Looks Good Enough to Eat - The Food Photography Guide

Open any cookbook or top cuisine magazine and you’ll see scrumptious images of food you just can’t wait to try! These images have one goal; to make your mouth water. Food photography may seem like a simple job; but photographing food beautifully is much trickier than one may assume. The food photographer is relying on only one of the senses: sight. Food is a multi-sensory experience so the food photographer must capture the attention of the viewer with a spectacular presentation. Food must be carefully prepared so it seems natural and fresh, the background needs to add texture and compliment the dish, and props must contribute and not detract from the image.

What is Food Photography

Food photography combines two creative arts: photography and culinary arts. Food photographers and food stylists work together to create appetizing print images of food. The images are used for menus, commercials, advertising, cookbooks, and magazines. Creating these images can be challenging at times because unlike still objects, prepared food quickly loses its just-cooked look. It wilts, ages, melts and wrinkles. Therefore, food photographers and stylists must showcase food quickly in the most appetizing light.

Food Stylists

A food stylist is detail oriented and artistic. The stylist is responsible for the preparation and design of the food that is to be photographed. Therefore, the stylist must use their creativity in preparing or presenting foods; such as using heavy cream instead of milk because it photographs better. The stylist relies on tricks of the trade to enhance how the food looks and ensure longevity. The stylist must also be aware of the space around the food by focusing on backgrounds, locations, colors, and textures. Utilizing props (dishware, silverware, flower arrangements, table settings) can improve the appearance of food and provide a sensory experience for the viewer. A culinary school degree is mandatory for this type of position.

Setup, Staging and Lighting

The food stylist manages the food setup and stages the area where the food will be photographed. A plate can literally serve as the blank canvas for the setup. The stylist will begin by prepping the (carefully) selected foods and placing them on the designated area. The next step for the food stylist is to stage the background. He or she can select colors, textures and objects to make the picture more appealing. Staging can walk a fine line and the stylist must ensure that the image doesn’t appear to be contrived or fake. The photograph should be natural and inviting. The photographer and the stylist can work together on lighting. Lighting helps set the tone for the photograph, it can add drama, softness or romance. The photographer might opt to use natural light (which offers a more organic vibe) or artificial light (which is easier to manage and control).

Styling Techniques

Food stylists have many techniques when it comes to the preservation of food. Some stylists have developed their own techniques through experimentation but there are also tried and true tricks that everyone uses. A stylist can visually enhance the color of foods; strawberries can be improved with added color from paint, a deeper red will add depth and drama. Adding a light layer of oil can help make food glisten, making them appear shiny and beautiful. A stylist will also never underestimate the power of water, a light spray can rejuvenate wilted greens or help make a dry steak suddenly juicy. A fun little trick for keeping those champagne bubbles is adding a touch of aspirin powder! A stylist has to have lots of tricks up his or her sleeve.

Amateur Food Photography

Starting out in the food photography industry can be daunting. A lot of preparation and thought goes into one single photograph. As an amateur food photographer you are responsible for setup, staging, lighting and the photography. If possible it is best to work with an established food stylist. He or she can help you setup and stage which is an ideal learning experience. If that is not an option then the best thing to do is try new things and work on your own technique. Develop different methods of food preservation and try new camera angles. Experiment and look for your creative niche.

Additional Information

A career in food photography is extremely rewarding for anyone interested in art and food. This particular field requires a keen eye, focus and high organizational skills. It is best if you have a solid background in the culinary arts; understanding food and ingredients is imperative in presenting food for print. There are several schools that offer classes on food photography and it always helps to intern or work with established food stylists.

  • The Tips and Tricks for Food Styling: Columbia University supports a group of 17 students as they report about food in New York City. Joel Meares offers sound advice for anyone interested in food photography in his article, “The Tricks and Tips of Food Styling.”
  • Food Photography: Purdue University offers several different activities for those interested in food photography. These activities help food photographers understand the challenges they will face.
  • Food Photography Specialty Group: Information about a Food Specialty Group that was established in 2006. Their primary focus is on education and support for those involved in culinary photography.
  • Photo Tips: Culinary photo tips provided by K-State Dining Services.
  • In Focus: Tasteful Photos: Information about a past art exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The exhibition focused on the history of food photography.
  • Tips and Tricks the Pros Use: An informative article about, “Food Photography: Tips and Tricks the Pros Use” written by New York Institute of Photography instructor Karen Schuld. It offers tricks used by real food stylists.
  • The Art of Food Presentation: Job information for anyone interested in pursing a career as a food stylist.
  • Food Science and Photography: Interesting information about food preservation that includes activities, service ideas, and resources.
by BigOven editorial team
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