Quiz: how many rolls does the food stylist order in order to get one shot of a fast food sandwich? 60! Sound crazy? Read on if you want to unlock the secrets of making food look good on paper. Trust me, you do.
Lisa Cherkasky and Debbie Wahl are accomplished food stylists. They set up shots for commercials, magazine ads, newspaper editorials and more. Don’t take my word for it, check out their websites and see their immense talents for yourself!
Debbie Wahl’s work is advertising-oriented. She got a degree in the 1970s from Ohio University in “food and business”, with a minor in communications. She started out at Stouffer’s and before she knew it, they were sending her to photo shoots in LA and NYC – lucky!!!
She described the role of the food stylist, which is essentially to get the food looking good, set up and ready for the shoot. Their goal is to make the food look fresh and delicious. Most times, this includes cooking as well!
She said one of the greatest challenges in food styling is that you have to think in two dimensions. Without the benefit of aroma and taste, you have to sell the photo on looks alone. That doesn’t sound very easy.
One of the strategies they use in food styling is “building”. They cook the ingredients separately. They don’t use anything that doesn’t “show”, e.g. salt or vinegar (which could alter the color of vegetables in the dish). Then they use the individual parts to build the plate for the shot. They’ll use toothpicks, skewers, Vaseline, pins, superglue and whatever else it takes to get the food to perform a certain way. They even use marbles in soup ads to make the veggies and meat show in the shot.
One of the audience member asked what we were all thinking: with all this “manipulation” is it even real anymore? The presenters agreed that they are very conscious about making the food look like the product. They said this was more challenging in the 1970-1980′s but there’s been a revival toward real and natural. (thank goodness!) In addition, companies need to abide by truth in advertising regulations so they can’t stuff a sandwich with five ounces of meat if the real product only has two.
For the most part, the foods are photographed at room temperature because it needs to be stable for the length of the photo shoot. Some clients want them to style the food when it’s hot, which can be a big challenge since the food changes so much when it cools.
Why go through all this trouble? In a few words, we eat with our eyes. The goal is to create appetite appeal without over-promising.
Lisa gave us a sneak peak into her toolkit that she uses for her food shots. Besides the bamboo, paint brushes, glue and other tools, she uses a paint stripper to cook pizza and a carpenter’s torch to melt chocolate chips for cookie shots. Crazy weird, huh? In addition to food styling she writes recipes and does some food photography.
How Food Photography Has Evolved Over the Years
1950’s sterile, many foods in the shot, including silverware, foods fully cooked.
1960’s more ad dollars spent in food shots, they used professional art photographers and mood lighting to get a great shot. Foods shown big and iconic, “alive” with steam, bubbling hot, food was art. This is a trend that is re-emerging.
1970’s food spreads filling the frame, hot lights, the more-more-more food in the shot, the better. Think “all you can eat buffet” ads.
1980’s was the era of spending, big ad budgets and big food styling products.
1990’s controlled architectural, digital photography replaces film. White, crisp, clean plates and colorful, contrasting foods.
2000’s freshness is big, colors of nature, natural beauty and simplistic, warm colors and earthtones, the product doesn’t necessarily take “center stage”, e.g. salad dressing bottles may only be a small part of the shot with an image of a person eating a salad.
What are the latest trends in food styling? There is a major trend toward making the food look more natural and realistic (duh!). Even fast food ads are trending toward a casual approach, using natural light and avoiding over-styling of the food.
Want to learn more? Take an online course photo styling workshop. Visit www.photostylingworkshops.com.
Visit Lisa’s blog, www.midnightsnack.wordpress.com, and check out her sandwich travels and recommendations.