SMT Insights: What’s a Food Stylist, Improving Your Own Food Photos

When considering a satellite media tour or a television appearance, there’s a list of must-haves that most veterans can pull together with ease. It’s the things one may forget to put on that list, which only become obvious once it’s already too late.

One of the things that you may be upset to have left off the list for a great SMT is the topic of today’s conversation—food styling.

So to get to the bottom of what food styling is, and what makes a food stylist a necessary addition to any food-centric tour, I spoke to 4media group’s resident video producer and trained food stylist, Lisa Spychala.

“Food styling is, in some sense, exactly what it sounds like,” Spychala said. “It’s making the food look good for the camera; and while anyone can style food, there’s an art and a nuance to it that requires both education and practice, as well as an awareness of how television works, to really shine on set.”

SMT with Food Shining on set can be both good and bad for food, something the average producer or floor director may not be entirely equipped to deal with.  Spychala said that in the same way as having a makeup artist on set, having a food stylist is key in dealing with what is essentially the central part of the tour—the food!

“Putting on a tour, you may be worried about all the different things happening, and may not realize ‘hey the talent’s getting shiny.’ That sort of thing can fall to the wayside with ease, which is why it’s so important to have an individual dedicated to keeping an eye on it,” Spychala said. “And so if you’re trying to sell a food product, having someone dedicated to that is extremely important.  You want to be sure that your food looks as appetizing and as fresh as possible, throughout the entire tour.”

So how do food stylists ensure that happens?

The first key is in preparation.  Spychala said that working with food requires a pretty good advanced knowledge of what’s coming up in a tour.

“The first question you have to ask when considering a food-centric tour is whether or not anyone is actually going to be eating the food, because that changes the game,” Spychala said.

In the case that the food is intended for actual consumption, special considerations need to be taken, primarily because the food has to taste good. One of the easiest ways to upset a client is to have someone make a weird face on-air after eating their newest snack…

But beyond proper preparation, food has to look nice throughout the day on a set, which comes down to several factors. Most important is paying constant attention to the food, which returns the astute stylist to the value in being well prepared. Spychala said one of the oldest tricks in the food stylist book is a simple one: Have several of everything!  That way, when one of your items starts to look stale or droopy under the lights, you can make an easy change.

Also key is being capable of faking it to make it, at least in some tours. The fact of the matter is that some food simply won’t survive in a television environment. (Think ice cream under lights for four hours.)  And when that’s the case, clients need to understand what measures you’ll be taking to put their product in the best frame possible.

But there’s another even broader point of interest in food styling that Spychala and I discussed.

While it is, at its highest professional level an art form, it’s also something that can be practiced and enjoyed outside of television studios and photo shoots.

Social media, Instagram and the advent of social media food photos have made it both cool and fun to style one’s own food in pursuit of internet fame, or at the very least, jealousy from one’s social circle for missing a meal that looked that good. 

To that end, here are 4media’s four tips from a professional food stylist on doing some fun takes of your own, next time you toss down a meal worth commemorating:

  1. “Don’t just make the food look nice, make it look appetizing.”

There’s a difference between something that looks pretty and something that you or I actually want to eat. Some stylists, Spychala said, are so intent on plating and otherwise styling the food that it may look too good to be real, or seem unapproachable. Keep it appetizing.

  1. “Odd numbers look better than even ones.”

Maybe it’s something about eyes, or about the number of cookies you want to eat, where three is always better than two, but one thing is for sure: Food is best photographed in odd numbers.  Don’t forget it next time you’re trying to fill your social network with envy.

  1. Garnishes are good.”

Though this may seem obvious, it’s all too often missed, especially by home chefs.  Garnishes are great for a splash of color, plus they compliment our first tip: Make your food look fabulous, but make sure people want to eat it, too.  A pinch of parsley can go a long way.

  1. “Lighting, like in any form of photography, is key.”

Again, we don’t want to tell you something you already know, so consider this more of a reminder. Your food is going to look its best if it’s well lit, and that sort of lighting does not occur in most kitchens. Keep away from super harsh lights, and opt for a soft natural light wherever possible.

Remember that for the sake of filming food, whether in a media tour or a talk show, a good food stylist is someone you’ll want to be sure is on the guest list. If you’re an amateur food stylist or food photographer, there’s fun to be had in practice and in dynamic shooting situations.

Want to put on the best food-centric SMT you can, or just chat more about our offerings for consumer-facing food brands?  Reach out—we’re always happy to talk.

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