Food Styling Tips and Tricks

Food Photography: From
Snapshots to Great
Shots, 2nd Edition

By Nicole S. Young
Peachpit Press, 272 pages, $23.99

There is no single right (or wrong) way to style food, but there are some things that many food stylists and photographers do to make the food look its best. Before I get into the how, I’ll start with the what. For instance, the illustration below shows some of the gadgets and tools that I use (and you can use) to make it all happen.

This is a sampling of some of the tools I use when styling food.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 400 • 1/10 sec. • f/6.7 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Gadgets and Tools

I use a lot of little gadgets and tools when styling food, but many of them are just everyday kitchen utensils. Here is a list of some of the basic tools I use often and wouldn’t want to be without:

  • Tweezers: I use tweezers to place small items (such as mint leaves or sesame seeds) or to reposition things on the plate.
  • Prep bowls and ramekins: These are really useful for holding garnishes and sauces near your dish or workspace. You can also place them upside down in bowls to add bulk to foods.
  • Plastic spoons: These are useful for mixing and stirring, as well as for applying things such as sauces, sour cream, or any kind of liquid. Because they are extremely light and thin, I find that they give me more control than metal spoons.
  • Paper towels: I always have a full roll of paper towels sitting near my workspace when styling food. They’re handy for cleaning drips on plates, and if you’re styling food in the spot where it will be photographed, you can place them under the plate to catch accidental spills.
  • Water: I use canned water to add a fine mist to salad, fresh fruits and vegetables, and the like.
  • Grater and peeler: These are great for preparing garnishes, such as Parmesan cheese or lemon zest.

Using Stand-ins

If you’re familiar with movie or television production, you know that the lights need to be set for each scene, which usually takes quite a while. So, instead of having the main actors sit or stand on the set while the lights are being moved and measured, stand-ins (people who have a similar look to the actors) take their place so the actors can relax, have their makeup fixed, memorize their lines, or simply stay in character. A similar method is used in food photography.

When you style and photograph food, you usually have to work quickly so the food stays fresh. All food has a limited life span, which is even more apparent when you’re photographing it. Shiny food loses its luster, oils and sauces soak into cooked meats, and foods such as herbs and lettuce wilt away quickly.

This sequence shows how much a simple herb such as basil can change over the course of one hour—it goes from being crisp and green to dull and wilting.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 50 • 1/6 sec. • f/6.7 • Canon 24–70mm f/2.8L lens

When I photograph food, I always use a stand-in. I do this so I can set the lights, composition, props, and so on, ahead of time and prevent the food from losing its luster by the time everything is ready to go. In fact, I don’t even do any cooking, styling, or preparations until the light is ready. That way, once the food is prepared, I can drop it into place, make a few minor adjustments, and start photographing within seconds of the food being placed on set.

A stand-in can be anything. An extra piece of food that doesn’t require cooking (such as a hamburger bun) usually makes a good stand-in. Or you could use something totally random that has similar tonal qualities as your prepared food will have, as shown below. Try to use something that is the same shape, width, or height so you can set your composition in the camera (this is especially handy if you are using a tripod).

I used a crumpled-up napkin as a stand-in for the yogurt in this photograph.
Top: Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/4 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens. Bottom: Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 0.3 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

A stand-in doesn’t need to look identical to your actual food. In this case, I placed a simple knitted cloth on the plate as a stand-in for the pasta.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 0.7 sec. • f/6.7 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro len

Maintaining a Clean Environment

A perfectly prepared photo setup can easily be tainted with an unwanted stain. When I’m preparing a plate of food for a photograph, therefore, I try to do most of the work away from the location where it will be photographed, usually on my kitchen counter or at a table that sits nearby. This way I can get close to the dish as well as keep all my tools, food, and garnishes nearby, and it doesn’t matter if I make a mess.

Sometimes, however, you won’t be able to do all of your plating off set and will need to style the dish as it sits in front of the camera. In those instances, you need to be careful to protect the environment from drips and spills. The simplest solution is to place a few paper towels around the area (see below), which will likely save you from having to quickly re-create your scene. This also allows you to focus on the look of the food without worrying about making any messes.

When working with messy food, such as this berry bruschetta topping, place paper towels over the table’s surface to prevent drips and stains.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/4 sec. • f/6.7 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Styling from Camera View

When photographing food, the only area of the food that you need to pay attention to is the side that’s being photographed. It’s always best to put yourself in the position of the camera and style the food from that perspective. If you’re photographing the front part of a dish, it doesn’t matter what the back of the dish looks like, so long as it’s not in the image.

Another useful way to style food (and set up the overall scene, too) is to use the Live View feature on your camera (most of the newer DSLR models have this as a standard feature). Being able to watch what is happening in your scene with Live View makes it so easy to place things in the scene, add garnishes, and even just frame and compose the photo. The downside to Live View is that it drains the battery more quickly than just looking through the viewfinder. It also will sometimes cause interference when you’re firing strobes and flashes wirelessly. If you run into that problem, you’ll need to turn off Live View temporarily to trip the shutter and create the photograph.

Following Your Instincts

Overall, much of styling food involves using what works for your situation. There is no one way to do everything, and depending on how the food was prepared or how you want it to look, you’ll probably have to get creative.

You also need to make sure that you are deliberate in your approach to creating your food and developing its overall appearance. When I style food, everything that ends up in the photograph is there because I want it to be there. A crumb that looks like it landed naturally on the plate may have been placed with small tweezers, or it crumbled off on its own and I just liked the way it landed. Often it’s the things that may be considered small and unimportant that can actually take a photo from average to amazing.

Adding Bulk

When you place food in a bowl, often it will sink to the bottom and lie flat (especially with foods like pasta and chunky soups or stews). You can bulk up food in a bowl in a few ways. The first is to set a dome of Styrofoam in the bottom of the bowl and then place the food on top of it. This usually works best for slippery foods that won’t stay put, but one major downside is that if you’re planning to eat the food after it’s photographed, you’re out of luck (unless you want little bits of plastic foam in your meal). Another method is to place a smaller bowl, such as a prep dish or small ramekin, upside down in the bowl and then pile the food on top (see below). This keeps your food fresh and does a really good job of adding a little extra bulk. For soups, another good trick is to use clear glass stones at the bottom of the bowl to help bring any added items up to the surface, such as noodles or vegetables.

Canon 60D • ISO 100 • 1/20 sec. • f/2 • Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

Canon 60D • ISO 100 • 1/20 sec. • f/2 • Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

Canon 60D • ISO 100 • 1/30 sec. • f/2 • Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

By placing a small upside-down cup in the bowl, I was able to “float” the asparagus tips on the top of the soup. Without the small cup, they would have sunk to the bottom of the soup bowl.
Canon 60D • ISO 100 • 1/10 sec. • f/2.5 • Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens

If you’re working with food that is flat, especially when you are stacking more than one item on top of the other, adding something between the layers can help make the food look much more full. In the illustration below, I placed two tortillas on top of each other before adding the carnitas meat and garnish. However, just having the tortillas lie flat on top of each other made them look lifeless. So I added torn-up tortillas between the layers to help bring up the front edges and make them look more appealing. You can use anything you like between your food to give it more life—cardboard, toothpicks, or even folded-up paper towels.

I added torn-up tortilla pieces between the two tortillas to add bulk and texture to the food.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 0.5 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Using Garnishes

Adding a touch of color to a dish can do wonders, and I often do this by adding garnishes, such as fresh basil, cilantro, or any herb that is appropriate to the food and its ingredients (Figure 3.11). Just as adding herbs and spices will enhance flavor when cooking the food, adding them to your photograph can make it look livelier and more appealing.

Adding green onions and cilantro as a garnish helped give this photo a boost of color.
Top: Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/6 sec. • f/8 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens. Bottom: Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/4 sec. • f/8 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

This technique also helps create your point of focus. By adding a bright, colorful food item to the dish, you will draw the viewer’s eyes to that location. And it’s the perfect spot to focus on with your camera.

A Little Mess Is Okay

One thing to keep in mind when you’re creating your dishes is that they don’t always have to look perfect. A few crumbs or drips to the side of the food, or even a dish with a fork already dug into the food, makes the food look more real and attainable to the viewer (see below). It can also add balance to the composition of the photograph. A little mess is okay; just pay attention to your crumb or drip placement so that it still looks appealing and delicious.

Adding a little bit of mess, like these drips coming off of the peaches, helps add realism to the photo.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 3 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Real Ice vs. Fake Ice

I use fake ice in many of my photographs. In fact, any time there’s a water glass in the frame (usually in the out-of-focus background), I’ve probably added some fake ice to the cup, usually without even adding water. I use fake ice so frequently because real ice has two major flaws: It melts quickly, and it can look very foggy when photographed. Fake ice, on the other hand, will hold its shape and stay shiny and crystal clear.

Tip: When adding ice to a glass, be sure to fill it all the way up to the top so that the ice is peeking slightly above the liquid’s surface. Real ice floats, but fake ice does not, so filling to the brim is a “sneaky” way to make it look more realistic!

For this plate of pasta, I wanted to add something to the background. So I filled a glass with fake ice and placed it in the top left corner of the frame, knowing that it would end up blurred and slightly unrecognizable. The ice adds depth and a bit of sparkle to the background without being overpowering.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 0.7 sec. • f/4.5 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

These two images show the difference between fake ice (left) and real ice (right).
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/10 sec. • f/8 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

Although there are places that create custom, realistic (and expensive) acrylic ice cubes, the ice I use is relatively inexpensive and purchased through an online retailer. If you are creating photographs that require ice and you don’t have a big budget, this is probably a good option for you as well.

Adding Movement

Another way to add to your image is to give the photo a sense of movement. You could do this by photographing the act of drizzling syrup onto French toast, sprinkling cheese over pasta, or even adding a utensil that is taking a scoop from the food itself. One of my tricks for adding movement is to use a Manfrotto Magic Arm ( By placing a spoon or fork in the jaws of this adjustable arm-like clamp I can mimic the act of someone taking a bite. The Magic Arm’s flexibility allows me a lot of control when styling and framing my scene while keeping the utensil firmly in place.

Drizzling syrup over French toast is a great way to add movement to an image.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 400 • 1/125 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

I used a Manfrotto Magic Arm to set up this shot as if someone was holding a fork off camera.
Canon 5D Mark II • ISO 100 • 0.3 sec. • f/8 • Canon 70–200mm f/4L IS lens

The Manfrotto Magic Arm was used to create this image of honey dripping from a honey dipper.
Canon 5D Mark III • ISO 100 • 1/4 sec. • f/5.6 • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens

This is a behind-the-scenes image showing how the Manfrotto Magic Arm was positioned to create the image in the previous illustration.
Fuji X-T1 • ISO 2500 • 1/125 sec. • f/3.6 • Zeiss Touit 32mm f/1.8 lens

Excerpted from Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots, 2nd Edition by Nicole S. Young. Copyright © 2016. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press.


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