What skills does a professional food stylist need?
By Jennifer Janz, of A Fabulous Food Stylist & Co. and Owner of The Food Styling Institute
When people first are interested in getting into food styling as a profession, they often are not sure just what skills are required for this career path. In my last post I discussed how people who become food stylists can have vastly different backgrounds and different skill sets when entering the food styling field. But everyone, no matter their background, must have what I like to call my 8 Food Styling Fundamentals. These foundational essentials are what I believe the skills a professional food stylist needs to be successful.
The first of my 8 essentials is understanding composition. Composition of a food photography overall and the composition on the plate. These are basic art and design principals that are a must for a food stylist. Studying composition goes back to art school for me. And much of what I learned was through painting, drawing, photography, lithography and graphic design. The principals of composition are the same for any work of art or any visual medium. Once you know those they can be applied to a complete photograph as well as a plate of food.
The second and third food stylist’s skill that is essential is understanding color and texture theory. Again. These principals are foundational for any art. Texture theory is vastly important with food photography and interior design since what we are creating with has texture and lots of it. From super shiny smooth to coarse and rough.
Textures tell the valuable story of the food that is being featured. And all the other textures within that photograph should enhance the look of the featured food. Take a look at the photo on the right. The gorgeous texture of the frosting and the cake are enhanced because of each other. They are total opposites. And the smooth texture of the props really make the cake texture stand out.
Color Theory is also equally if not more important than texture theory. When you understand how colors work together you begin to understand how to make your featured food really “pop”. You want the viewer to immediately know what the featured food is and motivate them to either buy the product, make the recipe, or want to eat it. Food Stylists are skilled sales people. We have the job of selling our food based on our client’s goals. And playing with color is a fantastic way to draw attention to the featured food. Knowing the principals of the color wheel and understanding complimentary and analogous colors is very important.
My fourth essential food styling skill is to know what food styling tools are and what food styling equipment you need to use to get the job done. And of course, how to use them. This is not particularly easy to learn unless you have been in the business for a while. If you are coming from a culinary background you will have lots of ideas with standard kitchen tools but so much of a food stylist’s kit is filled with non kitchen type tools and equipment because they work more efficiently and are exactly what you need to get something done. Some of these items are a gentle heating, non-blowing tool like an electric embosser, a steamer like my customer steamer that melts cheese on set and doesn’t spray all over the place like large steamers, a grill marker, and a table top kit. But there are countless more. I have a total of 40 essential tools in the kit I sell at my store (www.thefoodstylingstore.com) but I bring about 100 food styling tools, food styling supplies, and food styling equipment to every food styling job.
The Fifth foundational skill a food stylist must have is the know how to shop for and pick out the best food. Now to many this seems like a no brainer. We grocery shop every week, right? In fact we all likely have logged many thousands of hours at the grocery store over the years. But, when it comes to shopping with a stylist’s mind, it grocery shopping takes on a whole new dimension. My assistants (or myself) typically spend 3-8 hours shopping for a single day photo shoot depending on what is needed. It usually requires trips to many grocery stores finding just the right size, shape, color, and freshness of every almost every food on the list (ok, typically canned goods are easy). If the cilantro is wilted at one store then it’s on to another. Or if there is only one store to find english peas in the pod then you make that trip however long it may be. When it comes to food, some is just more photogenic than others. Having a trained eye for how a steak will look after it’s cooked just by looking at it raw is essential. Knowing what colors of food may photograph too dark and what to get instead. Also understanding size relationships when shopping for foods that are going to be shown whole in the photo. All these things are essential to being a good food stylist because you can’t start out with the wrong food and magically turn it into something else. Well…ok, sometimes we can do that with the right food styling tricks!
The sixth skill that will make or break a food stylist is culinary and food science knowledge. Now, not all food stylists come from a culinary background. Many don’t, like myself. I have a strong background in art and photography. I taught myself to cook and practiced thousands of hours to get to where I am now. Was this the easy road? Probably not. If I did it all over again I may have enrolled in some culinary training. It would haver made my journey much easier. There are certainly essentials of cooking you will need to know before becoming a food stylist. You must be able to follow recipes precisely and understand general cooking terms and how to cook accurately and in an organized and timely way. If your client uses terms like brunoise or butterfly you should know what they are asking for. In my class, Food Styling Fundamentals, we cover a whole week of what cooking skills are essential to have as well as the food science you need to know. Food science is not as scary as it seems. At least for food stylists. Some ideas of the basics are how food behaves as it sits out, how it reacts when acidic foods are used, what happens when salt is added, how to create a thicker sauce from a thin one, what to do when your cookies are spreading out on the pan too much or getting too brown on the bottom and when that “moment of perfection” is reached with your food and how to keep it there long enough for the photographer to get that shot. This knowledge is absolutely necessary as you will need to troubleshoot food issues throughout your career.
My seventh “must” for food styling knowledge is how to critically look at other food photographs. This is one of the best ways to learn how food looks in print or in a video but how to be analytical to what is working and what is not working. When you look at thousands of photographs like I have you become aware of good and bad composition, what looks delicious and what looks like “muck”, what colors and textures appeal to your eye, how the props and extras play into the entire photograph and so much more. Critiquing is my number one favorite way to teach since a photo is already created it is easy to talk au the pros and cons. And practicing this as a new food stylist will help you to learn even quicker. Group participation is even better. When you can mastermind with others and hear their opinions too that is invaluable. They might see something you don’t. And people see things differently too and there is always something to learn from other’s eyes. At The Food Styling Institute we have a mastermind group created for our members where everyone gets a chance to critique and be critiqued. It’s a fun interactive group for learning.
And my last make or break essential piece of knowledge for food stylists is understanding photographic lighting. You don’t necessarily need to be a photographer or ever even touch a photo studio light but understanding how light affects your food is critical. Food takes on an entirely different look when lit by a professional photographer. You will start out styling your food in the kitchen under varying lighting conditions. It is when you bring it to the set that the magic is made. A photographer who understands food lighting well will give your food life. And each photographer has his or her own techniques. The client may also request a “flatter light” or “moody light”. Each instance will require a little bit different food styling on your part. And a photographer who isn’t skilled with food may not know how to do that properly. You may find yourself in both circumstances; with an experienced or unexperienced photographer. And you will need to know how to help out the inexperienced food photographer with your styling techniques. There are also many times that a skilled food photographer will ask you to facilitate in helping the light in a certain area of the food. For instance, there may be a glare on one of your carrots so you will be asked to move it so the glare is gone. Knowing how to move it to reduce the glare is essential and will definitely make you look like a pro. This skill takes time in the studio to master. In my Food Styling Fundamentals course I interview a photographer who has been shooting food for 35 years. We discuss the different types of light used in a studio as well as how it affects the food.
For more information on the 8 fundamentals of food styling check out my course called Food Styling Fundamentals. In this 8 week course we devote one week to each of these critical topics so that you can build a rock solid foundation for your food styling and food photography. I developed this course for those seeking a career in food styling or food photography, food bloggers and chefs who wish to style their food for photography. This course is also the first step to all of our advanced food styling certifications. For more information or to sign up for our next class, click here: www.thefoodstylinginstitute.com/fundamentals.
Good luck with your food styling career!