By Gennifer Rose
A quick introduction to myself, I am the content creator behind GenniferRose.com, a California foodie and lifestyle blog. My educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in marketing, and then a follow-up associates degree in visual merchandising and styling.
While I have taken many formal photography and styling classes, I really have learned the most from on-the-job experiences and trial-and-error. Styling ordinary food items to pop off the page takes some finesse and an eye for visual storytelling.
When you are first beginning to style food for photos, just be aware that it will take time to fine-tune your craft. Give yourself the time and freedom to play around with the food props, rearranging and deconstructing the scene until you achieve the desired look.
Current Food Styling Trends
The current food styling trend is something I have personally dubbed “a beautiful mess.” Audiences are less interested in seeing overly-styled perfect images; they are more inclined to embrace imperfection and prefer to see a “lived-in look.” These types of candid photos tend to capture the joy of living in the moment, as opposed to cold and unwelcoming images.
Tablescapes are also very much trending. Dining has become more about the experience in images, it’s not just about the food. Whimsical tablescapes depict a whole scene of friends and family gathering to spend quality time together over a meal. Creating tablescapes entails details such as floral centerpieces, place settings, linens, cutlery and flatware, glassware and even personalized touches such as name tags.
Elements That Create a Great Foodie Photo
As I mentioned earlier, exceptional photography is about storytelling with visuals. Before you begin shooting photos, pause for a moment to take in all your surroundings and look for organic photographic opportunities which can inspire and contribute to the scene you’re creating.
Before you begin a food photoshoot, I suggest creating a mood board with inspirational images. Pinterest is a great and quick source for highly-styled food photography and you can easily create a board. In your creative process, you should use these images as a starting point and then let the creativity flow from there. You don’t want to copy these photos exactly, you’re much better off using them as guidance.
Creating a Shot List
To keep you on track and to make sure you end up with all the required images at the end of your shoot, make sure you have a written shot list. If you’re working with a client, you should have an agreed-upon shot list before you even begin planning the photoshoot. If you’re taking photos for a brand campaign, be sure to capture clear images of any logos and product details.
In my experience as a photographer, lighting is the one thing that will quickly make or break a photo. As a general rule in photography, diffused natural lighting yields the best quality photos because it casts minimal shadows and creates a “glow effect.” A good source of natural lighting will allow you to capture more details and colors, adding more interest and a higher quality image.
If you’re shooting food inside a building, make sure you’re next to a large window with clear glass, and you’ve got a sheer white drape over the window to diffuse the incoming light. For my first makeshift photography studio in my kitchen, I pushed a table up against the window and I hung white bedsheets over the curtain rods. This simple setup served me well for years!
Matte Surfaces and Fabrics
When you’re setting up your foodie vignettes, you want to make sure that the flat surface on which you’re placing your subject is matte. If there’s a glossy finish on the surface it will reflect the light and your food won’t pop as much. You want any shine to be intentional and part of the array of textures, such as coming from utensils or smooth produce. Also make sure that your backgrounds and surfaces have minimal patterns and distractions which could possibly take the focus away from your food focal point.
If you’re using tablecloths or any fabric napkins, avoid shiny silks and satins unless you are going for a particular look. Fabrics like cotton and linen are naturally matte and create a more even-toned backdrop.
Correctly Selecting and Styling Props
When you’re selecting props such as plates, linens, serving ware, dinnerware and cutlery, they should all be in the same theme. Meaning casual or formal dining, antiques or modern, warm wood tones or industrial metals, etc. Be thoughtful and methodical about how you set the table and put food on a plate. Use negative space purposefully to create a “scarcity” effect, as opposed to leaving large areas unstyled and empty.
Composition and Framing in Styling Foods
Many of the classic photography composition rules certainly apply to food styling:
- Always make sure that your horizons are straight. In food photography this could be referring to the edges of your table.
- Set up your scene with symmetry in mind so that the image is balanced and the viewer’s eyes know where to rest.
- Frame your shots using the rule of thirds, allow the grid on your camera to guide you. This technique draws the onlooker deeper into the photo.
- Use props to create leading lines which draws in the eyes towards a point of interest.
- There’s 12 principles of design that can come into play when styling your props. The ones I tend to use the most in food styling are: contrast, balance, proportion, repetition, pattern and variety. When these elements come together they create visual interest and give your image the illusion of rhythm and movement with still objects. Using odd numbers of props tends to naturally keep the eye moving throughout the image, instead of resting between an even number of objects.
- When you’re thinking about the layout of the final images, you may want to use diptych arrangements. This is best achieved if you’ve done some pre-planning in the styling.
Using Layers and Textures to Create Depth
The best foodie photographs pop off the page and make you feel as though the plate is right in front of you. Creating a layering effect gives the optical illusion of depth. You can achieve this effect by staggering props of varying heights and transparencies. By stacking objects with textures such as fabrics, wood props, shiny cutlery, ceramics, glass, fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables you can add visual layers. Make sure the focus on your camera is always concentrated on the most important subject, thus slightly blurring out any background props.
The Little Details Really Make a Difference
As mentioned earlier, current popular food styling trends incorporate elements of being “undone.” This is achieved using carefully placed small details, which give you a more natural look.
Here are a few of my favorite small details which can go a long way:
- Add a human element with hands coming into the frame and grabbing a piece of food.
- Capture the natural beauty of fruits and vegetables, particularly the imperfections.
- Fresh herbs scattered on a plate add a touch of greenery and freshness.
The Best Camera Lenses for Photographing Food
For myself, I am loyal to Canon cameras and lenses. The body of my camera is the Canon EOS 6D, and the lenses I use the most are Canon EF 35mm f/1.4 and the “nifty fifty” 50mm portrait lens.
One thing that may surprise beginner photographers is that there’s a good chance that your lense will cost more than the body of your camera. The lense you use is just as important as the camera body, and some would argue that it’s more important.
One simple but often forgotten piece of advice is to always make sure your lens is clean of any smudges or particles. You may not notice until you start editing in post that there are marks in your images. If you use your camera often, especially outside in the elements, make a point to get the interior sensor professionally cleaned every year or so.
Developing Your Aesthetic for Food Styling
In conclusion, the best way to develop your craft in styling is to be continually working on projects and trying new techniques. I suggest you take the time to test all kinds of foods, scenes, lighting conditions and props. After you’ve completed a wide range of styled content, you’ll have an idea of where your strengths and opportunities are.
Finally, create a digital portfolio that showcases your best work and visually illustrates your styling point of view and aesthetic.