Playing With Food : Making Food Smile for the Camera


Capturing freshness in food for print or film is every food stylist’s goal. Keeping the food alive for long hours of shooting is the biggest challenge. There are many problems. The photographer needs time to set his lights. He needs stand-in food to direct his camera angle. Action food needs special techniques to catch “movement.”

Picture roast chicken. Once out of the oven, it doesn’t stay plump very long. “Before it gets cooked,” says food stylist Norman Stewart, “it swells, but if you cook it any longer, it will shrink.” So Stewart removes the chicken after 15 minutes of baking and “paints” the bird to give it color.

Think about bacon. After sitting several hours, it becomes flat and dry. “I take skewers,” says Stewart, “and thread the slices to get the ruffling. Then I torch them with a blow torch to make them sizzle.”

Stylists such as Stewart go to work armed with a styling kit filled with everything from scissors to irons.

When asked to name the four or five most indispensable items among their paraphernalia, most stylists came up with similar choices: a supersharp knife, bamboo skewers, Q-tips, a water spray bottle and an oil brush. Tweezers, Kitchen Bouquet browning color, clay putty, paper towels, an iron, razor blades and eye droppers came next. Some stylists also rely on special gadgets such as a small clothes steamer, a barbecue starter or a propane torch, and all stylist’s kits contain standard kitchen tools for cutting, mixing and measuring.


When a producer for consumer advocate David Horowitz asked food stylist Jean Carey for an interview, she turned him down. “I felt as though he was seeking to do an expose, to prove that there was deception going on,” says the 17-year veteran of Kitchen Consultants. Some of her clients include Restaurant Enterprises Group (which owns Coco’s, Charlie Brown’s, Ruben’s and El Torito) and Nestle Foods. “I told the producer: ‘I know that David wouldn’t appear on his television show without taking the time to apply some makeup and present his very best side.’ ”

While Carey admits to a few tricks of the trade, she says that each has a purpose. “There is absolutely no intent to deceive.”

Sometimes, for example, stand-ins are used to give photographers time to work lighting. And consider the problem of melting ice cream. To avoid it, Carey makes what she calls “photo cream,” a mixture of solid shortening, powdered sugar and food coloring or sometimes, strawberry jam. Sprayed with water, the scoop looks real. To make the container look frosty and cold, she sprays it with water too.

Another challenge is collapsing souffles--inevitable in a food shoot. Carey’s solution? “For stand-ins or sometimes for the actual shot, I bake angel food cake mix in a souffle dish. I would add food color to a Cheddar cheese souffle.”

Then there’s fried egg--never picture-perfect when you want it to be. “The yolk is never where you want it to be and the edges often get crisp.” Carey’s trick is to cook the white first, poaching it in warm oil. When it’s nearly cooked, she adds the yolk to the center and bastes it with the warm oil.

Seasonal ingredients present another problem. Says Carey: “I have to save and freeze fall items--walnuts in the shell, cranberries, pumpkins--because they are usually shot in the spring.” Carey also saves good-looking green tomato stems. “I like to pick the ones from immature tomatoes. I keep a supply of stems in little ice cube trays.” Then, when she finds a perfectly shaped tomato, all she has to do is glue it onto the perfect stem.

Carol Peterson styles food for commercials that star the Pillsbury Doughboy. “I started the year he was born,” she says. “I’ve known him as long as I’ve known my husband.”

The challenge is having the 8 1/2-inch animated figure handle food--the script might call for him to stick a wood pick into a cake or sling pepperoni pizza while skateboarding. This is accomplished by shooting the Doughboy in one studio, the food in the other, and then combining the shots.

These shots have to be done a frame at a time because every time the Doughboy touches the food it changes, so a 30-second commercial can take five hours or more. Real food dries out and changes its appearance in that time, so in Doughboy scenes, the crew works with scrupulously accurate models of food instead. “I have to make the real product,” says Peterson, “and then everything is cast and painted by a model maker to the legal requirements of Pillsbury, matching the actual product in all measurements.

“A legal photo is made of the casting and the real food together, and that’s scrutinized by the lawyers, the ad agency and myself. The bottom line is, you do not want to deceive people. If what you’ve done looks better than your product, you have deceived the consumer.”

When the Doughboy’s out of the picture, real cakes and cookies are used. On one recent shoot, Peterson and her two assistants whipped up 22 cakes for a single shoot. “Luckily they didn’t cut into the cake,” she says, “that would have been another story.”

For bake-up shots in the oven, Peterson uses a specially constructed time-lapse oven with a glass top, a glass back and glass sides, which let the studio lighting through. With it, the crew can shoot one frame at a time as the product bakes. “It’s a very expensive oven,” Peterson says, “and there are very few in the country. First of all, the oven has to bake well.”

When she’s not working with the Doughboy, Peterson might be arranging seafood for the Red Lobster chain, slicing cheese for Kraft or making tomatoes look beautiful for Contadina. The Sizzler is another big job for Peterson.

“We have to reconstruct the whole store on a stage,” Peterson says. “I usually rent about seven refrigerators, a few deep-fryers and sinks.”

Her experience on the job has taught her more than a few esoteric tricks. For instance: How do you photograph strawberries cascading down? Well, with a conveyor belt and a device that drops the berries in sequence. “The photographers shoot on high-speed film,” Peterson says. “Sometimes they use a beam to catch the falling object. As a stylist you have to make sure every strawberry is perfect on all sides.”

And what about falling peanuts? “Everything gets wired with monofilament or invisible wire,” Peterson says.

For cascading chips, a similar trick is used. Once, when Peterson set up a nacho cheese shot for a Disneyland brochure, she wired chips together from the back. A pole held the whole thing together from above. "(The chips) looked like they were floating or flying and coming down to a pile of cheese,” Peterson says. “I made a runway of hot glue sauce to hold the flowing cheese.”

Hot glue helps Peterson keep the Doughboy in line too. When the script calls for the pudgy pitchboy to move around a lot in a shot, the danger is that the food will roll away. But Peterson is always ready: “I just get my hot glue gun and stick those cookies right on the counter.”

Marlene Brown of Marlene’s Cuisine is a former food editor of Better Homes & Gardens Magazine. Now a free-lance food journalist and stylist, she specializes in fresh produce. “My first concern,” she says, “is keeping the food looking fresh.”

Great food stylists spend a lot of time on details. In Brown’s most recent job, an Oktoberfest commercial for the Excalibur Hotel in Las Vegas, a line of waiters and waitresses held plates of food high above their heads. “The food had to be glued, taped and stuck with clay to keep it from sliding off the plates,” says Brown. “We kept it fresh for about six hours, while a group of 40 people sat at tables with plates of food and mugs of beer in front of them, waiting for the camera to roll.”

Keeping a head on the beer was another problem. “We kept adding foam to the tops of the beer mugs, and siphoning off just enough beer with turkey basters to make room for a new layer of foam.” Luckily they got beer from a tap, which produces a thicker and more stable foam, she added. “When you pour from a bottle or can, you may have to add salt.”

Other shoots, other tricks: When working with pizza, Brown uses a clothes steamer to melt the cheese. “I find it preserves a moister look.” When she’s working with omelets, she makes the puffiest one she can--it lasts longer for the camera. Then she stuffs it with cotton balls or, if it has to sit, she rolls it around a cardboard tube so that she can unroll it later. To keep taco shells from getting soggy, she uses sanitary napkins to absorb the moisture from the filling.

Working with pie presents a different problem: Brown knows she can get only a single slice out of a whole pie. “For one large wedge, you have to cut beyond the center. You have to make sure you’re cutting the best edge of the crust. And then you may have to remove the rest of the filling and pick out the most luscious pieces.”

Food styling, she says, requires timing, physical dexterity and a steady hand. And one more thing: “Good people skills are crucial, since food photography involves a team of people, including the client, ad agency, photographer, art director and, often, a prop stylist.”

“I’m more of a realistic kind of person as far as food styling is concerned,” says Mable Hoffman. “I don’t use too many tricks; if I do they’re just simple and basic.”

Hoffman, who has worked as a food stylist for more than 20 years with the George de Gennaro studios, thinks her no-nonsense approach might stem, in part, from her work for Betty Crocker.

“You had to follow package instructions carefully for their ads,” Hoffman remembers. “You just had to make many, many, many cakes, then pick the best one with the right contour.”

For editorial materials, which offer more leeway in portraying the food, she resorts to some tricks. To make a cake slice look good, Hoffman adds glaze or frosting after cutting so she can control the drip. “Sometimes,” she says, “I might cut a slice without the nuts, fruits or raisins that are supposed to show in the shot. Then, I’ll insert the items in the slice, but I’ll cut them so it looks like a knife went through them. I try to make everything as natural-looking as I can.” To get an even crumb texture, Hoffman uses a wood pick to plug the holes with crumbs from another slice.

Hoffman has other simple tricks. “I add extra gelatin to molds--Bavarian cream, for example--so they hold better under the hot lights,” she says. “And to melt cheese on a casserole, I don’t put it in the oven, I hold an electric barbecue starter just above the cheese until it looks nice and freshly melted.”

Meat shots can be particularly challenging. “Roasts are the most unpredictable,” she says. “You don’t know what they’re going to look like until you cut them. I usually undercook them. I make several and do a final one at the last minute.”

For souffles, traditionally one of the most difficult foods to capture on film, Hoffman relies on repetition. “I’ve tried so many techniques that other stylists recommend,” she says, “but the best thing for me is to just keep making them all day long.” Patience is a virtue in this line of work.

“I use Vaseline for a lot of things,” says food and prop stylist Karen Gillingham. “I use it to patch up fish; I mix the fish flesh with Vaseline and apply it with a pallet knife so it’s smooth and even.” She’s also been known to dye petroleum jelly a golden brown and use it to patch up roast turkey. Once she even made a pie with Vaseline. “After we got the Polaroid shot of the stand-in cherry pie, I threw that pie away and brought in the hero; the photographer decided he liked the looks of the first one. So I took it out of the trash and reassembled it with Vaseline.”

Other Gillingham tricks: use maple syrup (or molasses) in place of coffee--the cream will float on the top. Harden the top layer of drinks with gelatin so that when cream is added, it doesn’t creep down and form legs. And to avoid white glare, tint whipped cream with vanilla or Kitchen Bouquet. For uncut cakes, use Styrofoam and ice it with the real thing. Build up soups with marbles.

To create steam, Gillingham goes to Tri-Ess Sciences (a special effects lab in Burbank), buys little pellets of calcium metal (which produces hydrogen when it reacts with water producing the steam) and places them in a foil boat behind the food container and drips water on them. “Cigarette smoke blown from a straw also works,” she says, " but these days, it’s hard to find people willing to do it.”