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Photo Shoot Tips from a Professional Food Stylist

Successfully styling food involves a lot more than just making it look pretty.

Published Oct. 5, 2017.

You may know me from my recipe segments on season 17 of America’s Test Kitchen TV, but I’m more than just a pretty face on TV—I’m also the resident food stylist in the test kitchen.

Elle food styling

There’s a lot that goes into a food photo shoot. Our photo team test cooks have to recreate the best-looking version of a given recipe, and our photographers have to capture the results at the perfect angle and with the perfect lighting. My job happens somewhere in between all of that.

But styling food isn’t only about making it look appealing. There’s a lot of work that goes on before and on the day of a shoot. Below, I’ve listed some tips and tricks that I use every day to make our food photo shoots a success.

1. Ask the Right Questions

I always attend photo shoot meetings—where we discuss and plan the details of a shoot—with a standard set of questions for cooks and photographers. Are there any dishes or components that are time sensitive, like ice cream, fresh vegetables, or cake frosting? Are there any special skills required to achieve the desired look or theme, like a specific bread-braiding technique or fancy knife skill? And I always find out ahead of time if I'll be working with a pastry recipe, so I can have some time to practice those techniques.

2. Make Good Use of Your Time

I’m systematic about scheduling the time that I commit to preparing for food styling. It’s one of the most common traits of a food stylist—we are a dependable and predictable ilk. Being this way helps me stay organized, and organization keeps me calm. This carries over into my shoot preparation, too.

I print and post onto a board all the recipes that I will be shooting. Once I get the shoot schedule—this dictates the order in which we shoot each recipe—I decide how much time I think I should need per dish and per shot. Then I check my styling kit for any tools that I may need, and to see if anything needs to be replaced or refilled. About that toolkit . . .

3. Make Sure Your Toolkit Is Well-Stocked

Food styling

Over the course of my career, I've stocked my toolkit with items like glycerin, which makes the food last longer during a photo shoot, and Kitchen Bouquet, which lends the food a brown color. But at ATK, we don't use any of that. All of the photos of our recipes that you see in our cookbooks and magazines, and on our TV shows, were shot freshly prepared and without any artificial aids. The way a recipe looks in our photos is the same way it should look when you make it at home.

Now the most important tools in my toolkit range from Q-tips for getting rid of pesky smudges and crumbs to surgical tweezers to move even the smallest piece of herb or pepper flake. I also use everyday kitchen tools like spoons and tongs to get the look we want, and nothing beats a clean pair of gloves and manipulating the food with your hands.

4. Know Your Photographer

Food photo shoot

Another key to a successful shoot: knowing who my photographer and art director is ahead of time so that I can adjust my work style to match theirs. I love all of the members of our photo team, and everyone works a bit differently. Prep week is almost as important as the shoot day.

5. Show Up Early On the Day of the Shoot

I like to show up a half hour early on shoot day. I use this time to mark my territory before everyone else gets in. I put my headphones on—I like to listen to Erykah Badu on shoot days—and I fill a Bain Marie with the usual cook’s tools: offset spatulas, wooden spoon, measuring cup and spoons, whisks, kitchen shears, and a chef’s knife. I have a cutting board in place, along with my styling kit—although the food is prepared for me, the photo team cooks leave the small details up to me.

6. Know Your Client’s “Look”

Sweet Potato, Poblano, and Black Bean Tacos from Nutritious DeliciousCranberry-Apple Crisp from Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook

The true mechanics of styling a dish depend on your client or consumer. These decisions are also based on the style and the purpose of the shoot. There’s a “clean” look, usually done for advertising and marketing departments. Some examples of this are ATK’s The Complete Make-Ahead Cookbook cover. There’s a “rustic” look, which is often found in cookbooks or on the web—our upcoming book, Nutritious Delicious is a perfect example of raw foods and rustic layouts. Minimalist styling is usually used for product advertising, or when something other than food—a piece of equipment, for example—is the highlight. While all these styles involve food and food styling, a given shoot might involve as little food as one stick of butter, or as much food as an entire layer cake. Either way, one light adjustment, or a single 180-degree turn of a cake, can make all the difference in your final results.

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