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Everything You Need to Know About Food Styling Photography

10 min read

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food styling photography guide

Have you ever been paid to photograph food? The closest most photographers get to food photography is shooting the cake at a client’s wedding. Yet many photographers dream of learning how to style food properly for their own shoots as well as for potential new clients.

The whole purpose of food styling is to make the viewer literally want to eat the photo because the food looks so appetizing. Let’s examine everything you need to know about food styling.

What is Food Styling Photography?

The first thing you need to know is that normally there are two people at a shoot. A food stylist and a food photographer. Generally, this is not the same job, as it requires a lot of work on both sides in different ways.

food styled vegetables on a white background.

Many food stylists study under the greatest stylists in the industry for decades before they dare call themselves a stylist. Food styling takes a lot of practice, knowledge, and is an art in itself. The two main types of food stylists are editorial food stylists and advertising food stylists.

Editorial Food Stylist

An editorial food stylist is usually operating on a lower budget and is required to style several recipes in a single day for cookbooks or magazines. An editorial food stylist can be expected to set up around 5 to 10 recipes per day and may be working with recipes that have not been tested before so they will have to make the food themselves or get more creative.

Advertising Food Stylist

An advertising food stylist usually works for big brands and has a bigger budget. The main purpose of their job is to sell the food. Think of menus in a restaurant or a billboard with food photography on it. The food must be shot well otherwise no one buys.

Since you are the stylist and the photographer, which may not be the norm, it’s important you tell potential clients this. Don’t say “I am a food photographer, food stylist, and a chef”, say something more like “I styled and photographed all the food you see on my website”. If you can bring the two skills together, you could be a greater asset to businesses.

What are the Duties of Food Stylists?

food stylist using hands to style a salad.

The duties of food stylists vary greatly. Some food stylists specialize in only certain types of food such as ice cream, drinks, baked goods, or meat. A food stylist is expected to make the food perform well on camera. Many times, this means what they are using in their food styling is not edible off camera.

As a food stylist, you are expected to arrive on set with a toolbox of materials to manipulate the food. Food stylists use a variety of supplies to make the food plate well.

They are true magicians in their creativity using everything from paint, corn syrup mixtures, white glue, sponges, and vaseline. Some of the more difficult foods to photograph include ice cream and ice cubes because of their fast melting qualities. You can guarantee that most of the food photos you see contain some sort of none food element to make them look inviting when shot.

How do you Become a Food Stylist?

photographer photographing food with lighting in a kitchen.

If you have a passion for food and an eye for art, becoming a food stylist could be a dream job for you. But as mentioned above, it’s not an easy road and highly competitive. But don’t let that stop you! Here are the top tips for becoming a food stylist.

Develop a Food Portfolio on Your Website

If you are dreaming of becoming a food stylist start small with your own food photography. Get lots of practice creating and styling your own recipes first. Test out different techniques such as interchanging food materials that look prettier but can pass for what you are supposed to be shooting. Just like any new skill, the more you use your own time to practice the better your work will become.

Find a Mentor

Becoming a food stylist assistant can be a fast track into the industry. Take the time to research your favorite food stylist in your area, then contact them and offer to work for free or for a low price. You will get much further in the food styling industry by working with the best that already have years of practice and connections.

Manage Client’s Expectations

When a potential client first reaches out make sure you are honest about your experience and refer them to your portfolio so they have an idea of your style and specialties. You can ask them to send some examples of what they are looking for photography wise and be sure to ask them if their foods have been shot before and what they did and didn’t like about the photos.

As with most clients, have them sign a contract stating something like “Immediate client approval is required on set or by email. If the client does not respond, the photographer’s work must be accepted, no reshoots for this agreement”.

Develop your Artistic Eye

Understanding composition is key when it comes to food styling. It’s important to become a little obsessive about details. Many stylist collect magazines of the latest trends in styles across all genres of design and try to apply them to their food styling looks. We recommend you do the same. Study other’s and hone in on your own style.

strawberries on white plate with blue background.

Build your Tool Kit

As mentioned above, stylists are expected to arrive with everything they need to style the food. Start to gather your favorite materials after testing them out on your own recipes. Your tool kit should include a variety of tools including tweezers, gloves, paper towels, water spritzers, paint brushes, a pastry torch and glycerine to name a few.

Take a Class

Most food stylists also know how to cook and have attended cooking schools. Also, consider taking some lighting and photography courses designed for food photography.

How Much Does a Food Stylist Make?

Food stylist that live in major cities like New York tend to make more money. Generally, a food stylist can expect to make anywhere between $30,000 to $55,000 a year depending on what foods they are shooting and what city they live in. Also, if it’s a city with a big food scene, expect more dough.

Misconceptions about Food Styling

Many people think food styling is easy or they can fake it until they make it in the industry. However, those ideas can be disastrous if you are getting paid to photograph food. It’s important to remember to learn the craft beforehand and study under others.

Also, many people think of food styling as a glamorous job, but most stylists say they work insane hours and have to be quite creative sourcing and setting up dishes. So keep these things in mind when preparing.

Food Styling Photography Tips, Ideas, and Techniques

Start on Pinterest gathering ideas

pink ice cream styled on a blue table.

Pinterest is not only full of free recipes but also inspiration. Type the food you would like to make such as ice cream and have a glance at all the ways others have shot the same dish. Think about why you are attracted to the photo? What angles work and what colors are a good contrast? Then get started creating your best shot.

Keep your portions small

Think about your food photography composition much like you would think of a matte around a framed photograph. The white space offers a contrast around your dish much like a frame. Whenever stylistically possible, try to be more minimalist with your shot and also keep a wide rim clear around the plate.

Create contrast using serving dishes and backdrops

banana and fruit on pink and yellow background styled.

Using a colorful bowl against a white rice dish or a black countertop against styled ice cream will make both dishes more appealing. Choose serving dishes that will contrast the color of whatever you are serving. Use this same idea with tablecloths and countertops. Also, try to shoot from overhead whenever possible.

chocolate chip cookies with chocolate chips styled around.

If you are cutting bread, and crumbs fall to the plate, leave them. It’s always a great idea to add little sprinkles of different elements of the recipe to the corners of your frame. For example, if you make chocolate chip cookies, leave chocolate chips in bunches at the edges of your photo. This helps the eye move around the image naturally without stealing the show from the main dish.


food photography with hand drizzling syrup on oatmeal on marble table.

Many stylists add in a hand drizzling chocolate or a spoon full of au jus gracing the top of a mouth-watering steak. The act of cooking is just as pretty as the end result, so draw viewers into your dish by showing them how it was made and telling a story.

Use Napkins and Utensils

limes styled on black plate with orange linen and knife to demonstrate food photography.

Place your silverware as if you are eating with it already. Use a napkin, preferably linen, to bunch around the plate in a natural way to add contrast.

Natural Light

Try to get your table close to a window or use the natural light that streams in nearby to place your food under. We are trying to avoid the ugly yellow color and the sterile look that flashes can sometimes cause when shooting food photography. The best time of day will vary based on where your home is located but aim to shoot with a diffused natural light around midday.

Fresh Ingredients

fresh ingredients on a pizza and walnuts.

When shopping for ingredients for your shoot, be picky. Take your time to examine the food and pick the most beautiful pieces to build your masterpiece. If your recipe includes fruit for example, make sure you choose evenly rounded and non dented pieces.

If you are photographing a fish, do not cook the fish until your set and lighting are completely prepped and ready, you are in a race against the clock and want your food to look fresh and tasty, not like it’s been sitting under your lighting for hours.

Cocktails and Drinks

cocktail styling with black light behind.

Drinks can be one of the most challenging things to style. Ice quickly melts so it’s important you come prepared with fake ice in your tool kit. Also, you may be dealing with reflections from glassware so keep this in mind when you are setting up. We recommend you setup your lighting with a simple glass full of water when testing your reflections and lighting sources.

If you are shooting tea or coffee, remember to use backlighting to highlight the steam coming off the glass and the liquid inside. If you are unable to see the steam in your photographs, you can always add steam in post-production.

Fruits and Vegetables

grapes styled in blue shirt and hands.

Fruits and Vegetables are great to bring your creative eye alive. The vivid colors make for more beautiful photographs. Try to bunch them together and remember to add more than you may need at first to make the setup look plentiful and bursting with freshness.

Salad can prove difficult to photograph, this is why many pro food stylist place mashed potatoes beneath a pile of greens to make them look more alive and full. Make sure to add splashes of color over your salad such as sliced ripe tomatoes or bright red strawberries.

Post Production

Don’t be afraid to use editing software to enhance the color of the food. As always with post-production editing, try to balance your desire to create a striking image with the need to keep the image believable. It’s easier to achieve this with our Lightroom presets designed specifically for food photography.

Top food photographers prefer using full-frame DSLR cameras with one of the following lenses:

  • 50mm prime lens f/1.8
  • 24 – 70mm zoom lens f/2.8
  • 85mm prime lens f/1.8

Of course, every photographer varies in his favorites, but these lenses offer nice sharp images and beautiful bokeh around your dishes. Also, always search for macro capabilities since you are likely to be getting up close to your subjects.


food photography styled for pancakes with strawberries.

There you have it! All the details you need to start your career in food styling photography. Be prepared to struggle and start with a learning curve. Remember to start small and work your way up in the industry, the most important step is learning to cook, and try testing out styling your own recipes first.

The second most important steps are building your portfolio and working with others you trust and admire. If you have questions or other ideas from the industry, drop us a comment below, we love to hear from you.

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Krystal Kenney is an award-winning photographer residing in Paris, France. She has been photographing for over 10 years and enjoys teaching others about the craft. She spends most days shooting events, portraits, and weddings around Paris and working on writing new books.
Krystal Kenney is an award-winning photographer residing in Paris, France. She has been photographing for over 10 years and enjoys teaching others about the craft. She spends most days shooting events, portraits, and weddings around Paris and working on writing new books.

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