By Pascale Beale
Food photography and styling is all about seduction. When someone looks at your image, you want them to think, “That looks so good, I want to eat that, now!” So, before taking a photo, think about two key elements that will improve your food styling:
- Which medium is the image for? This will dictate the shape, style and composition. Instagram works best with square shots, which would impact your styling choices, for example.
- What story is the shot telling us? Your choice of background, props and plating style will help to tell that story. A shot of a dish cooked outdoors requires a different set of props and styling than a photo of a dessert.
Once you establish the key elements, here’s how to improve your food styling for blogs, social media and cookbooks:
1. Pick one: natural or artificial light.
Good lighting is the most fundamental part of food photography. It literally shapes the food. You can have the most beautifully plated food, but if the light is wrong, the dish will look flat and unappetizing. Shoot with either natural (my preferred choice) or artificial light. You cannot use both.
As acclaimed food photographer Eva Kosmas Floras says:
“Never mix two different color temperatures in the same photograph (i.e., artificial + natural light). You will end up with blue or orange parts of the image, or both, and it will have a very strange effect on the final photograph.
“If shooting in natural light, (it) has different color temperatures depending on the time of day, ranging from blue to yellow/orange. Blue light invokes freshness, yellow light suffuses images with comfort. Achieving a white balance, where white looks white, is key to making the food look as natural as possible on the plate.”
Either light source creates shadows across the dish. Use shadow to add texture, dimension, form and depth. Shadow also helps you tell a story. A bright and diffused background evokes lunchtime or a summer’s day. It complements light foods such as salads or chilled soups. Lengthy dark shadows evoke the feeling of an evening meal, and complement heartier fare such as stews and roasts.
2. Find the focal point of your photo.
In an art class in eighth grade, I learned about the rule of thirds, a rule that has served me to this day with food styling. It advises that you break any image into a grid with two horizontal and two vertical lines, forming nine equally proportioned areas. Place the key elements either on the lines or where they intersect. The resulting composition draws the viewer’s eye across the scene and to the focal point, the dish you showcase.
Negative space and offset framing help create an interesting background for your food and can improve your food styling. A bowl of soup placed so that only half can be seen, but with some key ingredients scattered around the dish, create a more dynamic shot than a bowl centered in the frame.
Many photographers love overhead shots. They can be effective and attractive when shooting a whole tablescape of multiple dishes — a mezze feast, for example, or capturing the geometric pattern made by pastries cooling on a wire rack. But overhead shots don’t work for every dish. They would not show a soufflé to its best advantage, for example.
3. Tell a story.
This is about ambiance and mood. Hands cupping a steaming bowl of soup, or pulling out a slice of cheesy pizza from a pizza box immediately convey a story. The first shows a dish that is cozy and warm, and the second shows a dish you can’t wait to dive into. Similarly, a plate of buttery croissants with bite taken out of one piece, a cup of tea on the side, and a half-finished crossword with a folded over newspaper tucked under the cup conjures an entire vignette.
A work surface with a dusting of flour, a rolling pin and cookie cutters immediately imply baking even if the cookies are not in the image. Sometimes Instagrammers use a series of step-by-step images to tell the story. A lead image of the all-but-empty plate can entice viewers to scroll through the next shots to see what was so appetizing.
Not all food has to be plated. Creating movement engages the eye. A knife and a few breadcrumbs on a cutting board next to a loaf of sliced bread implies that someone just cut the loaf. Make these accents complementary to the focal point of the shot and not a distraction. Sometimes images end up messy and over styled. Less, as they say, is more.
4. Use props and backgrounds to add interest.
Food styling includes everything you see in the image, not just what is on the plate. The goal to find the best props to showcase the dish you are styling. Here are a few rules of thumb:
Choose a background that complements the dish. A background creates textural layers and gives context to the food. One or two folded tea towels tucked around a pot of stew set on a wooden board makes sense, but five would be excessive. Keep your images logical.
Avoid patterns and colors that distract. A chicken tagine in a distinctive white bowl looks stunning, but placed in a yellow bowl, it would just fade away. Brown colored foods can be notoriously hard to style. But they can work well in a distinctive dish with a vibrant garnish on top. A butternut squash soup in a dull earthenware bowl would look bland, but you could transform it in a white bowl with finely-chopped herbs on top.
Choose complementary colors. Oranges set against a cobalt blue background work well. Monochromatic backgrounds, plates and linens are fine with a bright pop of color. A saffron-colored soup would look stunning in a dark bowl, placed on top of a black slate, with a curled-handled spoon on its side.
Use white or monochromatic plates and serving pieces. Plate food on smaller plates and bowls. Small portions look more appetizing.
Collect napkins and linens. I hunt down tea towels and linen napkins in different colors in antique shops and garage sales. A folded piece of cloth adds movement and life to an image. Vintage tablecloths can add textural background layers.
Get rid of marks. You would be amazed at how often fingerprints show up on silverware or stemware. Have plenty of clean kitchen towels on hand to wipe down the surfaces of everything you use in the shoot, so that smudges and prints don’t appear on camera. If they do, the plate or utensil just doesn’t look clean.
5. The food is always the star.
Here a few useful tips to tuck up your sleeve when prepping food for a photo shoot:
Show only the best quality ingredients. Small blemishes really show up in photographs. This is essential if you show produce.
Use individual ingredients as a prop. A bowl of lemons next to a lemon tart gives the impression that you just prepared the dish. Viewers can imagine the transformation from raw ingredient to finished dish. This is an easy way to improve your food styling.
Heat is the enemy of cooked food. Everything wilts under lights, so being prepared is key. A sizzling steak will start to dry out and look dull within 20 minutes. Fats begin to congeal. Undercooking food helps preserve its appeal. (Remember how you cooked the food if you are going to eat it, though! Because we eat everything on our shoots, I prep the sets with stand-ins for positioning, and then finish the dish at the last minute so that it is fresh out of the oven, or off the stove.)
Don’t dress salads until the very last second, and even then, hardly at all. Small brushes are useful here to “paint” on a little of the vinaigrette. Use too much and the acidity in the dressing will wilt the greens.
Tweezers are your friend. There will always be an errant piece of chive or the curl of a piece of arugula that is not quite right. It’s hard to pick those pieces out with your fingers and not disturb everything. Hence the tweezers.
Garnish dishes with complementary ingredients. Herbs, salt, pepper, powdered sugar, or nuts add another layer of texture to your image.
Food styling should be natural and uncomplicated. Resist the temptation to over-style a dish. You want food that looks good enough to eat, not so pretty that you wouldn’t want to touch it. The goal is to have viewers feel that they could pull up a chair to the table and dig in.
Pascale Beale grew up in England and France, where she learned classical French culinary techniques from her grandmother, and Provençal-Mediterranean cooking from her mother. She is an award-winning columnist for Edible Santa Barbara, and the author of nine cookbooks. Encouraged and inspired by her friendships with Julia Child, Michel Richard and Alain Giraud, in 1999 she founded Pascale’s Kitchen, a Santa Barbara, California-based cooking school devoted to California-Mediterranean cuisine. In addition to her classes, she has an IGTV and YouTube Cooking Channel. Find her recipes and online store at www.pascaleskitchen.com and weekly live classes on Instagram at @pascaleskitchen.