Confessions of a Food Stylist: Poop Freeze and Other Tricks of the Trade
Picture this: You've slaved all day over the stove making the perfect (and pricey!) beef tenderloin, potatoes gratin and asparagus. You carry it over to the table piping hot. But instead of sitting down and gorging yourself on deliciousness, you grab your camera, tripod and lamp and begin shooting photos. The photo shoot could take an hour. Maybe even longer.
And by the time you get that perfect shot, you're ready to pass out from hunger -- and the meal has gone cold. Your dinner guests are looking at you like you're crazy and privately wishing they never agreed to come. But none of that matters, because you have a photo fit for a website or magazine.
Of course, not all food stylists work for themselves. As a food writer, I'm styling food every day of my life. My own food. Were I to work for a major company or photography agency, I would be styling another chef's food, much of it not even made for consumption. But with so many food writers working independently these days, we have to know not only how to write, but also how to act as food stylists to get the perfect shot. I write for a popular blog and also submit my writing and photographs to many websites and print publications.
Not a piece of cake
Food styling may seem like an easy task: make food, put food on dish, photograph food, eat food. But it's not. Most evenings dinner doesn't get eaten until it's dead cold. You can't simply plop the food onto the plate. You need to take into consideration all kinds of factors, like the perfect plate (or bowl, cup, platter, etc.), size and color. You must always have all sorts of fresh garnish on hand. You need to have tablecloths and place mats in every color you can think of; in other words, your kitchen must be overflowing with props for food styling.
Why is food styling so important to the life of a writer? If your food isn't styled properly, it won't look appetizing. And if your food doesn't look appetizing, why would people want to read what you have to say about the food? When photos of food have people salivating and moaning with hunger, they'll continue reading the piece and might even make the food you're describing in your story. Frankly, I worry every time I submit a piece to a magazine or website that my image isn't sharp enough or that the composition is off.
The tricks of the trade will blow your mind. And while I'm well-learned on how to make a spoonful of cereal look incredibly appetizing (the key is glue), I pride myself on keeping all my food edible. I want people to drool over food that you can actually eat, not food that's created with artificial materials. My most important "trick" is a good light source. Yes, the sun is my most important prop in food styling. And if I can't style my food in the daylight, I make sure to always have an artificial light source (a full-spectrum lamp is best). My other use-all-the-time trick is a spray bottle filled with water. When any of the food or drink I'm photographing appears dry, I simply mist it with the water for a perfectly natural pick-up. This works especially well with fruits, vegetables, and glasses filled with cold beverages.
One trick of the trade for professional food stylists who are not styling food for consumption is something called "poop freeze." Yes, this is an aerosol that is sprayed on dog poop to make it easier to pick up off the ground. In food styling, this spray essentially freezes the food, making it easier to capture without any melting or other disruption. It doesn't sound delicious, but it helps to make the food look totally appetizing!
Nothing to sneeze at
When I first started food styling, I learned the true value of a little bit of black pepper. It can take a dish from looking totally bland to absolutely popping, in just a few grinds. Also, I never look at an herb as just an herb anymore. Herbs have the power to transform a photo.
Food styling isn't for everyone. It takes time to develop an eye for what looks good on the plate, what goes best in the background and just where the light should hit. Which might mean you spend a lot more time looking at the food and photographing the food than actually eating the food. You must be obsessed with bringing out the beauty of food, and at the same time you can't mind having food go cold. You must be incredibly patient. You must be willing to get at all angles of your food to find the perfect one for the best photo.
Get on the floor, get on the table, and take hundreds of photos of one little piece of steak. You'll be happy you did later on when you're trying to pick your favorite shot. And you can feed that cold piece of steak to the dog if it takes too long to get that perfect photo.