I often get asked, “Why do we need a food stylist?”
A food stylist is to food photography, what a model, fashion designer, makeup artist and/or hairstylist is to fashion photography: in short, without the food stylist, there is either nothing to shoot, or a subject that could be vastly improved.
Why is that?
Well, the food stylist plays a very important role in the photo shoot – everything from buying the groceries, to prepping the food, “plating” or setting the food on the scene, looking painstakingly close and sorting pieces of food for the perfect looking one, and ultimately adjusting the food on set to look just right, from building it, to spraying it with water or oil, to using tweezers to move around crumbs, an eye dropper to remove liquid, etc.
Food Styling in Conceptual Work
In a conceptual shoot, like the project I’m working on with NYC food stylist, Jill Keller, which explores the absurdly high quantity of hidden, added sugars in “healthy” foods, the stylist’s job is even more complex.
In addition to the basics, like grocery shopping and cooking, she also was key in concept development, sourcing props and doing such things as painting a map of the US out of sugar, putting letters on sugar cubes, making skulls out of sugar, dying sugar cubes, and more.
While I, the photographer, was in charge of researching data to contribute to the visualizations and coming up with various images in a story board, as well as researching a mood board for the project, Jill was busy searching for ways to make these ideas come to life.
When it was time for the actual shoot, we worked together very well.
I set up my equipment and used stand ins while to prep the lighting, in advance, for when the subject would be ready. Then, once everything was set, Jill and I worked side by side to make adjustments to the subjects. I shot tethered to the computer, so we could see the photo large enough to know what things to change – whether that was changing the shape, moving a sugar cube here or there, removing a piece of lettuce or adding in some milk, or removing some coffee.
Some things really had to be done at the last second – such as pouring in frothed milk into a “latte” or adding milk to cereal, so that it wouldn’t become soggy.
This is really the value of having a stylist on set. It’s pretty obvious when the shoot is conceptual or there isn’t already a chef to do the “plating.”
Food Styling in a Restaurant Shoot
But what about for a restaurant shoot, where food is already prepped for you by the chef and line cooks in the kitchen?
Is there still a need for a food stylist?
Of course!
It’s just the role that shifts. Instead of testing a recipe or buying groceries, the food stylist is there to assist in primping the food.
The stylist will often work with both with the chef and the photographer – as sort of a go-between. She will look at how the chef plates a dish, and either directly adapt it for the camera, or make suggestions to the chef about how to “build” the dish, so that it looks right in the light and in front of the lens.
Then, once the dish is in front of the camera, the stylist will work with me to make adjustments to the scene, such as with props, or cleaning a dish, moving a stray pea in a pasta dish or freshening up meat or veggies, etc.
The stylist isn’t there to change a chef’s plating, but to enhance the look of the dish and translate it for the camera. Plus, a really great stylist understands photography, what the lighting and lens will do to the food, and how to compensate for the problems and enhance for the strengths. Stylists of this calibre know how to work around lens distortions and work with photographers to call attention to the important story and beauty elements of the dish/concept.
The fact of the matter: plating for eating and plating for photography are different skills – and not every chef has that understanding of how to make food look right for the camera. And, honestly, it’s really fine if they don’t – so they can focus on making the food taste food, and leave the looks to the stylist and photographer.
So, when you ask whether you should spring for the stylist, I always recommend yes, because, really, what’s the sense in hiring a professional photographer and only going half way?
Instead, get the most out of your images by bringing on a stylist to take the food from “ready to eat” to “ready to shoot.” Besides, isn’t the point of the photographs to create a craving in the viewer? To make them want to eat your food right away? If so, it’s the stylist that transforms the dish so the camera can show you what you want to see, to make that hunger pang come through the image and into your stomach. The photographer then uses the tricks of the camera and lighting to take the temporary joy of the food and make it into a permanent and beautiful work of art.
NYC Food Stylist, Jill Keller, preps food for a shoot with Hudson Valley food photographer, Caylena Cahill. NYC Food Stylist, Jill Keller, preps food for a shoot with Hudson Valley food photographer, Caylena Cahill. NYC Food Stylist, Jill Keller, preps food for a shoot with Hudson Valley food photographer, Caylena Cahill.

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