Cookie box with Carmelized Coconut Macaroons, Pistachio Cranberry Icebox Cookies and Whole Wheat Sables with Cacao Nibs
Food stylist Robyn Valarik paired with photographer Maren Caruso to demonstrate shooting chocolate chip cookies under an umbrella on the Foreign Cinema patio. I was especially curious to see what Robyn and Maren had to say because even though chocolate chip cookies and brownies are the first thing to go on any dessert tray, they are BROWN and BEIGE. Not exactly photogenic! (However, good styling and photography can dramatically improve even the unattractive food. See Atlanta-based food stylist Tami Hardeman’s great posts, including step-by-step photos, about dressing up some ugly-but-delicious food to photograph – Indian curry and egg salad).
Per Valarik, “good food styling and photography makes you want to eat it right away,” and sometimes the most delicious food, like our friend the chocolate chip cookie, needs a little primping in order to tempt the viewer. Robyn (who used Emily Luccheti’s recipe for chocolate chip cookies) explained that the problem with chocolate chip cookies is that the chips are hidden when “the appeal of cookie is to see the chips.” After forming a ball of dough, Robyn places chips all around the outside of the dough ball before baking. This is a food stylist trick that we wouldn’t normally do at home (or in the bakery or restaurant kitchen) that makes for a prettier picture. As she typically bakes onset, Robyn brings an oven thermometer with her to the studio to avoid surprises.
Robyn Valarik holding a ball of cookie dough which has been studded with chips around the outside
Robyn worked as a baker when first got of pastry school, but found that baking wedding cakes was too isolating, and she enjoyed working with people, and as a food stylist she can work as part of a team. In tandem with Maren, she outlined the stepwise process of building a shot, be it for a cookbook, or other print or commercial work.
It takes a village to create some of the beautiful photographs you see in food magazines and cookbooks. The team on a set of a photo shoot usually includes the art director, prop stylist, food stylist, photographer, and their assistants. However, in advance of the photo shoot, the art director typically chooses color palettes and creates a storyboard so that the colors and shots are varied. The prop stylist gathers props in the appropriate palette of colors, including not only serving pieces like plates and stands, but linens, silverware, coffee cups, and even tables.
Once onset with the basic elements, the team starts to decide on a camera angle and setup. For example, if plate has a lip, you might need to shoot from overhead or choose a flatter plate. Robyn used a heat gun to melt the chocolate and might play up the gooey cookie further by placing it on a plate and smear the chocolate onto the plate. This needs to be done fairly quickly, as the team may need to produce up to 8-9 shots a day in order to work within the budget for the shoot. While Robyn described the process, Maren rounded the table, stepping on and off a chair, shooting the chocolate chip cookies next to a cup of coffee as you see above. Those in the front rows got a look at the shots on the laptop that faced the group.
Lesson for the rest of us? Take a lot of shots! You are only burning pixels. Also, extra memory cards for your digital camera are very affordable if you want more space (usually less than $10 for a point-and-shoot camera).
Bring me the hero meatball! All four presenters used the term “hero” to describe the food item deemed most beautiful and intended for the final shot. As you can see, Robyn brought a whole tray of cookies from which to choose, but only the ones used in the final shot get to be the hero. While the shot is being set up, the crew uses a stand-in for the hero food. Depending on the complexity and conditions of the shoot, many stand-ins could be required, and once the stylist and photographer are happy with the shot, the hero is called in to save the shot. Of course, Robyn and Maren usually fall in love with the stand-in.
Sue & Kim with a Layer Cake in the Gallery
As my half of the Bakers Dozen group switched places with the other, I appreciated the presenters’ willingness to do back-to-back presentations because the two complemented each other nicely, and provided us a broader perspective on approaches to food styling and photography.
Sue Tallon, a self-described studio photographer for 20 years whose portfolio includes everything from celebrities to fine artwork, only started “playing around” with food a few years ago because it was an inexpensive and easily available subject. After a while, she started getting food work, mainly advertising and editorial. Sue touched on something I have noticed in the last few years in publications like Gourmet (whimper!), Bon Appétit, and some of my favorite recently published cookbooks including Kim Boyce’s Good to the Grain and Baked:Explorations. The trend in food photography is going into messy, gritty, natural, depth of field with lots of things in focus, moving into more harsh and artificial lighting and going away from the trend of neatly composed shots with soft, diffused, natural light (think Martha Stewart Living’s aesthetic).
Lesson for the rest of us? (From Sue) "When you look at something with your two eyes, your brain processes a lot of information." The camera has no ability to see any dimension like you do, so the camera angle makes everything look different. Experiment with different angles.
Kim Kissling finished Tante Marie’s culinary program in 1995, moved into food styling by assisting on sets for three years, and over the years has worked on everything from cookbooks (including Bakers Dozen member Jennie Schacht’s cookbook Farmers’ Market Desserts, which is how I became familiar with her work) to advertising. She has worked with photographer Maren for over 14 years. Most important, she still loves what she does.
Layer cake setup with background by Sue and Kim
Ice Cream is Tough to Shoot
Love clearly powered Kim and Sue through what sounds a grueling photo shoot – for Dreyers ice cream. Kim has developed a reputation as an ice cream specialist, which is notoriously difficult to shoot, so difficult that fake ice cream (Crisco & powdered sugar) is often used, especially outdoors. Dreyers asked the team to create 6 different cones (with 3 scoops on each) to showcase 18 flavors of Dreyers ice cream.
The work required for this shoot was flat out astounding. The team was shipped 500 half gallons of ice cream, which went into 7 rented industrial freezers to keep the ice cream stored at the right temperature, and a special roll-top freezer (used for vending ice cream in stores) so Kim could work inside the freezer. In order to get a perfect level scoop, in which the swirls, nuts, or marshmallows of a particular flavor needed to be represented, each ice cream container was cut in half to reveal more surface area. It took up to 36 containers to get one perfect scoop! Bamboo skewers were stuck into the first perfect (hero) scoop of ice cream to stabilize while the other scoops were placed on top with minimal damage, and then Kim drove a metal skewer into the center of all three scoops. This technique reminds me of driving a wooden dowel down the center of a tiered wedding cake to keep the cake from toppling. Finally, Kim would take the triple scoop cone to set. As you can imagine, they only got through about 3 cones per day! (Sidebar: I think San Francisco, with its moderate climate, would be an excellent city to stage an ice cream shoot.)
Sue does a lot of post-production on her photos, including fixing errors (such as a stain on a tablecloth), style and proportion. A shot is not always going to come together perfectly on set. For example, on the Dreyers ice cream shoot, Sue leveled everything in Photoshop, and pushed back parts that were leaning.
Compared to ice cream, Cake is a piece of Itself
While Kim always makes the recipes in a cookbook manuscript in preparation for the shoot, recipes vary widely in reliability, and sometimes Kim is “the last testing ground.” Complicating matters, cookbooks “always have the lowest budget” and desserts are “really difficult” to shoot. A Jell-O dessert recently needed two do-overs, even for a seasoned stylist like Kim. With cake, the icing does not always hold long enough to take a good photo. Therefore, she does not always use the actual recipes for the food to be photographed. Fudging author recipes is rare for her, but Kim does have the “fake stuff” as the stand-in in case it is needed.
Lesson for the rest of us? To slice a layer cake for a photo, use a very sharp, hot knife (a quick slice is usually the best slice) and pick off crumbs with tweezers.
Once the stand-in(s) and hero cakes are ready, and the photographer has tested shots with props and lighting, the shoot proceeds quickly because the team would have had a pre-production meeting of what the shot should look like. (For example, the layer cake shot Kim and Sue demonstrated above used a soft broad light from the side – a west-facing window- and some artificial light on the non-window side to bring out texture.) The prop stylists would have surfaces ready. Just as you would want the butter softened and flour sifted before turning the mixer on for a cake recipe, the photo shoot is solely execution of the team’s plan.
Kim Kissling brought a huge duffle bag, her food styling kit, which included a handheld mini-salamander (used for broiling, especially browning cheese), pins, glue, spritz bottles (for water), heat gun, glycerin (for shine), Windex, Q-tips, paper towels, skewers, scads of tweezers, and many other things. The kit Kim brought to the Bakers Dozen meeting is a minimum of what she typically brings.
Sue and Kim closed by expressing their gratitude for being able to work with a team to create something, and I found inspiration in all of the presenters’ dedication to their work. Over lunch in the dining room, which included a salad with tiny sweet bay shrimp and crunchy bread crumbs, I thought about how each of us could translate the professional styling and photography techniques to our own kitchen.
Whether you want to create a portfolio for fun or for winning clients or have a website or blog, I have collected a few resources for you to improve your presentation of your food.
Tips and Resources (some via Food Blog Alliance)
- Still Life With (Food Photography)
- Matt Wright on Food Photography
- Lauren's Food Photography for Bloggers
- Heidi Swanson's Food Photography Tips (local San Francisco blogger and cookbook author)
- Helen of Tartlette's Tips on Food Photography
- Adobe Lightroom Tutorial by Marc of No Recipes
- Lowel EGO Lights for Food Photography by Jaden Hair
- Tips on Food Styling by Bea of La Tartine Gourmande
- Photo Editing Basics by Ellie Won
- There are many links in this web post to food photographers & food stylists.
- Adam Pearson is a well-known food stylist and sometimes teaches classes and workshops in concert with photographer Matt Wright (above).
- Food stylist Tami Hardeman’s blog Running with Tweezers (a play on the common food stylist’s tool – a pair of extra-long tweezers) has the two “ugly food” food styling posts I linked to above - Indian curry and egg salad. You must see how beautiful egg salad can be!
What is your favorite tip or resource for food styling and/or photography? Please share in the comments!