“Food styling can sound more glamorous than it actually is — it is much more than buying pretty plates and napkins” — Praerna Kartha, Food Stylist
Could you tell us about the role of a food stylist, which is a relatively new field?
Food styling is the art of putting together food in a way that it looks good for the camera. Stylists work in conjunction with photographers to create strong food related imagery for restaurants, hotels and F&B brands for a variety of marketing applications. For instance, images created by a food stylist + photographer get used for menus, advertising and branding.
A professional food stylist works along with a photographer (or could be one herself) on photographs that he/ she has been commissioned to by a client. He or she needs to ensure that each photograph carries the mood, feel and message of the brand or the publication that it is being used for. There is a very specific brief and purpose with clear dos and don’ts. The only objective of these photographs is to increase the value of the product in some way — either in terms of brand value or sales value. So a food stylist has to be skilled and committed enough to deliver an excellent photograph (along with the photographer) each and every time, one that fulfills all the requirements of the brief. No excuses. No second chances.
Does food styling require any formal training? How did you learn this art?
Sadly, there still aren’t any standalone, formal courses or training for food styling. Some hotel management institutes take it up as a subject but not as a standalone. But that doesn’t mean that one cannot learn it and train for it.
My food story began with my food blog (http://food-dee-dum.com ), like most stylists today. I have always loved food, baking my first cake (without too much supervision) at age 9! Though I loved cooking, becoming a part of the hospitality industry had no appeal for me. My love for food was always something that was a part of my “free time”, and something I wanted to pursue independently.
So my blog was the beginning, a simple space for me to document the adventures in my little home kitchen. But as time went by, I developed a serious interest in photography — and became aware of how important it is to make food look good for the camera in order to walk away with a brilliant food photograph. That’s where my love for styling started — it also helped that my husband is a professional food photographer and I always had access to the best equipment available and advice. I studied and worked with other established senior stylists, voraciously devoured food magazines for inspiration, spoke to my friends in the food business for advice.
Some basic and intrinsic qualities help — Apart from a love and passion for food, food styling requires a whole lot of common sense. Every challenge for a shot is different and there are no set formulae, which can solve a problem for you. Thinking on your feet is important. In such situations, it really helps if you have some idea about the science of food. Why certain ingredients and elements react in a particular way. Or which ingredients can substitute others because they look the same but are more stable and will hold out longer during a shoot.
Additionally, it is important for the food stylist to have a good eye for composition, colours and textures. It helps them “put the shot together”. Some advertising or editorial knowledge is an added bonus because it helps you visualize the end product, or how it will be used and applied.
How do you plan and execute any assignment?
Honestly, this is too generic a question because each assignment has it’s own needs and challenges but here is what I can sum it up to — my job involves making food look good! The key thing to understand here is this: food photographs need to be hand crafted. Generally, a shot of food that’s typically plated for consumption is guaranteed to look fairly awful.
Because of this, my job involves working with a photographer to create a photograph or video for a brand, restaurant or magazine that fulfills the requirements of the brief. I need to make the food look appetizing and irresistible to the viewer all at the same time. Breaking it down into steps, it involves the following:
• Working with the photographer and brand to arrive at a concept and layout
• Sourcing props and tools according to the requirement of the shoot.
• Working with the chef or food production team to make sure that I create the food dish in question exactly as it’s served to customers
And finally, creating the dish from scratch — based on my concept and vision, so that it looks just awesome in a photograph.
What are the challenges you face on the field?
Making a dish fit to be photographed is a lot harder than making one to eat (although I’m sure my chef friends would disagree!). This is because of basic challenges that lie in two aspects. One, food meant to eat is consumed quickly. When food is being photographed, it can sometimes sit on the shoot table for more than 30–60 minutes. During this time, food obviously cools, wilts, congeals or gets soggy with time and keeping it fresh for the whole duration of the shot is definitely a challenge. The second is that food meant to eat has the advantage of other sensory involvement in making it appetizing — smell, touch and feel — whereas a photograph or video is two dimensional and everything needs to be achieved within those limitations.
What goes into your styling kit?
I literally have enough boxes full of tools and props to fill an entire room! There are too many of them to really list out and many of them depend on the kind of food to be shot, but some of the most important ones would be my knives and cutting board, a selection of different tweezers, brushes, toothpicks & skewers, sponge brushes and Q-tips, Blue Tack, pins, thread and a spray bottle. Sometimes food colour and a hot gun, but these are used sparingly and prudently! And not to mention dozens of cups, saucers, plates, bowls and every conceivable way of serving food in every conceivable colour!
What are the most important factors that go into a successful food photo shoot?
The most important factors for a successful food shoot are definitely planning, planning and more planning. It’s very important that the brand/product managers, the photographer and the stylist are on the same page about the final desired product — else it will lead to confusion on the set and cause delays and an unsatisfactory result.
It’s important for all to understand the items to be shot, discuss and agree upon the look and mood of the photographs in advance, prepare extensive checklists to ensure that all props, ingredients and items are sourced and responsibilities are clear so that a shoot can go smoothly and the photographer + stylist team can deliver brilliant photographs to the client.
What is your most favourite and least favourite food to style?
My most favourite food to style would probably be salads and sandwiches. Even though they are difficult and wilt on the set very quickly, but they allow so much scope to play around with fresh vegetables and ingredients, colours, textures that I just can’t help but love them.
My least favourite would be generic Indian curries because they are usually various shades of red and brown and it takes a lot of hard work to make them stand out and not look like the gooey, sludgy mass they actually are!
What advice would you want to give to the aspiring food stylists?
The most important piece of advice that I could give aspiring food stylists is that they should understand what it is that they are aspiring to. Food styling can sound more glamorous than it actually is — it is much more than buying pretty plates and napkins. It involves aspects of design and composition, of food preparation and also some basic knowledge of photography. It also involves long shoot days with very little time to sit down and have lunch! So if this is what they are aspiring to, then here are a few things that should be done:
* Study food photographs and the work of successful stylists to understand what does and doesn’t look pleasing to a camera.
* Practice and experiment with different food forms to understand how things work — you can use magazine or cookbook photographs as inspiration and as a starting point to emulate.
* Since there isn’t any formal course (yet) find a stylist you like and work with him or her to learn on the job.
* Find a photographer friend to help with your independent portfolio.
* Be very confident that you can deliver according to a brief before branching out on your own.
* Never stop observing, reading and learning. There are new developments in the field of food and photography everyday. Keep your eyes peeled and learn from them.
To see more of Praerna’s work, click here