blogging, behind the scenes: styling food for photography

Posted on Aug 20, 2011 in Career

Missed the other entries in the Blogging, Behind the Scenes series? Check them out here.

We’ve officially made it into the land of photography, my friends!

I consider my blog to be photo-centric, which means I don’t think I’ve ever had a single BTHR post without some sort of photography attached. I am a deeply visual person (that Fine Arts degree wasn’t by chance) and I think the visual of a blog or website is as important, if not more important, than the words written on the page screen. In fact, when I’m looking for blogs to add to my Google Reader, I first scroll through a few posts to see the amount of and types of photos. If there aren’t any photos (or if they are particularly bad), then I won’t read and there is no need to add the blog to my RSS reader. I know a lot of people don’t focus on photos, and that’s fine! But I’m personally a fan of the blogs that do.

So keeping in mind my love of a good photo, please excuse me if I spread the photography info out over a few different BBTS posts. I have a lot to say about this topic and I want to make sure I get it all out there. Even with multiple posts, I can guarantee these suckers are going to be long!

Also, a word of warning—I am just an amateur. I have no food styling experience or photography training. I’m just learning as I go. I actually think that’s how most bloggers are. I am fortunate enough to have a professional photographer at my beck-and-call 24/7 (hi Babyface!), but I take 99% of the photos on my blog myself without much direction from the Babyface. Although he is there to lend a shutter finger when photos need to be taken of yours truly. Self-portraits are not my strong suit.

Before I ever click the shutter, I style my food. A technically great photo means nothing if the colors, composition and food aren’t appealing. I actually think learning how to style food is more important than owning the hottest new DSLR camera or the most expensive lens. Good food styling can take you a very long way.

For the vast majority of my photos, the styling includes three parts:

  • Backdrop: the background fill of the photo frame.
  • Props: items relating to the dish that are “sprinkled” around and also the dishes and utensils.
  • The Actual Food: how the physical foodstuffs look and any garnishes.

I’ll dig into each one of these in-depth, but before I start, I want to talk a smidge about basic design principles. I’m not about to write a post with the information that cost my parents $80,000 in college tuition for me to learn, but I will say that a basic understanding of design principles helps me tremendously in styling food. Here is a nice resource for leaning the basic principles of design. While you’re at it, check out this resource for a quick and dirty rundown of combining colors.

Let’s move onto my steps.

Backdrop

My backdrops almost always have two elements: a base piece and an accent piece. In the past, I shot all my food on a green formica backdrop, which I thought was fun, interesting and a little bit retro. But, the green color had a really negative effect on look of some food once it was captured on the camera. So I switched to shooting on a piece of plywood painted with chalkboard paint (that Babyface made for me). The dark color helps to food really pop and doesn’t distract. Plus the chalkboard is great for listing ingredients or just having a bit of fun. Changing to a black backdrop was one of the best decisions I ever made for the quality of my photos.

The second part of the backdrop is the accent. This is where the fun comes in! I have a pretty ridiculous collection of placemats. When you just buy one at a time (as opposed to four or more like “normal” folks), it is pretty economical. Almost all of my placemats I purchased for $1 or less. I also sometimes just use a piece of fabric, but that requires ironing and that’s a lot of work.

I choose the placemat based on the colors and feeling of a dish. To determine the “feeling” of a dish, I play the adjective game. Which is where I ask myself to come up with five adjectives to describe the dish. Then, once I have those, I think about fabric that gives me the same feeling. Here are some examples:

  • Apple Pie: traditional, conservative, sweet, homey, comfortable (blue gingham fabric)
  • Salsa: spicy, exotic, colorful, fresh, summer (colorful stripe placemat)
  • Beef Stew: cozy, hearty, rich, warm, winter (dark bamboo placemat)

I layer the accent on top of the base piece and then begin the next part, the props.

Props

I know a lot of people think long and hard about their props, but in all honesty, my props are just what I’m using to actually make and/or set up the dish. I think they make for the best and most authentic photos! For example, after I’ve scooped out a bowl of pina colada sorbet, I don’t put the ice cream scoop in the sink, I place it in the photo. And if I’m baking, I keep all the dirty measuring cups and spoons around for photo props. And if I’ve used lemon juice in the recipe, I keep my squeezed lemon half hanging around. No need to over think it. The process of cooking and serving the food always gives me plenty of props.

When it comes to the actual plates, bowls and utensils, I tend to use white dishes and silver utensils. Again, just like with the green backdrop, I feel like colorful dishes detract from the food a lot of times. The only time I don’t follow this “rule” is if the food itself is monochrome. See that pina colada sorbet up there? Painfully boring if it was just scooped into a white bowl. But the lime green bowl feels tropical and…lime-y. I do frequently put some sort of colorful dish as charger or saucer just to add some interest, but I like to keep the colorful dinnerware away from the actual food.

When it comes to utensils, I think scale is hugely important (pun intended). I think normal-sized spoons and forks actually tend to look oversized in photographs. So I use tiny ones (that I get from Crate and Barrel). Bonus, they help you take smaller bites and savor your food more slowly. :)

The Actual Food

This part was the hardest for me to get when I first started photographing food. The way you would normally eat something does not actually make for the best photography a lot of times. And styling food for a great photo, can make for uncomfortable eating. A great bowl of banana soft serve for photography is filled to the brim and dripping with delicious toppings. A great bowl of banana soft serve to eat has plenty of room for your spoon and scooping. In fact, I almost always dump my food into a larger bowl/plate/cup after photographing it.

Other than overfilling, one of the easiest ways I make my food look great in photos is to add a garnish. It is so simple and so quick, but a lot of people forget to garnish. Not only can you add visual interest and color, but you can also hint at the contents of the dish. Garnish adds variety and texture to a photograph and it also gives the camera a great focal point.

Even if I don’t do anything else, and am in a rush to get a photo, I add a touch of garnish. It can easily take a plate from hum-drum dinner to restaurant-quality with a slice of citrus, a sprig of cilantro or a drizzle of chocolate.

The last thing I always do when styling the actual food is to get messy. It seems counter intuitive, but a little bit of controlled mess can make a dish look exciting and authentic. Too neat isn’t real! I always make sure to sprinkle a little bit of garnish here and there to give it that “lived in” feel. I drizzle my sauce too wide, keep crumbs around and sprinkle on herbs too violently. And much to Puppyface’s joy, I almost always get some on the floor.

So there is my process for styling food. Sheesh, that was long. :P I’ll try to be more brief with the remainder of my photography write-ups. Next up? You’ll learn about my camera, the lighting and the lenses I use.


Do you tend to like highly styled food photography or plain and simple ones?

I’m generally somewhere in the middle, but sometimes a super simple photo is all you need (like for Nutella chocolate cake).

16 Comments

  1. I think something that is always strong about your photos is your attention to lighting as well. It may seem like an obvious choice to place your set up by beautiful window lighting, but I feel like I come across so many “food photographers” that have a beautiful set up, but it’s in tungsten lighting or something sad like that.

    I’ve actually been doing more and more research on food photography lately because my interest in cooking has skyrocketed in the past year. I think I make some nice looking dishes, but the only thing I’ve found time for is taking a quick snapshot with my phone to give a quick share. Funny, you’d think with my BFA photo degree I’d be more attentive to how I photograph my food.

    Anyway, with all of the sites that I’ve looked at with food photography, I’d say that you do just as well as people who style and photograph food for a living. And you’re so right about blogs that have good photography. This is why your blog is one of my favorites. It’s so visual, and I’m always so eager to see how you approach your blog topic photographically. Keep it up! :-)

    • Thanks Valerie! I’ll definitely get to lighting more in the next “episode” of the series. Natural light is imperative for food photography!
      And your compliments mean a lot. Your photos totally rock and I always feel super amateurish considering I’ve never taken a single photo class.

  2. I love all of your photos. You are the blogger that inspired me to make my own blog more photo-centric. I just cooked my first true recipe that I took photos as I cooked. I will be posting it on my blog soon. The only thing that frustrates me is I don’t have any way to photograph my food in natural light with the way my house is designed.

    Keep up the great work! I look forward to your posts every day :)

    • Do you have any room in the house with natural light? Because I think using natural light is super important! I know some of the “big” bloggers (like Jenna at Eat Live Run take their food to another room. I think she carries hers to a spare bedroom to get good lighting. I’m lucky the dining room, which is right off my of kitchen, has good light.

      Looking forward to seeing your recipe with photos! :)

  3. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve recently started taking pictures of the food my husband and I make. There are some pretty yummy things in that kitchen, but the photos rarely look appetizing. So I’m currently on the look out for great tips on how to fix that.

    I see a lot of people with white backgrounds and never thought about choosing black instead. It looks great! Do you think other neutral colors like creams and browns would work too or is black the way to go?

    • I think any neutral color will work, but because I use so much light-colored dishware, I like the black. I think my “style” tends to be a bit more dark and vibrant. The creams and browns would just look warmer. :)

  4. I’ve seen background boards in a few different blogs now and I think I’m going to talk to Ed about helping me put one together. I just need to figure out what I want it to look like!

    And natural light is a huge issue for me. I seem to have trouble finding a spot with great light that isn’t too bright, or one that doesn’t have too many shadows. I have a little point-and-shoot but I get halfway decent photos by accident, so I’m hoping with a little more effort I could get better ones.

    In the winter when natural light is at a premium, what do you do?

    • If you look at the picture of my table/background board, you’ll see that I have sheers over that window. 90% of the time I shoot with those pulled close to diffuse the light. That’s a West facing window and, unless it is completely overcast, the light from that window is way too harsh. But my $2 sheers from the K-mart clearance bin work perfectly!

      I’ll be writing a whole post on lighting, too. But in the winter, I do the vast majority of my cooking and photography on the weekends when I still have access to daylight. And for when I can’t, I have daylight bulbs installed in my kitchen, and in a little clamp light. They look kinda nasty and blue in person, but when you set your camera’s white balance to “Cloudy” they mimic daylight as closely as any light I’ve ever seen. I’m still not very good at shooting with natural light, but I hope to get a lot better this winter.

  5. thanks cassie for sharing this. i too am learning food photography and i hope you don’t mind if i use some of your tips.

    very helpful and informative.

    • Glad to help! :)

  6. Thanks for posting this. I feel like my photography has improved leaps and bounds once I started focusing. I bought a photoshop book, Photoshop (obviously) and a DSLR, fun tea towels, and the change is unbelievable. I am embarrassed by how my photos used to look, and I’m sure in another few weeks with even more practice I’ll be embarrassed at how they look now. I feel the same as you – if a blog has poor quality photos I leave, so that’s what made me think “people are probably leaving my blog because my photos are crap” and it was a kick in the pants to step it up! Thanks for the tips on props – this will be another useful tip in my progression!

    • I am totally embarrassed at how my old photos look! I want to go back and update my photos if I ever have the time (it’s good for SEO, too).

  7. I really loved this post, it is really great to hear your input and I love that you had Babyface make the chalkboard for you, LOVE this idea.

    • Yeah, I love my chalkboard! He did awesome. :)

  8. Your food photography is excellent! I’ve done some food photography in the past and I’m hoping to get more in to it in the near future and your blog always inspires me :) nice to see how you do it!

    • Thanks Nora!

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