When I ask my culinary students what they think food styling is, the general response is, “plating the food” in a way that’s pleasing to the eye. True enough…in part. I’m also answered with stories of the unspeakable things we do to food. You know them, lacquered chicken, crisco ice cream and so on and so forth…again, only partly true.
Food is beautiful to the eye…it’s appeal affects all the senses. A chef has about one minute to wow his/her patron before it begins it’s descent into their happy tummy. Their memory of the plating is only that…a memory. Any imperfections are forgotten.
Now, the camera’s memory is a very different thing. It captures the food…stopping that moment in time. Translation…any smudges on the plate, blobs of sauce or shriveled herbs are there forever. They appear very LOUDLY. Photoshop is our friend and can fix a few unavoidable problems but should never be a substitute for being careful! There are things we can do to preserve the integrity of the food while helping it look it’s best. The food is real…we’re just dressing it up for the prom.
For example, syrup poured over a stack of hot off the griddle pancakes will not look good after 10 seconds. Why? Because the syrup will be thin and absorb into the hot pancakes and what doesn’t, will run onto the plate before you can blink. Pancakes ruined, shot ruined…do over! To avoid this, what you can do is simple. Freeze the syrup for about an hour. It will be thick and pour like thick molasses. This will allow you the photographer to take several captures in varying stages of gooey sticky maple goodness. The food is still real, just wrangled into submission to accomplish your goal, which is a beautiful shot.
In food styling there is a rule…food that is advertised must not over promise the quantities of ingredients. You can get a big fat lawsuit if you do. Just for fun, check out frozen food cartons with the sumptuous photographs on the outside. Guaranteed, the actual product doesn’t look like that on the inside! The ingredients and the quantities of each are (supposed to be) the same for the product inside and photograph outside, but they don’t look alike. While this example applies to food in commercial advertising, the principle is the same for all food styling. We polish, garnish and dress it up so it looks it’s very, very best.