How does Food Styling for Photos work, 35 Tips & Tricks

Silvain • updated June 25, 2022 • 10 min read

Food styling explained

Food styling is the art of arranging food so it looks good on camera and looks fresh during the photoshoot. It involves making food look perfect so it can be photographed for things like social media, advertisement, etc. 

Good food photography depends on a lot of things, like your photography skills, how well you use light, how much you know about cooking, etc. But one of the most essential skills is one that people don’t always think about: how to style food.


 

How does the process of styling food look like?

Select the ingredients wisely

When you’re going to take a picture of a dish instead of just eating it, the way the ingredients look is a lot more significant. Not everything has to be picture-perfect, but if you’re going to show off raw ingredients, look for ones that are clean and have good shapes.

  • If you want to buy fruits and vegetables, you should go to a farmer’s market, where you can usually find more options, like the plums above, which come in different colors.
  • As for meat, we recommend buying it from a trusted butcher. For example, countless packages of chicken drums or rib-eye may look fine behind the plastic, but they often have poorly trimmed or rough edges that can affect the look of the finished dish.

Make your own food stylist tool kit

Want to take your food styling to the next level? Below is a list of things that can help.

  • Sharp knife
    With a sharp knife, you can make cuts that are even and precise.
  • Several brushes: Brushes are great for removing dust, and powdery ingredients, or even moving liquids and droplets. We recommend buying quality brushes, they will definitely last longer.
  • Small scissors
    Scissors can be used to trim edges, make stencils for cakes, or do simple things like cut a piece of parchment paper to the right size. We also like small scissors as they can fit into tight places and do the more delicate moves that are often needed to make things look just right.
  • Ruler
    We use a ruler when we need to measure distances between things.
  • Tweezers
    As a food stylist, you often have to move around and simply place small things. It’s delicate work! We like tweezers because the curved tips let us put things right where we want them.
  • A offset spatula: You can use a spatula to perfectly smooth out sauces or frosting.
  • Toothpicks
    This little helper is great to hold items in place. 
  • Wire
    Simple wire to attached pieces or hold them in place
  • Double sided tape
    very useful to keep cloth or other things flat

Best Lenses for taking pictures of food

Top food photographers prefer to use full-frame DSLR cameras with one of the following lenses:

  • 35mm  f/1.8
  • 50mm f/1.8 24
  • 85mm f/1.8

Every photographer has his or her own favorites, but the mentioned lenses give you nice, sharp pictures and gorgeous bokeh around your food. Also, look for macro features because you will likely be getting close to your topic. Read more about lenses for food photography.

Storytelling

A food stylist’s job is not to just make food look tasty; it’s also to make it come to life.

Ask yourself;

  • “Are you putting together a fancy restaurant dish?”
  • “Is it a meal for the entire family?” 
  • “Is it a dinner for two?”

In other words, try to make sure your props, colors, and setting match the mood you want to create with the dish.

Plan first and get ready

When planning your food, try to imagine how it will turn out. If you are making a cheesecake, try to imagine how you want it to look and how you will serve it.

Whether you want to take a picture of it in a cheesecake (in which case you’ll need to find an interesting cheesecake recipe and make sure the topping is perfect) or serve it on a white porcelain plate.

Keep it simple and relevant

Keep your prop usage to a minimal level. Try not to use more than 3–4 props besides your hero plate. Make sure that the props you use fit the situation and tell a story about the dish that is being served.

For example, a vintage cheese grater, a block of cheese, and a napkin can be placed next to a dish of pasta.

A peach ice cream can have either a few peach slices or a whole fresh peach next to it, along with a picturesque knife and an ice cream scoop. With a metal turner as a prop, a stir-fry noodle dish can be captured on camera in the wok itself.

Neutral Colours

Choose white, black, grey, darkish blue, or beige plates, bowls, or pots to photograph your food in. The color theory for food photography is a good staring point.

  • Keep in mind that they have a matte finish to keep light from reflecting off of them.
  • Use cutlery with a satin finish to avoid unnecessary reflections in the picture.
  • Use color to set a mood and remind people of the seasons.
  • White and neutral colors that are light and airy for spring and summer dishes, and neutral colors that are dark and earthy for fall and winter dishes.

Composition and the rule of thirds

Imagine that your shooting area is made up of a 3×3 grid with two horizontal and two vertical lines. Place your subject at one of the four intersections or in the top or bottom thirds of the screen.

Make sure that square and rectangular objects, like containers and platters, are set up diagonally when you want to take a picture of them. Read more about the composition rules.

Framing and structure

When you’re taking a picture of an antipasti dish or canapes with a lot of different parts, it’s a good idea to structure your dish by putting all the parts on a tray, big plate, serving board, or even a piece of baking paper or newspaper that has been cut in half. This helps calm down how busy the picture is.

  • Framing is also a great tactic to use when the appearance of the meal and the surface have the same color.
  • Putting a frame around the food breaks up the smooth surface and helps make the food stand out.

Light sources and scene-setting

Always use natural light from the outside. Find your main source of light and make sure it’s a window with soft light coming in. Don’t shoot when the sun is too bright. The optimal time to shoot is first thing in the morning or a few hours before sunset.

  • Top-down shot
    Set up your scenario on a table or other flat surface.
  • Angled shot
    Place your table against a plain wall or another backdrop.
    If it gets too much, think it over.

Style can do amazing things until it doesn’t. We recommend not using too many props or thinking too much about your scene. Even if you can put another napkin, fork, or decoration in the frame, that doesn’t mean you need to.

When space gets so full of things that the eye doesn’t know where to look, it’s time to take a step back and make it less cluttered. Also, there’s really nothing wrong with trying out new things.

Food photography is more than just taking pictures of food. Professional stylists are an important part of making photos look as appetizing as possible.

35 food styling tips and tricks to improve your food photography

1. Natural sunlight

Try to put your table near the window or use natural light that comes in from other places to light your food. The ideal time of day will depend on where your home is, but try to shoot with natural light that is soft and even around noon.

2. Don’t make portions too big

Think about the composition of your food photos in the same way you would think about the mat around a picture. The white space around your dish makes it stand out, kind of like a frame.

When it comes to style, try to keep your shot as simple as possible and leave a lot of space around the plate.

3. Decorating with Add-Ons

When a dish is very simple, like a beige bowl of oatmeal or a creamy white bowl of yogurt, use garnishes to make it look nice. To make things more interesting, use cut fruit, herbs, flowers, nuts, seeds, and other things with different textures. Look at the list of ingredients in the recipe for ideas.

4. Make the dish stand out

Assure that your dish is the star on the table, in terms of size and scale compared to the other items in the scene. This makes the main dish stand out right away to be a #foodporn winner on Instagram.

5. This makes the main dish stand out right away

If you put white rice in a colorful bowl or styled ice cream on a black countertop, both will instantly look better. Pick serving dishes that are a different color than what you’re putting on them. You can do the same thing with tablecloths and counters.

6. Keep the crumbs

When you cut bread and crumbs fall onto the plate, don’t pick them up. It’s always a good idea to sprinkle a little bit of each ingredient around the edges of your frame.

For example, if you make chocolate chip cookies, leave clusters of chocolate chips around the edges of your photo. This makes it easy for the eye to move around the picture without taking away from the main meal.

7. Silverware and napkins

Put your silverware down as if you were already going to eat. To add contrast, bunch up a linen napkin around the plate in a gentle way.

8. Mixed drinks and cocktails

  • One of the hardest things to style can be a drink. Since ice melts quickly, you should bring fake ice with you in your tool set.
  • Also, glassware may cause reflections, so keep that in mind when you’re setting up.
  • We suggest you use a simple glass of water to set up your lighting and test your reflections and light sources.
  • When shooting tea or coffee, make sure to use backlighting to show off the steam coming off the glass. You can still add steam to your photos after they are taken if you can’t see the steam.

9. Fruits and Vegetables

  • Fruits and vegetables are perfect for getting your creative eye going. Photos with bright colors are more interesting.
  • Try to group them together, and don’t forget to add more than you might think you need at first. This will make the arrangement look full and fresh.
  • Salad can be hard to photograph, so many professional food stylists put mashed potatoes under a pile of spinach to make them look more full and alive.
  • Make sure to add some color to your salad by slicing ripe tomatoes or pomegranates that are bright red.

10. Play with props

If your image doesn’t work and you don’t know why, remove the props one by one and try again before adding more. When we use too many things at once, they often end up fighting with each other and making a mess.

Take away the things that don’t belong and work on the composition before you add more things. If you have no props jet, check out important props for beginners.

11. Angle variations

You won’t use the same angle to take a picture of a pizza and a burger. A top-down shot of a burger isn’t very interesting, and a straight-on shot of a pizza won’t work unless it has a lot of toppings.

When you plan your shot, think about what angle will show off your food the best. The overhead shot(flat lay) is a very popular one.

12. Under-ripe fruits and vegetables

Don’t try to find an avocado that is just right for your shoot. Choose one that is just a little bit under-ripe so that it keeps its shape, is easier to work with, and doesn’t turn into guacamole right away.

13. Under-cooked is good

A little under-cooked food will look better because it will keep more moisture and won’t look dry or mushy. Make sure to take it out of the heat a few minutes before it is due. You can always cook it more when it’s time to eat.

14. Color temperature

Light has a color temperature, and depending on the time of day, it can look bluer or more yellow. When you photograph and edit, keep this in mind. In general, a blue temperature makes you feel clean and fresh, while a yellow temperature makes you feel cozy and comfortable.

15. Cut food into various shapes

If you like to use lemons in your photo, keep in mind to cut several lemons into slices, one into wedges, and one into halves. Then, to make your shot more interesting, use the variations of those shapes.

16. Stay away from busy patterns

Avoid busy patterns when choosing your backdrops and props. They will take attention away from the real story, which is the food.

17. Combining textures

This is a big part of how people see you. You can make an interesting picture by combining different textures, like the smoothness of a napkin with the fluffiness of a pancake. You can add more texture to your set by scattering blossom petals on it.

18. Add depth to your photos 

When you’re styling a scene, make sure that all the different parts are at different distances from the camera. If you put them all in one line, the frame will look very flat.

But when your elements are in different places in the frame, you give it a lot of depth and make it very interesting.

19. Make grill and charcoal marks

You can give the food you’re photographing charcoal or even grill marks. With a crème brûlée torch, you can burn your food to make it crisp or cook it a little more. You can also add grill marks to food with an electric charcoal starter.

20. Make it a bit of a mess

Keep in mind that not all food photos have to be perfect. Add some mess or crumbs on purpose, like the sprinkles on a birthday cupcake. Sprinkles add  atmosphere and make the whole scene look more festive.

21. Pick the right mood

Setting the mood for your dish ahead of time is important so you can get all your props ready. Most recipes will tell you how to set the mood.

For example, a winter dish like a soup works best with relatively warm props, lighting, and styling. In the same way, a salad or smoothie goes well with a lighter, brighter setting.

22. Work in progress

Try to set up a few pictures while the food is cooking. For example, you can make a composition out of raw materials. You could also make a piece that shows how the food cools down after it comes out of the oven.

And feel free to think outside the box. You don’t have to style the food on a regular table. Instead, you can work with the food on the stove-top or even in the oven.

Just remember to use the techniques I’ve talked about in this article, and you’ll get great results no matter where you work.

23. Look for ideas all the time.

Reading cookbooks and food magazines is a great way to get ideas for styling. Just flip through and make notes about what looks good and what doesn’t. Don’t copy them exactly, but make a list of ideas you might want to try in the future.

24. Coffee with soy sauce

Most coffee smells good, looks good, and tastes good. The problem is that when it’s photographed, it often looks greasy, which isn’t very appealing. Soy sauce, brown sauce, and a little gelatin can be used to perk it up. Most likely, the amount of caffeine will be close to zero.

25. Perfect color chicken

Whether you’re roasting a turkey or a chicken, everyone wants the skin to be golden. In reality, to get the perfect picture, the meat is rarely cooked all the way through. Instead, the skin is lightly steamed instead of roasted, and a little paint or varnish is put on it to make it shine. Teak furniture varnish is just perfect.

26. Make the steam in post

Taking a picture of food that is good enough for a billboard can take a day or more. It takes time, and food gets cold fast. Soups and pies, which are hot, are often photographed cold, and the swirls of steam are added later.

27. Frosted glasses made of glycerin

Need a soft drink with just a good amount of condensation dripping off of it? Or a cold beer that can’t be missed? Just spray some deodorant on the glass and put small dots of glycerin on it to make it look like those refreshing beads. If you want to add fizz, sprinkle some antacid powder in.

28. Plastic ice cubes

In the world of food styling, you can’t beat the heat, whether it’s ice cream or glasses with frost on them. Take out the real ice cubes for fake ones made of clear plastic. Now you have plenty of time for the shoot.

29. Vaseline margaritas

Margaritas are a great way to start a party, but they are harder to photograph. To keep its shape during the shoot, the usual lime and salt rim is often replaced with a thin layer of vaseline and salt.

30. Tacos with sponges

When a food stylist wants the taco to remain open to show off its delicious contents, the food doesn’t always want to play ball. But if you put little sponges on the inside and spoon the filling on top, the taco will stand up nicely.

31. Cereal with white glue

Taking a shot of cereal for breakfast? Milk quickly makes the cereal look soggy on camera. How to fix it? If you mix white PVC glue with water to make it look like milk, that cereal will still look perfectly puffed.

32. Hidden burger scaffolding

More than just the meat needs to be thought about when shooting burgers. A photographer can get nice layers by placing cardboard and toothpicks like hidden scaffolding. 

33. Steamed cotton balls

One of the most well-known tricks used to make food look like it’s hot. A wet ball of cotton wool is put in the microwave and then put into the food. It has been said that wet tampons keep the steam for longer. All of a sudden, steam is rising from the dish.

34. Blowtorch shiny cake

When the chocolate cools down or is taken out of the fridge, it usually loses its shine and shine. With a quick sweep of a cook’s blow torch, you can get that sheen look back. Chefs also use this method.

35. How do Smartphones Work

When using a smartphone to take a picture, take the shot with both hands. Do not use the flash. Make sure you’re wearing neutral colors like white or black so that your shadow doesn’t show up on the food or plates.

Top-down shots work best for bowls and platters that hold soups, smoothies, and roasts. Pizza, cakes, drinks, and desserts in glasses work best at an angle.

 


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By Furoore team member Silvain

Silvain is a French/German national and has been with the Furoore Team since the beginning. He likes to write about various photography themes, especially food photography. If you leave a comment, he will come back to you to answer any questions you may have.

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