Brought to you by the photographers at SmugMug

The Art of Making Things Delicious

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Brooke McLay works as a food photographer, recipe developer, and food writer for Disney's, General Mills, and Good Cook. She started photographing food in 2009 on a point-and shoot camera and now primarily catches snaps through a Canon T-2i, fitted with a 24-70mm lens. As a proud SmugMug site owner and an even prouder contributor to SmugMug copywriting, we hit her up to share a few of her insights in what it takes to style food for photography and capture it in ways that make you wanna lick your lips.

Photos and words by Brooke McLay

Why food styling?

When I first started taking photos of food, I'd sit a plate on the table and shoot. I figured getting the shot about showing what a recipe looked like. It did. But, I learned quickly that a snapshot doesn't entice. It doesn't beg you to eat it. It doesn’t cause people to run to the grocery store and buy stuff for dinner.

Food photography has come a long way in the last decade. Compare cookbooks from the late nineties to those on shelves now and you'll see a movement toward natural light, less stylistic setups, very inviting organic styling which makes you feel like you're sitting at a table with a friend. This shift in food styling and food photography techniques shows our evolving approach to food. From perfectly coiffed 1950's housewife dinners to real food that looks like something you'd really want to eat.

Learning how to style versus snap-and-shoot has helped me embrace the art of it all. I already loved food, but learning how to tell the story of each recipe with the composition, color, lighting, and setup has given me greater control over my own expression. It's helped me incite and inspire emotional responses--from "damn! that cupcake looks good!" to "oh, I want to have a dinner party now". Learning food styling has helped me elevate the experience of eating from something that has to be done to something I'm excited to share. It's an art-- a truly delightful and delicious art--and is so easy and accessible (you can do it in a 3'x3' space on your kitchen counter) that anyone can start picking it up and playing around with it without busting your bank account.

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Where/how did you learn to style for your photos?

Experience, observation, and a good amount of reading. Helene duJardin's book, Plate to Pixel, is one of the simplest and best resources for jumpstarting your food photography and food styling skills. I'd really recommend nabbing that for your personal library if you're just getting started.

I tend to learn best by imitation. One of my best tricks is to pull up Google images and look at how others have photographed a specific recipe. What, for instance, are people doing with hummus? It can be a rather bland, oddly textured food. The color isn't exciting. Before shooting a hummus dish, I'll hop online and look at the way other photos have been styled. What colors, bowls, and accessories to photos really stand out to me? When I find a few photos, I'll try to set-up similarly in my studio, then start to tinker and get creative from there. In the world of creativity, we sometimes feel like we need to reinvent the wheel. I think it's more important to learn the basics first from people who know what they're doing, then learn to do basic well. Learn the ropes. Learn how to do simple impeccably. Once you master the basics, you don't have to think about them. So, you can start to focus more on creativity and less on the basic nuts and bolts.

Have you had any humorous explosions/accidents worth sharing?

Always. I look back over my photos and laugh at some of the hacks. If I'm not racing against losing the natural light as ribs cook far-too-slowly in the crockpot, I'm bulking up frosting with egg whites or cornstarch because I've run out of powdered sugar and can't bear driving to the grocery store for the fifteenth time that day.

When I was early in photography with Disney's Babble, I shot these rainbow cupcakes which took hours to prep. I handed a plate with two perfectly coiffed cupcakes to my son, asked him to hold them steadily for one second while I prepped the background. He said, "mom! What if I drop them…" and made a little motion, pretending to lose the plate. Only, instead of pretending, he lost the plate. And those two, divine little pastries landed frosting first on the floor. 

I think I sat down and cried for a full five minutes before we wiped up the frosting, bulked up whatever remaining icing there was with cornstarch and pudding mix, then wiped the little cupcakes off and iced them all over again. You can still see, if you look close, the muss of leftover icing around the edges of the cupcake. Super classy!

How much time does it actually take you to style things, per dish?

I tend to prep the photography area as I prep my dish, so photographing generally takes an additional half-hour to hour beyond however long it takes to make the food. Of course, there's also recipe development time, grocery shopping, and clean up. Which means a good food styling day is a whole day of photography, shopping, eating and cleanup. Not really such a bad gig, if you ask me.

What should motivated food photographers do to amp up their styling?

Go shopping! Having good and sexy props, hunting them down at antique stores and high end kitchen stores, hunting down pretty fabrics at craft stores…that's half the fun. Stylistic still-life photography is greatly enhanced with props that show your style, express the story you're trying to tell, or just make you plain happy to put in front of a camera.

Meet people! Food styling and photography has become my excuse to meet new, fascinating people. Local food is such a trend right now, and being a passionate foodie gives me instant conversation with local business owners. Getting to know chefs, restaurant owners, farmers, and other local food-based business owners imbues my life with passionate people and inspires me to keep capturing the beauty of a fresh-picked carrot or lovingly crafted dish of comfort food.

Have fun! Don't be safe in your styling. We can tell if you are. Toss cracker crumbs, take a bite out of that crème brulee then snap the licked spoon, throw a napkin somewhere on the table and try to set up your scene around wherever it has fallen. Keeping yourself challenged, and reminding yourself that you should play with your food lends an irresistible liveliness to your final photos. 

Keep it simple. It's easy to go overboard on props. Learn how to take a really gorgeous photo of your dish on a white background, in a white bowl first. That helps you get food styling and lighting down. Once you've pretty well mastered that, start playing with composition and color. Try shooting on all purple plates with an all purple background. Add in colorful spoons or pretty little berries or bowls. But don't even attempt to prop before you learn how to get the food looking gorgeous. Because, if I don't want to reach through my screen and take a bite, it doesn't matter how cute the bowl in the background is.

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Get weathered, reclaimed wood. And a black board. Over the years, I've decided the ideal space for basic food photography is about 3 1/2' wide by 6' long. Basically, table length. There are a lot of ways to get this done, but the fastest way to get yourself a photography set-up is to run down to the local hardwarestore and pick up a flat 2'x4' blackboard board. You'll find them in the hardware area and they make it easy to take simple, pro-looking final shots. While there, stop in the deck area for 8 Fence Backer Rails. The color "Jatoba" looks like weathered wood when you lay it out on a table, but is longer that most bits of reclaimed wood you'll find and is a lot cheaper and easier to acquire than barn doors and heirloom fence posts. Spray it with matte polyurethane to remove any non-realistic shine from the wood.

You Must Have the Must-Haves. Keep the following in your kitchen and you'll always be able to garnish the tarnations out of any final dish. A properly garnished photo can turn a basic snapshot into a gorgeous final photo!

• Parsley – chopped parsley makes any dish look like a restaurant eat.

• Mint Leaves – Place them on top of cupcakes, in cocktails, or chop them into Asian dishes for added color and enticing edibility.

• Feta Cheese – Perfect for sprinkling as a finishing garnish on soups, dips, and Mediterranean dinners, feta adds nice texture without overwhelming a dish.

•  Lemons and limes – toss sliced lemons into water for a simple background addition that looks great in final shots. Place little lime or lemon wedges to the side of final dishes to add interest and color to things like cooked chicken, pasta, or even summertime desserts.

•  Raspberries, Strawberries, or Blueberries. – Fresh berries make a gorgeous add-in for desserts or breakfast pictures. If you think your photo needs a little sumthin'-sumthin' try scattering a few berries in the background to lend a warm, welcoming effect.

• Whipped Cream – Use it as sour cream in a pinch, or pipe a small dollop on dessert photos to really make them gorgeous.

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While we're on the subject, what's your approach to lighting? How does this affect your cooking/shooting/daily schedule?

I prefer to shoot in natural light. With food photography, soft natural light makes all the difference. It keeps the colors of your food more true. It makes a meal look in the camera like it looks on the table. 

I currently shoot in a room with a south facing and west facing window. I've propped my table up to be even with the window lights, so I can have maximum brightness of diffused morning light. The best hours to shoot are from 10 am until noon. That changes a bit in the winter or on dreary days, but I aim to have food prepped and ready to be photographed between those hours, or during the last 2 hours of daylight, around 4-5pm in the winter, or 6-8 in the summertime.

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Here's a typical day when I'm shooting pics of yummy eats:

• 8 a.m. Wake-up, coffee, kids to school. 

• 8:30 a.m. Workout, walk, clear my head for creativity 

• 9:30 a.m. Pull ingredients from the fridge and start prepping. 

• 10:00 a.m. Set up the photo area. Decide the general story I'm trying to tell through my photos, then pull plates and linens that support the colors of that story. Pull kitchen tools and pretty ingredients used in the making of the recipe for possible use in the photo shoot. 

• 10:30 a.m. Cook the dish. Start setting up the photo area. Use "stand-in" bits of crumbled paper or other props to see what the photo will look like once the food is placed in the setup. Do I like it? If so, awesome. If not, tinker, play, and shift things around until I start feeling happy about them. 

• 11:00 a.m. Hot dish comes out of the oven or off of the stove. 

• 11:01 a.m. Move! move! move! Working quickly, prep and plate the final dish. Add garnish, make it look gorgeous. Place the dish into your shooting area and start snapping away. 

• 11:15 a.m. Play with props, take a bite. Move the plates to capture the best lighting. 

• 11:30 a.m. Load photos into Lightroom. Start editing. 

• 12 noon- Start cleaning the kitchen. At this point, it's a mess. Looks like a mad chef has used every pot, pan, and pretty napkin in the house. Do dishes. Throw away any food that I've left sitting on the countertop in my excitement to edit the photos. 

• 1:30 p.m. Start looking at recipes and pulling together ideas for the next day's shoot. Write an ingredient list. 

• 2:30 p.m. Hit up the grocery store and grab what's needed for tomorrow's photo taking. 

• 3:30 p.m. Kids come home from school and wonder what there is to eat. You show one perfect plate and a casserole dish with hunk removed. The kids roll their eyes and ask if they can just have a granola bar. 

• 5 p.m. Start making dinner. At this point, it's usually something quick and easy because you've already made dinner, garnished it, and set a table fit for a king. There's proof of this in your camera, but no one at the table seems too excited as they're slurping their spaghetti. 

Sigh. Some artists are never appreciated in their own time. ;)