Food Styling Essentials - what's in my kit.

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15 must-haves in my food styling kit

Much of my career has been spent as a chef working in high pressure restaurant kitchens. Over the years I must have made tens of thousands of individual of plates of food look visually appealing (as well as hopefully tasting good!), under the relentless time pressure of ‘service’.
Working as a food stylist, the challenge is to make food look not just amazing, but hunger inducing, inviting, intriguing, comforting, sexy, to tell a story, to inspire people to cook, to inspire people to buy.
The scope for creativity in my food styling work is perhaps even broader than in a restaurant kitchen. Rather than an expectant restaurant customer, my styling work is seen by consumers in a variety of visual formats in many different contexts; TV adverts, magazines, press releases, ‘In Store’ campaigns, social media, - food styling is everywhere!
One of the key differences between these two lines of work is timing- in a restaurant kitchen a carefully choreographed routine brings different components of a dish together, perfectly cooked, at just the right time to allow them to be constructed into an aesthetically pleasing plate of food. In my food styling work, the time pressure is flipped right around, here the challenge is to capture the perfect image using a variety of tricks and equipment to enhance the appearance of food in front of the camera, often long after it has been prepared and plated.
Below is a list of some of the most commonly used items in my styling box that help me do this.
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1. Tweezers
Great for making small tweeks to just about anything on set, teasing out a slice of tomato from a burger bun, carefully placing perfect individual salad leaves, (or removing any unsightly ones) these are perhaps my most commonly used bit of kit.
These are actually not surgical tweezers, (they’re crazy expensive), these are sold by specialist pet shops for feeding crickets to pet reptiles!
2. Brushes
For applying oil, water, stock or glycerine to glaze or refresh the look of food on set.
3. Blowtorch
For fine tuning the colour on lasagnes, tray bakes and cooked meat or getting cheese to melt ’just’ right on cheese burgers. (Also great for setting fire to the photographer’s light boxes)
4. Drinking straws
Balled ice cream can start to ‘frost’ after a few minutes, a quick blow through a straw gently removes this and can also be used to create a melt run just where you want it.
food photography stylist manchester ice cream pizza express iceland artisana range
September 2016, Pizza Express 'Artisana' range


5. Craft knife

A decent chef’s knife is essential, but sometimes you need more precision, for example, breaking into the batter of battered fish or carefully cutting into a pie before teasing out the filling.

6. Sticky things!

Napkins that won’t stay put, cutlery that catches a glare, fruit that keeps rolling out of shot- you can never have enough sticky things on set.

Blue tack on the end of a wooden skewer is great for dabbing up stray hairs & crumbs too.

7. Beef stock pots

Stock pots are great quick fix for giving a natural glaze to meat where more colour and/or moisture is needed.

food photography booths styling recipe writer stylist manchester supermarket

Recent recipe writing and food styling for Booths supermarkets.

8. Tampons

Let’s say you’re taking a shot of a beautiful curry with some Basmati rice. By the time the dish is plated and the shot is composed, the lighting set up, the curry looking just right and the individual grains of rice placed just so. That rice is going to be stone cold. Solution? Soak a tampon in boiling water and place it out of shot behind the pile of rice - you’ve got steaming fragrant rice, looking perfect on cue.

9. Water Mister (Spray bottle)

For adding fine droplets of water, to create the appearance of condensation on glass or metal to give the viewer a visual cue on temperature. On salad, fruit & vegetables a light mist can enhance their ‘freshness’

10. Pippettes

When the rest of the shot is composed, capture the moment the ice cream just runs over the edge of the cone, the chocolate sauce spills over the edge of the sundae glass, the gravy begins to ooze from the broken into pie. Sometimes you can capture these moments naturally, but pipettes give you that extra control. These are readily available online and super cheap too.

11. Spray duster (like the ones you get in offices for keyboards etc)

Using the same background board set up for the next shot? Crumbs, cocoa powder, sugar all over everything? A blast of this is the fastest way to clear it up.

12. Cotton buds

Extra long cotton buds, (one wet to clean and one dry to remove the moisture mark) will quickly remove any unwanted spillages on props or background boards.

13. Twine

Tying things together, rustically

14. Glycerine

A little glycerine applied with a brush will give a ‘wet look’ to food that won’t dry out

15. Heat Gun

Similar uses to the blow torch but more gentle. Can be used for bringing heat back to food without the need to remove it from set. Certain foods, for example pizzas, roast chicken & pork sausages can quickly lose their ‘straight from the oven’ appearance. A heat gun can help bring it back with minimal fuss.

Click here to see more of Tom's food styling.

food photography stylist manchester props pizza express iceland artisana range
Tom's recent work for Pizza Express 'Artisana' range, exclusively to Iceland. See Red's review of the range here.
Read more about Tom's award-winning restaurants and professional experience as a chef and food stylist here.