What’s a food stylist and why you need one for food photography

Aug 26, 2023

Bryan Sheffield and Sankha Wanigasekara

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

What’s a food stylist and why you need one for food photography

Aug 26, 2023

Bryan Sheffield and Sankha Wanigasekara

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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Picture this: you’re working on a photo shoot for Ben & Jerry’s, but the Chunky Monkey is starting to melt, and you haven’t even begun photographing it. Much like any other model, food often needs special attention in order to look its best. That’s where a food stylist comes in.

A photo from John Vallsshoot for Alden’s Ice Cream styled by Ashley Marti

Food stylists possess the experience and expertise required to make food look delicious. Given this core responsibility, a food stylist will usually possess a background in the culinary arts, through either professional qualifications or self-education. 

Depending on the scope of the project, the stylist may control anything from selecting ingredients to plating and styling the dish. Stylists ensure the food looks camera-ready for each click of the shutter.

What are the Responsibilities of a Food Stylist?

When choosing a professional food stylist, it’s helpful to be aware of the difference between a stylist who specializes in editorial vs. advertising work. An advertising food stylist is primarily concerned with styling food with the intention of selling the products to a consumer. This is in contrast to the editorial food stylist, who uses food and props to tell a story.

In addition to styling, some also focus on recipe development and cooking, making them specialists in a specific category. With a large amount of knowledge surrounding a specific food item, some food stylists make their own recipe stand-ins. Ice cream, for instance, is one of the hardest foods to style due to its rapid melting point and consistency, and only the most expert hands know how to shape it appropriately and maintain it for the shoot.

Stylists are usually supplied with a surplus of ingredients, and tasked with creating a picture-perfect spread. In order to make the food appear that way, food stylists employ a whole host of tricks to deceive the senses. 

Food Styling Tricks 

  • Reinforce ingredients with paints and dips for a more vibrant look.
    • Drop vegetables in water or vinegar
    • Paint ingredients with a glaze to provide a glossy look
  • Employ props and materials to preserve a food’s form and structure. For example,
    • Toothpicks to hold stacks of fruits together
    • Tweezers to rearrange sesame seeds on a hamburger bun
    • Wax to keep ingredients stuck to one another 
  • Utilize look-alike substitutes to maintain a fresh look more consistently for longer stretches of time. For example,
    • Mashed potatoes and lard for ice cream
    • Painted grill lines on a rare steak
    • Elmer’s glue and water to recreate milk for splashy photo shoots 
    • Fake ice cubes that are unaffected by room temperature
    • Dried glue to resemble crumbles 
    • Bubbles to make drinks look fizzy or frothy 

While these tricks remain useful, the industry has been moving towards more authentic imagery, resulting in stylists using more “real” ingredients and emphasizing imperfections. Generally, the tricks are more commonly deployed in advertising photography, whereas editorial photography tends to stay true to the ingredients as they are. However, the bottom line is that the “tricks” are being deployed less often nowadays. 

Working with a Food Stylist 

The Project Pitch

Having a food stylist’s name attached to a project pitch or treatment can impress potential clients that much more. A food stylist’s portfolio and client list function as additional selling points, and they could be the difference in a highly competitive bidding process.

Most global brands maintain a roster of vetted food stylists, individuals that they’d work with again and again in a heartbeat. These stylists are intimately familiar with a brand’s guidelines, recognizing the do’s and don’ts through experience. They are undoubted assets to a photographer, as they understand a brand’s aesthetic better than most. 

For photographers who are embarking on a project with a large brand, it can be beneficial to inquire if the brand has a preferred stylist, or if the brand would like to see stylist recommendations. This can be brought up during the initial creative call. Working with a brand’s go-to stylist streamlines the creative process, and the end result has a greater chance of being aligned with client expectations. Quite simply, these food stylists are a form of insider knowledge, eliminating the need for trial and error on photo shoots.

Food Styling Workflow 

A food stylist’s level of involvement on a photo shoot is determined by the size of the project. Nashville-based stylist Whitney Kemp broke down the many paths she might take on an assignment. 

The size of the job greatly influences how decisions and workflow are decided on each job. On a very large job, I often interact very little with the actual client, but rather get information through the producers and product development (PD) person for the client. Whereas on a smaller job, I might even text the client directly regarding specific details prior to and during the job. Another element that decides the workflow would be determined by who hires me.  At times I am hired by the agency, other times by the photographer, and other times I’m hired directly by the client.  Depending on who actually hires me, I defer to their preferences. 

However, Whitney provided a rough outline of her usual workflow on a food photo shoot. 

  • Receive the recipes and shot list, then review them for any questions.
  • Have a pre-production call with the photographer/agency/producer/director and all other departments to get a plan in place and have any questions answered. 
  • Make prep lists and grocery lists. 
  • Work closely with the product development person for the client during prep day and make sure the food is prepared as required by the recipe. 
  • On shooting days:
    • Work with her team to split time and responsibilities between the kitchen and on-set, ensuring everything is ready as scheduled.
    • Involve the PD person as much as possible to make sure the food taken to set is correct. This is crucial to staying on schedule and avoiding errors that cost time and money.
Whitney Kemp on-set during a recent assignment

New Orleans-based food stylist Martha Torres dove a little deeper into the topic of ingredient purchases for different types of productions. 

If it’s a recipe-based project, we’d ideally get recipes in advance to see what’s realistically needed for creating the “hero” for the camera in the required quantity. If it’s a food manufacturer’s product, they will ship the ingredients to the studio or the prep kitchen location in advance, with input from the food stylist on the quantity. Purchasing can be done through Instacart or online ordering for basic ingredients and expendables. For more important ingredients, that’s either myself or an experienced assistant doing the shopping.

Personally, I love to shop as you sometimes find something at the grocery or farmers market that is unique or early in season that can unexpectedly work for plating or background. Serendipity happens…. like coming across a vendor at the farmers market who has beyond wonderful old-style wooden flats of blueberries or strawberries, which you can use for ingredients, food props, background, AND set design.

For last-minute on-set glitches, a production assistant in the food styling department would handle the purchases. 

Skillset and Specialization

Choosing the right stylists for the shoot can be tricky, so to give us some insight, Cincinnati-based photographer Teri Campbell shared how he makes his selections. 

Sometimes the choice is more about what the stylist excels at, or specializes in. Or maybe the project is more about the art and less about the science. When we are shooting images that will be used on packaging, we need to be very precise with the measurements and details. However, if we’re shooting a sandwich for Ziploc, it’s more important that the sandwich looks beautiful.

Teamwork and Collaboration

Teamwork is essential to the success of the shoot, which is why Teri suggests testing out a food stylist before booking them. This will help you identify the stylist’s strengths and weaknesses while evaluating the chemistry on set. 

At the same time, getting inside the food stylist’s head can be useful in figuring out the best strategy for collaboration. We asked stylist Barrett Washburne to share a few of his personal guidelines.

The first thing is to be prepared. Make sure you’ve gone through each recipe/shot and purchased or brought everything you could possibly need. It’s also important to anticipate the needs of a client – there are so many things they could ask for on a shoot. Thinking ahead will save you a lot of time (and assistant trips to the store).

Food stylist Barrett Washburne working on set with photographer David Malosh

Secondly, stay calm and adapt effortlessly to any situation. You may have spent 30 minutes arranging a plate, but once it’s on set, it may not work for the shot. Swallow your pride and do it again (even if it was perfect the first time). No one likes a diva on set, and being difficult won’t get you hired again. Have confidence in your abilities and share your opinion, but know when to lay off. Remember that this is a team sport!

Food stylist Barrett Washburne and assistant Lauren Radel

I ALWAYS work with an assistant…a good assistant is a necessity! They can be readying the parts of the next dish while you are on set, making sure everything looks perfect. A great assistant knows how you like things done and exactly what point to take things to…so all I have to do is put it all together. THANKFULLY they also do all my dishes!

Food Stylist vs Prop Stylist

Besides having an assistant on hand, food stylists work with prop stylists as well. Prop stylists are responsible for choosing items such as plates, bowls, utensils, and other props needed for a food shoot. Barrett expanded on the importance of this counterpart. 

Most of the time, I have a prop stylist on set. Usually, we all go over the recipes the morning of the shoot and pick out what will work best for each shot — I always say it’s a team sport! Occasionally we will shoot in a studio that is also a prop house, and I will select props with the photographer (if there isn’t much budget). I much prefer when there is a prop stylist on set, though, because it makes everything a lot easier — they are so talented in what they do. It’s just as valuable to have a good prop stylist as it is to have a good photographer and food stylist!

The budget ultimately determines the presence of a prop stylist, and as Whitney highlighted, this distinguishes commercial assignments from editorial ones. 

On most commercial jobs, there is a separation between props and food styling. I see props as everything on the set except the actual food being featured by the client.  The prop stylist is to provide me with clean plates that are camera ready to put food on. On a very large job, they would also be responsible for taking those plates and cleaning them, after I have removed the food.  As for “prop food,” such as background bowls and baskets of fruit, props is actually responsible for those, but I am responsible for fresh cues to accent the dishes we are featuring, such as some berries surrounding a drink, or some spices/herbs to show the consumer what is in the dish. On smaller editorial jobs, I often handle tabletop props and food styling, usually with an assistant or two. 

Martha frequently works in the video space on commercials and features. She described how a food stylist’s working conditions are different on motion projects compared to photo shoots. 

Doing film work is way different than print. Food styling in film works under the Property Master, who has others in their department or in the overall Art Department resourcing props. The Property Master is part of the Art Department, under the purview of the Art Director on a film crew. Food stylists don’t deal with most props, with the exception of getting “food props” for on-set visuals. 

Food styling works closely with the Prop Master in advance to determine needs, e.g. 10 Pantone 279 or similar 6.5” diameter plates for Scene 4. If food styling is taking care of both the “hero” & BG (background) food, we will have production assistants dedicated to running BG items from the kitchen/rig to the set and back. Everyone is on walkies and in communication in some way. Logistically, film is very different than a photo shoot.

For either print or film, if there’s a “chef” (real or actor) on camera, food styling will most often resource the set design props for the “chef.” Food styling has more expertise, e.g. knowing which type of whisk would be needed.

Cost of a Food Stylist

You’re probably wondering how much it would cost to hire a food stylist for your next photo shoot. For non-metro areas, food stylists charge an average of $600-$900 a day, and for big metro areas like New York, food stylists can command $1,000-$1,500/day. If a food stylist is represented by an agency, you can add an additional 20% of their day rate as an agent commission. 

As most things go, a food stylist’s pay on advertising jobs will be much more than those in the editorial space. Bigger sets that involve more work demand higher rates of pay. 

Ignore Food Stylists at Your Own Peril

Food styling is a combination of art and science that goes beyond the mere preparation and presentation of food. While the scope of a stylist’s role can vary depending on the project, their knowledge and bag of tricks are indispensable to the success of a photo shoot. Do away with them, and your melted cheese on a pizza may look like white viscous tendrils, while your salad that needed some dressing may appear as if it’s doused in gasoline. Neither scenario is appealing in any way, and the one person who could prevent it would be the food stylist.

About the Authors

Bryan Sheffield is a photographer born and raised in NYC, but has lived in in four other states. He received a BFA in photography from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Throughout Bryan’s career his love for creative planning of detailed productions has led him to concept, plan, and execute photography and productions for publications, brands, and agencies all over the world. You’ll find more of his work on his website and connect with him through LinkedIn.

Sankha Wanigasekara graduated from Drexel University with a degree in Entertainment & Arts Management. Since 2017, he’s worked at Wonderful Machine as both researcher and publicist, currently writing and editing a variety of articles in the publicity department. You can find more of his work on Medium and connect with him through LinkedIn. This article was originally published here and shared with permission.

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2 responses to “What’s a food stylist and why you need one for food photography”

  1. Libby Sutherland Avatar
    Libby Sutherland

    The biggest mistake made by solo rookie shooters is in understanding the need for “stand in” food. If you’re shooting ice cream, use a like vessel and fill it with instant mashed to set your lighting, then bring in your Hero for the final shots. We once used a semi flat football as a stand in for a roast duck. The viability on certain foods can be incredibly short. Good article, thanks.

    1. Wonderful Machine Avatar
      Wonderful Machine

      Absolutely! It’s a technique that can significantly streamline the photography process, especially when working with delicate or perishable subjects. Thank you for reading!