It’s the job of a food stylist to make products look delicious on camera – even if the makeover leaves the meal inedible. Six stylists tell us their tricks
Behind most professional food photos is a stylist who tricks the viewer. These deceits range from a touch of lipstick to redden a strawberry, to “milkshakes” made from mashed potatoes. It’s not that food stylists are liars and cheats. They’re simply in the business of improvisation.
Throughout the 10 hours it takes, on average, to complete a photo shoot, stylists are expected to solve any given crisis on the spot. No tzatziki on set? Make do with the mayonnaise or whipped cream in the fridge. A client wants that turkey skin to look a “little more red”? Better have food coloring on hand.
“When shooting, you can’t stop and say: ‘Hey, ugh, I forgot this,’” explains Denise Stillman, an Orange County-based food stylist who’s been in the business for 26 years. “You just have to make sure you [bring enough materials on set to] cover all your bases and then [ask yourself], ‘What else can go wrong?’”
But not everything is faked. The product the advertiser is trying to sell is often featured, explains Stillman. When, for example, she shoots an ad for Breyers, she shoots the real ice cream. But if she’s styling Gay Lea Foods’ whipped cream, the ice cream it rests atop can be made of anything – so long as it looks delicious.
Whether shooting a television commercial or print advertisement, a food stylist’s goal is often to emphasize an ingredient’s natural beauty.
“I’m like hair and makeup for food,” says Charlotte Omnès, a stylist based in New York. “When you see models walk down the runway, they don’t look like that. But after they come out of makeup, you’re like, ‘Wow.’”
If you want your Instagram food photos to resemble Bon Appétit covers, we’ve collected some pro tips that will help. Six food stylists served us their secrets on how to make common dishes look ready for their close-ups.
Enchiladas: mashed potatoes give the appearance of bulk
Mexican food is not the most photogenic. No one knows this better than Kim Krejca, a Phoenix-based stylist who works with a lot of south-western cuisine. “Enchiladas with sauce bleeding into the beans [are] not very visually pleasant,” she says. “You have to modify that but still be true to the food.”
To give the enchiladas the appearance of bulkiness (as seen above), she stuffed them with instant mashed potatoes, a stylist’s go-to filling because they are easy to make and mold. Then Krejca added meat and veggies to the ends where the tortillas open up. To finish the dish, she used a heat gun to make the cheese melt perfectly on top.
Tacos: cosmetic sponges keep the shells open
In real life, tacos are a delicious mess. To make them presentable on camera, Krejca glued two tortillas together and placed cosmetic sponges behind the meat to keep the shells open. For dark and juicy-looking beef, she painted the pieces with a brown sauce called Kitchen Bouquet, made of water and food coloring. Krejca then sprayed the filling with WD-40, her secret weapon to make Mexican food glisten. Stillman uses red peppers in place of diced tomatoes for a more vibrant color and pours corn syrup on beans so they look moist and fresh.
Cereal: men’s hair products and sunscreen make a perfect ‘milk’
This may ruin your appetite, but the milk used in cereal photos is usually fake. Since the real stuff quickly makes cornflakes look soggy, food stylists have come up with alternatives. In this photo, Wisconsin-based Tamara Kaufman used Wildroot, a white hair cream for men with a sunscreen lotion-like consistency that many stylists covet. Krejca prefers the old-school method of white glue, which photographs just like the real deal. When pros do use actual milk, it’s only a very small amount. According to Michelle Rabin, a Toronto-based food stylist, you can place the most beautiful pieces of cereal in a bowl filled with vegetable shortening and cover it with a thin layer of milk. “The shortening resists the liquid and it looks like the whole bowl is filled with mounds of cereal,” she says. “The pieces will stay pretty crisp for a long time.”
Coffee: watered down soy sauce and gelatin give a smooth look
Black coffee is hard to work with because of its oily sheen. In a latte or cappuccino, the foam will quickly evaporate. In this photo, Omnès used a combination of Kitchen Bouquet, water and gelatin to give the coffee a smooth look. In a pinch, Rabin has used watered-down soy sauce and once had to improvise with cream and gravy browner on the set of a popular Canadian brand. “I see that billboard I worked on and I’m like: ‘That’s funny, because that’s not a coffee,’” she says. Kaufman uses the real deal when possible, but adds drops of soapy water around the perimeter with an eyedropper to simulate fresh brew. The froth, stylists say, is often made from piped soap foam.
Turkey: it may be raw and bloody inside, but the skin looks good
Every home chef knows it’s hard to make a bird crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Luckily, food stylists only have to focus on aesthetics, which means they never fully cook one. “It is important not to overcook them so the skin stays looking moist, plump and juicy,” says Omnès. “These are visual cues that make your mouth water when you look at it.” New-York based stylist Brian Preston-Campbell says he often roasts five or six turkeys for a few hours each to get that “perfect hero bird”. “It’s still raw and kind of bloody inside,” he says. “It’s kind of nasty but it’s about the end product in the photo.”
In this shot, Omnès pinned down the turkey’s skin so it wouldn’t tear in the oven. She lined the pan and stuffed the bird with a water-soaked paper towel so it would steam instead of turn crispy. To achieve that brown, glistening look, she brushed the turkey with a mixture of water, Kitchen Bouquet and dish soap.
Ice cream or whipped cream: shortening, corn syrup and frosting
If ice cream were a human model, she would be a diva. The dessert is hard to mold, and if you’re not styling in a refrigerated space, melts quickly. To avoid the headache, experts often turn to other ingredients. To create the “ice cream” on the left, Omnès mixed frosting with icing sugar (the cone on the right is the real deal), but the most common fake ice cream recipe is a combination of vegetable shortening, powdered sugar and corn syrup.
For other milky desserts, stylists have many hacks. For a dollop of whipped cream, Omnès used a non-dairy creamer that “does not wilt or weep”. Kaufman prefers Barbasol shaving cream but notes: “The woman who mistakenly tried a bite was not pleased.” For milkshakes, Stillman uses sour cream because it’s thick and easy to swirl.
Drinks: that frosty glass? It’s spray-on deodorant
Stylists don’t waste real booze unless the ad is for alcohol. To make cocktails, Omnès mixes food coloring in water, a trick Kaufman also uses to create “chardonnay” from diluted Kitchen Bouquet. In truth, the liquid itself is the sideshow. “The most important part about cocktails are the visual cues,” says Omnès – cues such as ice, fizz, bubbles and froth. “They [make the drink] look refreshing.”
For frozen drinks like margaritas and daiquiris, the pros rely on ice powder, bits of gelatin that look like crushed ice when mixed with liquid. They also use fake plastic or acrylic ice cubes, which don’t melt under the hot camera lights and vaseline on the rim of margaritas. To create frost, Stillman coats a beer mug with spray-on deodorant and uses a mixture of Scotchguard and glycerin to make soft drinks look icy cold with beads of condensation. “What a hassle it would be otherwise,” says Stillman. “This way, you can choose the level of wetness on the glass.”
Steamy pasta: incense gives the appearance of steam
That moment when steam rises up from pasta like mist over a mountain is hard to capture naturally on camera. Kaufman hides a tin foil package of steam chips inside the pasta bowl and adds water to create vapor. To get the same effect, she has also lit incense and later removed the stick with Photoshop, while other tricks involve a clothing steamer or cigarette smoke. By far the most interesting method is to microwave water-soaked tampons (cotton balls work as well) and bury them behind a dish. “I have them in my kit just in case,” says Kaufman. Regardless of the technique, she says steam should always be shot against a dark background.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010