Bloggers, budding chefs, and every foodie who swoons over food porn wants to make their dishes look better. Recently, after becoming interested in how professional food stylists do it for commercials and magazines, I attended a weeklong intro course led by stylist and teacher Delores Custer, the author of Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera. Here are five basic guidelines I gleaned to make plates more beautiful (in general, and especially for the camera), followed by five tricks to try with specific foods.
1. Decide on your camera angle and arrange food from this angle. If you’re going to the trouble of fixing a perfect plate, you’ll likely want to document it, so style food at the onset from your preferred camera angle (eye level, 20 degrees, 45 degrees, overhead). Then take care not to arrange everything facing the camera straight on (potato chips, lettuce leaves, cereal flakes, etc.), or, as Custer writes, “The food will have no dimension or texture.”
2. Aim for interesting curves and shapes. While consistency in overall size is good, unique curves and shapes are more appealing than straight ones. Consider this first when shopping (green beans that curve, apples with stems that aren’t straight), and also try new cuts for fruits and vegetables, such as cutting in wedges instead of circles and slicing on a bias. Leave the hooks on strips of bell pepper. When choosing potato chips and cereal flakes, opt for those “with character.”
3. Think of the plate as a picture frame. Don’t overcrowd it. According to Custer, a very common mistake is “too much food overlapping the edge of the plate.”
4. Consider color carefully. Using complementary colors (red and green, orange and blue, yellow and purple) in a background or plate can make food stand out. For example, the red of rhubarb is heightened against a green plate or with a green patterned towel. Color also carries moods—blues, purples, and greens suggest calmness, and oranges, yellows, and reds suggest warmth and energy.
5. Watch for strong contrasts of light and dark. The camera struggles to expose for both dark and light with foods and props. White items look “bigger and bolder on film,” so consider softening them or breaking them up. For example, you can soften white whipped cream on a dark-chocolate cake by dusting it with cocoa or cinnamon, or break it up by adding a raspberry or mint sprig.
Ready to have at it? With the above guidelines, here are five tricks to try at home (with page numbers in Custer’s book):
1. Lemon curlicue garnish (p. 161): Using a Swiss (short, wide) peeler, remove a wide strip of zest from the middle of the lemon. With a sharp paring knife, cut thinner strips for twists. Pin one end of a lemon strip to a straw and twist the strip around it, pinning the end in place. Cover the straw with a damp paper towel for at least 15 minutes before unpinning.
2. Condensation on a glass (p. 289): First, cover the rim of the glass to the liquid line with masking tape and the stem (if a wine glass) with aluminum foil. Pour corn syrup in a small bowl and dilute slightly with a little water. Submerge a stiff toothbrush in the mixture and spray on the glass by flicking the brush. Invest in some fake ice and you’re all set!
3. Chocolate-chip cookies (p. 266–267): Use an appropriate-sized ice-cream scoop to make cookies of uniform size. Before baking, sort for the best chocolate chips and put them aside. Three to five minutes into the baking time, working quickly, add a few to the tops of the cookies in a random, natural way (not too “placed” on top). Let cookies cool before shooting; when you’re ready to photograph, Custer suggests using a heat gun to add a “warm ‘just out of the oven’ look to the chips.”
4. Peanut butter on bread (p. 298): Turns out it just takes one smooth continuous stroke with a small palette knife or regular knife to make that perfect peanut butter spread like we see in Skippy ads. The single stroke is more appealing than more short, busy strokes.
5. Perfect grill marks (p. 204): If you don’t have a grill or want a more controlled look for your grill marks than the grill would deliver, fear not: A hot metal skewer works great. First heat the skewer on a gas stove or using a propane torch. Skewers come in different sizes; large pieces of meat look better with wide marks and smaller foods (shrimp, kebabs) look best with thin marks. If the mark is not dark enough, the skewer may not be hot enough. Try to make marks look natural—broken on uneven surfaces—the way they actually would come out on the grill.
Finally, Custer suggests another way to practice is to simply find a food photo you love, ideally with the recipe, and try to replicate it. E