Want to capture mouthwatering food photos? Then you must master food styling, which is the art of making your food as attractive as possible.
I’ve been doing food photography for years, and over time, I’ve developed plenty of food styling techniques for incredible results. In this article, I share my 9 favorites, including:
- How much food to use in each photo
- Simple elements you can add to enhance the food
- An easy way to come up with plenty new food styling ideas
So if you’re ready to style food just like the pros, then let’s get started!
1. Use less food than you normally would
Beginner food stylists tend to pile plates high with food, but this is a mistake.
You see, while you may think that more food makes the dish appealing, an overcrowded plate can actually look far worse than a minimalist spread.
So instead of heaping spoonfuls and dollops and giant scoops of food onto your plates, take a step back. Then add a small amount of each food item to your arrangement. (This should be less food than the average person eats.)
Minimal food will create lots of space, which you can then spice up with cutlery, napkins, cups, and little garnishes (eg, sprinkles of spices from the dish).
But note that this “overcrowding” rule also applies to props. So while it’s okay to add a few little items to your arrangement, don’t go overboard!
2. Add texture to plates and bowls
Most plates and bowls are smooth and shiny, but this causes problems.
For one, a shiny object is tough to photograph, especially if you’re using artificial light. Your light will create blown-out highlights on the bowl, which you’ll struggle to remove in post-processing.
Plus, shiny objects lack texture. Texture is great because it helps the viewer feel like the scene is real – like they could reach out and grab the food.
So what do you do?
I’m a big fan of adding paper to food arrangements. I don’t add anything elaborate or distracting, but I do find that lining plates with parchment or baking paper adds texture, plus it prevents unwanted highlights.
Make sure you’re very careful with the positioning of your paper. You don’t want edges to flip up and obscure the food, and you definitely don’t want the paper to look so wrinkly that the whole dish becomes unappetizing.
(Also, as I emphasized in the previous tip: Don’t overdo it! Too much paper is a problem. Include paper, but use it sparingly.)
3. Create a background contrast
Many food photos feature white plates on a white background – and while this can be visually striking, I encourage you to go for contrast instead.
So instead of using white on white, put a white plate on a dark wooden background, or use darker plates on a white background.
Note that the food should also contrast with the background. If the food is eye-poppingly colorful, I like to add a simple white background. But if the food is relatively plain, a dark background – especially a dark background with texture – is often the better move.
That’s what I did for this shot, which features white plates and relatively bland colors:
Do you see how the dark, textured background helps make the food pop?
4. Allow food to spill over naturally
As a food stylist, your instinct might be to keep things nice and neat.
But while it’s certainly good to avoid unwanted mess, a little bit of deliberate mess can make a huge difference.
A bit of spilled sauce or a line of breadcrumbs really helps add movement and life to a food photo, whereas a clean shot often comes across as sterile and boring.
I’d especially encourage you to add mess in specific directions. Use the spills to create lines that direct the viewer from one plate to another.
Of course, make sure your spills look relatively controlled. And after you apply each bit of mess, go back through with a careful eye and make sure the mess looks good (rather than distracting).
5. Choose (simple) crockery and tableware
If you want to give your food photos a complete feel, it’s a good idea to add silverware, serving dishes, and other little props that’ll enhance the composition and tell the story.
However, you must select your items carefully. While highly decorative china and napery are beautiful on their own, they can detract from the visual impact of the food. And while flashy, ornate silverware might seem attractive, it can draw the eye away from the main subject.
So keep your props simple. Plain items allow the food to be the star of your shot, so go for simple colors and designs. When in doubt, plain white or plain black both work great!
6. Emphasize the natural beauty of the food
Many beginner food stylists struggle to start a food composition. They look at a blank tablet and feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.
So here’s what I recommend:
Before you lay down a single item, think about what it is that makes a particular dish so delicious.
Then create the entire arrangement in service of that idea.
For example, if you’re photographing a delicious brownie with a soft chocolate center, consider breaking up the brownie to reveal the gooey inside. Then put the brownie on a white plate in the center of the arrangement, and use various props — such as a fork and a napkin — to direct the viewer toward the brownie.
Of course, every food item can be approached from different directions, and there’s no real right or wrong here. What’s key is that you identify the story you want to tell – and that you style the food so that the story is clearly conveyed.
7. Style some work-in-progress shots
As a stylist, it’s easy to focus on creating that final, plated food shot.
But in truth, there are plenty of stunning opportunities along the way!
So try to style a few shots as the food is cooked. For instance, you can create a composition using raw ingredients (and lots of mess!). You might also create a composition that shows the food cooling after coming out of the oven.
And feel free to get creative. You don’t have to style the food on a standard table; Instead, you can work with the food on the stovetop or even in the oven. Just remember to apply the techniques I’ve shared throughout this article, and no matter where you’re working, you’ll get great results.
8. Always be on the lookout for ideas
If you do enough food photography styling, you’ll start to use the same type of arrangement again and again.
And while there’s nothing wrong with repeating solid arrangements, it’s also good to break out of your comfort zone and come up with fresh food photo ideas.
A great way to generate styling ideas is by looking through cookbooks and food magazines. Simply flick through and take note of what looks appealing and what doesn’t. Don’t copy directly, of course, but do keep a little list of ideas that you can try down the line. (It can also be fun to find an arrangement you like, then adjust it for a fresh look.)
If you prefer to look at food photos online, you can always create a Pinterest board dedicated to your favorite food styling. Every time you find some well-styled food, just add it to the board – that way, the next time you’re in need of new ideas, you can open the board and generate some instant inspiration.
9. Style the food after it’s been served
Here’s your final food stylist trick:
Don’t just arrange uneaten food. After you’ve created some work-in-progress compositions and a final, plated shot, serve a slice of the food. (You can eat this if you want!)
And then create another arrangement that highlights the missing or served food. In my experience, a half-finished plate is often more appetizing than the original whole!
Depending on the type of food you’re shooting, you may need to work fast. But that’s all part of the fun, and even if you fail to get a great “served” shot, there’s always next time.
Food photography styling tips: final words
Well, there you have it:
Nine easy ways to take your food styling to the next level.
So the next time you’re doing a food photography photoshoot, make sure to keep these techniques in mind!
Now over to you:
Which of these food stylist tips do you like best? Which do you plan to use in your photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
About the author: Jules Clancy is a qualified food scientist and self-taught food photographer. She blogs about her commitment to cooking recipes with no more than five ingredients over at Stonesoup.