Food photography is the still life specialisation of commercial photography, aimed at producing attractive photographs of food for use in advertisements, packaging, menus or cookbooks. Professional food photography is a collaborative effort, and could involve an Art Director, a Photographer, a Food Stylist, a Prop Stylist and their assistants. There are two types of still food photography: editorial photos for a book or periodical and advertising photos. Editorial work allows for greater creativity on both the part of the photographer and food stylist than advertisements. In the professional world, the food stylist and photographer work together to create the look.
The role of a Food Stylist is to make food look attractive. The main difference between how a 'home' cook or 'chef' may present food and what a stylist does is the time and effort a stylist takes to carefully and artfully arrange the food. Also required is the visual know-how, and ability to translate the perception of taste, aroma and appeal that one gets from an actual dish, to a two-dimensional photograph. Food Stylists often have culinary training (some are professional chefs) or have a background in home economics; however not all Food Stylists have culinary experience, but what they share is the love of food. The most successful stylists have the ability to look at, and present food, with an artist's eye.
Styling considerations include colour, contrast, composition, propping and garnishing. When garnishing, stylists must consider the ingredients in the recipe or the cultural context of the dish, for example when styling a plate of Spaghetti Bolognaise, which is Italian, it would be inappropriate to use the herb dill for visual effect as this is not used in the recipe.
During the early years of food styling 'faking' it was the norm. Recipes weren't made to specifications, but for styling and many dishes were actually undercooked; for example a roasted chicken was often only partially cooked then painted with motor oil to give it a rich colour. Nowadays vegetables are blanched in salted water, then refreshed in ice water to stop the cooking process and to maintain a bright colour; and whereas previously tomatoes, apples, oranges or lemons were dyed with food colouring; today stylists find the perfect specimen and use it as is.
For a long time, food photographs tended to be shot and composed the way people were used to encountering their food— laid out on a table setting and shot from an overhead perspective, i.e. from the point of view of the eater. Stylists arranged the food to appear good from above, with the items arranged flat on the plate and clearly separated from each other. Additionally, styling was presented in the context of 'home entertaining' and featured scenarios and products suitable for group eating such as 'fondue' pots. Traditionally photographs of food have not accurately reflected its colour, true essence or even flavour; additionally props with little or no logic were used to display recipes and ingredients. In later years, romantic lighting, shallower angles and more props have become popular. Nowadays, the prevailing trend in commercial food photography is to present the food as simple, clean and naturally as possible, and with little props, often using effects such as selective focus, tilted plates and extreme close-ups. This complements trends in professional cooking to make food more visually interesting.
Cultural changes have influenced food photography, for example after WWII household kitchen equipment began to improve and was readily available. Also changes in society such as the reduction of household help resulted in housewives having to cook for themselves and therefore needed recipes with images of how a 'dish' should look. Grocery stores and supermarkets became more common, making food easier to purchase, prepare and store; and together with proseprity and an econmic boom, 'eating out' became more popular and an increasing number of people were being exposed to 'artfully' presented food. Cooks such as Julia Child began educating the public about great food and society in general became more interesed in both food and cooking, and slowly food images began started to change with better photography using lighting, framing and props. However, it was not until the 1980s that photographs of food began to truly look edible.
Julia Child was born Julia McWilliams, and after college she joined the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and traveled the globe. On a trip to China, she met her future husband, Paul Child. His job as a U.S. diplomat took them to Paris, where Julia studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. While there, she teamed up with two French women to open a cooking school they called L’ecole des Trois Gourmandes. From that experience – teaching English-speaking women how to cook French food – she realised that there was no such cookbook in English. From that, came her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (on which she collaborated with her cooking school friends), first published in 1961. When she returned to the U.S. her cooking talents – and her unique singsong voice – were first introduced to large audiences. In 1963, her first TV show, The French Chef, aired on PBS in Boston. In 1965, she received the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for “Distinguished Achievement in Television,” followed in 1966 by the first Emmy for a PBS personality. Her TV programs and specials continued until the late 1990s.
The French Chef is a television cooking show created and hosted by Julia Child and produced and broadcast by WGBH, the public television station in Boston, Massachusetts, from February 11, 1963 to 1973. It was one of the first cooking shows on television The French Chef introduced French cooking to the United States at a time when it was considered expensive restaurant fare, not suitable for home cooking. Child emphasised fresh and, at the time, unusual ingredients. All of the recipes used on The French Chef had originally appeared in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but for the show, Child chose mostly the more domestic recipes from the book, although such showpieces as Beef Wellington, various sorts of soufflé, and some ambitious pastries also madeit into the mix if they seemed within the reach of a home cook without staff. The show was done live-to-videotape from start to finish, leaving little room for mistakes. The resulting occasional accidents became a popular trademark of Child's on air presence, used as "teachable moments" to encourage viewers to relax about the task's demands. Certain elements became leitmotifs: Julia's fondness for wine; her ornate speech; her staunch defense of the use of butter (with margarine invariably referred to as "that other spread") and cream; her standard issue "impeccably clean towel"; and her closing line at the end of every show: "Bon appétit!".
Food styling during this era tended to be overdone: plates look forced and over-garnished, and there tend to be more than one dish per picture, often to the point of crowding. In the picture above, the pie has not only been cut into, but there are crumbs visible; this goes against the general trend towards perfect, untouched, buffet-style spreads. It is often hard to tell whether the graphics are illustrations or overly-manipulated photographs. Food photography has come a long way. Decades ago, before the birth of food porn and publications such as *Saveur* and *Gourmet* (may they rest in peace), we were lucky if we saw food photography beyond that found in magazines geared to the “happy housewife” stereotype of the 1950s. Food was always presented in the hotel-buffet style, as that was the height of food service during that period.
Throughout the 1960s, the look was highly stylised and food was presented with an abundance of props— some totally unrelated to the dishes, for example dead pheasants adorning a table or perhaps a bowl of fruit in the back- ground. Copperware, fine china and crystal were the norm. Shots were using wide angle with a group of dishes or photo spread. The angle was generally straight on and the lighting was very direct.
During the 70s food shots were taken on location and the styling, though a bit more casual, still featured a large amount of colourful, props and the use of ethnic props, such as a sombrero for a Mexican inspired story. The trend of wide-angle shots with several dishes and condiments in the frame continued and lighting was direct, but a greater variety of angles began to be used— straight on or from above.
In the 1980s, the food itself started to take prominence over props and often only one dish was featured in a photo. 'Casual entertaining' was trendy and food styling became less 'formal' but still maintained a sleek, styled look. Garnishes that matched the flavours and complemented the ingredients became important and these were used to add texture and colour contrast to the main dish. Props were used to match the theme or ethnicity of the food and were generally colourful. Lighting became more varied to create a mood. Food in 'full focus' and the introduction of shooting food within its 'cultural' context was introduced. In essence, the look was clean and carefully crafted with no crumbs, no spills and nothing out of place. During the late 1980s to mid 1990s, the casual trend continued, but lighting became more experimental, the perfect props were carefully chosen. Casual home-styled food was very fashionable as well with 'chef-styled' food. Chefs architecturally designed food— layers of ingredients, colours, dots and squiggles of sauces and dustings of cocoa or powdered icing sugar on the plate became popular.
From the late 1990s to 2006, there were two prime food stars— professional chefs and the new home chef. Food programs took the television by storm. Food was stylised with precision and eye-catching composition. Professional star chefs were a prominent fixture in the food scene, and often using raw ingredients, such as dried mushrooms, noodles or spices, became an important feature in photography, both as solo shots or to complement finished dishes. Styling became minimal; rules were broken. Fuzzy photos were popular for a time, but gave way to photos with good DOF. Colourful plates and backgrounds vanished for a time, replaced by white plates, white background. Props vanished for a time and shooting within cultural context also vanished. Slightly melting ice cream or whipped cream, cake crumbs or breadcrumbs, (previously a no-no and carefully removed by tweezers) now remained on plates and cutting boards. Garnishes still matched the ingredients as a compliment in colour and flavour. Sometimes, non-food items, such as chopsticks, porcupine quills and shells were used by food stylists to set mood. In general, the unpretentious presentation of the average home-cook became the look along with a focus on healthy foods. Stylists and photographers created the 'homespun' and 'natural' look carefully with shots generally focusing on one dish.
Food photography shifted in 2004 when Marks and Spencer‘s memorable television campaign pushed ‘food porn’ into the spotlight. No longer were we seeing shots with shallow depth of field and clean white backgrounds; movement and texture became the key aspects of interest. Seductive voiceovers accompanied oozing chocolate puddings, drizzled sauces and meat being craved. Juices trickled in slow motion, intensifying the portrayal. Digital cameras eliminated Polaroid tests and shooting everything perfect first time. Digital manipulation allowed backgrounds to be changed in Photoshop or stray crumbs removed in post-production. From the late 1990s to 2006, there were two prime food stars— professional chefs and the new home chef. Food programs took the television by storm. Food was stylised with precision and eye-catching composition. Professional star chefs were a prominent fixture in the food scene, and often using raw ingredients, such as dried mushrooms, noodles or spices, became an important feature in photography, both as solo shots or to complement finished dishes. Styling became minimal; rules were broken. Fuzzy photos were popular for a time, but gave way to photos with good DOF. Colourful plates and backgrounds vanished for a time, replaced by white plates, white background. Props vanished for a time and shooting within cultural context also vanished. Slightly melting ice cream or whipped cream, cake crumbs or breadcrumbs, (previously a no-no and carefully removed by tweezers) now remained on plates and cutting boards. Garnishes still matched the ingredients as a compliment in colour and flavour. Sometimes, non-food items, such as chopsticks, porcupine quills and shells were used by food stylists to set mood. In general, the unpretentious presentation of the average home-cook became the look along with a focus on healthy foods. Stylists and photographers created the 'homespun' and 'natural' look carefully with shots generally focusing on one dish.
Today, colour has returned, but white on white still remains fashionable. Style is casual and comfortable. The look is a bit less fussy— toss a few herbs as a garnish and let them land naturally. A bit of dripping sauce, a tad of melted ice cream, a few crumbs, a slice of meat less than perfectly cut— all these things are fine.
LA based prop stylist.
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