I finished my Food and Beverage Photography class at Langara College on December 15. On December 16 I got on a plane to Mexico, where I am now working on my tan and sipping on margaritas. It’s a well deserved break after an incredibly busy year. I plan on slowing down with the classes next year, in order to spend more time putting into practice all the things that I learned in 2012 photography-wise. When I think about all I still have to learn I feel overwhelmed, but when I reflect on where I was a year ago, I feel a surge of confidence that I’ll get where I want to be–eventually.
When 2012 rolled around, I had every intention of posting a lot more often than I have been. But then I took on a heavier course load than I intended and got a new job that has been an intense learning curve. Add the grey and gloomy weather characteristic of my city nine months of the year, I ended up shooting less than I would have liked. I’ve always shot food in natural light, but with my recent study of studio lighting and now learning how a speedlight can do wonders in supplementing available light, I won’t need to rely on the weather and access to daylight so much.
So as I’m sitting by a pool in Cabo San Lucas, I’m still thinking about work and my goals for next year, which will be to focus on the blog and build up a portfolio of images to launch a website in the the coming months. This means that I need to persist in developing my styling skills, since at the moment I can’t afford to hire one to help me, and styling is a huge part of why an image succeeds or fails.
Thankfully, my food photography class was just as much about styling as it was photography, and I feel this is the area where I learned the most, thanks to Tracey Kusiewicz, a fantastic food photographer and stylist based here in Vancouver and one of the instructors of my class. Since I’ve had a lot of readers writing to me and asking me to share what I’ve learned, this will be the first instalment in a series devoted to the topic of styling. I will start today with some general pointers, and will move on to more specific things you can do to make food look its best in upcoming posts.
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The first thing I learned about food styling is less is more. When I shot the marinated eggplant pictured below, I began by layering slices on the plate. I thought a kaleidoscope of layers would look interesting but after laying a few slices of eggplant down, it became quite clear that it wasn’t going to work. Brown food isn’t the most photogenic in the first place, and large heavy clumps, no matter how well arranged, are not pleasing to the eye. Tracey suggested tearing the strips into more manageable bite-sized pieces and leaving enough white space on the plate so that when the other elements of the composition were added, the plate would still look balanced.
When approaching the styling of a shot, think of how you will balance the various compositional elements with the space in the shot, in order to create the flow for the eye making its way across the image. Often, you will find that you will need a lot less food on a plate than you are used to. You don’t want it to look like you’re coming back from the buffet table at Caesar’s Palace.
Conversely, however,when it comes to actual ingredients, you will always need more than you think you will–a lot more than will show up in the picture. Food can look very unappetizing very quickly and it can be a real challenge to manage all the elements in a composition to keep them constantly camera ready. This is why shooting one dish for an editorial may take a whole day. At school, we had three hours in studio to produce the one shot we’d submit for our assignments, and I often left feeling that I hadn’t had enough time to get the shot I wanted.
The skin of a roasted chicken can wrinkle minutes after being taken out of the oven. Olives need constant moistening with water or their own juices to keep them from looking dry. Even items that have a longer life in front of the camera–like salamis and cured meats–will start to dry up when exposed to air and hot lights. Prosciutto that has began to curl at the edges will need to be replaced with more fresh prosciutto, leading to frequent interruption in the shoot and disruption to the set up of the food.
This is the single most important realization I made in learning about food styling. I used to cook the food, arrange it on a plate and click away until I felt I had my shot, or until the food started to look terrible. The thing is, you must be vigilant about noticing when the food is starting to die. It might not immediately look obvious to you, but it will be obvious to the camera. If you are styling your own photographs, you need to keep looking for the signs of food starting to move past its prime, especially in the case of garnishes like herbs.
If you are a food blogger, you may be satisfied with setting up your shot and taking a few frames until you get one you like. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you intend on entering the field of professional food photography, you will need a portfolio of shots to post on a website and to show to art directors, as well as other promotional items. Photographers spend thousands of dollars on these selling tools and they must be as perfect as you can make them. This may employing a professional food stylist to work with you, or learning how to style food at a high level yourself. Whatever the case, you will need to spend a lot of money and waste a lot of food, a concept I have only recently come to accept. Besides preparing a lot of food to replace the “hero” of your shot as it starts to go off, you will also have your hands through the food, especially while preparing it, which will leave it inedible. This can actually be a good thing. I gained fifteen pounds after starting my blog, mindlessly grazing my way through ingredients and digging into whatever I was photographing once I put the camera away, even when it had gone cold and limp. If you are doing this, you need to stop it. Now.
You need to “edit” the food, starting with a composition that looks good to you and see what happens once you take your shot. Editing the food means moving things around, adding elements or taking them away. Starting with a perfect looking plate and perhaps ending with a rustic looking dish with crumbs around it. Your set up may look a lot different to your lens than your eye, and you will have to make adjustments as you go along, ending up with a shot a lot different than you intended. Once you see all the frames in Lightroom or Photoshop, you may discover that your original shot was the one that you liked the best. Or it may be the last, or any one particular shot in between.
When I took this shot in my early days of learning photography, I struggled to shoot this tart. I moved it around, shot it from overhead, but it wasn’t until I took a couple pieces away and hunkered down that I got the shot that satisfied me (though I’m no longer happy with the knife in this story!).
Lastly, have all your equipment at the ready, your mis en plas, even additional props you might use, preferably laid out on what will be used as your “production table”. And please … make sure you have really sharp knives. Because timing is of utmost importance when getting your food in front of the camera, you need to be as organized as possible. I can’t emphasize this enough. Since I do my own food styling, I usually set up my camera and table before I start preparing the food, so everything is ready to go when the food is finished cooking.
Looking back, some of these tips should have been obvious to me from the outset, but it took me years of trial and error to arrive at some of them. I hope they will be helpful to you in your own food photography.
I would love your feedback to hear what has helped you to style better images.