The glamorous life of a food stylist

by on October 7, 2011

You know the beautiful food pictures that you drool over in books and magazines? That’s the work of a food stylist (also known as a home economist, but I think we can all agree that food stylist sounds more glamorous). Sure, your favourite chef may have written the recipes, but more often than not, it’s a food stylist in a photographer’s studio that cooks and arranges the food for the camera.

Quite often people think that food styling is about using fake food or dirty tricks to get the right shot – making whipped cream from shaving foam or the like. But the fashion for pictures of food with visible steam or an unnatural level of shine are long gone.  Now food is shot pretty much as it’s cooked – with careful styling and maybe a little spray of water to keep the food from looking dry when awaiting its close-up.

So what do they do? Firstly, they buy all the ingredients (which involves much schlepping around town) and as most magazines and TV shows are filmed a few months ahead, this can mean trying to find a turkey in July for a Christmas shoot. In fact, most food stylists will spend the summer cooking Christmas dinners and making mince pies.

Then there’s the cooking – organising five or six cooked dishes, with accompaniments, into a day’s shoot. Tough at the best of times, but harder when the recipes aren’t working (more common than you might think).

Once the food is cooked, the styling begins. How do you make a brown lump of lentils look appetising? (This is a fantastic post with some great insight on styling difficult foods.)

Lentils: before styling and after

Before and after (image credit: runningwithtweezers.com)

Many food stylists love the creativity of work on food magazines and cookbooks, but they can often earn more money for packaging or advertising jobs.  However, clients trying to get the right shot for an advert or packaging can be notoriously difficult.

Mari Williams, who styles many of the shots for BBC Food, talked us through some of her more trying jobs. ‘I did a job for a client that sells rice – this involved hand-picking grains of rice of a certain length, shape and colour and arranging them with tweezers. It was painfully slow and used all my reserves of patience. Then there was the time I had to arrange a display of 52 varieties of whole fresh fish – it was hard logistically, it was hard on the nose, and my hands smelled for days!’

A cup of rice

Rice can be styled, but you’ll need a good pair of tweezers

The work is physically demanding. Mari says, “A typical day can start as early 6.30am when I leave the house so I can do my shopping on the way to a shoot.  I have a bizarre knowledge of London by supermarkets – you get to know which supermarket is best for which obscure ingredients and where the best butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers are.

Days are as long as it takes – if all goes well you finish at normal time. If not, you stay until all the shots are done.”  And of course, at the end of a long day, there’s all the washing up. There is often a whole army of stylists working on a TV show.  Ingredients for every stage of the recipe will need to be prepped, and there’ll be several ‘here’s one I made earlier’ versions.

So if you fancy going into food styling, how do you do it? While you’ll certainly need a solid knowledge of all things cookery, which means attending a professional course. But then, it’s often about getting experience and contacts – one food stylist told us that she’d go to the launch of a mixer just to network. Expect to assist other, more established, food stylists for a while too – probably for little or no money. But the experience is invaluable.

Tricks of the trade

We asked the food stylists for their top tips on making food look great at home:

  • Think of shapes when you are cutting your ingredients, cutting spring onions on an angle looks so much better than straight across, same with bread.  Shave cucumber into ribbons rather than slices.
  • Think about what you’re plating your food on. You’ll be amazed at how a lovely plate or bowl can transform the way your food looks- even if it’s just a jacket potato! Choosing neutral, simple plates allows food to be the star.
  • Always wipe the plate before serving to get rid of any dribbles or splashes (a wet cotton bud is good for soup bowls or glasses).
  • Many supermarkets now sell micro herbs – they look so pretty either in a clump on top of a dish or scattered over a plate.
  • Taking a few extra moments to garnish plates – a sprinkle of chopped herbs, a drizzle of olive oil or a grinding of black pepper.

Which food pictures get you drooling? Did you have any idea of the work that goes into beautiful food photography?

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