These days it seems many food bloggers call themselves a recipe developer, a food photographer, AND a food stylist. I understand why because they are generally doing all those things, and many do all of that very well with their own work.
I wanted to let you know what calling yourself a food stylist REALLY means. On a professional level, I want you to be prepared when your business grows and you might take on some bigger jobs. You might not know what is really expected of you.
This article is about supporting you while growing your food photography business, and doing what’s called managing expectations with our clients when you tell them you are a food stylist.
In the Facebook group, I asked our members there if they called themselves food stylists, and it became a very heated topic quite quickly. It was very interesting and so many food bloggers had the same issues and concerns that I do about calling yourself a food stylist without knowing what that really means.
What is a food stylist?
When you look up that question, “what is a food stylist?” or “what is food styling”, you get a lot of articles telling you it’s the art of plating food for filming.
That makes it sound so simple, but there’s sooooo much more to it than that. Beautifully plating a dish is one thing, that’s hard enough, but knowing how to take difficult foods, ugly foods, foods that don’t look so good cooked, or raw, AND THEN plating them beautifully is very difficult.
Then there is the food science part of food styling.
What is expected of a food stylist?
I think the hardest part for any food stylist is knowing how to fix food when there are issues with it looking good. This sounds vague, and it encompasses so much and involves a lot of food science. This is really called food manipulation. Getting the food to perform the way it will look its best on camera, and there’s all kind of trickery involved in this.
You see, styling your own food, your own recipe is one thing. Seriously, that’s the easiest type of “styling” there is. Styling food that is not your recipe and/or is not your food is a completely different thing and can be extremely difficult and stressful when it won’t perform the way you expect.
If you are calling yourself a food stylist, just know that it’s implying that you style food professionally (people pay you to be the food stylist on photo shoots where someone else is shooting), AND that you have had training to do this. This means assisting other food stylists who do this full time, for a living. It takes several years working with a food styling team before you branch out and call yourself a food stylist on your own.
Along with knowing the skills of food styling, you are also expected to have the myriad of tools and substances needed to style and manipulate the food, called a food styling kit. It’s your responsibility to have all this on hand.
The simple act of styling your own food, I’m sorry to say, does not make you a food stylist. It means you’re great at styling your own food, which is still awesome by the way.
I have been shooting food for 25 years. I have worked with many fabulous food stylists who have taught me so much about food styling. To this day, I would never call myself a food stylist because I see all that they do, and all that I don’t know about food styling.
Here’s the thing, a professional food stylist and a professional food photographer can just look at an image and know immediately if that shot was professionally styled or not. Because we see what trickery had to be used to manipulate that food in a certain way. This takes years to learn.
So please, if you are calling yourself a food stylist, or that you do “food styling”, you have to know what that means to your potential clients who have probably worked with food stylists before.
Types of food stylists
There are two types of professional food stylists. You have editorial food stylists, and also commercial (advertising) food stylists. Some food stylists do both. You also have stylists that specialize is certain foods, like ice cream, chocolate, baked goods, meats, and poultry, you get the idea.
Editorial Food Stylists: The images above were for a magazine where I had a food stylist and a prop stylist. The client didn’t come to the set. I emailed the images to the art director for approval, and we shot for two days. We did several recipes and layouts each day, and we did have a lot of creative freedom.
Editorial jobs can sometimes require 10 recipes shot per day. That might involve additional ingredient shots too. That’s a ton of food to style in one day in which we are following recipes that we discover sometimes that were not tested all that well. Now, the food stylist has to get really creative to fix some recipes, and make the food look nice. Very challenging on a low budget, because editorial pays much less than advertising work.
Advertising Food Stylists: This image above was fully styled with a food styling team for a local restaurant chain. Looks simple, right? Not really, the client wanted that corn roasted in a very specific way so the food styling assistants did that, with torches.
Also, there’s a cream sauce on that fish taco. That sauce was pretty translucent when it was on the food so the stylist had to do stuff to the sauce so that we could actually see it.
When the sauce was in a bowl, it looked like what you see in the picture a cream color. But when you put it on the food, it got totally translucent and you just couldn’t see it. It really surprised us actually.
So, what would you do if you were doing a sponsored post or a job for someone, and that sauce was a big deal, and you couldn’t see it on the food. Would you know what to do to that sauce in order for it to shoot the way the client wants it to look? If you don’t, they are going to ask you to reshoot it, for free. I see this happening all the time in some Facebook groups that I’m in.
Advertising food stylists are complete magicians. Seriously, I am not exaggerating at all. They can take food that looks god-awful and make it look extremely appetizing. I’m in constant awe of what happens in my kitchen with really difficult foods.
Food styling is an art form, a science, a love for food, and a complete understanding of the limitations of food, and the amazing things it can do.
I have hundreds of examples of the food not performing the way we wanted, and the food stylist saves the day. This is why I love them so much.
The question here is, do you know the food styling trickery that might be involved with potential jobs? You have to think about this before calling yourself a food stylist to potential clients.
Managing Client Expectations With Your Food Styling Abilities
In your “About” section, be honest. Say that you style your own recipes along with recipe development, photography, etc. Make it clear if you don’t do food styling for other photographers. Don’t say, “I’m a food stylist, food photographer, and recipe developer.” Say, “I style my own recipes and I do all the photography here on this site”. You get the idea.
So all that being said, when you get called (emailed) to do a sponsored post, or to shoot a food job, here are some questions you need to ask.
These questions are to find out how much food styling will be involved in the shoot if you are expected to do that part. Of course, there’s a lot more to the shoot, but we are talking only about food styling today.
- First, find out if the recipe has been photographed before, and ask to see it.
- Once you see the previously photographed recipe, ask them what they liked and didn’t like about it – because if they are reshooting it, there’s a reason. Maybe they just changed the recipe enough to where they want to reshoot it, and the previous photographer/stylist team was not available. Or maybe they feel the previous shot doesn’t actually look like the recipe. This is crucial to find out before moving forward.
- If they did shoot the recipe before, ask them if it was professionally styled. You need all the clues you can get.
- If it’s never been photographed before, ask them if there are any images on your site that they liked the look of, to get a sense of what they want. Some clients will send you stock shots of what they are looking for. You need as much information as possible. The problem here is they might be sending you images that were professionally food styled, and they are expecting you to match that, very important to know.
- Be completely upfront with them and say something like, “I have been food blogging or shooting for ___ years and style my own recipes, but if there are more advanced food styling techniques required, I will have to hire a food stylist who is familiar with what we need to do.” I am all about open communication here so it’s very important that you limit their expectations so that you don’t end up in a tricky situation.
- Get it in writing that if the client is not approving images as you shoot, that you cannot be held responsible if they don’t like what you shoot after the fact. If they aren’t coming to your shoot, which is very common now, you have to email them as the shoot is happening to get their approval. So you have to be shooting tethered to do that. On my contracts I say, “Immediate client approval is required via email or on set. If we do not get that, then the photographer’s interpretation of the assignment must be accepted, no reshoots included in this job”.
It’s all about open communication with your food styling abilities and what the client expects. You are forming a relationship with your client, so they don’t know what you can and cannot do yet. It’s your job to clearly communicate that, so your job goes smoothly.
The “fake it till you make it” with food styling can be disastrous, and get you in some serious hot water – pun intended.
Some Tips For Becoming A Food Stylist
Before writing this post, I talked to several food stylist friends of mine to make sure that my thoughts were in line with their thoughts, as they are the ones doing this for a living.
One food stylist in particular started as a food blogger and worked her way up to being a food stylist – though she still has her blog Cup of Zest and it’s very cute. Michelle Ferrand has been working on her food photography for years and really fell in love with food styling.
Here are some awesome tips from Michelle:
Work as an assistant – Creating content for your own food blog is extremely different from working on a professional set. If you are a food blogger who wants to work professionally as a food stylist, you should reach out to working food stylists in your area and ask to work as their assistant on a shoot.
Working with a professional will help you get used to the atmosphere on set, and even give you the opportunity to see if you enjoy the work.
Once you know that you want to work as a food stylist, assist as much as possible with different stylists! You will learn so much from assisting including set etiquette, how to lead a set, and fun food styling tricks.
- There are different types of food styling jobs – Food stylists can work on a multitude of projects. There are stylists who focus on styling drinks, ice cream, grilling meats, burgers, tacos, etc. There are also stylists who primarily work on scripted and non-scripted television shows, commercials, movies, and editorial projects. All of those projects require specific skill sets which can be learned from assisting over time.
- It can take time – I work in Los Angeles, and from my experience and after speaking to my colleagues, it can take about 4 years of assisting before booking regular lead food styling jobs. It may be different in your area, but either way, it takes hard work, building a portfolio by doing test photo shoots with photographers, taking small jobs at first, and getting your name out there!
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Food Styling Resources:
There are very few books all about food styling. My good friends Denise Vivaldo and Cindie Flannigan are a food styling team who style and teach about food styling. They are coming out with the second edition of their book The Food Stylist’s Handbook. You can pre-order it now for only $12. It comes out in August.
This book not only tells you how to style all kinds of food, it teaches you the business of being a food stylist.
Please note: As this is a second edition, Amazon still has not updated the “Look Inside” images yet. Just know the links here on this page are for the NEW book, and not the 1st edition.
The other food styling book I highly recommend is by food stylist Dolores Custer called Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food For The Camera. Though it was published in 2010, there is still a ton of relevant information in it. Dolores has retired from food styling, from what I hear. I had the pleasure of working with her in New York City quite a few years ago. Super sweet lady and has also really helped lots of young stylists.
So there you have it! What it REALLY means to call yourself a food stylist, and two books to help you with all that.
For more information about food photography, please see my Food Photography Ebooks.
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