Look, I won’t lie to you. When I first started my blog, my photographs and styling were horrendous. So bad, in fact, that I have constant cringe moments that some of those images are still on the blog (psst…they’re all the way at the back so don’t bother going to look for them. No really, don’t!). And by no means am I calling myself a food styling and photography expert but I think I’ve learnt a whole heck of a lot over the last 5 years of playing with my food and that’s why I’ve decided to give you a few tips for basic food styling for food bloggers. Tips that I’ve picked up from doing both commercial and editorial styling for loads of different campaigns and of course also styling for Simply Delicious and my cook books.
#1 Use small plates and bowls.
When you style food, it can often drown on a huge big dinner plate. If you, for instance, are styling fish cakes. Putting 3 fish cakes on a dinner plate (like you might when you are serving dinner for your family) would make the fish cakes look teeny tiny and rather insipid. But style them on a smaller plate with a lemon wedge, some fresh herbs and perhaps even a little bowl of dipping sauce ON the plate, will make the plate look full and abundant. The same goes with bowls. Using a huge bowl for ice cream will mean that you will need to empty the entire container of ice cream into the bowl to make it look nice, using a smaller bowl will require 2-3 neat scoops and will look a lot more appetising (especially when topped with a drizzle of caramel or chocolate and some chopped nuts).
#2 Think about the “ooo yum” factor of your food
When you are browsing Pinterest there are so many images of food that you often just scroll right over them. But every now and then you come across an image that makes you go “oooh Yum! I want that, like now!” That is exactly the reaction you want from your readers. You don’t want them to go “Oh, pretty plate and styling but the food looks meh.” Always remember that food styling is about FOOD. The focus should be on the food and about making your readers drool on their keyboards. I always try to include at least one close up image of the texture of a crispy piece of chicken or the dripping of caramel. Yes, I love all the pretty props but I want people to want to cook and eat the food, not admire the plate.
#3 Choose the mood
Whenever I conceptualise a new dish, I of course, think about the recipe first but immediately after I start thinking about the styling and photography. Most recipes will dictate the mood, for instance something wintery and comforting like a stew or curry works best with warmer, homier styling, props and lighting. In the same way, a salad or a smoothie suits a lighter, brighter set-up. It’s important to establish the mood for your dish beforehand so you can get all your props and surfaces together before you’re ready to shoot.
#4 Choose your props
Choosing props and the surface (and background) I’m going to shoot with is probably my favourite part of styling. First of all, having a prop cupboard means I get to shop for props and you never have to ask me twice to go shopping. But mostly I love that I get to tell a story through the props and styling of a recipe. I prefer plain, matte plates and bowls but I do have a few patterned pieces that work with certain dishes. I also really love working with vintage silverware, baking tins and glasses. It’s also important to remember that the story gets completed by ingredients/drinks that compliment your dish. Tacos, pizza, burgers and sandwiches all work so well with a few glasses/bottles of beer in the background while pasta, risotto, stews and soups look lovely with a goblet or two of wine. Fresh herbs, finely sliced/chopped chillies, lemon/lime cheeks or a bowl of a side dish will add a lot of ‘body’ to your photo. Small bowls of salt and pepper always add texture and colour while fabric can often just finish everything off. I prefer using muslin or raw linen which gives lovely texture and have an array of colours that I get to play with.
When it comes to surfaces, I love scratched metals, dark tiles and rustic wooden surfaces and backgrounds. I often also use fabric and large pieces of cardboard. My husband (he of many talents) has made me numerous surfaces from reclaimed palettes which we’ve painted in a number of colours. I often go to Tile warehouses and buy single tiles in colours/patterns that I like. They usually sell them for really cheap and that way you can build up your collection relatively easily.
#5 Embrace the light
Chris discussed this in length in his photography post so I’ll just touch on a few details here. Lighting is incredibly important in all photography but with food it is absolutely vital. It’s also important to remember that shadows can be a really great prop and can add a lot of depth and texture to a photo. Darker shadows usually suit wintery/comfort foods better while using a reflector to diffuse shadows work better on the lighter recipes.
#6 Keep it fresh
Often with food photography you lose the lustre of the food. Meat dries out, salads can look a bit wilted but that’s where a stylist’s kit comes in. These are things that I first started using when I did commercial styling for big companies and I had to have roasts look amazing even though they’ve been standing around for a few hours. That’s where a brush and cooking juices come in. Brushing the meat with a little of its own cooking juices does wonders. When you’ve cooked steak that hasn’t been marinated, using a mixture of beef extract/beef stock concentrate, a little soy sauce and a few drops of angostura bitters is magic. It doesn’t affect the taste a lot and will make the steak look juicy and moist (this works equally well with burgers). But in all honestly, I’ve never needed to do that with my blog because I shoot the food relatively quickly. When it comes to salads or fresh vegetables, a spritzer bottle filled with water can give it a lot of life and make it look beautifully fresh. A spritzer also works really well for drinks with ice in them. It gives the glass that condensation-look which adds lovely texture and that “ooh-yum” factor to your photo.
#7 Choose your angle
Choosing your angle can make or break a food photo. Firstly, let me say that I photograph ALL of my recipes from every possible angle. I start low and move higher and higher until I’m looking straight down. This way I capture every element of the recipe and all its accoutrement. There are certain dishes, however, that just beg for a certain angle. Burgers, for instance, just don’t work when shot straight down as you lose all the layers, texture and colours. It’s best to shoot it head on so that you capture every layer. A pizza or salad on the other hand works well when shot straight down so you see all the toppings. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get a killer shot from the side though.
#8 Choose your focus
Usually you’ll focus on the main subject but it’s fun to add a few extra photos in your blog post where the focus is on the other elements in the photo. For instance, when you are shooting a sandwich and it has a special mayo/sauce, focusing on a bowl of that behind the sandwich will add interest. I also enjoy playing with the placement of my subject. I’ve recently started playing around with empty space in my photos so will often shoot only half of a dish and leave quite a bit of space open. This is why it’s fun to write a food blog. You get to play and experiment and figure out the style you like the most.
#9 Embrace the elements of art
Food styling and photography is an art and when you create art, you need to know the basics. Creating texture in your photos, using colour, making sure there’s balance in your photo, these are all important things to keep in mind.
Texture is created by the surface and props you use but can also be accentuated by the actual food and added elements like sea salt flakes sprinkled on the plate (and surface if you’re like me) or a few herbs casually placed on and around the food.
Colour is of utmost importance in food photography. Often a dull-looking stew, curry or soup can be transformed with a sprinkle of fresh coriander or some chopped chillies. Colour can also be accentuated or mirrored in the props you choose. Familiarise yourself with the colour wheel to really make the most of using colour in your photographs.
Balance, to me, is really just about creating a photo that is easy to look at. Making sure the props aren’t all squished together or too far apart, making sure there’s just enough in the photo and not too much. Food images can often look very cluttered and that’s where I like to follow the “less is more” rule. You want your images to be pleasant to look at and that’s where balance comes in.
#10 Play with your food
Through playing with my food I have learnt what I like and what I don’t like in creating food photos. By being adventurous I’ve formed a style of my own, even though I think it’s constantly evolving. In some photos I have a lot of props and elements, in others the only thing in the photo is the finished dish. My blog is my space to play, create and have fun. If I feel like changing the style of my photos completely, I can. It might not work but who cares? As long as you’re having fun, change your style as much as you can and embrace new techniques. You’ll soon find the style that suits you best and then you can polish it and perfect it.