Food-Styling 101: Pro-Tips to Step Up Your Game

Want to learn how to style great food photos? Here's what you need to know. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Earlier this year, we brought you our complete guide to food photography. We talked about everything from creating optimal lighting and composition to choosing the right props, equipment, and camera settings for your needs. With a little practice, these tips can take you from a discolored, distorted smartphone photo to something like this:

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But there's more to food photography than just, well, photography: professional stylists play an integral role in making magazine-quality shots look as viscerally appealing as possible. That can range from doing the actual cooking and plating to selecting cutlery and arranging an entire table spread. "Stylists," says Serious Eats Visual Editor Vicky Wasik, "prepare the food to make it look its best in real life, and help to set the scene and tell a story. Then it's up to the photographer to make sure the lighting, composition, and framing is right to capture it."

So what does that process actually look like? You asked us for tips to improve your own food photography, so we sat down with professional food stylist Jason Schreiber, whose clients include Martha Stewart, Bon Appétit, and the Food Network, to find out. To take us through his philosophy, Schreiber made us a simple puff pastry plum galette and showed us how to style it one step at a time. Here are his top suggestions for home cooks looking to step up their game. (You can also check out his Instagram feed for tons of inspiration).

1. Choose and Prep Your Ingredients Wisely

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When you know you'll be shooting a dish and not just wolfing it down, the appearance of your ingredients becomes a lot more important. "Not everything needs to be picture perfect," notes Schreiber, "but look for ingredients that are unblemished and have good shapes, especially if you'll be showcasing them raw." When it comes to produce, Schreiber recommends hitting the farmers market, where a wider variety of options is usually available, like the multi-hued plums pictured above.

As for proteins, we suggest shopping from a trusted butcher—many shrink-wrapped cuts of chicken thighs or skirt steak, for instance, may look just fine behind the plastic, but often turn out to have poorly trimmed or rough edges that can impact the appearance of the final dish.

And once you have those ingredients in-hand, think about how you'll be prepping them. When it comes to photos, Schreiber notes, flavor can come at the expense appearance: for instance, he looked for slightly unripened plums for our photoshoot, since they're better able to retain their shape after baking. Similarly, although cutting them all to the same dimensions would guarantee that they'd cook more evenly, Schreiber sliced some plums in quarters, others in thirds, and still others in half, in order to give the dish a less uniform, more rustic appearance that catches the eye and holds the viewer's interest.

2. Show, Don't Tell

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Schreiber suggests letting a photograph express as much as possible about the dish it features. "Sometimes," he says, "the process is more interesting than the final product—you'll learn more about a spice rub when you can see the individual components being measured than when you just see a bunch of dry ingredients mixed together in a bowl."

Other times, as with our galette, the process is boring or just plain unattractive. That's why he instead decided to illustrate the ingredients with a scattering of plums in the background and a sprinkle of lemon thyme over the surface.

3. But Stay Realistic

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There are good garnishes and then there are illogical ones. "The food needs to look edible," he stresses. "If you can't imagine putting it it in your mouth, then it's probably not a great garnish." Poorly selected garnishes are jarring—rather than alluding to what went into the dish, they make the viewer question whether they even care about the dish in the first place. Just look at the effect of adding several whole sprigs of thyme to the tart, rather than the light scattering of leaves that we ultimately went with.

4. Get Messy, But Not Dirty

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The grease stains on the parchment in this photo just aren't attractive.

We love a little mess in a food photo. It communicates movement, dynamism, and the unbridled pleasure of eating. But there's a difference between mess we want to eat—like a melting scoop of ice cream or a stray crumb—and a big ol' grease stain that reminds you of the clean-up you'll need to do later. If you're going to embrace the mess, just be sure that it makes you hungry.

5. Communicate a Story

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The job of a food stylist isn't just to make the food look delicious, it's to bring it to life. "Are you composing a plated dish from a fancy restaurant?," Schreiber prompts. "Is it a family style meal? Dinner for one?" In other words, aim to keep your props, colors, and serving sizes consistent with the atmosphere the dish is meant to evoke. Above, you can see that we tested a variety of surfaces for the galette, and while they're all aesthetically pleasing, the one we ultimately settled on (bottom right) best expressed the casual, autumnal qualities of the dish.

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We could have just left it at that: it's a perfectly pleasing photograph that would certainly be at home on Serious Eats. But Schreiber encouraged us to go further. We started by slicing it to give it a sense of action and accessibility. A single slice seemed forced; we continued to follow our instincts, slicing the entire tart and then pulling out some of the slices to hint at movement, as if to say there's a slice headed your way.

6. Highlight Dimensions and Break Boundaries

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For this shoot, we opted to keep the camera in a fixed position to demonstrate the distinction between photography and styling. But no matter what angle you're shooting from, you want to experiment with height and boundaries. "Don't keep everything super flat," Schreiber recommends. By breaking up surfaces and playing with boundaries, you can bring the image to life and translate it to a three dimensional world. You know, the world where that food actually winds up in your mouth.

7. Know When to Stop

Styling can work wonders...until it doesn't. Schreiber cautions against adding too many props or over-thinking your scene. Just because you can fit another napkin/fork/garnish into the frame doesn't mean you should. When a space grows so busy that the eye no longer knows where to go, it's time to take a step back and take a more minimalist approach. And hey—there's nothing wrong with experimenting. Just look how many different tweaks we made over the course of the photoshoot before we were happy with the final look:

If anything, it's a pretty great excuse to play with your food.

The Food-Stylist's Toolkit

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Looking to get even more serious with your food styling? While Schreiber is adamant that most dishes can be beautifully styled without any tools at all, there are certainly some items that come in handy. Here's what he always has at a shoot.

  • A sharp knife: A sharp knife ensures that you can make even, precise cuts and avoid that dirty kind of mess we were talking about.
  • Brushes: "I actually have way more brushes than you see here. I use them to dust surfaces, move powdery ingredients, or manipulate liquids and droplets," says Schreiber. He advises buying higher quality brushes from art stores or even makeup suppliers. Not only will they last longer, but they'll produce a more even, studied appearance.
  • Small scissors: Any kind of scissors are great for trimming edges, making stencils for decorative cakes, or meeting basic utilitarian needs like cutting a sheet of parchment paper down to size. But Schreiber prefers little scissors because they can get into small spaces and perform the more delicate maneuvers often called for in perfecting a vignette.
  • Tweezers: Food stylists often need to move around and carefully arrange small objects—it's dainty work! Schreiber loves these tweezers because the bent tips allow him to lower items right into position.
  • Exacto Knife: Can't even get those little scissors into a tiny space? Enter the super sharp and narrow X-ACTO Knife.
  • Ruler: "I use the ruler if I need to measure even distances between items, but it's also great because you can use it as a miniature offset spatula—it can fit into tiny places that other instruments can't reach," Schreiber says.
  • Offset spatula: Offsets come in many different sizes, but this little guy is great for smaller-scale work. Use it to smooth out condiments or icing.
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Feeling extra nit-picky? Schreiber demonstrated some pro-tips for dealing with minor blemishes: in the photo above, he uses a brush to wipe away bits of flour and cover any dry patches of plum with the natural juices that have pooled at the bottom of the galette. A little simple syrup on desserts or oil on savory dishes will have a similar effect.