Liveblog: Food Styling

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Visuals - Food Styling."

Here's the description:

An instinctive eye can certainly help you create beautiful food images, but consistent and beautiful food styling also requires understanding the specific intricacies when food is your subject, not to mention strong creative thinking skills. In this session, Delores Custer, Adam Pearson and Tami Hardeman share the techniques of their trade and discuss successful styling tips, such as the use of light, composition and props, plus plating, assembling for the camera, considering camera angle and color combinations. Together, this trio will help you create visually-appealing and mouthwatering images.

cuss how to get started and what you should consider beforehand.

Your liveblogger is Hedonia. Check back during the panel (10:00am - 11:15am October 9) for the liveblog!

Can't make it to BlogHer Food? Get the virtual conference pass and don't miss a thing!

Tami Hademan introduces the panel: To her left, Adam Pearson, food stylist whose work you can see on his husband's blog, Matt Bites. To her right, Dolores Custer, author of "Food Styling."

Tami asks for a quick show of hands on who has done food styling professionally, and for aspiring food stylists, then for who just wants to improve the styling and photography for their blog -- vast majority raise hands for the last. Dolores will lead questions for the discussion.

Dolores notes that Matt Armendariz scanned some images from her bookj. Dolores has worked as a stylist for 30 years in virtually every medium. From the time she was tapped to do the book, it took about 15 years to publish. Next slide shows six images of styled plates. Dolores has been teaching food styling at CIA for 20 years. The six images show the same recipe for tuna salad, styled six different ways by different students. She's given this same recipe to students over the years, and no two have styled it the same way.

Next slide is a look at a styled shot from the 50s. It's important to view images from the past and today to see how trends. Slides from the 50s and 60s are full of rich earth tones, homey compositions. Slide from the 80s is stark white background, graphical and sharp. In the 90s, chefs became stars; fat and chocolate with salt or caramel were back. Gree, sustainable, farmers markets became popular. It's up to you to track and come up with new trends because that;s how you get noticed.

Next slide shows a shot from the 50s with three-bean salad, long view, warm tones. Adjacent is the same food, with a modern view, close-up, beans nested in salad, lighter composition. Below, an 80s ad image of chicken breast, and a modern version of the same recipe and ad. Modern version is a quicker version, due to prevalence of boneless, skinless breasts.

Next a cover shot of Donna Hay Magazine, issue one. Donna Hay is the Martha Stewart of Australia. On first view, people were appalled by view of melting ice cream. Food is real, yet graphically striking.

Cover of Dolores' book, with a stall-stacked sandwich against a bright orange background. She has tried to make the book fun, but informative.

Dolores must think about what she is doing when shooting food. First to make it visually appealing, second to make it mouth watering. Side-by-side pics of cereal; the first just cereal in a bowl, dim lighting on the cereal itself. Second image is more styled, milk poured over cereal, berries added, toast on the side, and better lighting bounced onto the cereal so it becomes the star of the image.

Question from the audience: Do you use real food or fake food? Dolores admits that there has been a history of using "tricks" of the trade, but the current trend is to shoot real food as authentically as possible. The breakfast shoot often becomes lunch.

Slide of three slices of pumpkin pie. One on left has droopy cream, bite taken out, gingerbread man propped on: This is the editorial look. Center is ver classic whole slice with cream dollop on top: This is a more advertising look. On the right is whole slice with cream, more styled with chocolate dusted over.

Thinking about color: Primaries are red, yellow and blue; when you combine primaries you get secondaries: Green, orange and purple. Opposites complement each other, so if you are shooting something blue, orange is the complement. Think about your colors, even white. Is it a blue white, a grey white, a yellow white? Think about how food pops on the plate. There's a reason restaurants use white plates, because white makes food look great.

Three shots of steak: On the left, just a plain steak from a longer view. Second shot, same steak, steak has darker char and grill marks. Third shot, same steak closer view. Grill marks can be effected by heating a skewer and applying it to meat. The steak gets more appealing with each change.

Think about what makes you want to eat steak: You want to see grill marks. You want to see spices. You want it to look juicy, so brush it lightly with oil.

Think about vertical or horizontal shot. How do you want to present it? How close do you want to get to it? Try different angles.

Get to know your ingredients. If you're going to shoot chili, consider using lighter beans versus darker beans, so they stand out. If doing three-bean salad, include darker beans for contrast.

Think of different ways of cutting your food. Don't always cut zucchini into circles. Think about your audience. Do they have the tools to do what you're presenting?

Garnishes are not commonly used today, but in some cases, such as cocktails they are still important. Think about different versions, like a twisted lime rind instead of just a wheel on the rim. A combination of light Karo syrup and water can be applied to glasses with a stiff toothbrush to give the appearance of dewiness.

You don't need a phenomenal amount of tools, but Dolores has a large repertoire. Basics: Good knives are super important, and they're a lifetime investment. Heating elements are important for things like melting cheese. Cheese reacts to steam, so it can moisten as well as melt, as opposed to charring. Clothing steamers available at major stores are good tools. Adam shows a heating element, very rustic, that applies direct heat. Hard to find these days, but useful.

Adam continues that the most important tool is confidence, and your hands. He has tons of tools, but the confidence and adeptness are key. Look outside of the box for tools, like children's medicinal eye drop dispensers, spritzers, etc. eBay is a great source for tweezers and random picks, aquarium tweezers (14" long) are great for twirling pasta, and so on. Cake pastry stores have squeeze bottles with removable tops. Hardware stores have heat guns for wallpaper, and blowtorches. Cheap paintbrushes for applying oil to foods will bring them back to life. Toothpicks, Q-Tips and paper towels are key for cleaning up and fine-tuning. Keep a look out for interesting ideas.

Michael Ruhlman asks how to photograph steam. Dolores recommends natural steam, like from baked potato. When ready to shoot, she adds some wet paper towels, covers, and microwaves. Then uncover and shoot immediately. When you see steam on a television commercial it's usually chemicals. Lighting is important; if you hold a hot coffee cup, and turn toward the window, you'll see the steam. It must be backlit, and against a contrasty background. Sometimes you can use a hand-held steamer and pull it away at the last second, but it's tricky. TrenGrove Studios is a source for styling and photography trickery like fake ice cubes, gels, etc. Not cheap, but if you're in the market for stable fake ice, it's a good source.

Two shots of chili. On the left, grated cheese is freshly grated, looks cold. On the right, the cheese has been melted, so it looks hot and ready to eat.

Tami added a slide of an egg salad sandwich on pumpernickel on a white plate. Any recipe you have on your blog is yours to present however you want. As a professional, you have to do what the client wants, but you are your own boss on the blog. She wanted to make egg salad from Canal House Cookbook. Next, she shows a stray seed on the rind of the bread, so she picked it off. She felt it needed green, so she added lettuce, but the shot is still too heavy. So she made it open-face. Next, she took the lettuce off and cut the bread in half, but there was a stray crumb. Finally, same composition, more of an angled shot, sprinkled with chopped parsley and tarragon over, and finally same composition straight down with more herbs sprinkled over. She also saw that having a darker image behind the plate made it pop, so then she lost the plate altogether and put the open-face sandwiches on a dark wood grain background. Keep playing with it, try different things. McGyver it. Keep snapping as you are evolving, and one of the shots will work.

Adam notes that when you're doing all the propping, styling, shooting for the blog, it's daunting. As professionals, you have support staff so it;s more collaborative. Take the time to think things through first, so it's less difficult.

Since most are shooting digital, remember you're only burning pixels. Keep shooting.

Tami shows an action shot of powdered sugar being sprinkled over pastry; had to coordinate timing to fire the shutter at the exact second the shaker was hit. Another shot of three plates was composited together. Action shot of wine being poured in the glass requires precise timing. Tami shows a shot from her blog, which has a different feel. Shrimp on toast with eggs and cucumber and lemon, very white and blown out, but textural. More shots from her blog. One shot is of a salad, that she didn't dress. Once a salad is dressed, the clock is ticking. Consider just drizziling a small amount over at the last second. Dressed salads can look heavy. Style the food first, then precisely place your dressings and garnishes last minute. Dolores notes that when teaching chefs, she has to untrain them as they are accustomed to preparing finished dishes. When styling, you have to consider the stages of the dish. Think about life and death -- what will live for a long time or die quickly? The things that wilt or die do last minute. E.g, prop beignets perfectly, then drizzle the chocolate on within seconds of shooting. Adam sometimes props the plate on chilled paper towels to keep the dish cool, and keep the salad fresh.

Slide of one of Adam's shots of candied apples, dark background, dramatic side light. Three black candied and one red candied apples composed on a plate. Stunning image. Audience question asks how the sticks stayed in place; Adam pierced the apples with a knife and stuck them in. Another slide with two shots, a pasta dish and a panini. Each element is cooked separately, and the dishes are built keeping in mind the timeliness of the shoot. Everything was edible, but the order of tasks is reordered for the shoot rather than how you would cook just for eating.

Dolores always asks, what are the problems? Think ahead on the steps, and break each down into steps. The more you read recipes the more you will spot out problems.

Shot of pistachio ice cream, and fortune cookies dunked in colored sugars. When shooting the ice cream, the air conditioning in the kitchen was out, so they styled the ice cream and kept it in the freezer until the last second.

Question on backgrounds. Adam notes that he goes to a lot of fabric stores. He's really into textured fabrics, raw silks, linens, just brought back a bunch of hand-made linens from France. Michael Ruhlman asks whether linen is becoming too trendy. Adam likes it as a textural element, and notes that there are different weights. Hardware stores have linen painter's dropcloths, and they use them a lot.

Another audience asks about reflections on utensils. Adam notes that you can get dulling spray at art supply stores. Don't spray it inside. It does wash off, but do not use the utensils while they are sprayed.

Overhead shot of flatbread with figs. Adam is big into crumbs and texture. Around the flatbread he has sprinkled corn meal and chili flakes. Real, natal and edible. Shots of grilled corn with crumbled quasi fresco, and stew with biscuits. The corn was extra charred, and a pinched piece of lime wedge makes the shot look edible. The more edible the shot looks the more the reader will want to make the recipe.

Behind the corn shot is wax paper, which gives good texture. Adam also uses a hacksaw blade to tear parchment to get a less precise edge. Behind the stew is a tea towel with a crease still in it. Makes the shot look more natural.

Irvin Lin asks how the crumbs are place. Adam used to use tweezers. The more you work and the more confident you are you get more natural at placing things, but sometimes needs to use tweezers to pull things back or add more on. It's a fine line between looking natural an contrived or forced. Start with less, and add as you need.

Irvin asks how much do you work with postproduction. Adam leaves that to the art director and the client.

Audience question about getting spots off glasses and clear dishes. Adam uses cotton gloves and Windex and microfiber. Dolores notes there's a solution for bartenders that's good for cleaning and getting scratches off. Tami uses paper coffee filters. Just buff a clean glass with it, and they don't leave fuzzies.

Long-standing visual rule: Things look better in odd numbers, so compose in threes and fives. Having more multiples of something can add interest.

Slide of ice cream terrine, ice cream dripping due to sitting out. Adam felt it was too drippy, but it's a matter of taste

Side by side shots of a sandwich, close up, and cones of fries stacked up in a tray. He was shooting for a friend's book, and needed shots for his own, so they worked together. You'll always learn by working with others. Sandwich held together by a million toothpicks. Each piece of turkey folded and picked in place. Under fries are wadded up paper towels to make it fut.

Audience question about close up versus long view shots, and where the focus should be. Dolores says to keep things simple. if you're going small, you can't identify all the little things. Selective focus: Where the front and back are out of focus is popular, but try different depths of focus.

Audience question: If you're making a sandwich for your 5-year-old who isn't patient enough for you to pick things in place, how do you do things quickly? Adam says you can achieve the same effect quickly, but if you're spending a lot of time shooting, stability helps keep things in place. The grain and quality of sandwich meats can affect, such as all natural meats do not fold so well. Oscar Meyer meats are flexible. Take the round and just pinch it into a rosette and place them on the sandwich for a nice curly effect on the edges. Thickness of ingredients is crucial If too thick it won't bend, if it's too thin it crumbles. She goes for the cheap stuff full of nitrites. Each piece of meat is going to reach differently. If you don't want curls, just layers, try cutting the sandwich in half. On burgers, shingle the top bun back a little bit to expose the ingredients. Use paper towels in the back to keep things from sliding off.

Audience question: Are shots planned in advance with respect to how they're cropped? Adam says sometimes, but often they'll keep playing with the composition until it's right. But then the editors will crop it however they want to fit their page.

Audience question: As a stylist do you unfuse a lot of vision into the shot, and the photographer has a different vision? How do you reconcile that? Dolores says one of the greatest skills is people skills, so when working with a client learning how to set expectations. Adam says stylists, prop person, client, etc do pow wow to lay it out. You need a great sense of communication to set expectations. If he's encouraged to do something outside his comfort zone, and iut turns out well, he's gratedful for the opportunity to learn from the experience. Dolores finds that if everyone is skilled and talented you walk away that day doing something better than you thought because everyone contributed. If there's a weak person in the mix it takes the shot down. Find the joy in the collaboration. Tami hopes this dispels the impression that they just make beautiful food and shoot it; it's a long day, sometimes an 8 or 9 hour day to create one shot. Sometimes it works out fast, but that's the exception to the rule. If you're confident and comfortable using your hands, it will go better. Like playing an instrument. It takes practice and skill. Look for inspiration and ask questions.

Quick run through of remaining shots that Adam has done, including a cocktail shot with real ice cubes, but not real booze because it makes the ice melt too fast. The sweat on the glass is real as well. Tami notes that the steamer is great for martinis as well, gives dewy look. Dolores says make sure that if you want dewy look make sure contents are really cold.

Audience question: How do you shoot brown gloippy food? Long pause. Adam thinks how can he create movement in the gloppiness? If it's stew he'll swirl it. Tami undercooks veggies to add fresher texture and color. Okra is a particular pain, since it gets so viscous and gooey. Adam notes to save some on the side, blanch and then integrate, to make the ingredients more readable. Tami reminds that this is your recipe, so if someone reads it and wants to make it, the photo is just there to support the recipe. Readers will not note that ingredients are undercooked in the shot. Take liberties to make things more appetizing. Dolores will sometimes have the separate ingredients on the side at the ready, and will pay attention to whether a sauce is too thick or thin, then adjust as it goes. It's a lot of play. Tami says they had a question about Indian food. Dress things up with garnish that's complimentary to the recipe to break things up. Propping is important, beautiful linens, bowls etc will distract from the brown gloppiness.

Question from Amy from Steaming Gourmet: If you want to get freshly grated parmesan cheese, you should freeze the cheese first. Do you have any other tricks of things that work well frozen? Adam: Syrup. Dolores says the older the cheese the crumblietr it is, so she gets cheap cheap parm and they grate beautifully.

Audience question: Looking at a cookbook noting that depth of field is the term where there is different focus in the fore and background versus the center. Is that the photographer's problem or the stylist's problem? How much should you worry about it? Dolores says it's a sophisticated level, the photographer and art director are making those decisions. Tami says you want everything to be beautiful and well styled, but the focus is out of the stylist's hands. If it's decided, they'll build accordingly. Just like a chef builds food to be beautiful when it goes on the table.

Audience question: In the pasta shot, the light seem to be well directed, right on the spot of the dish. Adam says it's sidelit with black pieces of board to block extra light. Foam core can be used to bounce or block light as needed. There was bacisally a box around that shot to direct the light precisely.

Audience question: Would you suggest buying one of those light boxes? Tami shoots everything with natural light, using foam core to bounce light, pin back curtains to enhanceh light. Find the right light, in the bedroom, on the patio, wherever works. Natural light makes food look amazing. The light boxes make them thing they're going to shoot things on eBay. Artificual light looks like artificial light

Audience question: When you shoot in the winter, how do you get around the light issue? Tami blogs on her days off, so she'll shoot in the middle of the day. Adam says if they're traveling they'll produce five or six things in one day so they can work ahead.

Audience from Book of Yum: Where can we get good props? Adam has a shopping problem, goes to flea markets, fabric stores, keeps eyes out while traveling for unique and different things. It's a huge part of your shot which makes it more emotional and interesting. Tami notes that in shots on screen there's nothing extraneous, but each is critical: A napkin, a glass. Buy one-off pieces from sales. Look for less shiny things. Also look for small things, like salad plates. If the plate is too big your food will look small. Don't get plates that are too busy. They may look beautiful as a plate, but they will fight the food. The more you shoot the more confident you'll get. You'll go from white plates to pastel plates to darker plates, but it's hard to do with a busy plate.