Styling of Food

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STYLING OF FOOD. The styling of food, usually referred to as "food styling," is the art of preparing food to be photographed or filmed. The preparation, or styling, involved can be as deceptively simple as shopping for the perfect apple or as extreme as re-creating an elaborate, twelve-course belle epoque dinner party for fourteen. The creation of appealing images of food is a complex process. Whether the food is to be photographed for packaging, an advertisement, a cookbook, or a magazine, or to be filmed as part of a television commercial, cooking show, or movie, the styling of the food is an integral part of the process.

The People Who Do It: Food Stylists

Generally, those who work in the field of food styling are known as "food stylists." Since there is no formal training available for food styling, the particular skills and techniques required are usually learned while apprenticed to or assisting an established food stylist. While most people entering the field have a background in the culinary arts, additional skills that are invaluable include a knowledge of basic food chemistry, the principles of design, and the ability to improvise. Until the late twentieth century, courses on food styling were rarely offered, even at the top cooking schools. Where offered, these courses are primarily an introduction to the field.

While the term "home economist" is sometimes used, this is basically a holdover from the era when home economists on staff at women's service magazines (such as Good Housekeeping, Ladies' Home Journal, and McCall's ), and large food corporations were responsible for the styling of food. Curiously, home economist is the term frequently used in the film industry.

Today, very few companies and magazines have food stylists on staff. Food stylists usually work on a freelance basis. The photographer, director, or production company hires them as needed, sometimes choosing a stylist that specializes in a certain area such as ice cream, chocolate, fast food, or baked goods.

Is The Styling of Food Necessary?

The need for food styling is a question that is often raised. The photographing or filming of food is very involved, and many techniques are employed to stabilize, sustain, and, if necessary, enhance the food to be photographed. Most important is that the food look as fresh and appetizing as possible until the image is captured on film, but this process can take hours. During that time, the food needs to be kept "alive," or replaced as often as needed, sometimes very often. For example, it is difficult to take a photograph of a barbecue grill with flames lapping up through an arrangement of jumbo shrimp, because the flames will char the food within minutes. The food might need to be replaced a dozen times and look identical each time so as not to affect the lighting or camera framing. Or to shoot a commercial that features a slice of pie with a piece being broken off by a fork, twenty takes with twenty perfect slices might be needed before the director gets the shot in which the crust looks flaky enough. Even a bowlful of salad greens demands a unique knowledge and set of skills to keep it looking crisp and moist. This knowledge and these skills are essential to successful food styling, and ensure that the process of capturing the needed image on film is efficient and cost-effective.

While there is a trend toward a more documentary style of photographing food that shuns food styling, this seemingly straightforward approach still involves many of the same considerations that go into typical food photography: props, lighting, camera angle. While food photographed straight out of the kitchen might have an inherent honesty about it, the end result is not always attractive. Most consumers, and more importantly the clients, still expect to see images of appealing food.

The Process and Techniques Involved

Each project a food stylist undertakes is unique and has its own set of demands. The approach the stylist takes in preparing the foodeven the same foodvaries greatly depending on how the image is to be seen and used.

But before the food is prepared, there are several preliminary steps involved. The stylist meets with the photographer/director, and sometimes the client, to discuss what will be shot. The appropriate recipes, layout, or storyboards are reviewed. And from this, the necessary food, material, and equipment are determined. While the stylist is responsible for the shopping and purchasing of the needed food, actual product to be used is usually sent by the client. Often the shopping involves locating out-of-season or difficult-to-find items. The stylist then confers with the prop stylist (the person responsible for providing the tableware, linens, flowers, etc.) to make sure the props selected are suitable.

The first step in the actual preparation of the food is to create a "stand-in." The stand-in is a close approximation of the finished food, and gives the photographer/ director the time needed to compose and light the shot without worrying about the food "dying" on the set. Another important reason for preparing a stand-in is that it allows the client to make recommendations the stylist can incorporate into the final, or "hero," food.

The preparation of the hero food involves any number of specialized techniques food stylists have developed to deal with the demands of photographing food. The overriding concern of the stylist is to keep the food looking fresh and alive. Moisture is critical.

Depending on the food, moisture is retained (or replenished) by brushing or spraying the surface with water or a thin coat of vegetable oil, and keeping the food under cover until needed. This is probably the most basic technique employed by the food stylist. It not only creates the appearance of freshness but can also make the food look juicy or even hot, since it is often cold and undercooked when photographed. (Heat will cause the food to continue cooking, then wilt and appear dried out.) For instance, vegetables are undercooked and kept in cold water until needed to retain their color. Poultry and meats are also undercooked, or cooked at lower than normal temperatures, to prevent them from shriveling or shrinking. A finished, roasted look is then added to the surface by brushing on gravy coloring, or browning the surface with a blowtorch. For a grilled look, grill marks are branded onto the surface using red-hot skewers.

Stabilizing delicate foods is a common challenge. This can be as straightforward as using toothpicks, straight pins, or hairpins to hold things in place. Or it can simply be a matter of placing a thin piece of cardboard under a slice of cake, or even meatloaf, to keep it from breaking. More complicated stabilizing techniques involve the use of thickening agents such as gelatin or food starches. These can be used to keep sauces in place, or a slice of pie from collapsing.

Foods that oxidize easily (such as cut fruit) are dipped in lemon juice. Commercial antioxidants are also used; they are especially good for keeping leafy greens crisp or preventing the surfaces of sliced meat from turning gray.

Occasionally, substitutes for the actual food are used. This is done when the technical requirements of the photography or filming make it difficult or even impossible to use the real thing. A model might be made of a candy bar or a piece of cereal. Sometimes ice cream is made out of a mixture of confectioner's sugar, vegetable shortening, and corn syrup. Hair tonic might be used in place of milk in a bowl of cereal.

In short, these examples represent just some of the basics of what is involved in the styling of food. More than the mere ability to prepare an attractive plate of food, successful food styling is a demanding occupation that requires resourcefulness, skill, and artistry.


Bianco, Marie. "Dressing Up." Newsday (5 October 1988): Food, 6-7.

Carafoli, John F. Food Photography and Styling. New York: Amphoto, an imprint of Watson-Guptill Publications, a division of BPI Communications, 1992.

Foderaro, Lisa W. "A Food Beautician Reveals How a Nectarine Grew Fuzz." The New York Times (7 September 1996): Metro 27.

Kleiman, Dena. "Food Styling: The Art of Making the Basil Blush." The New York Times (7 November 1990): C1.

O'Neill, Molly. "All Tarted Up." The New York Times Magazine (19 September 1999): 137.

Simone, Luisa. "Food for Thought." Photo/Design (November/December 1989): 45-55.

Rick Ellis