Editor’s note: When Darlene takes a picture of food, it looks so delicious, you can almost taste it and the only thing you want right now, is to eat exactly that! Her impressive command of not only the photography but the food styling is quite impressive. More impressive is that the food is real and the props are simple. She generously accepted to allow us a peak into your culinary food styling and photography. Just be warned, this article is on styling desserts, and you will be craving some after seeing her work!
by Darlene Dallas
I enjoy creating several styles of photographs, from portraits to fantasy story telling, however, I have one type that is my favorite, Food Photography! Who doesn’t like food?! Having a passion for the beauty of food led me to pursue an education in Culinary Arts. Combining food and photography is the ultimate pleasure.
One of the many things I learned in my education was the importance of food styling and presentation. After all, we eat with our eyes first. That’s the reason why we have eyes bigger than our stomachs! Beautifully presented food can jump start your appetite, making your food exciting! Food that isn’t presented well, even if it tastes great, can leave you feeling unsatisfied. My goal with photographing food is to make the viewer ‘ooh and ahh’, and crave what they see.
Over the course of 2012 I took up a challenge of creating a calendar. My theme was desserts (my favorite kind of food to prepare). Each photo was to represent the month in some way, either by colors, in-season foods, or holidays. Today I’m going to use those monthly dessert photos to explain the ‘why’ of what I generally do when shooting food.
First, I’d like to mention that many food stylists and professional food photographers don’t use real food. Often times what you see isn’t what you would really be eating. They create the food in a different way, or with items that aren’t the real thing. For example; since ice cream melts so fast, it can be common to use things like a scoop of shortening in place of the ice cream. Perhaps using a green strawberry that is perfect in shape, but using red lipstick to make it look ripe. A roast that hasn’t really been cooked, but instead a blow torched outside to appear to be perfectly cooked.
Everything I shoot is the real thing, you can eat it and it will taste how it should. I like to be true to the recipe and the food, that’s just how I do it. However, if needed, I may use something to prop up a piece to keep it in place instead of falling over, but the food itself is the real thing. I mean, how terrible would it be to know that you’ve been drooling over a scoop of lard or lipstick!? Ok, onto my thought process.
Don’t be afraid, it’s ok!
Number one thing on my mind – LIGHTING. It is the most important part of getting the food to look spectacular. Natural light, the light coming from the sun, is the only light I will use in my food photography. Why? It looks the best. It’s natural, beautiful, and soft (unless it’s direct). Bad lighting can completely ruin the shot, making good food look unappetizing. A great place to shoot is right next to a window where the sun isn’t coming directly through. If the windows I use as my ‘studio’ is getting sun directly through, I close the blinds or adjust them to keep the bright/harsh light and shadows off of the food. If you want to go outside, make use of the shade. It will still give a nice bright light, but it will be soft and gorgeous.
I like the light to come from the side to front/side of the food. It puts the highlights and shadows in flattering positions. If it’s coming directly from the front, the photo will look flat. If it’s coming from the back, it won’t be lighting your food enough on the visible side and it will fall too much into shadows. If I’m getting too much shadow and loss of detail on the opposite side of the food, I use something as simple as a sheet of white paper to reflect some light on the other side to bring out more detail and lessen the shadows. When it comes to food photography, my mind says to me ‘bright is clean, dark is dirty’. I’ve seen some stunning black background food photos, but they are always still very well lit.
Next up in my brain is the food itself. Before I begin preparing, I want an idea of how the final product to look on the plate. Sketching on a piece of paper is a big help! Anytime you’re presenting food, keep in mind that Height, Color, Texture, Balance, and Flavors are key elements. Yes, flavors. Even though you can’t taste a photograph, flavors are visible. The flavors are one of the main elements I like to bring out in the presentation of food. You shall see in a moment what I mean.
Once I have a visual, I’m still not ready for the food! There is still plenty of prep work to do with the setup. Unless the food requires freezing, refrigeration, or time to set, it’s best to wait and keep the food as fresh as possible. If it does require freezing or refrigeration; I leave it there until the absolute last moment and I’m ready to press the shutter! You’d be amazed how quickly it can go from ‘Oh YES!’ to ‘Oh NO!’
While I’m prepping up the setup, the background is now at the front of my mind. Trial and error works here. By that I mean to get all my stuff, set it up, and play with it. I always take a few test shots with empty plates or something set in its place, to represent the dish, and see how it looks and if I like it. If not, I’ll change composition and placements until I’m happy with the results. Props, food, place settings all come into play here. Some people like to set up the scene as if you’re sitting at the table ready to eat it. I tend to set up my shots focusing on the flavors in my backgrounds. I very rarely set up a full place setting. Colors used should fit and compliment those in the food. Once you have everything set how it’s going to be, that’s when you bring in the food and start shooting.
Here I have what I call “Numb Strawberries and Cream”. This dish required prep ahead of time since it’s a frozen dessert; I kept it in the freezer until I was ready to shoot. If I used the food itself while prepping the setup, it would have melted and become not very pretty. It’s for the month of February so I wanted pinks, reds, love and hearts as my main focus when creating this dessert. I shaped the strawberries into hearts and made them the standout part. I used layers of different color and texture to add interest; from the semi shine of the sorbet, the flat matte of the cream, to the high gloss of the puree on top. The frozen strawberries would add a firm bite to the otherwise creamy dessert. The rest of the scene needed to fit along with that. I have several colors, shapes, textures in the food itself so I wanted the background to be fairly simple. It would keep full attention on the dessert itself.
For the background, I chose white. I often choose white because white is bright and clean! A clean appearance is so important with food! I don’t want food on a completely white, plain background though. (I did try to add a white background with red polka dots, but it was just too much going on! So I left it plain) This is where I add in flavors. I like to pull out the flavors in the dish and incorporate those flavors into the background. It’s pretty clear from the food itself that the main flavor is strawberry so there’s not a whole lot to add. I took some fresh strawberries and spread them out in the background, make sure that some of the greens were visible so you can tell what they are instead of blobs of red. I originally had a plain white plate down, but that was creating too much separation. Cohesive and together is what I go for. Here is where I chose a clear glass plate to keep it all from being too separated, and when I decided I needed some red upfront too. I placed down some red fabric under the clear plate to pull the red from background strawberries to the front to help balance the reds that are dominant in this photo.
Balancing the colors in the photo keeps you focused on the subject and pulled into the shot so you’re not bouncing all over. Nearly every time I need to use a plate, it is plain white or clear glass. Those two are clean and non-distracting, looking good with anything you put on them. Another important thing to remember with staying clean, don’t put food on the rim of the plate! People don’t eat off the rim of the plate. That is where hands hold the plate to serve you the food. Just don’t do it! It looks messy and dirty, and you don’t put food on the plate that isn’t meant to be eaten.
Here in my November photo, I chose bright white background. Keeping it clean! This dish is chocolate waffles topped with cranberry sauce, whipped cream, and chocolate. Imagine this on a white plate, on a plain white background – boring right? Right! I pulled the red from the cranberries to tie it together with a red cloth underneath my food. Since it might be hard to tell what it is, I pull out the flavors: waffles and cranberries, and use them in the background. When you look at the photo you know what it is because you see the flavors in the background. Waffles laying flat on a plate are boring, so what do I do? Give them height! I cut the square waffles into triangles and stacked them up to give an otherwise boring dish some appeal. Always pick and choose the prettiest pieces of food to show off. Hitting the important presentation points; we have the height with the stacked waffles, the color with browns and the pop of white and reds, and we have our texture with the shiny and smooth sauces, and the crisp and coarse waffles.
When there are ‘toppings’ on your food you’re going to want to strategically place it all so nothing gets hidden from view. When photographing food, you want to showcase each element, if possible. Cranberries down the sides (not so much the front) so it doesn’t hide the waffle too much. Lightly drizzle the chocolate (which pulls the chocolate waffle flavor into view) so it’s there but not overwhelming.
Dripping sauces and ooey-gooeyness can be quite appetizing if used right. Just pouring sauces over can cause a big sloppy, and even soggy mess. When using a sauce with food, don’t cover the whole thing with it. A small amount is good enough, visually. When it comes to photographs of food, less is more. A sauce is typically the last thing I put on the food so it doesn’t soak in or spread too far. Each drip is put where it is because I want it there. I don’t just put it on and let it fall on its own. I use piping bags (or even just a sandwich baggy with a corner cut works well) to make the drips.
Foods all have different textures. Be sure to show those textures and colors off. When placing food on the plate, I’m very mindful of what I am placing where. I want to make sure that each element of the dish is visible. Like on top of the cheesecake. I have the various berries that I have baked into the bottom of the cheesecake. Chopped strawberries might not be able to be recognized, so I made sure that some pieces were seed side out. Then you know exactly what you’re looking at, and as a bonus you get a different visible texture.
Another example, imagine I’m shooting a pasta dish that has shrimp and veggies in it. While plating, I will need to strategically place some shrimp and each kind of veggie clearly visible to the camera. Then the viewer will know what is in the food. If I have a burger, I’ll place each element toward the front of the burger, showing out, clearly visible. I want to see the bun, the burger, the cheese, the pickle, the ketchup, the mustard, the lettuce, the onion etc., neatly placed. If the ingredients are clearly visible, I won’t need to necessarily incorporate them into the background. The cheesecake is clear as to what it is, so I can just place the rest of the cake in the background.
Sometimes the food doesn’t have specific, separate ingredients to see. In those cases, showing the flavors in the background is the most important.
In my October photo, just the food itself would give absolutely no ideas as to what you’re looking at. I decided to incorporate the warm tones in the Pumpkin Mousse to give a homier, fall, comforting feeling. Pumpkin pie or pumpkin flavors remind me of holidays with my family.
So again, I pull the flavors out of the dish and put them into view. Because there are pumpkins in the background, the viewer is able to know that the pumpkin color layers must be pumpkin and not butterscotch, or cheese!
Inside the jars, the dark layers are also unclear as to what it is. I crumbled some on top, outside of the jar as a ‘garnish’ so you’re able to better see that it’s a brownie or chocolate cake of some sort (it’s brownie by the way, and oh so delicious with pumpkin mousse. You should try it!)
Editor’s note: Notice how smart Darlene’s use of jars is, as it immediately ties our brains into a country market kind of mood!
In the June photo, there are no ingredients to see in the food itself. It’s just Granita, but what kind of Granita? Well, that is made completely clear with my flavor elements. I see watermelon triangles, must be Watermelon Granita…and curls of lime zest, must be some lime in there too! Yes, yes there is!
You may also notice these two don’t have my typical white background. White doesn’t always work! While I may like white the best, it didn’t work with these, it was too much blah for my liking. . I used the green in the Granita because there wasn’t much color in the whole shot and it gave it cheerful, summery feeling. Color is good, as long as it’s not over powering or distracting. If you like color over white, use it, but make sure it fits the overall look well!
You’ll find that giving height to your food is much more visually appealing than something short and flat. Go high, or go home! Although, at times I am unable to achieve the height that is visually appealing because the food just isn’t meant to be tall. The Watermelon Granita was served in small ramekins. In order to give a better visual, I needed to prop up a ramekin for a better look. Tipping it up also makes the eyes think it’s taller. When I have foods that are short and small, I give the feeling of height in other ways.
The March Lime Bars were really stumpy. I tried a stack of three, but it just didn’t look good no matter what angle I shot at! I tried pulling the flavor with limes, but it wasn’t looking right. I got frustrated with that shot because my ideas just weren’t working. With that shot, I ended up going with more of the ‘you’re there eating it’ visual. I added the glass of ice water with the nice matching green bottom, and the plate of stacked lime bars.
Those elements are tall and gave the feeling of height within the photo even though the food was short. At first, I also didn’t have the lime zest curls. That was added on after several shots where something was missing. It needed something. I took a couple curls of zest and WHAMMO, there it is.
Little, tiny changes can make all the difference. The zest also shows the lime flavor in the food. Not that you couldn’t tell from the bright green! When you get stuck, make itty bitty changes and you might cure your frustration.
The Pecan Apple Upside-Down Pie is also another shorty. But oh man is that a good pie! To compensate for its short comings I shot at a higher angle. Not only does that help the height issue, it showcases more of the caramel pecans on top! I also filled the frame and got really close to help the small issues. Close works because you still know it is pie and can still see all elements. There is a small slice cut out because seeing the inside of pie is important since it’s what pie is all about!
Christmas cookies, yeah, there’s no height there for sure! Again, I filled the frame, got close, and propped up a cookie to give the visual height.
The May Cupcakes photo is a complete frame filler. Filling the frame can work great, as long as you can still clearly see and tell what your subject is. It typically works well when I have a repetition of the same item over and over.
In order to separate a subject from its similar surroundings, I used really shallow depth of focus, and only decorated the one cupcake. Leaving the rest with just white frosted removed any distraction and kept it clean. The stack of extra liners also helped to separate my one subject. A plate wouldn’t work there, neither would a napkin because they would create too much space in between. The liners added the separation I was looking for and fit perfectly with cupcakes. Work with what is already there!
You’ll probably notice that a lot of my food is circular in shape. I like circular shapes in my presentation because it makes me feel like it was made especially for me; unlike a cut square of some dessert made for many. It’s personal and gives the viewer the feeling that ‘yes, it’s for me!’ (It’s also easier to balance out a shot with something round!)
Any and all food can be turned into a stunning, hunger inducing presentation. I’ve had conversations about “ugly food” and I will never change my opinion that there is NO ugly food; it’s all in how it’s presented. You could have food that is all brown and mushy, but if you present it well, it’s beautiful!
So, basically what goes through my mind: Keep it bright and keep it clean. Give it height in some form, cohesive/complimentary colors, varied textures, balance, and show the flavors and elements! It’s all quite easy and you don’t need anything fancy to create delicious looking food photography! Let’s Eat!
Darlene Dallas is a very talented photographer with a generous spirit from Michigan, USA. Although she does many types of photography, her culinary art education, her great eye for composition and colors, truly make her food photography top-notch!
Please visit her website here: Darlene Dallas
Food Styling with Darlene Dallas by Darlene Dallas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.