Food styling tricks revealed

With a few sneaky tricks, food stylists can manage to make ordinary food look fabulous.

Real? Or fake?

Surely if you want a photo of a chicken, you just photograph a chicken, right? The problem with food photography is that food tends to dry out, shrink, discolour and sag. The food in magazines looks as though it was placed there effortlessly, but the reality is that getting the right photograph can take many hours.

There seems to be two schools of thought among food stylists for getting the right shot. Some try to use real food no matter what, while others use whatever techniques they need to get the shot right – fake or not.

Of course, a shot for packaging or an ad has to show the real food being advertised or packaged – but that doesn't mean it can't be tweaked and made-up. And an advertising picture is aiming for perfection. A photo for a glossy recipe magazine is more likely to want a casual 'real' look than perfection, to draw people into the experience of the food.

In Australia (and increasingly, online) the loose, easy and natural look is all the rage, and styling with real food is more common. But there are certainly some tricks that are used to make that chicken look plumper, or that rogue blueberry stay put.

Food styling tricks of the trade

Hot food

  • Meat tends to dry out and shrink when you cook it, so chances are the steak or sausage 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 perfectly shaped chicken leg can be achieved by injecting mashed potato under the skin and coating. For seafood? A thin, painted-on coat of glycerine will keep it looking juicy.
  • The perfect hamburger first requires finding the perfect bun – it may require trawling through hundreds of them, and even then it might need a few more sesame seeds glued on in strategic places. The meat patty is given the previously mentioned make-up job, and perfect tomato slices and lettuce frills are chosen. Finding the perfect lettuce leaf is no easy task either, perhaps taking up to four lettuces to find the perfect leaf. Then you've got to construct the thing – layers are separated with cardboard or plastic to stop it getting soggy and squashed. Pins hold it all in place.
  • Pies are notorious for sloppily separating as they're served – if you can get half the filling onto the plate with the pastry in one go, you're doing well! One stylist trick to get around this is to make a more stable pie full of instant mashed potato. Once cooked, a slice is cut and a little potato scooped out, and the filling placed on the side with the chunks neatly pinned in place.
  • 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. To prevent a stir-fry from looking flat, a mound of instant mashed potato can be used as a base to get some height and stability and tossing some liquid glucose through noodles gives them a hot, fresh look.
  • Maple syrup soaks into pancakes and goes a nasty dark colour – but not if you've sprayed the pancakes with a fabric protector, such as Scotchgard. Those rogue blueberries that appear to be so effortlessly 'scattered' may be pinned in place so they don't get swept away with the syrup flow.

Cold food

  • Soggy cereal isn't a good look. How to fix it? PVA glue does a much better job than milk! The flakes stay put and stay crisp.
  • A slice of cake can easily dry out with the lights and air of a photography studio, but a shot of hairspray gets it back looking fresh and yummy.
  • A common styling trick for drinks is to use plastic ice cubes so they don't melt. And to get that frosted look on the glass? Spray it with a dulling spray and then give it a spritz with water and glycerine spray. The dulling spray makes it look frosty and the water and glycerine form droplets.
  • Making grapes look frosty and lush can be done with a quick spray of deodorant.
  • Ice cream: it melts, and fast. Some stylists still work with real ice cream. In a magazine shot a bit of melt is considered okay as 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 — in fact it may require having as many as 20 two-litre tubs of ice cream on hand for the shot. If it's not advertising a product, there's the age-old trick of coloured mashed potato. There are also various recipes using corn syrup, margarine, icing sugar and colouring to achieve just the right consistency.


When it comes to getting sauces looking tempting, there's a number of tricks in a stylist's toolkit:

  • Using a small piece of wax shaped like a drop and then coating with sauce for a perfect drip shot.
  • Mixing tomato sauce with tomato paste thickens it enough to make it stay in place.
  • A simple white sauce with the right mix of colouring can double for sauces which are much more delicate beasts, like hollandaise.

Runny chocolate sauce can be encouraged to stay in place by cutting out a splodge-shaped piece of paper towel and putting it on the ice cream – then the sauce sticks to the towel.