Tag Archives: food styling

Food Stylist Jill Keller adds a letter to a block of sugar.

Behind the Scenes: Working with a Food Stylist, Conceptual and in Restaurants

I often get asked, “Why do we need a food stylist?”

A food stylist is to food photography, what a model, fashion designer, makeup artist and/or hairstylist is to fashion photography: in short, without the food stylist, there is either nothing to shoot, or a subject that could be vastly improved.

Why is that?

Well, the food stylist plays a very important role in the photo shoot – everything from buying the groceries, to prepping the food, “plating” or setting the food on the scene, looking painstakingly close and sorting pieces of food for the perfect looking one, and ultimately adjusting the food on set to look just right, from building it, to spraying it with water or oil, to using tweezers to move around crumbs, an eye dropper to remove liquid, etc.

Food Styling in Conceptual Work

In a conceptual shoot, like the project I’m working on with NYC food stylist, Jill Keller, which explores the absurdly high quantity of hidden, added sugars in “healthy” foods, the stylist’s job is even more complex.

In addition to the basics, like grocery shopping and cooking, she also was key in concept development, sourcing props and doing such things as painting a map of the US out of sugar, putting letters on sugar cubes, making skulls out of sugar, dying sugar cubes, and more.

While I, the photographer, was in charge of researching data to contribute to the visualizations and coming up with various images in a story board, as well as researching a mood board for the project, Jill was busy searching for ways to make these ideas come to life.

When it was time for the actual shoot, we worked together very well.

I set up my equipment and used stand ins while to prep the lighting, in advance, for when the subject would be ready. Then, once everything was set, Jill and I worked side by side to make adjustments to the subjects. I shot tethered to the computer, so we could see the photo large enough to know what things to change – whether that was changing the shape, moving a sugar cube here or there, removing a piece of lettuce or adding in some milk, or removing some coffee.

Some things really had to be done at the last second – such as pouring in frothed milk into a “latte” or adding milk to cereal, so that it wouldn’t become soggy.

This is really the value of having a stylist on set. It’s pretty obvious when the shoot is conceptual or there isn’t already a chef to do the “plating.”

Food Styling in a Restaurant Shoot

But what about for a restaurant shoot, where food is already prepped for you by the chef and line cooks in the kitchen?

Is there still a need for a food stylist?

Of course!

It’s just the role that shifts. Instead of testing a recipe or buying groceries, the food stylist is there to assist in primping the food.

The stylist will often work with both with the chef and the photographer – as sort of a go-between. She will look at how the chef plates a dish, and either directly adapt it for the camera, or make suggestions to the chef about how to “build” the dish, so that it looks right in the light and in front of the lens.

Then, once the dish is in front of the camera, the stylist will work with me to make adjustments to the scene, such as with props, or cleaning a dish, moving a stray pea in a pasta dish or freshening up meat or veggies, etc.

The stylist isn’t there to change a chef’s plating, but to enhance the look of the dish and translate it for the camera. Plus, a really great stylist understands photography, what the lighting and lens will do to the food, and how to compensate for the problems and enhance for the strengths. Stylists of this calibre know how to work around lens distortions and work with photographers to call attention to the important story and beauty elements of the dish/concept.

The fact of the matter: plating for eating and plating for photography are different skills – and not every chef has that understanding of how to make food look right for the camera. And, honestly, it’s really fine if they don’t – so they can focus on making the food taste food, and leave the looks to the stylist and photographer.

So, when you ask whether you should spring for the stylist, I always recommend yes, because, really, what’s the sense in hiring a professional photographer and only going half way?

Instead, get the most out of your images by bringing on a stylist to take the food from “ready to eat” to “ready to shoot.” Besides, isn’t the point of the photographs to create a craving in the viewer? To make them want to eat your food right away? If so, it’s the stylist that transforms the dish so the camera can show you what you want to see, to make that hunger pang come through the image and into your stomach. The photographer then uses the tricks of the camera and lighting to take the temporary joy of the food and make it into a permanent and beautiful work of art.

NYC Food Stylist, Jill Keller, preps food for a shoot with Hudson Valley food photographer, Caylena Cahill. NYC Food Stylist, Jill Keller, preps food for a shoot with Hudson Valley food photographer, Caylena Cahill. NYC Food Stylist, Jill Keller, preps food for a shoot with Hudson Valley food photographer, Caylena Cahill.


Behind the Scenes of a Food Photography Shoot

This past Monday I had the pleasure of working with food stylist, Leslie Orlandini on a test shoot. Our explorations included healthy food options such as a honey vanilla roasted lemonade, a root vegetable pancake with poached egg, a panna cotta made with cashew milk and others. The shoot took place in a lovely home in Somers, NY with beautiful natural light in the kitchen and a great country/rustic vibe, set off in the woods. Prior to the shoot, we discussed and brainstormed several ideas for the meal plan and what our goals would be for the day. We decided upon a combination of recipe demos and “beauty shots,” as if we were working on a cookbook or editorial piece.

The morning started off with the demo shoot of the lemonade drink – which is made by roasting lemons and then soaking them with water, fresh vanilla and honey. For our images, we decided we’d do a still life with the ingredients, a shot to illustrate the roasting, and a final shot for the finished drink. We ended up with two varieties of “final” shots of the drink in a glass – for variety. I shot tethered to my laptop, so we could see each image at a large enough size to determine what was working and what wasn’t. We worked very collaboratively to determine which props to include (or not) and what food should be placed where, etc.

After we finished the lemonade, I worked with the panna cotta dessert – which Leslie had prepped beforehand and was all ready to go. I used a different lighting set up and location than the lemon shots – for which I had used a mix of natural/available and artificial light on the windowsill in the kitchen. For the panna cotta’s, I moved to a different window and stuck with the available light, modifying it with a reflector, to get some fill light into the shadows. Once I had the lighting and basic setup ready to go, Leslie and I worked together to come up with a good combination of composition and story – such as props, partially eaten cups, etc.

By this point, we’d been working for about 4 hours and it was time for lunch! While we ate, we talked about our own experiences and goals, while watching the snow begin to fall outside.

After lunch we worked on a demo of the root vegetable pancakes – determining which steps should be shown and which would be clear when in combination with a recipe. Ultimately this wound up including about 5 images, including a still life, the process of julienning the veggies, “blanching” the veggies to soften, using a towel to strain the water, frying the pancakes on the stove and finally, a plated version of the dish, complete with poached egg and yolk running down the front!

The day finished and, all said and done, we came out with 10-12 images. Not a bad day’s work. We packed up and set off for a snowy and dark drive home.

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