As a chef and baker, you might be overwhelmed the first time you pick up a camera and try to capture all of your hard work on film. After all, one photo of the final product can’t communicate how much work went into preparing the food. Some foods, while delicious, don’t look very appetizing either.
Today, we’re taking a look at food styling. Food styling is the practice of making food look extremely presentable and photogenic. For large publications, a professional food stylist is hired for the specific act of making dishes look appealing and beautifully arranged. The photographs are taken by professional photographers.
Here on SerenaLissy.com, we explore the beautiful acts of both baking and conducting food photography. Here are our best tips for food styling on a budget as you take on the role of both chef and food photographer.
Multi-Use Props and Backgrounds
One of the most budget-friendly options (for any hobby) is to acquire props and tools that are multi-functional. After all, if you can use something more than once, its value increases exponentially. You’ll also be doing your part in keeping the world greener and environmentally friendly.
One of the easiest multi-use props is a great background for your food props. Think of a milky-white tablecloth setting or even a simple square foot of lace. Beautiful yet simple backdrops like this are perfect for keeping the focus on your food items while offering a piece of elegance. We have a full storage box of just fabric pieces for our prop collection. Fabrics can be used in so many different ways in your styling.
Artisan cutting boards, vintage forks and knives, and fake plants are also great options for multi-use props that are appropriate for almost any dish. Consider going to a Goodwill or other secondhand thrift stores near you for greater deals and to help upcycle.
Etsy is a great place to find artisan pieces of work that are unique and able to be used long-term for beautiful photos. You can also find affordable food photography backgrounds on Etsy. I spent so much time on Pinterest looking for good ideas or the best way to use a prop. But now I spend much more time on Etsy for these things.
Playing with Food Composition
One of the best ways to style food on a budget is to play with food composition. After all, it costs nothing to shift the angle at which you take a photo. The most classic food composition shot is a top-down shot, commonly known as flat lays.
These are taken directly above the food dish, with the lens and camera pointing straight down at the center of the food. This is a wonderful way to feature many different parts and ingredients of a dish. When going for a top-down shot, try to center your dish in the shot as it is an effortless way to spot asymmetrical parts of a dish. If you are curious to learn more about flat lay photography, take a look at our post on Ten Tips For Flat Lay Food Photography.
The Diner’s View of a dish, by comparison, is shot from a sitting angle to emulate how one would see their food if it was sitting in front of them at a restaurant. By playing with different food compositions and angle shots, you can easily create a wide variety of food shots without spending another dollar.
Plan Your Meals & Photoshoots Together
According to The Core by DMA Solutions, a publication focused on fresh marketing solutions, food photography trends are starting to lean toward readers seeking relatable and less staged content.
While food styling and photo composition still require a lot of work, viewers and readers still want to hear how the work you create relates to actual life. One of the best ways to do this with food photography is to plan your meals and photoshoots together.
Do you write a vegan-centric dinner blog? Does your cookie or cake dessert seem to be out of place?
You might be surprised to find that your viewers might appreciate a properly sectioned blog with additional topics/areas of food. Sure, it might not be the on-theme content you initially planned, but relating to your audience doesn’t always have to be themed.
Do you prefer only to share "off-brand" content on secondary platforms? Sharing casual photoshoots of food that you eat on your Instagram stories, TikTok, or other social media content can help make your main content more relatable and even bring additional people to your site.
Upcycling Food and Treats
Another great way to approach food photography and food styling on a budget is to upcycle your food items. Much like being able to reuse non-food props and backgrounds, any food and treats that can be used more than once will save you time and money (and even offer you more treats to enjoy).
Think of ingredients that can be enjoyed in different forms, preferably sequentially. For example, fresh bread can be enjoyed plain or as toast with honey, butter, or Nutella. But it can also be "upcycled" into croutons or bread pudding. I like to give my food double duty and get the most out of an ingredient.
An entire loaf of bread or a whole baguette could be beautiful for a photoshoot. But it can be hard to eat the entire loaf of bread, particularly if you’re making more than one loaf at a time.
However, by turning your bread into croutons, bread pudding, toast, and more, you can triple your food photography content while giving yourself the gift of food variety. It saves on food costs and lets you develop multiple creative ways to have your main subject appear in different photography sessions.
Other food items you can "upcycle" include fruits, biscuits, spinach, and cheese. Organize a few recipes based on how processed/in-depth the steps are. You’ll be able to identify ingredients that can be used in more than one recipe before being fully eaten.
We have fruit trees that give us lots of lemons. We recently made about five different recipes that all used lemon curd or lemon curd butter that we made from a handful of lemons. And we kept developing recipes that were utilizing the original lemon curd. A little bit of planning and having a starting point of using lemons enabled us to make multiple blog posts. As a bonus, we avoided running to the grocery store to shop for multiple recipes. You can bet every recipe had multiple shots of lemons at different angles with different lighting—some on white plates, some on dessert plates, even some on the kitchen table.
Varying The Light in Your Photographs
I’ve used natural light mainly for my food photography for many years. I have to admit the decision has come with a few drawbacks. When it gets dark, and there is little or no sunlight left, you can only take photos if you use artificial lighting. Which means spending a few hundred dollars on set-ups. The decrease in quality from not relying solely on natural sun hitting your subject also concerns me. However, despite these disadvantages, I still prefer shooting in only daylight because that's what captures the truest representation of each dish and its unique moods depending upon the time of day and weather conditions. I love that I'm able to change the setup of the shot just by changing up the place in my house to photograph. An inexpensive white poster board from home depot or your local craft store does wonders to varying the light in your photographs. If you want light and bright, use white. If you want more dark and moody, then go with black to create shadows and get a deeper feeling in the photograph.
Food Photography & Food Styling on a Budget
When it comes to food styling on a budget, finding ways to reuse props, backgrounds, and even ingredients is a great first step to reducing your costs. If you reuse recognizable props and backgrounds, your photos can start to look consistent and help build your brand.
Try using consistent colors in your props and backgrounds, based on your brand, and more. This will help you further if you choose to expand your content into different food or topics, as brand consistency can be recognized by your props and colors alone.
And one last tip, this one is so obvious I forget about it sometimes. Don't forget to do your shopping at home first. There is no sense in buying new props if you already have something similar at home. We sometimes look through food magazines for inspiration, and then I look through the props I already own to see if I have something similar. Don't overlook the good stuff you already have. It's always a good idea to take a mental inventory of what you have at home. I'm all about the great finds, but if I already have something very similar taking up space, is it really a great find?
Ready to learn even more about food photography and how to create beautiful photos? Consider reading our articles on Food Photography: Five Ways To Create Texture or Tips For Taking Great Food Photos. Or even, Five Steps to Becoming a Great Food Photographer. If you are a cell phone photographer, then check out Six Tips for Food Photography With Your Smartphone.
Five Day Food Photography Challenge
Want to take your food photography up a notch?
I’ve been photographing food for years and have learned some tricks of the trade. Join me on this 5-day challenge where you’ll learn how to master the art of food photography, one bite at a time. You’ll be amazed by what you can do with just a few simple tips. You will learn how to make your photos pop with color, texture, and lighting. Sign up today!
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