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.
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?
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?
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.