Food styling tricks revealed

If you’ve ever flicked through the pages of a glossy food magazine you’ve seen what a food stylist can do.
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  • Updated:24 Jan 2002

01 .Introduction

Set and styled table with food and wine

To the uninitiated, the lengths to which food stylists go to make food look perfect may be surprising. As one person commented when we started on this story, surely if you want a photo of a chook, you just photograph a chook.

The problem with food photography is that food tends to dry out, shrink, discolour and sag — food styling is about counteracting these forces. As the photos on the following pages show, there’s a definite art to getting a picture of food that looks good enough to eat, rather than looking destined for the bin.

Here’s what goes on to get that one apparently simple pic.

Please note: this information was current as of January 2002 but is still a useful guide today.

Real or fake?

Three styled food shots We talked to food stylists and found two schools of thought. Some try to use real food no matter what. Others use whatever techniques get the shot to look right — fake or not. And most are somewhere in between.

In Australia the real-food camp seems to hold sway, with most photos aiming for a natural look using the real thing (albeit with a make-up job). On the other hand, in the US, while they’re moving towards a more casual approach to food shots, the art of faking the parts of a shot that don’t fall foul of consumer protection laws seems to have been perfected.

Of course, there are different types of food photography. A shot for packaging or an ad has to show the real food being advertised, though that doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked, titivated and made-up. And an advertising picture is aiming for perfection. A photo for a glossy recipe mag is more likely to want a casual ‘real’ look than perfection. As one stylist put it, "Editorial is about drawing people into the experience of the food, while advertising is about capturing the perfect vision of the food."

Much food styling could be summarised as lateral thinking and patience, patience, patience — just keep setting up the food over and over or keep it constantly refreshed until the photographer gets the perfect shot. In fact, the photography itself is an art — it’s not unusual to spend most of a day getting the lighting perfect for a single shot.

Of course, these days fixing a shot which isn’t quite right can be as simple as a photo touch-up by computer — for example, one picture has the perfect cheesecake, while another has the perfect dollop of cream. Combine the two and the result is just what the client wanted.


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02.Tricks of the trade


So what are some of the techniques stylists might use to counteract the tendency for food to discolour, sag and drip? Try these for size.

  • Meat tends to dry out and shrink when you cook it, so chances are the meat in the photo is only partially cooked, to keep it plump and juicy. Then it may be browned up with a coat of gravy browning or soy sauce and a hot air gun or blowtorch called upon to crisp up the edges. A final coat of oil gives a hot, fresh-looking shine. The perfect chook, gives an idea of the effect. You can do something similar with sausages to avoid explosions and burnt bits: simmer them first, dry them, then apply the paint, torch and oil. Hamburger being carefully constructed
  • A hamburger straight out of the wrap doesn’t usually look too inspiring (as most people would have experienced). That’s why creating a burger photo is a long and involved process. First find the perfect bun — you might have to trawl through hundreds, and even then it might need a few more sesame seeds glued on in strategic places.
    The meat patty is given a make-up job as described on the previous page, and perfect tomato slices and lettuce frills are chosen — hard to believe, but one stylist told us it might take her four lettuces to find the perfect leaf. Then you’ve got to construct the thing — layers are separated with cardboard or plastic to stop sogging and squashing, and pins hold it all in place and make sure the lettuce sits just so (see right).
  • You know what happens to breakfast cereal when it sits in milk — soggy cereal’s not a good look. How to fix it? PVA glue does a much better job than milk. The flakes stay put and stay crisp.
  • If you’re shooting a slice of cake, the air and lights make it dry out — but a shot of hairspray gets it back looking fresh and yummy.
  • Ever noticed chocolate sauce doesn’t stay put on top of ice cream for long? Get it to stay by cutting out a sauce-splodge-shaped piece of paper towel and putting it on the ice cream — then the sauce sticks to the towel.
  • And on the subject of ice cream — it melts, and fast. Some stylists still work with real ice cream — in editorial shots a bit of melt is OK: it makes the reader feel they want to lick it right off the page. But in product shots, it’s got to look perfect and that’s not easy — one tutorial on getting the perfect scoop of real ice cream is almost five A4 pages long and advises having as many as 20 two-litre tubs of ice cream on hand for each shot, not to mention more than 20 kilos of dry ice and an electric saw. 
  • Food stylist tool kitThe image, right, shows some of the tools food stylists use to get a shot that holds up till the photographer's finished.
  • If you’re not advertising the ice cream, you might decide to go fake — coloured mashed potato can make a reasonable substitute. Or instead there are various recipes using corn syrup, margarine, icing sugar and colouring to achieve just the right consistency — depending whether you want super-premium ice cream or a lower-fat look.
  • Maple syrup soaks into pancakes and goes a nasty dark colour — but not when you’ve sprayed the pancakes with fabric protector. Pin your carefully ‘scattered’ blueberries in place so they don’t get swept away with the syrup flow.
  • Plastic ice cubes (usually acrylic) don’t melt and spoil a drink shot. And to get that frosted look on the glass, spray it with a dulling spray and then give it a spritz with water spray.
  • Anyone who’s served up a slice of pie knows how it can disintegrate before you get it to the plate. Make it more stable by baking a pie full of instant mashed potato, then cut a slice, scoop out a little potato and put the filling on the side — the chunks neatly pinned in place.
  • If you want a perfect drip of sauce glistening on the side of your dessert, use a small piece of soft wax shaped like a drop and put it in place, then coat the drop with sauce for a perfect mid-drip shot. 
  • If you don’t want tomato sauce to run everywhere, mixing it with some tomato paste thickens it enough so it stays perfectly in place. Put it exactly where you want it with a syringe.
  • A simple white sauce with the right mix of colouring can double for sauces which are much more delicate beasts, like hollandaise. Noodles being styled
  • A thin painted-on coat of glycerine makes seafood look juicy. And tossing some liquid glucose through noodles makes them keep a hot, fresh look.
  • Stir-fries and things like pasta sauce are often not cooked according to the recipe — each vegie is selected and individually cooked, then put together with the sauce. Often the careful arrangement designed to look random is the result of painstaking work.

The wacky

We came across some truly bizarre techniques and suggestions while researching this article. The stylists we spoke to were by degrees horrified or amused by them — but they generally weren’t surprised that someone, somewhere (usually in the US) may have given it a go:

  • Maple syrup is much more popular in the US than here, and there are all sorts of tricks to getting it looking right, the most bizarre of which we heard being to use motor oil instead (as long as it’s the pancakes being advertised, not the syrup).
  • If your Swiss cheese isn’t looking photogenic enough, enhance its holes — use little round cutters or even straws for small holes.
  • Spray deodorant can give a nice frosting to grapes.
  • The perfectly shaped chicken leg can be achieved by injecting mashed potato under the skin and coating.

03.Behind the scenes


We started with identical chooks, muffins from the same batch and the same ingredients, and it was a hard day’s work for four professionals to get these shots looking perfect — especially compared with how they looked without titivation. No wonder yours doesn’t look the same.

Click on the image to see the before and after effects.

The perfect chook

The styling challenge: Regular roast chook dries up, shrinks and browns unevenly. And while it may smell great at the dining table, it looks pretty unappealing in a photo (right).
How to style it: First decide on the chook’s best angle — in this shoot, the stylists consulted the photographer and his assistant and the raw chook’s credentials were discussed at some length. Then the skin at the foot and neck ends is trimmed and sewn in place. It’s carefully trussed, firmly stuffed with paper and oven-cooked for about twenty minutes to ‘set’ the flesh. The skin is ‘cooked’ to brown crispiness using a coat of soy sauce and paprika and a heat gun. A coat of oil makes it look hot and juicy. In our shot a skin graft has even been used to get a pasty area near the wing looking perfect.
The result: Plump, juicy, perfect roast chicken.

Muffin magic

The styling challenge: Cake and muffins can look flat, dry and uninteresting (left).
How to style it: The muffin is carefully broken apart and placed on the plate. Tweezers are used to tease out the crumbs to give pleasing shadows and a moist, crumbly look. The fruit in the muffin is excavated so you can see it more clearly. Fresh blueberries — only ever handled with tweezers or gloves to avoid fingerprints — are blue-tacked in place. The blueberry leaves were the most difficult part of this shot. It took 25 minutes to get them arranged to the stylist’s and photographer’s satisfaction. A shake of icing sugar and an artistically placed fork finish the shot.
The result: Still life with muffin — true art.

A beautiful burger

The styling challenge: The meat is heavy and squashes everything beneath it. The salad slides sideways and the sauce and beetroot ooze out (right).
How to style it: The meat is only lightly cooked and the edges browned with a blow torch. The bun, like the other ingredients, is selected for perfection (in this case the top and base come from two different buns). After lettuce frills are carefully pinned in place, a cardboard platform supported by pieces of toothpick is constructed to hold the weight of the meat off the lettuce and bun. The other ingredients are artistically arranged and may also need to be pinned in place. Make-up remover pads do a good job of soaking up beetroot juices. The final touch is an artistic injection of tomato sauce thickened with tomato paste.
The result: A tall, symmetrical, balanced hamburger creation.

A spectacular stir-fry

The styling challenge: Stir-fries and pasta sink flat onto the plate and rarely do the ingredients land in a balanced way. The noodles look dull and cold and some ingredients may end up overcooked (left).
How to style it: First the carefully selected ingredients are cooked individually so they’re perfect. A mound of instant mashed potato is used as a base to get some height and stability. Noodles are coated with liquid glucose to make them look hot and shiny. The ingredients are arranged to give a casual appearance that belies the amount of time spent with tweezers to get perfectly looped noodles and balanced colour.
The result: An appetising and colourful stir-fry that looks fresh and hot.

Photo credits — Stylist: Beryl Crowther, Assistant: Anne Bollard, Photographer: Paulo Bursato