How to food-style like a pro

From the absurd (mermaid toast and cloud eggs) to the prosaic (weekend baking and fancy-restaurant food) all sort of food photographs find their way to our social media feeds. Work a little harder to make your own pictures wow-worthy. Food stylists give us a few tricks and a little advice.

1.Ask yourself why you’re shooting a dish

Keep in mind whether you’re eating, cooking or feeding. “At a restaurant, food never comes through well, because of the mood lighting. So at the cost of looking rude to fellow diners, take your plate outside into natural light (choose to go during the day — we didn’t say it was easy work). Go really close to the food, so it’s almost like you’re in the food and share what excites you the most,” says Rushina Mushaw Ghildiyal, food stylist, writer and curator of culinary experiences based in Mumbai. It could be a small detail of a flower or the simple dice of cucumbers and tomatoes, with dressing glistening on it. “White will allow the colours to bloom,” says Ghildiyal.

2.Tell a story

with your lens

Your shot doesn’t always have to be about perfect food on a perfect plate. A child’s wide-open mouth with a fork loaded with spaghetti or hands kneading dough, or even a basil plant on a window sill when you show the making of pesto sauce, all tell of either a backstory or movement. “Food is often about memories and nostalgia. It’s a place from where stories emerge. Sevai is connected to a festival, so I try and bring in elements of the community. My grandmother used to hand-roll the sevai, and the memory was all about sitting with her in the kitchen. So I’d shoot home batter, flour strewn around, maybe my nani’s sari, to give the impression that it’s a home dish, not something that’s produced in a hotel kitchen,” says Anshika Varma, from Delhi, who styles and shoots professionally.

3.Make one dish

the hero

“Try and keep one main food item as your hero, with everything else, like table accessories and accompaniments, as the supporting cast,” says Praerna Kartha, food stylist at Thoda Strong, Gurgaon.

If you’re shooting a simple dish of pasta, for instance, “make sure the pasta dish is the hero while accompaniments like herbs, chilli flakes, olive oil bottle are in the frame but not distracting from the hero. Take a quick minute to arrange the garnish on the dish, a sprig of basil or parsley in said example, as beautifully as possible and pay attention to the little things like the sauciness of the pasta, a little olive oil drizzle, a sprinkle of chilli flakes or a grating of parmesan cheese to make it look appetising.”

4.Move around your dish like you would on a dance floor

To gauge light, first turn off your flash and all other artificial light. Then, place your dish in the same spot at different times of the day to understand how light impacts a shot. Directional light is great, such as the light from a window. Shoot it from different angles. If you’re finding the light too overpowering, dull it down with a dupatta: hang one over the window, for instance. If you feel one side is too much in darkness because there’s light only from one window, ask a handy helper to move around with a thermocol sheet to deflect light onto the object. “If you want a warm light, try a gold reflection (from gold foil or any flat gold reflective object, like a brass thali),” says Varma. If you’re shooting outdoors, use the shadows created by a large leaf for a dappled effect, she says.

5.Shoot layers

from the side

If it’s falooda, a monster shake, a layered cake or simply food piled high, then try the side or a 45- or 60-degree angle (from the subject). Make sure you click when the dish is ready — you don’t want lines of milk on the glass, for instance. If you’re at a restaurant and there aren’t too many options, take that top shot. Layers on a table work well and may also be shot from the top: a textured table cloth, a large plate with a napkin and napkin ring, and hands on the table, for instance, as if a person is waiting for the meal. Remember, glass is difficult to shoot, and you may find a reflection of yourself in the frame!

6.Work with

interesting textures

Whether you simply pick greens and lay them out on sack cloth or show fresh produce in a wicker basket, textures add to the tertiary element of the picture. Most food stylists enjoy natural elements, such as wood or stone, and pick them over plastic. Battered cookie trays or other things you find around the home work well too. Ghildiyal says she once did a shoot for gujiyas, where she used a brass mould, showing the sweet half-done, with the dough and filling being a part of the frame. “Imagine a clean plate of gujiyas instead!” she says. It leaves the viewer with a behind-the-scenes feel that is almost intimate.

7.Look to a

colour palate

Deeba Rajpal, food blogger, stylist and photographer, says that we are all inspired by colours in colder climes, so orange-brown-blue or blue/grey-chocolate-blue work well, leaving the shadows intact. For a summery feel, mint green, yellow and cream are a sure-shot palate. “People like mango and white — it makes them feel light and happy,” she says.

8.Understand your

camera first

When you’re shooting at a place that’s low on light, try this: “If your phone has a pro cam app, then increase the ISO value and decrease the aperture value to let in more light into the camera. Do this in incremental values until you have the desired result,” says Kartha.

9.Make some

interesting memories

Sometimes, food photography isn’t about the actual food at all. Ghildiyal’s daughter watched her mother making mango pickle at a class she was teaching. The 10-year-old went home and attempted the same. Ghildiyal clicked a picture of little hands holding out a big jar of mango pickle. She will have the photo to tell her grandchildren about their mother.


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