Food Styling Basics | The Daily Dish

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Food Styling Basics

8 Comments | Written on August 13, 2013 at 5:00 am , by

Styling your food to be “picture perfect” is easier than you think!  You don’t need a closet full of dishes, linens and props to prepare a dish to be photographed.

In fact, I have narrowed it down to only 5 essential items needed to photograph just about any recipe!  Many of these you might already have in your kitchen.  Others can be found for pennies on the dollar at any garage sale or re-sale shop.

These tips can help anyone who is eager to enter our weekly and monthly recipe contests and want to take a beautiful photo of your dish.

Keep reading for 5 easy tricks of the trade!  

After years of styling and photographing recipes, I find that I end up using the same handful of items most of the time.  For anyone just starting out, I recommend keeping these five items on hand.

5 Essential Props

1)  Wood Cutting Board or Distressed Wood

A good rule of thumb to remember with food styling and food photography is that “texture brings out texture.”  In other words, when there is texture on your photo staging surface, or texture to the linens in a photo, it will help highlight the delicious textures in your food.

I like to have a large wood cutting board (even better if it is old and beat up!) or a piece of distressed wood on hand.  This can serve as the staging surface of your photo, or can be turned on its side and be in the background of a photo.

I have picked up some great cutting boards at Goodwill (under $5) and even have found 100 year old pieces of distressed wood from my family’s farmhouse back in Finland (free).

2)  Small White Plate and Bowl

When it comes to plates and bowls for food styling, you can’t go wrong with white.  It is a neutral surface where the food can shine. Just remember, smaller is better!  What we might use as a dinner plate in “real life” will end up looking like a serving platter on camera.  I often end up using salad plates or even small dessert plates in most photos.

A few minutes at any yard sale or second-hand store and you are sure to find a plate and bowl you will love using in photos.

3)  Cloth Napkins or Placemats

I like to keep a variety of cloth napkins or placemats on hand for food styling.  Since these don’t take up very much space, you can have a few to choose from.  I think it is good to have one neutral (white, beige or brown) choice as well as a variety of “food-friendly” colors.  You can’t go wrong with reds, greens and yellows.  Having a few colors and textures can add variety and interest to your photos.

I like to buy napkins when they are on clearance at places like Sur la Table, Crate and Barrel or Pier One Imports.  Some of my favorites have also come from thrift shops.  You can even look in the remnant bin at fabric stores and cut your own napkins or placemats from fabrics that catch your eye.

4)  Flatware with Personality

Sometimes you want to put flatware in your photo to add visual interest.  A bite of cake on the end of a fork, ready to be eaten.  Or a scoop of ice cream in a bowl with a spoon.

You can certainly use any flatware you have right now in your kitchen.  However, the spoons, forks and knives many of us have are brilliant and shiny, which can be problematic when taking a picture.  They can reflect the light and draw attention away from the food.

I love finding tarnished old silverware in antique shops.  Sometimes when there is one lonesome spoon or fork that is not part of a set, and you can snatch it up for a bargain.  Keep your eyes peeled, you never know what you will find!

5)  Wide Mouth Mason Jar

Finally, I highly recommend keeping a wide-mouth mason jar on hand.  You won’t believe how versatile it can be!  Layer in a salad for a picnic, use it as a drinking glass with a straw, fill it with goodies for dessert – anything!  Let your creative juices flow and I am sure you will find countless ways to use a canning car in your photography.  I prefer to use the wide-mouth variety because they are easier to fill with food and beverages.

(examples of cutting boards and distressed wood surfaces)

Now that you have all the props you need (without spending a fortune!) I have 5 tips for deliciously plating your recipes.  Follow these recommendations and your dish will be “ready for the close-up!”

5 Tips for Success

1)  Slow Down

You might pride yourself on making dinner in 30 minutes or less, but when you want to photograph a dish, it is better to take your time.  Make sure your meat is perfectly seared, or your cupcakes frosted with a careful hand.  I have been known to prepare pancakes one at a time to make sure they are all the same size and perfectly round!

2)  Clean-Up

A simple swipe of a napkin can help clean up the look of your plate.  Any un-necessary drips and dribbles can be distracting in a photo.

3)  Pick the Best

For example, if you have a batch of cookies and you are only going to photograph two or three, pick the best of the best!  Find ones with nice, uniform shape and perfectly placed chocolate chips or raisins.  Whenever I am cooking and photographing back at my parents house my dad always comes sneaking into the kitchen asking if he can “eat the ugly ones!”

You also want to “show a bit of everything” in a food photo.  For example, if you were taking a picture of a salad, you want to make sure you see the lettuce, tomatoes, croutons, etc..  You can even use a skewer to pick up and place food in appropriate places on the plate or bowl.  If the dish you are photographing is going to be your meal a few minutes later, just use your fingers!  No one will ever know…

4)  Positive and Negative Space

When looking at your food on a plate or in a bowl, think about how much of the plate shows and how much of the space is filled with food.   It can look a bit odd on camera when you have a plate with a piece of chicken, a scoop of rice and a few green beans all in separate little piles with large white spaces in between.

Also think about not only what you see on the plate, but in other parts of your photo.  When necessary, move your camera closer to the plate to crop out any extra space in the image.  You can also fill that space with other props or foods to enhance the image.   Maybe a bowl of pasta would include a glass of wine or slice of bread in the photo.

Just make sure you use the space on and off your plate wisely.  What looks normal or natural in real life and appear to be large gaps of space in an image.

5)  Photogenic and Non-Photogenic Food

Finally, you have to accept that some foods are simply gorgeous on camera, while others may be absolutley delicious and are just not photogenic.

You really can’t go wrong when you photograph a bowl of strawberries with a dollop of whipped cream.  It’s going to look beautiful!  A bowl of chili, can be much more of a challenge.   It’s a shapeless heap of brown on brown with more brown.  That’s when you are going to have to get creative if you want to make it work.  Add a bit of sour cream, a sprinkling of shredded cheese or a few scallions for color.

I admit there have been a few recipes I have made that were absolutely delicious and yet painfully un-photogenic.  If you can’t make a picture work no matter how hard you try, don’t beat yourself up.  Not every dish can be the supermodel of the food world!

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