Want to capture mouthwatering food photos? Then you must master food styling, which is the art of making your food as attractive as possible.
I’ve been doing food photography for years, and over time, I’ve developed plenty of food styling techniques for incredible results. In this article, I share my 14 favorites, including:
- How much food to use in each photo
- The technique pros use to keep ingredients looking fresh
- Simple elements you can add to enhance the food
- An easy way to come up with plenty new food styling ideas
Whether you’re snapping photos for a blog, a cookbook, a client, or just Instagram, these tips can make a significant difference in how appetizing your food looks. So if you’re ready to style food just like the pros, then let’s get started!
1. Use less food than you normally would
Beginner food stylists tend to pile plates high with food, but this is a mistake.
You see, while you may think that more food makes the dish appealing, an overcrowded plate can actually look far worse than a minimalist spread.
So instead of heaping spoonfuls and dollops and giant scoops of food onto your plates, take a step back. Then add a small amount of each food item to your arrangement. (This should be less food than the average person eats.)
Minimal food will create lots of space, which you can then spice up with cutlery, napkins, cups, and little garnishes (e.g., sprinkles of spices from the dish).
But note that this “overcrowding” rule also applies to props. So while it’s okay to add a few little items to your arrangement, don’t go overboard!
2. Add texture to plates and bowls
Most plates and bowls are smooth and shiny, but this causes problems.
For one, a shiny object is tough to photograph, especially if you’re using artificial light. Your light will create blown-out highlights on the bowl, which you’ll struggle to remove in post-processing.
Plus, shiny objects lack texture. Texture is great because it helps the viewer feel like the scene is real – like they could reach out and grab the food.
So what do you do?
I’m a big fan of adding paper to food arrangements. I don’t add anything elaborate or distracting, but I do find that lining plates with parchment or baking paper adds texture, plus it prevents unwanted highlights.
Make sure you’re very careful with the positioning of your paper. You don’t want edges to flip up and obscure the food, and you definitely don’t want the paper to look so wrinkly that the whole dish becomes unappetizing.
(Also, as I emphasized in the previous tip: Don’t overdo it! Too much paper is a problem. Include paper, but use it sparingly.)
3. Add any fresh food at the end
One of the biggest mistakes in food styling is placing all your ingredients on set from the get-go. Sure, your setup may look beautiful at first, but some foods just don’t sit well. Leafy greens wilt, ice cream melts, and that perfect steak loses its juicy sheen.
Delicate items like fresh fruit are particularly susceptible, and the result is a photo that’s far less appetizing than it should be.
So what’s the workaround? Keep those sensitive food items refrigerated, frozen, or warm in the oven until you’re ready to shoot.
And while these items are waiting off-set, take some time to visualize your composition. Plan where each element will fit, so when you finally bring out that dish of ice cream or that glistening steak, you know exactly where it goes!
4. Create background contrast
Many food photos feature white plates on a white background – and while this can be visually striking, I encourage you to go for contrast instead.
So instead of using white on white, put a white plate on a dark wooden background, or use darker plates on a white background.
Note that the food should also contrast with the background. If the food is eye-poppingly colorful, I like to add a simple white background. But if the food is relatively plain, a dark background – especially a dark background with texture – is often the better move.
That’s what I did for this shot, which features white plates and relatively bland colors:
Do you see how the dark, textured background helps make the food pop?
5. Allow food to spill over naturally
As a food stylist, your instinct might be to keep things nice and neat.
But while it’s certainly good to avoid unwanted mess, a little bit of deliberate mess can make a huge difference.
A bit of spilled sauce or a line of breadcrumbs really helps add movement and life to a food photo, whereas a clean shot often comes across as sterile and boring.
I’d especially encourage you to add mess in specific directions. Use the spills to create lines that direct the viewer from one plate to another.
Of course, make sure your spills look relatively controlled. And after you apply each bit of mess, go back through with a careful eye and make sure the mess looks good (rather than distracting).
6. Apply a glycerin-water mix for a fresh look
There’s something about fresh food that’s visually enticing. A juicy slice of watermelon or a chilled glass of lemonade can look incredibly inviting. But if you’ve ever tried to capture that freshness, you know it’s a tricky affair.
Water is a great way to convey freshness; a quick spritz can add a bit of shine to fruits, vegetables, and beverages. But try such an approach, and you’ll quickly realize that water droplets tend to evaporate or slide off quickly. That’s where glycerin comes in.
This magical liquid holds its shape and position much better than water, yet it looks very similar. For a good result, mix equal parts glycerin and water. Then transfer this mixture to a spray bottle.
Then give the food a spray! Don’t overdo it, of course, but a light misting on your fruits, veggies, or drink glasses will give them a tantalizing freshness that lasts.
I’ve often found that a few spritzes can be the difference between an average photo and an outstanding one. And the best part? This glycerin-water mix is affordable and easy to make, meaning there’s no excuse not to add this trick to your food styling repertoire!
7. Choose (simple) crockery and tableware
If you want to give your food photos a complete feel, it’s a good idea to add silverware, serving dishes, and other little props that’ll enhance the composition and tell the story.
However, you must select your items carefully. While highly decorative china and napery are beautiful on their own, they can detract from the visual impact of the food. And while flashy, ornate silverware might seem attractive, it can draw the eye away from the main subject.
So keep your props simple. Plain items allow the food to be the star of your shot, so go for simple colors and designs. When in doubt, plain white or plain black both work great!
8. Emphasize the natural beauty of the food
Many beginner food stylists struggle to start a food composition. They look at a blank tabletop and feel overwhelmed by the possibilities.
So here’s what I recommend:
Before you lay down a single item, think about what it is that makes a particular dish so delicious.
Then create the entire arrangement in service of that idea.
For example, if you’re photographing a delicious brownie with a soft chocolate center, consider breaking up the brownie to reveal the gooey inside. Then put the brownie on a white plate in the center of the arrangement, and use various props – such as a fork and a napkin – to direct the viewer toward the brownie.
Of course, every food item can be approached from different directions, and there’s no real right or wrong here. What’s key is that you identify the story you want to tell – and that you style the food so that the story is clearly conveyed.
9. Create a setup with visual flow
In food photography, composition makes such a difference. A cluttered, disorganized setup not only distracts but also fails to guide the viewer through the culinary story you’re trying to tell. Therefore, one of the secrets to a captivating food photo lies in its visual flow.
What does this even mean? Think of visual flow as a pathway that guides the viewer’s eye from one element of your composition to the next. The more flow you can create, the more engaging the photo will be.
Let’s talk tools. Cutlery, linens, and garnishes will help you create that sense of visual movement; a strategically placed spoon or a casually draped napkin can serve as visual cues, pointing the way from the appetizer to the main course, or guiding the viewer from one end of the frame to the other.
I’d recommend practicing first without the food. Just arrange plates, cups, and cutlery. Experiment with linens and garnishes until you’re satisfied with the flow. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to work more efficiently when the food is ready to be styled.
You’ll find that viewers linger longer on photos with good visual flow. And the longer they engage, the more likely they are to appreciate the delicious details you’ve so carefully arranged!
10. Clean up distracting details
It’s often the little things that distinguish a professional food photograph from an amateur one. If you look closely at high-quality food photos, you’ll see an impeccable level of detail. Not a crumb out of place, no smudges on the dishware, and certainly no accidental sauce drips marring the scene.
However, achieving this level of perfection isn’t as easy as it looks. Let’s face it, food can be messy. That’s why it’s essential to be proactive about cleaning up those distracting details. I’d recommend grabbing a few handy tools that you can use while on set. Small paintbrushes or makeup brushes can sweep away crumbs, and tweezers can place that rogue piece of parsley exactly where it needs to go.
But don’t just focus on the food. Take a moment to scrutinize the entire setup. Plates, cutlery, and glassware should be free of smudges or fingerprints. (A quick wipe with a cloth can make all the difference!)
Of course, you might still miss a few spots, and that’s okay. In such situations, post-production software like Photoshop can be a lifesaver. But remember: it’s always better to get it right the first time. Editing can be time-consuming and sometimes may not yield the most natural-looking results, so do your best to get rid of any problematic details before taking photos.
11. Style some work-in-progress shots
As a stylist, it’s easy to focus on creating that final, plated food shot.
But in truth, there are plenty of stunning opportunities along the way!
So try to style a few shots as the food is cooked. For instance, you can create a composition using raw ingredients (and lots of mess!). You might also create a composition that shows the food cooling after coming out of the oven.
And feel free to get creative. You don’t have to style the food on a standard table; instead, you can work with the food on the stovetop or even in the oven. Just remember to apply the techniques I’ve shared throughout this article, and no matter where you’re working, you’ll get great results.
12. Always be on the lookout for ideas
If you do enough food photography styling, you’ll start to use the same type of arrangement again and again.
And while there’s nothing wrong with repeating solid arrangements, it’s also good to break out of your comfort zone and come up with fresh food photo ideas.
A great way to generate styling ideas is by looking through cookbooks and food magazines. Simply flick through and take note of what looks appealing and what doesn’t. Don’t copy directly, of course, but do keep a little list of ideas that you can try down the line. (It can also be fun to find an arrangement you like, then adjust it for a fresh look.)
If you prefer to look at food photos online, you can always create a Pinterest board dedicated to your favorite food styling. Every time you find some well-styled food, just add it to the board – that way, the next time you’re in need of new ideas, you can open the board and generate some instant inspiration.
13. Have a heat gun ready
If you’re ready to take your food styling to the next level, a heat gun can be an invaluable addition to your toolkit. Ever wondered how professionals capture that freshly baked look? Or how they manage to keep the cheese on a pizza looking like it’s just melted?
A heat gun can rejuvenate foods that have lost their fresh-out-of-the-oven appeal and is especially effective when styling foods with a melty or gooey texture. Imagine a brownie that’s cooled down and lost its molten center. A few seconds with a heat gun, and it’s as if it’s fresh from the oven.
But be careful! Heat guns are dangerous, and you’ll need to handle the gun carefully to avoid burning the food or, worse, injuring yourself. Always turn it off when not in use, and keep the nozzle pointed away from you or anyone else.
Also, be conservative in your use of the heat gun. Too much heat, and you could end up cooking the food further instead of just improving its look. A few seconds are usually all that’s needed to bring back that irresistibly melty effect.
14. Style the food after it’s been served
Here’s your final food stylist trick:
Don’t just arrange uneaten food. After you’ve created some work-in-progress compositions and a final, plated shot, serve a slice of the food. (You can eat this if you want!)
And then create another arrangement that highlights the missing or served food. In my experience, a half-finished plate is often more appetizing than the original whole!
Depending on the type of food you’re shooting, you may need to work fast. But that’s all part of the fun, and even if you fail to get a great “served” shot, there’s always next time.
Food photography styling tips: final words
So there you have it:
A comprehensive guide to food photography styling that touches on everything from the basics to advanced techniques. If you’re wondering whether these extra steps are worth the effort, trust me: they are! Small details matter, and that’s especially true in food photography where the goal is to make the viewer’s mouth water.
So incorporate these tips into your workflow and you’ll see a marked improvement in your food photo styling. You’ll create dishes that not only look delicious but also tell a compelling story!
Now over to you:
Which of these food stylist tips do you like best? Which do you plan to use in your photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
About the author: Jules Clancy is a qualified food scientist and self-taught food photographer. She blogs about her commitment to cooking recipes with no more than five ingredients over at Stonesoup.
Table of contents
- 10 Tips to Improve Your Food Photography Styling
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES