Working with Food Stylists

Teamwork is a key element of any successful food photo shoot. Depending on the size of the shoot, the team may consist of a photographer, an art director, a food stylist, a prop stylist, and production assistants. Team members collaborate during all stages of the shoot planning, organization, execution, and delivery in order to ensure that things go smoothly and that the result is a great product. The ultimate objective on any food shoot is to create images that appear fresh, artistic, and beautiful!

What Is a Food Stylist?
The food stylist's job is to create the food and dishes that appear in magazines, cookbooks, advertisements, food packaging, television commercials, and sometimes even feature films. Using behind-the-scenes magic and culinary artistry, a food stylist is responsible for making food look exciting, enticing, and effortlessly prepared in essence, seducing the viewer. The food stylist brings to a photograph a creative eye, expertise in food preparation, and the artistic interpretation of the black-and-white words of a recipe. Having the food stylist involved in the planning, organization, and execution of a food shoot is a big advantage.

Note: To find food stylists in your area, look to various organizations such as the Association of Stylists and Coordinators ( In addition, some food stylists have their own Web sites. You can search online and view their work to see if it meets your needs. Of course, word of mouth and referrals from other photographers, clients, and chefs are often the best sources of information. After you have identified a stylist, you should always meet personally to determine whether you will be comfortable working together. After all, it is a collaborative effort.

So what does it take to be a food stylist? Consider the following:

  • Food stylists must have culinary training indeed; some are professional chefs with culinary degrees or a background in home economics.
  • Food stylists must have knowledge of nutrition, cooking times, and techniques. Because photo shoots can run rather long, physical stamina is a must.
  • Food stylists should have a good sense of humor. They should be open-minded. Patience, timing, and problem-solving skills are also imperative.
  • Food stylists must be part magician, able to create "make-believe food" at times depending on the type of shoot, real or simulated food may be used. Typically, taste is of little concern. Beautiful appearance is everything.
  • Food stylists must be savvy shoppers and resourceful when it comes to finding unusual ingredients year round.
  • Being able to envision the final photograph is an all-important skill of the food stylist.
  • Food stylists must keep up with industry trends or better yet, be able to create some of their own. In recent years, the trend has been toward more natural-looking photographs.

As part of the pre-production process, the food stylist discusses the recipes, dishes, and visual concepts of the shoot with the client. The client may provide specific recipes, or the stylist may be asked to develop and test them. A strong nutritional background and menu-planning skills are advantageous at this stage of their work because food stylists are often called upon to pair and balance a wide variety of complementary foods and beverages in a single layout. After a client tasting, the recipes are given final approval, and they may even be quickly photographed for a visual record of what they look like.

At the Shoot
Every good food stylist must be able to suggest and accommodate last-minute recipe changes and adjustments in order to make the dish look its best on camera. Moreover, food stylists are required to create beautiful dishes that can hold up for several hours on and off set, not to mention withstand hot, harsh lighting conditions. This ability is both an art and a science. Anyone who has worked on a food shoot can tell you that at the end of the day, some dishes do not always taste as good as they look!

As the photographer, you must make sure every visual element in the picture is complementary and in balance. Let the food stylist take charge of preparing and styling the food to its best appearance, but if you see something that doesn't work visually, then don't hesitate to make suggestions. Always try to make the stylist aware of the angle from which you plan to shoot, and the type and direction of lighting you are using. Request the stylist to prepare a "stand-in" or mock-up dish so that you can determine the best styling, composition, and lighting approaches. Factors such as the contrast in colors and textures of the food must be taken into consideration. Make it a point to evaluate all the possible presentations to determine what will create the most appetite appeal. Thanks to the immediacy of digital photography, the photographer, stylist, and client can look at the test shoots in real time and have input into what the final image will be.

Food-Styling Trends
The look of food photography angles from which the food is shot, lighting, and the styling of the food have changed considerably. In the past, food stylists arranged elements on the plate specifically to be seen from above. There was hardly any height to the food, and there was sharp separation and distinction between the elements on the plate. This was consistent with the compartmentalized way food was arranged and served in the home, restaurants, and so on.

Today, especially in restaurants, food presentation is more integrated. There is more craft and intricacy in the details of dishes and their garnishes. For example, chefs have found that increasing the height and layering the elements of a dish is visually exciting, although many diners will tell you that it doesn't make the food any easier to eat! Accordingly, today's stylists must be more architecturally oriented, and able to separate food elements through contrasting textures and colors. It's a much harder job now than it was in the past, and the best food stylists are true artists.

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