Book Reviewby Rachael Higginson
I went to Barnes & Noble the other day in search of a book on photo styling. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much. They had many books for photographers that briefly mentioned a stylist, but nothing really for stylists. After having an associate help me with my search, I came across two photo styling books for food photography. The first was “Food Styling for Dummies,” and while it provided interesting tips and tricks with using food alternatives like motor oil for syrup, shoe polish to brown meat, cardboard between pancakes, and glue for milk*, I somehow found the images in the other option more captivating and was drawn to the notion of using real food.I chose to purchase “Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography and Styling” by Helene Dujardin, a pastry chef and photographer. The book is very insightful and, like most other books I found, is really written for photographers who do their own styling, but I think, even as a stylist, a lot can be learned from reading it. Dujardin even emphasizes in her book: “…be sure that you understand the fundamentals of photography (exposure and light) before diving into composition and styling.” The book, at the very least, gives stylists and idea of how a camera functions and what methods and operations a photographer they are working with might use, and provides terminology that would be useful to know when communication with photographers during a shoot.
Dujardin separates her book into sections that, according to her, should be the step-by-step process of food photography. She divides them: Photography Basics, Settings and Modes, Natural Light Photography, Artificial Light Photography, Composition, Setting Up for Capture, Styling, and After Capture. While chapters one through five may not be as relevant to stylists who are not photographers, there are some useful tips in them that can give stylists an idea of what to account for while styling food during their shoots. For example, in her chapter on Composition, Dujardin writes: “You don’t need to come up with crazy setups and lots of propping and arranging to add interest to your photos. Many times, an off-center subject can do the trick.” (page 97) There are a number of benefits to composition, as Dujardin continues to explain throughout her chapter: Hiding flaws or when you don’t have enough of a product to fill a dish, adding movement and guiding focus (though one must be aware of the focal point when shooting), etc. She also discusses focus, perspective, location, and angle and the benefits of different options. While the photographer may control a lot of these factors during a shoot, some of them are something that a stylist may very well have control over.“Setting Up for Capture” and “Styling” are perhaps most relevant to stylists (food stylists) who are not also photographers, and Dujardin considers them the final steps to creating good food photography. She doesn’t really go into using food substitutes, though she does mention using acrylic ice cubes. Rather, as a chef, she discusses styling tips and techniques using real food. She suggests using natural props, elements of the dish to enhance it (i.e. cherries in a photo for cherry cobbler), reserving ingredients from recipes to use as props, communication with your chef if you are working with one, asking them to undercook noodles so they don’t lie flat. She outlines the importance of being nice to the chef and explaining exactly why you are making any changes to the dish, as chefs can be very particular about how their food is presented. She suggests whole spices and relevant herbs as simple props.
Dujardin goes on to explain the impact of creating a scene in food photography, so that your picture tells a story. This would require more propping and styling as compared to a close up of a sandwich. Mood and story, she states, can have a huge influence on how your food is conveyed and how it is interpreted by the viewer (page 146). She discusses props and how they should be used to enhance the food but your food is always the featured product. She also points out, though, that props can help a viewer relate to the food being photographed. She discusses backgrounds and linens in the same regard, and offers very useful tips on where to find props for reasonable budgets. She even briefly mentions color and how it can be used in a photograph.Finally, Dujardin begins to talk about Styling. She talks about styling in terms of food and how it can be enhanced, suggesting what props to use where and how to arrange items to optimize their aesthetic effect. For example, she suggests using coarse salt, peppercorns, herbs/spices, nuts, fruits and veggies, and bread as prop devices in food photography, especially when a recipe uses these ingredients or when they can be difficult to identify in the final photography (i.e. styling a photo of a berry pie with fresh berries).
Dujardin also discusses tips and tricks for difficult styling situations. For example, using a wet towel or lemon juice to preserve fruits and vegetables, brushing oil on meat to revive it, freezing scoops of ice cream on parchment paper until ready for shooting (as opposed to using clay as a substitute as some stylist are apparently known to do*). For example, and while she points out she is not a huge fan of this technique, she suggests using cooked rice or mashed potatoes to anchor down and style lettuce leaves for photos of salads, especially if there is not enough lettuce to fill up the whole bowl. That’s about as “fake” as Dujardin gets with her food though. She likes to be able to eat it. And as a foodie myself, I don’t blame her!Dujardin’s book focuses on some very basic, yet very useful information, and she provides excellent visuals to help explain what she is talking about. She even references each photograph to discuss a point. While I think that learning unconventional styling techniques like using in place of milk for a photograph of cereal may be useful, epecially for stylists who and not alo also photographers or cooks. I appreciate DuJardin’s deep respect for food. I think that “Plate to Pixel” not only provides stylists with a way of understanding why or how a photographer or cook does something during a photo shoot, but also provides them with the basic knowledge and useful tips for dealing with food, and many of the techniques and suggestions Dujardin offers can be used in food photography regardless of whether the ice cream is ice cream or clay.
*Editor’s note: these outdated “techniques” are no longer part of the professional food stylist’s repertoire and have been outdated for several decades. The current trend is using real food and edible ingredients. Susan
Rachael Higginson is a student in the Fashion Program at San Diego Mesa College.