The styling component is an important part of food photography. Food styling helps “sell” the image and product by making it look appetizing
You can have the most beautiful, diffused light, a composition that perfectly follows the Golden Ratio, but if your salad is soggy, or your burger looks like it’s going to topple over, your image will fail.
Professional food photographers usually work with a food stylist, but still need to know the basics of food styling, and understand how food behaves in front of the camera. They work collaboratively with a stylist to ensure the food looks its very best.
Food styling requires an extensive kit of tools.
Stylists are known for bringing a vast array of tools to set, in order to get the job done. In food photography, you’re constantly confronted with situations that require thinking outside the box.
Whether you’re working collaboratively with a stylist, or alone in your home studio, you should also have some tools you can count on to help you perfect your shots.
These are 12 of the most important items you should have on hand to style your food subjects.
One of the most important tools in your arsenal, tweezers are crucial for
strategically placing garnishes or nudging your food into exactly the right place. Fingers are not only inefficient at this, but they’re also not very hygienic.
Aim to have at least two pairs in your food styling kit for versatility; regular tweezers with a short handle, as well as some long-handled ones that will give you more control in hard-to-reach places.
You can purchase tweezers at most pharmacies and drug stores. The long-handled ones are more easily found at dental or medical supply shops. The one caveat to using them is that they can sometimes leave a small mark on some soft foods.
Paintbrushes are perhaps the most used tool on a food photographer’s set. Use them for a variety of applications, like adding a bit of olive oil to cooked meat to make it glisten, or brushing any unwanted crumbs or dust off your surfaces.
It’s a good idea to spend a bit more on good artist's brushes, as the bristles typically fall out of the cheaper ones, which can annoyingly stick to your food. Plastic handles are also a safer bet, because paint from the wooden ones is known to chip.
Get a variety of sizes for different uses.
You should have several small water spritzer bottles in your food styling kit. You can buy these in drugstores or dollar stores.
The size of water droplets provided by each bottle will vary, which is why you need to have a variety of spritzers for different purposes. For example, the mist to create condensation on a glass of beer will be different than the size of droplets you’d want on fresh fruit.
Layering the size of your droplets is also a great idea for some food subjects, and will show that attention to detail that elevates food and beverage photography.
Splashes on the side of your glassware can look distracting and messy. There is a fine line between “perfectly imperfect” and downright sloppy.
Having a couple of funnels on hand in small and large sizes will help you make smooth pours into glasses and bottles.
You can find funnels in the dollar store or anywhere where they sell kitchen accessories. If you don’t do plastic, you can get fancy silicone ones for a few extra bucks.
You might get a few funny looks when you go out and buy syringes, so you might want to get this item online like a place like Amazon.
But buy them you must, as using a syringe will be super helpful in applying mayonnaise or ketchup to the edge of a burger bun or sandwich. It will help you control the direction, speed, and amount of sauce you apply to your food subject.
The main function of toothpicks in your food styling kit is to help anchor items together.
That towering stack of pancakes you see advertising your local pancake house? Probably put together with several invisible toothpicks.
It’s important to style “tall” dishes like sandwiches and burgers in a way that shows and attractively highlights its layers. For that, you need to anchor the various elements perfectly in place.
Toothpicks can be hidden from view or edited out later in post-processing.
You can also use toothpicks to move small items, or to place chocolate curls on a dessert.
Want those water droplets on the fruit to last? Spray it with a mixture of
glycerin and water. It will simulate water droplets but won’t evaporate quickly
like water alone will. In fact, spray some glycerin on your food and it’ll stay there until you wash it off.
Glycerin can be found for a couple of dollars in most drugstores in the beauty section. Mix it in a 50/50 proportion with water and pour it into a couple of different water spritzers.
Cooking spray is an indispensable tool for styling food. Spray it onto certain food items like a meat to make it gleam or give it that just sizzled look. It can also be used in cooking to prevent food from sticking to pans.
Some cooking sprays come in butter flavor, which gives a nice golden color to baked goods. Otherwise, avocado oil is always a good choice.
Kitchen Bouquet and Maggi are two brands of liquid seasoning that are a mainstay in a food stylist’s kit.
Kitchen Bouquet is often used to fake tea or coffee. When these items sit for a bit, an oily film develops on the surface, which looks super unappetizing.
Adding a drop or two of Kitchen Bouquet to distilled water will create a realistic “Chardonnay”. It’s also commonly used with those handy paintbrushes to “brown” meat and poultry.
Maggi is an alternative that is warmer in tone, so it makes a great stand-in for bourbon or whiskey.
Mixed with water, this powdered form of vitamin C will keep fruits and vegetables from oxidizing and going brown. If you’ve ever cut up an artichoke, then you know how quickly this can happen.
Soak the items in a solution of water and ascorbic acid for at least fifteen minutes before you need them. A couple of teaspoons dissolved in one cup of water should do the trick.
I buy ascorbic acid at my local cook shop. It's also sold in some countries under the brand name "Fruit Fresh".
If you can't find ascorbic acid, you can get MSG from an Asian grocery store. It will do the same thing.
Scotchgard is used to protect fabrics and carpet from water and stains, but it’s also an indispensable item in your food styling toolbox. It keeps sauces from soaking into the food.
It’s commonly sprayed on bread and bread-like products. A spritz of Scotchgard on pancakes will keep it from soaking up that drizzle of maple syrup.
Use olive oil or any other type of cooking oil to brush on meats, lettuce leaves, or
other foods you want to strategically make glisten.
Cooked red meat and sunny-side-up eggs can be submerged in oil until they are ready to be brought to set, in order to keep them fresh and hold their color.
Having a wide variety of tools in your food styling kit will ensure that you’re ready for any situation that will arise on set. Food photography is a process of building and assessing, and paying attention to the fine details.
With these twelve tools in your food styling kit, you’ll be ready to tweak those fine details that take your food photography to the next level.
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