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Food Styling

The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera

by Delores Custer

Hardcover, 398 pages, John Wiley & Sons Inc, List Price: $75 |


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The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera
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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Food Styling

Food Styling

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-08019-1

Chapter One

FOOD STYLING an overview


A History

The term food stylist was probably used first in the mid-1950s. Before that, anyone who prepared food for the camera (whether for pictures in magazines, on food packages, in cookbooks, or for other visual purposes) was called a home economist. Home economists were the women with university degrees who worked in the test kitchens of women's magazines and major food companies. Before 1950, but even into the 1960s, food pictures and ads were often illustrated. When the trend shifted from illustration to photography, more food had to be prepared for the camera. Many home economists stepped out of their test kitchens and began working independently as freelancers and calling themselves food stylists. It took a while for the term food stylist to catch on. In fact, even today, many television and movie production houses still request a "home ec" when they need a food stylist.

The career of food styling developed in major advertising, television production, and publishing cities such as New York and Los Angeles, as well as in the headquarters locations of major food companies. These jobs were very gender specific. The early food stylists were all women and all home economists. In fact, a major food company would not hire anyone without a home ec degree to style food.

This first wave of food stylists was self-taught. They were good technicians but not necessarily artful culinarians. They were creative, entrepreneurial women who strode with courage into this new profession. Then as now, most of them worked out of their homes, but a few of them established small production centers. They struggled with early live television commercials. You hear about how their refrigerator doors wouldn't open, food would burn or fall on the floor, and ovens would open to reveal the food from the previous day's shoot still there. They worked with hot tungsten lights that wilted lettuce and melted ice cream. All the while, they were creating many of the techniques we use today when working with food. They discovered many of the tools to make styling work, and they trained the next generation. In November 1979, New York magazine ran one of the earliest articles on the career of food styling and shared with its audience just what this strange career was all about.

I was working at Cary Kitchens when this article was written. The photograph female and about one-third of the stylists are male. The number of food magazines and food segments on television has greatly increased. Web sites belonging to food companies, magazines, and other media use large numbers of food photographs. Digital photography has changed the way everyone in the business works and also allows for easy retouching (using software such as Photoshop) of any food shot. Also, vast quantities of food pictures are available as stock photography now. Trends in the look and type of food have changed significantly over the years: Today, our presentations of food are much less controlled and more natural and casual (see pages 345-364 for more on photography and styling trends).

Another change that has occurred over the years is that food styling has become less invisible. Today, because of print articles and television segments about this career, more people know about food styling and, with the explosion of trained culinary professionals, more people are interested in it as a career.

the SMORGASBORD of food styling

When the public thinks of food styling, they often think that what we do is to prepare food for the beautiful photographs in cookbooks and magazines. That is definitely part of what we do, but for me food styling has included assignments such as the following:


Getting succulent ribs ready for an article on great grill menus for Bon Appétit magazine.

Decorating a cake to look like the White House for a newspaper article.

Finding beautiful rhubarb stalks with leaves in December (see the photograph on page 148) for a spring article on cooking with rhubarb, and finding medium-size pumpkins in May for a Halloween magazine story.

Making a Tweety Bird waffle for a catalog shot, cutting a steak into the shape of Texas, making a whole roasted chicken with three legs, decorating a meat loaf to look like Groucho Marx, shooting an empty salad-dressing jar, and putting the perfect twist of lemon in a martini.


Preparing 150 pies to be photographed for a cookbook on perfect pies.

Cooking in the basement of the restaurant "21" Club for a press party.

Shooting a decadent chocolate cheesecake for the cover of a cookbook.

Rewriting forty different chefs' recipes and then testing and preparing them to be photographed for a small cookbook on phyllo dough.


Removing all the hairs from a raspberry to be used as a garnish on a goblet of white chocolate mousse.

Developing recipes to show the versatility of a set of cookware and preparing the recipes to be photographed in the cookware.

Making a pizza with a perfect stringy cheese pull or shooting a hot dog with just the right squiggle of mustard or a hamburger with a mustard frown (see the photograph on page 205).

Testing sixty recipes from contestants competing for a trip to New York and having a tasting of each recipe for the client.

Sorting cereal all day for flakes with "character" or finding Goldfish crackers with the most "smile definition."

Grilling chicken in the snow on the street below a photographer's New York studio.

Preparing a sandwich for a commercial in a dressing room with the Dallas Cowboys.

Shopping for two 5-pound lobsters and an eighteen-inch red snapper at 3:30 A.M. at the Fulton Fish Market for a 7:00 A.M. shoot with Paul Newman-who was a hundred miles away (see page 56).

Arranging the food for a series of package shots of frozen entrées.

Sitting at a table of executives at an ad agency and being asked if "nooks and crannies" are acceptable food terms to use when describing an English muffin.


Receiving the winning recipe for America's Best Pie contest at 3:00 P.M. and showing up with the pie the next morning at 5:30 A.M. for its appearance on Good Morning America.

Preparing six luscious cookbook desserts and setting up the ingredients so that the author could demonstrate making them on the Today show.

Teaching the "butler" on the movie set of Trading Places how to flambé crêpes suzette.

Spreading margarine on slices of bread in a tree house in a Mexican rain forest, in a château in Prague, and on the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight, all for television commercials.


While most people prepare food to eat, the food stylist prepares food to feed the eyes and the imagination. Just as we primp to look our best for the camera, food to be photographed needs to look its best, too, and making it look its best is the job of the food stylist. How that is done is a complex and interesting series of steps.

As a food styling instructor, I have heard many misconceptions about our work. Beginning students often arrive in class thinking that all a food stylist does is show up at the studio, find pretty plates, make an attractive table arrangement, and put food (prepared by someone else) on the plates. Then, the photographer shoots it. Well, one in every thousand assignments might come close to this idea, but the reality is often much different. A food shot is a team effort that takes preplanning, clear communication, thoughtful shopping for food and props, proficiency at food preparation (yes, we cook the food), and a sense of artful presentation. Photo sessions can take hours, and the photographed food must look freshly made and so appetizing that whoever sees it wants to eat it immediately.

Anatomy of a Food Styling Assignment

The first thing a food stylist does when he or she gets a job is to begin to gather information about it. Who is the client? Is the work for print or television? How many days is the shoot and are there prep days? Will an assistant be needed? Are there recipes, a photo outline, layouts, or storyboards and tear sheets? The latter will spell out how the food is to be shot and how it should look. The food stylist must organize all this information and put together a game plan.

First Steps: Finding the Food and Props and Selecting Equipment

Once the assignment is set, you make a shopping and equipment list. How much you need depends on a number of factors. For example, sometimes you have to make a dish twice-once as a stand-in (not the final food) and once as a hero (the final food). Because the food needs to be not just attractive, but just the right size and color and in the correct amounts, I always get ingredients for twice the recipe and sometimes for up to thirty times, depending on the fragility of the food and the type of assignment. If you are also propping the job, you must shop for plates, glasses, flowers, tablecloths, flatware, and any other nonfood items that will be shown in the shot-and you must have plenty of options from which the client and the photographer can choose. You also must make sure that all the cooking and styling equipment needed for the job is packed or is at the studio. Then you must transport everything to the studio in perfect condition.

Preparing the Food

After you have unpacked and organized your work space, following a shooting schedule, you prepare the food so that it looks its best just when the photographer needs it. As a food stylist and good cook and baker, it is your ultimate job to make the food look mouthwatering. Depending on the food, it should look fresh and crisp or smooth and soft, grilled or hot and juicy, and so on.

Arranging the Food

Next, the job is to arrange the food so that it looks appealing to the camera. Just because it looks good to your eyes, does not mean it will translate well through a lens. You must be aware of how the camera sees the food (how close or far away, the angle, and how the lights hit the food).

Keeping the Food Beautiful and Adding Final Touches

After the food is arranged and put on the set, you must keep it looking gorgeous and fresh until the photographer is ready to shoot. Herein lies the constant challenge of food styling: Food "dies" or changes over time. It is affected by heat and cold, by moisture or dryness, and by light and the air around it. You must know how to control or adjust these conditions so that your food will not "misbehave." You must also know when to add final touches such as garnishes, sauces, and fragile food just before shooting.

is FOOD STYLING for you?

Most people think of food styling as a possible career choice because they love food and they want to work with food in a creative capacity. Some have strong cooking skills gained from work in restaurants or at a culinary school. Others may have spent time working in advertising or in production, and also have a love of food and are good home cooks and want to combine those interests.

People often approach me for information on just what skills you need to be a successful food stylist. But before you decide on food styling as a career, you should think about where you live or want to live, because you must live near the work-near photographers who shoot food, near book and magazine publishers, near television production companies, or near large food companies with in-house production capabilities. The majority of the work is in major cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Other cities with some food-styling work are Orlando, Miami, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, Des Moines, St. Louis, Dallas, and San Francisco, to name a few. Then there are cities with special opportunities, such as Birmingham, Alabama-the home of Southern Living and Cooking Light magazines. If you have the skills and the work permit, work may also be available in foreign countries.

Next, you should think about the fact that this is almost entirely freelance work and ask yourself whether you have a freelance personality. Just what does this question mean? Are you a self-motivator? Do you feel comfortable not knowing when or where the next job is? Do you have financial support (income from another source, such as a flexible second job, a rich and giving parent, a husband or wife with a secure job, savings, or the ability to live on almost nothing) while you assist experienced food stylists on your way to establishing this new career? You will be working in many different settings (not going to the same office). You will have to put together your own savings and retirement plans and take care of your own health and disability insurance. You will need to put together materials to promote yourself and get out there and look for job opportunities.

These are some of the challenges of the freelancer, but let's look at some of the pluses of the freelance world: not having to go to the same office every day, working for yourself, setting your own goals and going for them. I like the fact that the jobs have a beginning and an end (often in two to three days). Then I am off to the next new and interesting job. The work itself calls for a tremendous variety of skills. No two days are the same, and no two jobs are alike. You need to be able to "go with the flow" and enjoy the ride.

The Attributes of a Good Food Stylist

Following is a list of skills and attributes that will be most helpful to you as a food stylist. No one starts out with all of these skills, and you may need to fill in the gaps by strengthening certain areas. Although this list may seem daunting, you will gain knowledge as you work; the stronger your foundation and knowledge in these areas, the better. Because what is the most important skill on one job may not be on the next job, the list is not necessarily in order of importance.

You'll need to be:

Well organized. You will need to be a good communicator and ask pertinent questions. You will need to collect information and be able to get a grasp on the job, figuring out who, what, when, where, and in which order things will need to be done. When you arrive at the shoot, you will need to be able to set up your work space so that you can work comfortably and efficiently. Often the photographer will take your lead as to the order of the shooting schedule.

A good cook and a good baker. I can't stress enough the importance of being able to prepare foods correctly (making adjustments, if necessary) and to make the food look as good as it possibly can. Your food knowledge and skills are extremely important. Of the two skills, cooking and baking, the one you can't "fudge" is being a good baker. Understanding the science of baking is invaluable, because baking is chemistry in action. If you need to develop that knowledge, read cookbooks and bake, bake, bake; take private lessons; or go back to school. That may mean going to cooking school for a degree or taking courses at a local cooking school or community college. You can't take a pie job, for example, and learn how to make pie dough the night before your shoot (see page 149 and Resources, page 378, for valuable information on food science).

A fellow food stylist and one of my mentors, Helen Feingold, once said as we taught a class in food styling together, "Food is like children. It doesn't like to behave in front of company." The longer I've been in the business, the more I've come to appreciate that statement.