone in running all over my house at all hours of the day to figure out where the best light is for a particular photo. I especially love the tip on photographing bland colored foods like ice cream– it’s always my hardest.

    • You are welcome, Yvonne. I’m sure she has a ton more to say. I’ll have to interview her again.

  34. Another very helpful piece, Dianne! When I started blogging, I was all about the writing, and that still is my focus, but I have learned that appealing photography is pretty much a necessity, too. And “reading the camera manual” is simple but great advice. One of these days, I just might get a Rebel, but in the meantime, knowing how to maximize my own not-so-bad camera helps immensely. (But I still hate trying to make a pleasing picture of brown food!)

  35. Thank you Dianne! This is extremely helpful. It’s hard to adopt all the tips at once. However some of them (like using daylight and getting close to the food) are really easy to implement. And the pictures become so much better!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Maria. Start by changing one thing, and go from there. I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed!

  36. [...] Or, if you don’t want to cook something, just buy something that looks sorta like what you plan to cook.* [...]

  37. This post was great Dianne, thanks! Most of my photos look like some version of goulash, no mattter what I’m photographing, so I can’t wait to put some of these tips to use!

  38. I am just devouring your blog like a 1 year old devours his birthday cake! This post is so helpful – especially for me, a budding food writer and blogger. All of your posts have been incredibly thought provoking and have made me reevaluate how I’m writing, or shooting, or cooking. Thank you for the inspiration and direction!

    • Lovely to hear from you, Emily, particularly that you find this stuff helpful. Wouldn’t it be great to devour a birthday cake?

      Your simile reminded me of watching my neighbor’s kid dig her hands into a chocolate cake for her 2nd birthday. Thanks for that.

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