Food Styling & Photography Weekend (Part 1)

What do you do when presented with the opportunity to work with some of the stalwarts in the world of food styling and photography for a weekend? Why, you shoot an email to the organizers in half the time it would take for a celebrity chef to swear and wait in anxious anticipation for the reply confirming your spot.

As soon as I learnt on Twitter that Denise Vivaldo and Cindie Flannigan, the creative minds behind Food Fanatics, were teaming up with photographer Matt Armendariz for a specially tailored food styling workshop for food bloggers and writers, I jumped at the chance. Literally. With the limited class size (10) and a general scarcity of food styling resources around, I was pretty sure that each spot would be snapped up in no time.

And so it happened that while every other food blogger in North America descended upon San Francisco for a weekend of foodie fun at Foodbuzz’s First Annual Blogger Festival, I was on another plane headed for Long Beach to join nine other students at Matt’s gorgeous studio to learn the tips and tricks of styling food for the camera. There was a tinge of nervousness too.

“Would my skills be up to scratch?” “What on earth would I shoot?”

We each had a ‘project’ for Sunday, to prep and style a dish of our choice for a shoot, under the guidance of Denise, Cindie and Matt. Pre-occupied with these thoughts, I contemplated the feasibility of cooking at the studio (pasta? pizza? a cake?) for the 55 minutes of the flight, only to conclude that buying a cake or a pack of cookies from Safeway would be ideal option.

Saturday morning dawned foggy and grey, and after a short drive from The Varden, the latest addition to Long Beach’s coterie of hotels, I finally identified the unassuming entrance to Matt’s studio, which was signposted by his husband Adam, looking somewhat like me (i.e., sheepish) on a chilly Fall morning.

Entering the high-ceilinged studio, I quickly scanned the long table for a seat, which was already prepped with a folder containing all the materials we would cover over that weekend. Settling in with an excellently brewed cup of coffee, I met the rest of the class: a mix of authors, photographers and bloggers, including Phoo-D, Anita from Married…With Dinner and fellow Let’s Lunch blogger, Cathy from Show Food Chef.

After an initial round of introductions, Denise provided us with an overview of the world of food styling, the work that she and Cindie have been doing in the field, and how the landscape of food styling has changed since she started in the business 20 years ago. Acknowledging the lack of information out there (hence this workshop) she highlighted the immense opportunities available for individuals that were well-versed across various aspects of the styling and shooting process. Like us, food bloggers and self-published cookbook authors.

Pancakes kicked off the first of three demonstrations for the day. Almost on cue, we whipped out our cameras and secured prime vantage points the moment Cindie poured the batter into the pan. We were, after all, a roomful of photographers, eager to soak up every iota of information to apply these tips in our home kitchen.

With Denise providing the commentary, peppered with hilarious anecdotes from her past experiences, I managed to jot down these pointers for achieving the perfect stack of pancakes:

  • Adding some baking soda to the batter will help maintain a fluffy pancake.
  • You’ll almost always have to ‘sacrifice’ the first pancake because the pan won’t be hot enough.
  • The look of the top pancake will differ depending on what you want to show; an even, golden-hue for pancakes vs a mesh of brown for flapjacks, for example.
  • Freezing the syrup in advance gives it a gooey, dripping texture when squeezed over the stack.

Food styling pancakes

Next up was a plate of salmon and green beans. The fish was first pan-fried, skin side down, to achieve the desired color, before being glazed with corn syrup and finished with a torch to achieve the right sprinkling of black specks for the ‘barely-grilled’ look.

When it comes to fish, here are some tips to bear in mind:

  • Decide on the shape of the fish fillet before cooking, as raw fish is more likely to stay in one piece.
  • Keep the skin on as it helps to hold the flesh together while cooking.
  • The key is to avoid overcooking the fish, which would cause its protein to ooze out through the cracks in unsightly white patches and is remarkably difficult to remove.
  • If there’s a sauce involved, cook each element separately and assemble them before the shoot.

Food styling: salmon and burgers

Burgers were the last demonstration for the day, and again, the principles of undercooking the meat applied:

  • Meat tends to shrink by 30 to 40% during cooking so to preserve its size and ensure that it fits perfectly on the bun, quickly sear it on the pan so that the patty holds together.
  • Use a kitchen torch to brown the meat, and (for red meat) brush on dark corn syrup for that ‘perfectly grilled’ look.
  • Best to sear the patty on a grill pan so that the initial indentations will provide a guide for making grill marks after taking it off the pan (top picture).

After the burger demo, we were left free to try our hands at preparing a beef patty (like what Joe‘s doing below), melting butter on pancakes with a heat gun and smearing a burger with kitchen bouquet and dark corn syrup for the “right” look.

After playing around with these kitchen gadgets, I explored Matt and Adam’s immense prop collection. Walking into their kitchen is like entering a paradise of gorgeous finds from antique and thrift stores. I thought I was in Goodwill heaven.

Wooden boards, wire baskets, deep bowls, shallow bowls, prep bowls, plates, platters in all shapes, colors, sizes and textures, you name it, I’ll find it for you. Oh and I haven’t even started on the glassware. And the cutlery. And the linens. And the bunnies.

While three demonstrations may seem very little, I found them sufficient in conveying the key principles of preparing and plating a dish for a photo shoot. At the end of the day, it’s all about THE LOOK, and you do whatever it takes to produce that look. That involves a fair amount of problem-solving (especially with last-minute requests from clients), but alot of it has got to do with being a critical shopper to seek out the very best ingredients, be it meat, fish, vegetable or fruit. You’d also need to have a pretty good understanding about what food is all about, how each ingredient behaves and looks on a set, how to use it at its visual prime and to dress it up for the camera.

In Denise’s words,

“Food styling is about putting different pieces of perfect food together.”

And I couldn’t agree more.

We ended the day with a short discussion about our projects. Listening to Cindie and Denise talk about the skills involved with food styling and the different challenges inherent in each shoot, the risk-taker in me decided to abandon cookies and cake and put myself up to styling and shooting curry. Up until Sunday, I had yet to successfully shoot a bowl of this delicious coconut broth, and since I’d like to give my mother’s recipes a try at some point and post about them, I figured it was now or never to transform a bowl of the spicy, brown/orange/pale green stuff into something remarkably appetizing for the camera.

Stay tuned for my next post about our shooting projects with Matt!


  1. Mm… how wonderful!

    I’ve been thinking of getting a DSLR to work with for some time, and I’ve earmarked the Canon 500D. I see a lot of people shooting with Nikon, though, and I’m wondering which is better. Do you have any advice?

  2. @Judy: Both Nikon and Canon DSLR bodies are pretty comparable in terms of quality so off the bat, my advice would be to test out each camera and see which of them you feel most comfortable with in terms of features and usability. I use a Nikon because that’s the DSLR that I started with and adapted to, so it was a matter of convenience and preference.

    You could also think about what you want to use your camera for – low-light conditions, landscape/nature photography, moving objects, etc – and look at the range of lenses that will be compatible with the body that you’re considering. I found this article comparing different Nikon and Canon models which you might find helpful:

    Hope it helps!!

  3. Oh that’s great to hear! I see so many food bloggers working with Nikons and began to think it was a trend or some sort of mandate. I’ll definitely look into this a little closer with your advice, thanks!

    • @Greg: Good question! We covered the technical aspects of food photography the next day with a hands-on photo shoot (see Part 2 of this workshop). Matt converted the studio’s garage-like door into a giant floor-to-ceiling window by sealing it with a plastic screen and filtering the light through a soft cotton curtain. Some of my classmates chose to to backlight their sets, but most of us angled our sets for lighting from the side. I shot my image with the set angled at about 70-80 degrees from the ‘window’, lighting the set from the left of the image. I didn’t use any foam boards or reflectors as the curtain did a good job of ‘softening’ the light.

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