Food stylist and Photography

It is said that you eat with your eyes first. This is more so when you see tantalizing pictures of food that have the power to make your mouth water. Delicious pizzas dripping with cheeze, crispy fried chicken, ice creams in all colours, exotic vegetables and fruits we see in newspapers, magazines and on television always look so appetizing. Great food pictures can not only make you hungry, just by looking at them, but also induce you buy what you see.

That is the job of a food stylist and food photographer -  to turn a photograph of food into a culinary masterpiece. While a food stylist arranges the food item so that it looks tasty and fresh, the food photographer takes pictures of food to make it look tempting and appealing for use in advertisements, packaging, menus or cookbooks. Professional food photography is a collaborative effort, between the food stylist and photographer, and often the skills are combined in one person.

Food stylists are people who style the food that is portrayed in pictures. Whether in a food show, the menu of a restaurant, a glossy magazine, or an advertisement, the food is presented in such a manner that it looks appetizing and makes you want to continue watching, or try out the recipe or still better, visit the restaurant, or buy that finger licking chicken. It is food stylist's job is to get food ready to have its picture taken. What people don’t know is the amount of training and experience required to excel in this career, more than just being a good cook, or knowing a few tricks.

The food stylist is responsible for organizing the food, sourcing unusual ingredients, arranging for shopping, preproduction preparation of food, preparing food on the shoot, and the final presentation of food under the camera. Food stylists must be highly organized and good problem solvers. This requires  detailed information about the food item to be filmed, deciding on amounts of food needed, the equipment needed to prepare and present it.  Food stylists also typically shop for the food, selecting the choicest ingredients. They will probably spend a couple of days before a shoot planning for it, creating a concept, collecting all the necessary crockery, glassware, cutlery and anything else needed to make the food look as delicious as possible. Accessories that compliment the food are usually chosen - candles, flowers, ribbons and other decorations. For example, Mediterranean food would usually be placed on a colorful table cloth in an outdoor location with Mediterranean themed plates.

Cooking or otherwise preparing the food is the next step. Some  types of food are not cooked all the way through, just enough to make them look edible. Taste is of little concern, but looks are everything. The goal is to create images that appear to be freshly made, coming straight out of the kitchen to your dining table – so often this means they need to keep it looking wonderful until the photographer is  ready to shoot. The ability to do this, despite having handled the food a great deal, or having food that must stand for long periods of time, is both an art and a science. Tools like blowtorches or even hair dryers and a touch of soya sauce can make an uncooked bird look like a beautifully cooked roasted chicken! Ice creams can melt, so toothpaste or mashed potato can be used to do the job.
The main difference between how a chef may present food and what a stylist does is the time and effort a stylist takes to carefully and artfully arrange the food. Also required is the visual know how, and ability to translate the perception of taste, aroma and appeal that one gets from an actual dish, to a two-dimensional photograph.

Getting In

There is no actual degree for food styling and most aspiring food stylists start their careers as professional chefs, or with a culinary arts degree. The best way to enter this profession is to work as an assistant to a food stylist and so learn on the job.  This may involve many tedious hours of shopping, cleaning, and lots of washing up – but  it’s the only way to learn.

A good professional training in cooking, through the hotel management programme, home science or one in culinary arts is useful. In general, food stylists should love to cook and be great at it. The majority of food stylists are very passionate about what they do and passionate about food in general. There are many stylists who don’t actually cook, but have an assistant who does the cooking. However, it is an advantage to have good cooking and baking skills,  be versatile, have a good deal of patience, and be able to work in a team and take stress. You should also have good creative skills, and an eye for little details.

You may also be able to take courses and attend seminars to learn the tricks and techniques of food styling. Short food styling workshops teach students basic presentation skills, how food reacts under the camera, the ins and outs of propping and preparing for a shoot. Often this includes tricks and techniques for cooking for the camera, building a portfolio, elements of design for photography, the importance of colors, textures, and negative space.

Where Does a Food Stylist Work?

Most food stylists start out as traditional cooks or chefs. They work in kitchens of all types of different fine dining establishments, from hotel kitchens to classy restaurants. However, with this career getting greater prominence, freshers are able to start working directly with experienced and established food stylists.

Many food stylists work as freelancers, but some companies also hire in-house food stylists. Restaurants, for example, may hire food stylists to arrange their food for menu pictures. Magazine publishers might also hire food stylists, as will cook book publishers. Advertising agencies who work with food companies might also hire a few food stylists of their own.

Some food stylists work as chefs, on speciality cuisines, or on other food related projects. They could also develop recipes for clients, work as a consultant to food companies and write on food subjects for magazines.

Food stylists can  also work with companies marketing kitchen equipment, table ware, crockery and glassware and so on. Having a  proper kitchen, with working space, and a stove and refrigerator attached to the studio goes a long way in producing the best results. And building a portfolio of your work helps to get more assignments in this field.

Food styling is still very new in India and those getting into this field need to learn as much as they can about the subject - understanding the client's needs, whether the shoot is for the print media, packaging, television or editorial work, must be clarified. Each form of media has its parameters and guidelines.

It is also as important for the food photographer to know about lighting, colours and photography. Getting to master camera angles, back lighting, or filters, is as important as being knowledgeable about food.

If you a creative person, looking for a career that is new and different from the regular design options, if you love cooking but cant see yourself becoming a chef, you may like to think about food styling and photography. Here  is a new and fascinating career for anyone  who is a foodie  with strong artistic skills.  You can be sure there will never be a dull moment in your career.

Usha Albuquerque
7 July 2012