Why is it that food photos in magazines and cookery books always look so luscious? Why is it that often the dish you make at home from the recipe book, doesn’t resemble the photo despite following the instructions exactly? And why does that ready meal never look like the picture on the packet when it arrives out of the oven/microwave?
It’s often assumed that the food in photographs is messed about with so much that it resembles a DIY project, rather than something edible from the kitchen. Gone are the days of photographing mashed potato for Ice cream and painting the blonde looking roast chicken with brown polish. But there are tricks to making food look wonderful on the plate and I signed up to Leith’s School Of Food And Wine, food styling course to learn those techniques.
The seven part evening course is taken by Sarah Cook who was Food Editor of BBC Good Food Magazine, now freelance and Jennifer Joyce food stylist and cook book author, including Meals In Heels. We began with an overview of the role of a food stylist, which can be very varied. Editorial- working for a magazine or newspaper or on cookery books, Advertising- including television, print posters and product packaging. Television and film – actual cookery shows where the role would involve preparing the ingredients or for film and TV programmes that feature food.
Then we had our first taste of food styling. In groups of two, there were nineteen of us in total, we had to style a ready meal, a choice of cumberland pie, vegetable moussaka or lasagne. After some gentle feed back on our efforts we learnt the tricks, the potato on the pie would be removed from the meat and used cold or frozen as it’s less sloppy. The carrots and meat from a different cumberland pie would be gently washed off and added to the spooned out section, the gravy might be made to look richer with the addition of gravy browning or marmite and the cold/frozen potato then blow torched to look cooked. Similarly with the moussaka and lasagne but with the addition of thin cardboard between the layers of pasta to stop it collapsing. It could take ten packs of each dish to photograph one meal. So not a DIY project but certainly there’s a technique to making these dishes look great.
Two further weeks of theory and demonstration followed where we were shown the stylists tool kit, which as you are cooking away from a set up kitchen has to be extensive. As a blogger cooking from home, I added: dental tweezers, great for making tiny adjustments to complex dishes and salads etc, a little spray bottle for spritzing with water to make food that has gone cold look lively, a couple of paint brushes for adding dressing exactly where you want it and washing off gravy from food to highlight the ingredients and cotton buds for general clean up adjustments. A can of hairspray can make chocolate look shiny but of course you can’t then eat it. The food on a shoot is generally eaten by the stylist and crew rather than catering being provided.
Sarah Cook is a baking specialist who showed us techniques for splitting, icing, stacking and decorating a cake. We then had to decorate cakes that represented different brands or events for example M and S, a ladies afternoon tea and a WI cake. Each had a definite identity. Time was limited and they weren’t very professional but great to put those techniques into practice.
All the way through there was information on acquiring and renting props, which plates work best in certain situations and something I hadn’t considered before, how to shop. If you need one punnet of fruit, buy six as each piece of fruit needs to look perfect. If you’re making a cake buy enough ingredients for twice as much icing as the recipe states – the cake will look much more luxurious. A food stylist is paid for prop/shopping days as well as actual shoot days. A cake would have to be made the day before as would as would slow cooked dishes. These count as paid non shoot days. As a stylist you could be shooting five to ten dishes each day, depending if it’s editorial or a cookery book shoot, so prior preparation is essential.
The last evening session was spent, in twenty minute timed slots, styling four different dishes. we had to cook, prepare and style each of the dishes and then after feed back move on to the next. This was for a touch of reality before the final day, which is always a Saturday where we would have to cook and style a dish for a live shoot with a professional photographer. We could choose whatever we wanted to make, the kitchens would be open and we’d use our own props. There had been plenty of advice and help beforehand for anyone who wanted it. If someone chose a particularly difficult dish to style the pitfalls were explained, but they weren’t dissuaded from doing it.
I learnt an enormous amount from this course and felt that it was money well spent. It’s not cheap at £495 and you do have to have your wits about you as the information comes very thick and fast. I now look at food magazines very differently, checking out who the stylists are. I have much more of an appreciation of how the shots are put together and how to improve my own dishes for my blog. It is possible to get work experience as an assistant after completing the course and to go on to a career as a food stylist.
My Top Ten Tips For Food Styling
- You need to see all the ingredients in a dish, if the recipe says it contains chilli, for example, find a way to show it.
- Green veg should always be slightly undercooked to maintain their colour and fresh look.
- Slightly undercook roast chicken to stop the skin looking shrivelled and the meat shrinking from the legs, then pop it back in the oven to finish cooking to eat it.
- If you’re looking for a luscious drizzle of honey or syrup, put it in a bottle with a pouring spout and leave it in the fridge for 10 – 15 minutes. It will thicken up and be easier to control.
- Under whip cream as it looks better in a shot, Elmlea whipping cream cannot be over whipped and is a reliable alternative to real cream for shoots.
- Soups and stews, have some of the ingredients on the top, i.e. not covered in soup or gravy so that you can see the textures and it looks fresher.
- Don’t over dress a salad, just a little dressing brushed on the leaves at the last minute or pooled in spaces around the plate is best.
- If you’re using very white food like yogurt, white icing, mashed potato etc a swirl which casts shadows or a spritz of coarse ground pepper on savouries, gives the camera something to focus on.
- Tell a story with your styling, think about what you want to convey – Metal props are more urban, Copper more country. Baking paper either pristine, crumpled or yellowed in the oven, makes a great base for food shots.
- Don’t be overly neat, all the drips and drops and bits of crumbs make the food more appetising, don’t be scared to splash.
Leith’s School Of Food And Wine Food Styling Course runs in 6 week blocks through the year.