How many people do you know that drive around LA with dead scorpions and a buckets of paella in their cars? If you know a professional food stylist, chances are, you just might know at least one. Last weekend, I got to sit in on Food Fanatics‘ Master Food Styling class, a great hands-on class by two professional food stylists, Denise Vivaldo and Cindie Flannagan, who have been in the business for years and years. The class was a virtual dumptruck of food styling info, from common styling techniques (which we got lots of time to practice ourselves) to thoughts on the food styling business and digital photography, to story after story of food styling challenges, mishaps and other, sometimes bawdy, adventures. I can’t remember the last time I was in a class for two full days that never bored me, but this was one of them. From the 9am start to Q&A over wine at 3 in the afternoon, the class is a non-stop riot of laughing and dirty hands. If you get a chance to spend sometime with Denise and Cindie, don’t miss it.
For starters, Denise and Cindie get it. They’ve worked through the changes in the industry, and understand how digital photography has changed the process and the budgets of companies. “In the olden days” (one of Denise’s favorite expressions) of film, an advertising shoot was lucky to get 5 shots in a day. Today, it’s not unusual to try to get 15 or 20. When you need to get that many shots in a single day, you have to know the tricks and, even more importantly, be able to think on your feet. The food that you style has to be ready pretty quickly, and has to hold up, looking fresh for hours. It isn’t the way you’d cook and shoot for your blog (unless you actually want to poison your whole family), but it is critical for success in advertising.
Cindie and Denise also know that each situation is different. Their job is to provide the best looking food for the shot, within the constraints that they are given. Sometimes that’s budgetary constraints (the client will only pay for so many turkeys) and sometimes it’s sheer practicality (artisnal mozzarella just doesn’t do pizza pulls like super-plasticky string cheese does). Sometimes they get to use the finest meats and produce available, and other times, the product, well, isn’t great. Sometimes, shots are impossible to get without significant fakery (like shooting ice cream, in the Palm Springs dessert heat), and sometimes it has to be the real-deal (you can’t fake fresh salad greens and herbs).
In the class, we got to style our own chickens, sandwiches, hamburgers, salads, pasta and ice cream, as well as learn how to do pizza pulls (a single piece of pizza coming out of a pie with all the cheese still attached) and beer/cocktails.
The chickens had to be one of the most fascinating parts… you go from a raw bird to a fully styled one in less than 30 minutes, with most of that time being spent on coloring the bird after it cooks for it’s zippy 10 minutes, just enough to “puff up.” Then, it’s lots of Pam (for the shine) and Kitchen Bouquet for the golden sheen, and a bit of seasoning salt for texture and you are done. Of course, the bird is completely toxic… but it does look good on camera.
Here are a few more tricks I learned along the way:
Salad greens and herbs will stay fresher longer, and may even come back to life a bit, if you float them in a bath of ice water. Also, wrap fresh herbs in wet, cold paper towels and store them in the fridge as soon as you get them back from the market until you need to use them to keep them from wilting.
A great looking, messy-look for frosting is really easy with a skewer. Simply swirl the frosting (on the cake) in little figure-eight patterns all over.
Stuff bathed in sauces doesn’t look very good in photos. For pasta and salad, your sauce or dressing should be used sparingly. Red sauce is best put on and then gently rubbed off.
A bit of freshly grated cheese or ground parmesan is a great way to add some texture to creamy dishes that just lie there… like hummus or refried beans. Also, try the same figure-eight pattern with a skewer to create places for light and shadow to fall.
Real ice cream is great if you can shoot in about 3 minutes. It’s best to scoop the real ice cream into balls and then refreeze them before shooting. A metal baking tray works great for this. Just scoop until you get some that you are happy with… a nice crown and a nice apron, and then set them down on the tray. Cover and freeze for at least an hour. This is a great tip for pre-making ice cream desserts too if you are serving a bunch of people. If you can’t shoot that quickly, and need something that looks like ice cream, the trick is crisco and powdered sugar, mixed up for a while until it has the consistency of playdough. Heat up your ice cream scoop before scooping for the best looking texture and drizzle it with the tiniest bit of real melted ice cream in the same color.
Grill pans almost always produce great looking grill marks, so stylists don’t have to use the tricks that they used to. If, for some reason the grill marks do need to be re-inforced, they usually use an electric barbecue/coal starter.
Blow torches are very useful.
So are tweezers, cotton balls and paper towels. Also, I need to get myself one of these.
Don’t overstyle. Do the basics, and then get the food in front of the camera. Then tweak. Otherwise, you run the risk of ruining the freshness and naturalness of the shot, or might spend too much time futzing with a part of the food that won’t actually be in the shot.
Food Fanatics has a book on food styling coming out in the near future. To be notified of the publication release, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org