Originally published in Sauce Magazine (St. Louis) in January 2004 as a cover story.

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Fried tofu balls on bamboo skewers with red dipping sauce.

Magical and often make-believe, food styling transforms food and non-food products into the stunning masterpieces that we see in magazines, in advertisements and on television – and then struggle to reproduce in the kitchen. While we may eat with our eyes first, not all the “food” in those photos is actually food; and even when edible, it’s not always as appetizing as it looks.

Even so, food stylists and photographers cannot legally use just anything when photographing food. Current law mandates that food advertised in the photo must be of the real product. Accompanying garnishes, props and side dishes, however, can be fake or real.

For example, if the photograph advertises a cherry pie, the pastry used must be exactly like all the other cherry pies the company sells; it cannot be larger or more filled or made from fake products or even a different recipe. However, if one of the cherries doesn’t look so good, the stylist can substitute that individual cherry with another one. If the pie is photographed with ice cream, the ice cream can be fake, since it’s not the product being advertised. Conversely, if the ice cream is the product on sale, then the pie can be artificial. For the resulting photograph to successfully show off the product being peddled, substitution and hand-selection are key.

Food Styling In St. Louis

“With food and photography, all you have are your eyes,” Linda Mueller of Commercial Image Inc. said. “It’s a challenge to communicate with [images of] food. It’s tactile. It’s your sense of smell. Occasionally you can hear food. So, it’s got to be powerful in two-dimensional media.

“As a photographer, I don’t style food,” Mueller explained. Todd Davis, a photography studio owner who began shooting food in 1984, agreed, pointing out that, “You better have a good food stylist. They are indispensable.”

Steve Adams noted that much of the food photography in St. Louis is for the liquor industry. “My first food shot was for Anheuser-Busch,” he said. “They wanted some beer and sandwiches.” That was 25 years ago. Today, about 25 percent of his Steve Adams Studio business is food photography.

“Food is the thing that I like the most. I’d like to do more,” Adams said. “I prefer to hire a food stylist; however, I shoot for Dierbergs on a weekly basis. I like to cook and have watched the food stylists enough that I feel confident to do kind-of-simple styling on my own.”

With 17 years of food styling experience, Ann Schulz stays busy with food styling, developing and testing recipes and teaching culinary classes. About 80 percent of her food styling work is in the St. Louis area, but she’s also had jobs in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Minneapolis. In addition to print media, Schulz has styled food for commercials and has also worked on such films as “Bugsy,” “Mr. Saturday Night,” “Beethoven’s 2nd” and “Hook.”

“Still, food photography is more challenging because the photo is there for all time,” Schulz said. In film, the camera pans and minor details can be overlooked due to the motion.

“I try to keep an awareness of colors, flavors, garnishes, kind of drink and the client base,” she explained. Garnishes must make flavorful sense with the rest of the food. Additionally, the kind of beverage must also fit in with the other flavors of the photo layout and be something that the target audience of the product might actually drink: beer with pizza, red wine with steak, etc.

Schulz attempts to make the food look appealing and to also promote a healthful lifestyle. “I tend to go toward the healthful aspect by using fresh, rather than pre-prepared, foods when possible,” she said. “I’m trying to subliminally get across healthful choices, especially when I can select the accompanying side items.”

Schulz’s focus is on food products, but she has also created some edible non-food items, such as the 12 Secret-brand deodorant sticks out of marzipan that she made for “Very Special People,” a 1992 feature film.

Making It Beautiful

To meet those creative challenges, food stylists often have to invent ways to present perfect-looking food that might not otherwise be edible. Schulz said that turkeys are often only partially roasted because when they’re fully roasted, the dry heat of the oven causes the meat to pull away from the skin, ruining the “crispy skin” look that is desired in photographs. Instead, angostura bitters are often applied to the bird to get the skin to brown. That way, the bird appears perfect in the resulting photograph.

When shooting sandwiches, “the front edge is the ‘beauty angle,’” Schulz said. “The back may have something that supports the top slice of bread on a sandwich.” Ham and roast beef are problematic meats to photograph because they dry out quickly under hot studio lights. Different types of lettuce hold up differently under heat, so Schulz must handpick the best pieces of lettuce and know how each variety reacts to heat and dehydration.

Garnishes and side dishes must also be carefully considered based on how well they will last on the set. Because it turns black very quickly, broccoli is often substituted with snow peas or other bright green vegetables when possible.

Milk is not used in food styling, except when the milk is the actual food product being sold. Instead, stylists use white glue or hair conditioner, because neither of those will soak into cereal quickly or have a blue tint under studio lights. Milk also quickly becomes translucent as it heats up because its fat molecules begin to sink to the bottom of the glass; the extra lights used on the set make it look even more watery and less appetizing.

Although grill marks on hotdogs and other meats are sometimes actually made on a hot grill, stylists often apply the sear marks with hot metal skewers and soldering irons because of the unpredictability of “real grilling.”

For the gooey look of warm chocolate and fudge in cookies and brownies, food stylists can use a simple trick from the pharmacy. The baked cookies are carefully placed on a metal baking sheet that is sitting on top of a heating pad. The low heat will be just enough to give that warm glisten to the chocolate.

According to Mueller, pizza and anything with cheese is also problematic because of the way it dries out quickly under the heat lamps. The same goes for eggs. Both get misted with water on the set but can only survive for about 30 minutes. Fish, however, holds up very well.

Vanilla ice cream with rolled cookies and strawberriesNot surprisingly, ice cream is one of the most difficult products to work with for food stylists. While real ice cream is generally not used on sets, “We always use real ice cream,” said Tracy Landau of MarketPlace Innovations, LLC, a local marketing, design and multi-media firm. Although she has helped style and photograph ice cream for 11 years, Landau proudly notes that she has only had to use one fake food: a plastic pomegranate as a prop.

Photographing real ice cream presents many challenges. For that reason, it generally takes eight one-half-gallon ice cream containers for one shoot. First, the swirls in ice cream are not always as appealing as they need to be for photography. Landau said that she has the company put the ice cream into the box so that the ripples in it run the width of the box. Extra jars of the goodies in ice cream — candy, fruit, etc. — are also sent along.

The ripples and spirals in ice cream generally fall into one of three categories: stringy, jammy or fat-based. Each one reacts and melts differently. For example, when the fat-based ripples melt, they create small valleys in the scoop of ice cream. Cold temperatures, on the other hand, make fat-based ripples seize.

Ice cream fillings can also cause problems. Hard little candies are the most difficult to scoop out, because they will not give and often break when very cold. Soft brownies and baked-good pieces, however, become part of the ice cream and come out smoothly.

The overrun, which is the percent of air introduced into the ice cream during processing, also makes a difference in the way the scoop holds together. Higher end products have little air, making them harder to scoop than some of the less expensive products.

“Ice cream is a really temperamental product,” Landau said. “You have a limited amount of time to get it right and take the picture. Dry ice is your best friend.” Dry ice is put into a metal wire-funnel and then shaken over the ice cream to keep it from melting so quickly.

“Sherbet has a low milk fat content and is much more water-based than ice cream,” she went on to explain. “It is more dense and icy because of that.” The extra sugar and the stabilizer used in sherbet can make it very sticky and gummy to work with. Sherbet with candy pieces in it is even less forgiving than ice cream. “When you chip or pull at ice, it makes an indentation,” described Landau, which then must be fixed.

Real fruit also can stain the layout set, so using it as a prop can be tricky. Landau uses chopsticks to place the fruit exactly where she wants it and can then only nudge it into a slightly different position.

Painting fruit with oil and then misting it with water creates a water beading effect. Droplets of sweat on glasses, fruits, vegetables, flowers and other subjects, however, are not always water and oil. Corn syrup and liquid silicon (used for hair styling) can be carefully placed on with misters, eye droppers and toothpicks. Rain-X, the water repellent used on automobiles for its water-beading properties, can also be used. It is first sprayed on the product; water is then misted on.

Some tricks are controversial because they use non-edible or even toxic products. While many food stylists believe using these is unethical and sloppy, others disagree. To keep syrup from being absorbed by pancakes, waffles and French toast, some stylists spray the breakfast goods with Scotchgard. Cheese can be sprayed with antiperspirant to slow down its natural sweating; however, the now-inedible cheese still will not last long at room temperature or under studio lights.

Due to the camera angle, the props Landau uses are often much smaller than they appear in the photo. A champagne bucket might only be a couple of inches tall, even though it appears life-sized in the photo. Landau said that she must buy “props in abundance,” often three times what she really needs, to be able to find the most perfect-looking pieces of fruit and baked goods.

The Last Bite

While the tricks of food styling are nothing short of trompe l‘oeil, the trend in the industry is to use good culinary techniques and careful food preparation along with real food when possible. The job of the food stylist is not to present a fake product as real but to reduce the side effects that photography has on food and help the photographer produce a photo that shows food products at their most beautiful.

“We try to use more real food, not Photoshop it,” Landau said. “The whole process of photography takes away from the food product itself and can show how unattractive food can be.”

A food stylist must combat heat from lamps, not usually found in a home, and time constraints found only in a photography studio, while pleasing the photographer, clients and art director. While it’s not an easy job, those in the industry take pleasure and pride in their work.

“I love doing it; there’s no doubt about it,” Schulz said. “Every day is a new challenge, an opportunity to be creative and have fun.”

The information above is based on ethical industry and U.S. legal standards at the time of publication; it is not an attempt to explain why some food is routinely so different than advertisements show — or to accuse any food purveyors of fraud.. It is also not intended as legal advice; I am not a lawyer.