Food styling is something that I’ve struggled to learn the basics of over the short time I’ve been food blogging. Unlike the more precise, technical aspects of photography, like learning to use the manual settings on your camera, food styling relies a lot on gut instinct, practice, and a lot of trial and error.
So, rather than giving you a prescriptive lesson on styling your food photos, I thought I would take you on a journey of what styling looks like on a blog shoot in my little studio. (Hint: get ready for a lot of trial and error!)
I often start thinking about what I want my photos to look like as I’m making (or even before I’ve made) the food I’m going to photograph. I think about the story I want the photos to tell: Why have I made this food? When would I eat it? What would I eat it with? What feelings does eating this dish invoke for me?
I had already decided, with this pistachio, cardamom and honey granola recipe, that I wanted to convey a warm, brightly lit breakfast: feelings of coziness and relaxation would abound in this series of photos. I first chose a bowl for my granola – one that, to me, looked down-to-earth and everyday.
You can imagine how the look and feel of my granola shoot would change if I used a more modern, clean-looking bowl and linen, like this:
I also started to play around with linens and backdrops. When starting out with food styling, it’s a great idea to begin collecting some linens, backdrops and dishes that you like. The fabric store is a great place to get swatches that look like napkins: I often use quilt scraps in lieu of buying actual table linens. Antique stores are a goldmine of cutlery and dishes. Using well-worn, matte cutlery is a trick of the trade: shiny spoons and forks reflect light, and sometimes even the image of you taking the picture! Try to look for smaller dishes as well: I often plate my food on side plates so that I’m better able to get the entire dish into the frame of my photograph. As for backdrops, I hit up my local hardware store and got some interconnecting wood panelling which I painted different colours. A few large tiles are a great choice as well, as they can look like a countertop in a tightly framed photo.
So, thinking that I definitely wanted to go with my white panelled backdrop, I started playing around with linens. In the first photo, you can see I experimented with a monochromatic look, using the beige linen. Then I used my trusty colour wheel and wondered if a blue linen would contrast and bring out the brown in the plate and food. Still not happy, I changed the entire look, using a large piece of grey tile and a grey linen napkin, and had an aha moment.
What do you think? Would you have made a different choice?
I usually start with a nice tight shot of the food that I’m photographing. Then I start adding in various props to richen the photo and help me to tell a story about the food. Here’s a word to the wise: many food photographers, when they’re first starting out, get really really close to their food, trying to capture all the beautiful details in the dish. While this can generate some beautiful images, you want to make sure you back away from your food enough so that your viewer knows what they’re looking at.
By way of adding in props, I started with a latte in an earthenware mug I chose for the way it paired with the brown stripe around the bowl. The simple addition of a drink to your image is a great first prop to experiment with. (Tip: because beautifully aerated milk in a latte tends to liquefy again after sitting for a few minutes, I actually did all of my linen and backdrop experimenting, as well as my initial food-only shots, before making the latte. Timing is everything!)
I didn’t like where I initially placed the mug, so I moved it. Here’s a lesson in photo composition: you want to create “movement” in your photo, or a way to cause your viewer’s eye to move across the photo, taking in details as it goes. In the photo below, my eye starts by looking at the bulk of the granola at the bottom of the bowl, then follows the spoon, arcing towards the top left of the photo before crossing over to the latte and back around to the granola. In the photo above, I just felt like the photo’s movement didn’t appeal to me as much.
What do you think? Would you have moved the latte?
I chose to make granola for this tutorial because it’s kind of an “ugly” food: brown, somewhat uniform in appearance – the kind of food that is notoriously difficult to create beautiful photographs with. That’s why I chose to style this granola in a bowl with yogurt, honey and a sprinkling of pepitas. A simple jar of granola risks looking a bit drab, but adding green seeds, white yogurt, and caramel-coloured honey creates visual interest as well as telling more of a story about how I would eat the granola. This scene plants me immediately in an imaginary world where I eat a leisurely breakfast on a sun-dappled table. (Maybe I could have even added the corner of a newspaper in the photo, to make it look like I actually had time to read the news!) If the idea of pistachio, cardamom and honey granola wasn’t appealing enough to make me want to try this recipe or keep reading this blog, then perhaps I can captivate my viewers with the imaginary world into which I’ve invited them. Especially, if they’re like me, they are are actually balancing a toddler in their lap and making a play dough snake with the other hand while shovelling this granola in their faces before rushing the kids out the door.
The most obvious prop in your food styling is always the food itself. Try saving a few of the individual ingredients for the food you’ve made and place them around the dish as a way to enrich your photo. This is especially effective if the food you’re featuring is something quite homogenous-looking, like granola, where each individual ingredient isn’t always decipherable in the photo.
My next move was to add the jar of granola, to see how that affected the look and feel of my photos. I started with the jar upright…
And then I tipped it over and spilled some, carefully ensuring that the angle of the jar and the spilled granola contributed to the movement of the photo. See how your eye tracks from the bottom, follows the spoon handle up toward the latte, jumps over to the jar, and follows the granola back down to the bowl?
What do you think? Do you prefer the simpler photos with just the granola, or the ones with a few other props added in? Usually, in my blog posts, I like a mixture of both. But some blogs, like Faux Martha, for example, stick to simple backdrops with minimal propping to create beautiful, food-centric images. Thinking about and responding to the kinds of photos that you like to look at the most is your first step along the way to cultivating a food photography style that is all your own.
My next task was to try a few different angles. Though this isn’t necessarily a food styling technique, trying to shoot from a variety of angles changes the way your props look in the frame, and can create a more interesting image.
Which angles do you like best?
Then, finally, I tried to add a bit of dynamism into my photo by scooping up a bit of granola and yogurt, to make it look like I was mid-way through eating my breakfast. I tried to add in my hand holding the spoon, but had a bit of a hard time getting the angle right, so I left it as is.
And that, my friends, was a wrap. Though I’ve shown you many of the photographs I took as I navigated the process of styling my granola shoot, I would probably only use two or three in my actual blog post.
Which photos would you pick? What would you have done differently? As you can see, the same person photographing the same granola might make completely different food styling choices. There’s no right or wrong way to style a food photograph, only your way.
And, because I hope I’ve thoroughly enticed you with these photos, here is the recipe for the granola.
Food Photography 101: The Series
Part 1: Lighting
Part 2: Lenses
Part 3: You are here!
This article was written by Jessie.