Julia Konovalova (AKA: Imagelicious) has just released her new book!
The Ultimate Guide to Food Styling dives deep into techniques for how to make your food shots stand out and swoon-worthy by mastering the art of styling.
The book is divided into 3 parts;
Food Syling Pillars: Main Concepts & Techniques
How-Tos & Know-Hows
and Food Styling Lessons
Lucky photoED readers get a preview and a few quick tips to level up your food photography, here!
Styling Process Shots
Process shots are most often associated with cookbooks or food blogs. This is where we go to see step-by-step instructions on how to cook, and process shots often help us understand directions better. Process shots are also a great storytelling technique as they let the viewer imagine what happened right before and what would happen right after the photo was taken, thus immersing themselves into the experience.
Regardless of whether you style the process shot to teach people how to cook or to tell a story, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Most process shots will not be real process shots. I don’t mean that you can’t use the chopped onion that you are photographing to cook the recipe later. What I mean is that the knife used to chop that said onion most likely will need to be either replaced with a food photography prop or at least wiped clean. Onion skins would need to be strategically placed and unnecessary scraps removed.
If you have good lighting in the kitchen and a beautiful kitchen counter, you might be able to take process photographs where you actually cook. But for most people process shots will have to be moved into the same space used for photographing the final dish.
Using your actual kitchen counter for process shots may also mean that your process photos are in a different style than the final food photographs if the backdrops are different. It is something to consider.
Since food photography works better with smaller plates and utensils, using a real cutting board and knives that you use for cooking may also not work well. Whenever I create process shots, I transfer the ingredients to smaller bowls, plates, and cutting boards. Since the props are smaller, the quantity of ingredients also needs to be adjusted accordingly.
Instructional process shots and storytelling process shots both follow the same compositional and food styling techniques that were discussed earlier. Instructional process shots are usually used in blogs, so they are created in the same style as the rest of the blog photos—tighter and closer cropping, with fewer props—whereas storytelling or Instagram-style process shots appeal to emotions and entangle the viewer in the mood of the photograph. In both cases, process photos need to be meticulously styled.
I don’t know about you, but for me, cooking isn’t always tidy. There are spills and crumbs, towels and napkins, and too many plates and dishes. This real mess isn't photogenic, but it could be styled to create beautiful photos.
As you can see in this example, took a photo of myself mixing up some cookie dough. Composition here is quite deliberate. I followed a golden spiral grid with the dough being in the center and the spiral going around to the top right corner, top left, and then ending at the cinnamon sugar plate.
Three bowls are acting as a frame for the dough. It is also framed by the flour on the surface and hands. There are lots of textures here in the dough, sugar, flour, and even the empty bowl at the top right corner.
There are not a lot of colors but they are repeated throughout the scene. There is brown-orange cinnamon sugar, a brown tinge in the surface, and a bit of orange in the dough.
This is not my actual kitchen. It is a photography surface that I used for this photograph. Unfortunately, I also ruined the surface with that photo shoot while cleaning the dough off of it.
Process photographs can be simple, educational, yet compelling and beautiful at the same time.
If you usually photograph using distressed and vintage props, you may have a few cutting boards that have deep cracks. They are beautiful and provide a lot of texture and character to photos. They work great as layers for either other props or for dry foods. However, they are not great to be used for process photos showing some kind of cutting or chopping.
Those cracks would be difficult to clean afterwards and the viewer will wonder why juicy vegetables or fruits are chopped on such cracked boards. These boards aren't food safe as bacteria would thrive in the cracks. This is one of the reasons why I add a piece of parchment paper onto the cutting board under cookies. Placing cookies on a distressed cutting board looks unsafe, and I didn't want the image to evoke uneasy feelings.
Regular wooden cutting boards also require a bit of special treatment for photos. Juices from cutting produce create stains on the cutting board. Our eyes don't really notice those stains, yet the camera does .I suggest cutting the vegetables on one cutting board and then placing them on a different cutting board for a photo. There will still be a bit of juice escaping from the produce and it is needed to make the photo look beautiful and real, but the water stain will be minimal and not distracting.
Depending on your style of photography, you may want to keep a separate cutting board for process photos and never use it. If you prefer a cleaner look in the images, then you may want to avoid lines made on the wood from a knife. I personally like them as they add texture to the photo, but it really depends on the style of photo you are trying to create.
Knives and Other Cooking Utensils
Many cooks use a chef’s knife for slicing and dicing.It’s versatile and convenient to use. It is also big. Unless you are photographing specifically for the brand of that knife, it’ll most likely overwhelm the scene. If you are using a smaller cutting board, then it’ll also look even bigger next to it.
I have a few food photography prop knives that I usually use in process photos. They aren’t sharp, but they work well in photos because they are smaller and proportional to the cutting boards. They are also less shiny than my regular knives.
The same goes for other cooking utensils like spatulas, whisks, spoons, forks, and even rolling pins. Make sure they don’t look comically large next to smaller plates and bowls. Whenever I visit kitchen or home stores,I’m always on the lookout for smaller cooking utensils. Unlike eating utensils that are relatively easy to find in small-medium sizes, cooking utensils are less common.
Regardless of whether you use rustic props or not, you need to make sure that they do not have a lot of reflections; if they do, position them in a way that they are least reflective.
To dirty or not to dirty? That is a personal decision. I do both, depending on the photo. If I am showing some-thing cut in half, then I might leave the knife clean. If I’m showing a process shot that involves a lot of dicing and chopping, then leaving the knife clean will look fake. I would use the knife to make a few cuts, just so that it has a few juices or crumbs stuck to it without it looking too used and dirty.
For spatulas and whisks, I am also mindful of the actual process shot. If all the ingredients are piled into a bowl but not mixed yet, then I will leave the spatula or whisk clean. If the process shot shows ingredients already mixed, then I’ll dip the utensil into the mixture and make sure that it looks used, but barely.
Some of my favourite ideas for photographing recipe ingredients:
Eggs: If eggs are one of the ingredients, I like showing one of them in half a shell. Carefully break an egg and pour a little bit of the egg white out in a bowl. Keep if for the recipe but you won’t need it for the photo. Use some museum putty to position half the eggshell with the egg so that it doesn’t roll. The golden shiny egg yolk instantly elevates and brightens up photos.
Vegetables and fruit: Keep some whole and cut or halve some of them. It’s nice to show the inside and break the monotony of all the whole produce. If there are outer shells or stems and leaves present that are usually discarded, leave some intact. I love using the outer papery skin from garlic. It adds a lot of texture and character to the images.
Herbs: With their long stems and curves, herbs can work perfectly as a framing device. Sometimes, I put most of them on one side of the ingredients and just a few more on the other side to create that framing.
Meats: Raw meats are not usually appetizing. They are also often too pink and too smooth. I like breaking that smoothness by adding texture. A few drizzles of olive oil, a bit of salt, and freshly ground black pepper often help with creating more visually appealing images.
Get a copy of Julia Konovalova's new book here: The Ultimate Guide to Food Styling: Essential Lessons for Creating Picture-Perfect Dishes
Posted with permission from The Ultimate Guide to Food Styling by Julia Konovalova. Page Street Publishing Co. 2023. Photo credits: Julia Konovalova.