Recently a photographer friend sent me a video that appears to reveal clever tricks food stylists use to make certain dishes look more enticing on camera. It’s equal parts fascinating and horrifying: shoe polish brushed on chicken to make it look perfectly browned, fabric protector misted over pancakes to prevent the butter and syrup from soaking in, mashed potatoes tinged with food coloring and scooped to look like ice cream because the real thing melts too quickly, and white glue substituting for almost anything (e.g., chocolate syrup, melted cheese, and frosting).
The problem is, most real food stylists don’t do any of this crazy stuff—at least not since digital photography became the norm. Sure, they handle food differently than you or I might at home since it’s their job to make it look tempting for a professional photo shoot, but some minimal corrections also happen in the editing room.
That’s why we asked a couple of experts to share some of the creative tricks food stylists use to entice you.
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Don’t Fake It Till You Make It
“From my understanding,” says Boston-based food stylist Monica Mariano, “food styling used to very much be that way. That was pre-digital, when you were shooting on film, there was not a lot of wiggle room, and you couldn’t see what was happening right away.” She continues, “I cook real food, I shoot real food, it’s not really like that anymore. I wasn’t around when they were doing that stuff.”
“The reality is, that is not truth in advertising,” agrees New York City-based food stylist Charlotte Omnes. “I’m working in a commercial world where I don’t want my clients to get sued for false advertising. It’s just funny folklore.”
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t tricks food stylists use for making food look as alluring as possible. “The way I treat the food is definitely more precious than how you’re making something at home,” explains Mariano. “If I’m making a burger, I’m going to build it more slowly, make sure it’s blotted underneath, put tin foil on the [underside of the] bun so stuff doesn’t soak through, push the patty to the front [to face the camera], and make sure you can see every element.”
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Everything Mariano shoots for her clients is actually their product, never a substitute. “There are definitely rules in place,” she confirms. “If I’m shooting ice cream, I’ll use fake ice cream as a stand-in, but use the real stuff for the actual photograph.” Also, cooked food is never piping hot, since the way it looks changes quickly as it starts to cool down. Instead, Mariano uses cold food to have more control, and sometimes it’s even purposely undercooked so it appears more plump and juicy.
Food Styling 101
“What I like to do, both for Instagram editorial-type pictures as well as TV commercials, is set up these little worlds,” Omnes states. “It’s like a snapshot of a moment in time, and you can relate to it as you see it. It’s really just a matter of understanding who your audience is, what’s relatable to them, and what’s real.”
Omnes enjoys making people question whether her creations have a deeper meaning. “Food is so powerful,” she enthuses. “How can you manipulate something so they go, ‘How did they do that?!’”
Mariano says the first thing to think about is color composition. Then think about what you’re making and what type of vessel it would be appropriate or interesting to serve it in. She advises using a small, appetizer-size plate to make it look more full, along with nice linens and matte silverware (if it’s shiny, it may show your reflection, which would be distracting). She suggests playing around with styling and planning it all out before the food goes on the plate, keeping in mind which angle you’ll be photographing from. It helps to look at your plate through your phone to get an idea of how the end product will look.
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“It’s definitely easier to make something look perfect rather than natural and relaxed in an artful way,” Mariano admits. “That’s the challenge of the job—to make it look beautiful, scrumptious, and delicious, but still super relaxed. Super perfect isn’t what people want to see.” This may mean you choose to place your food on an unusual surface you wouldn’t normally eat from. “It’s not practical, it doesn’t make sense, but who cares? It’s gorgeous! That’s what makes this job so creative.”
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Tools of the Trade
The three basics Mariano says she can’t do without on the job are sharp knives to cut clean edges, paint brushes to clean up crumbs, and tweezers. “If you want to make something look better,” she says, “use tweezers to place or remove parts of it.” She also uses cooking spray or misted water to refresh foods that look a little dry, a steamer to melt cheese, and Q-tips dipped in glass cleaner to remove smudges and fingerprints.
“I actually like to use chopsticks rather than tweezers to place small things, since the latter can be too rough,” Omnes shares. “I have tons of spray bottles and misters, because even misting a pizza makes it look super sexy and shiny and yum yum.” It’s also good for adding moisture to glasses, fruits, and vegetables. “Diabetic needles [work well] to apply drops of liquid in very specific places, like a drop of water on a tomato.”
Omnes also uses tons of different art brushes, a tiny pair of scissors, fun-tak to secure things in place or lift them up a bit, and Xanthum gum to thicken sauces and prevent dressings from separating. To make chocolate chips shine in a cookie, instead of putting it back in the oven, you can pass a hair dryer over it or even brush it lightly with paint stripper (but if you do the latter, don’t eat it!).
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Lastly, don’t overdo it, otherwise it will look forced, Mariano says. And if you’re not a natural artist, keep practicing. “You get better at [understanding what’s aesthetically pleasing] over the years,” Omnes encourages. “It’s something you need to practice over time, so you just know when it’s right.”
Header image courtesy of JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images