In Defense Of Food Stylists

by Matt on March 23, 2010

A few weeks ago I was on the phone with a potential client. We were discussing photography needs for their restaurant, a spot that features natural and vegan food. We talked about how many shots are feasible in one day, what their usage requirements would be, and how many people I’d need to assemble for the shoot. Like all restaurants I work with, I asked if they’d need a food stylist.

“No, we don’t want anyone doing any tricks to the food, pouring motor oil on it, those sorts of things.”

It’s very good to know what people want, and even better to know what they don’t want. But in the course of my job and shooting food, the whole question and discussion of motor oil seems prevalent.

You’d think I was a mechanic.

When my partner Adam tells people what he does it’s usually followed with a “What? What’s a food stylist?” or “You put motor oil on things, don’t you?”  I cannot blame people for thinking this, I’m sure someone somewhere has indeed used motor oil on food. But we’re not of that generation.

When I think about it, apart from food sitting out way too long to be safely eaten, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stylist use motor oil. I discourage the use of chemicals on my set because I work fast and usually get the image I need rather quickly. Yes, vegetable oil and soy sauce is brushed for that fresh out of the oven look and many stylists I know are best friends with spray bottles, but still, this idea of fake and artificial seems to be the norm.

Can I tell you it’s not?

So then what would a food stylist do on a restaurant location shoot? They’d make sure the food was styled perfectly for the camera. They’d liaise with the chef and communicate the best way to build and position the food while maintaining the integrity of the chef’s vision.  They might advise on holding off saucing that entrée until I’m ready or may ask for extra greens and herbs since those always need to be replaced (they die quickly!). They might even get back into the kitchen and show the chef a quick trick or two for the camera, but I can tell you this: they wouldn’t finish off a plate with WD-40.

Some chefs and cooks just get it, no styling required. Chefs like Mark Peel of Campanile can create beautiful camera-ready food with seemingly no effort, just like Chef Jesse Perez of Long Beach’s Fuego restaurant. Shooting with him is like working with an accomplished food stylist, plate after plate comes perfectly from the kitchen and requires nothing.  Then there are the chefs who require a little hand-holding and editing, but if you think I’m mentioning names then you’re crazy.

My life as a food photographer certainly wouldn’t be as fun without stylists. They create the food that I photograph 75% of the time. And my life would cease to exist without a certain stylist I just happen to be married to! So as you read this, yes, food stylists have a million tricks up their sleeves from the days of hot lights, long studio advertising shoots and film, but thanks to digital and the speed in which it takes to capture an image we’re able to bypass so many of those greasy, syrupy artificial steps.

Which reminds me, I’m due for an oil change.

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{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Gaby March 23, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Touché Matt Touché

ellen March 23, 2010 at 6:31 pm

well done – no pun intended! I just was explaining yesterday that a food stylist is to be likened to an artist with oils!

Broderick @ Savory Exposure March 23, 2010 at 6:34 pm


Lauren March 23, 2010 at 6:44 pm

As humans we tend to think we know more than we do. I was pretty sure oil and whatnot was a thing of the past, but it’s always best to hear it from the horse’s mouth =D. By the way, the photo is pretty darn genius.

SMITH BITES March 23, 2010 at 7:12 pm

You and ‘a certain stylist’ are both rock stars – love your work!

Flavia March 23, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Great post! I love food styling and it’s very interesting to read what happens “behind the scenes” of a food photo shoot. Enjoy your blog very much!

mara March 23, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Amen. As an art director, I get a lot of questions about what a food stylist really does. It seems like clients often don’t truly understand their value. I couldn’t do my job without them, love them!

Peter bagi March 23, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Nice one Matt. ;)

tiina March 24, 2010 at 12:33 am

A great post!

Andrea @ Fork Fingers Chopsticks March 24, 2010 at 1:30 am

Okay Matt. I’m not married to a food stylist. So, is there a book or other resource you two recommend?

Jessica Luchesi March 24, 2010 at 4:42 am

This is a precious post Matt, thank you so much for writing it. :)

Laurel Evans March 24, 2010 at 5:54 am

Thank you! I get that all the time! And in Italy, they think that ALL American food has motor oil in it, not only when photographed…

The Teacher Cooks March 24, 2010 at 6:16 am

Loved the post!

viviane bauquet farre / food & style March 24, 2010 at 7:37 am

Matt, I couldn’t agree with you more. As a chef who is learning to take my own photographs I have to think about styling the food on the plate everytime I do a shoot. It’s not about tricks, it’s about vision. You have describe it so well.

And of course, I always enjoy your humor!

Helen Jane March 24, 2010 at 8:01 am

In another life, I would have been a food stylist — love this post.

Nancy G. March 24, 2010 at 8:27 am

Nice to see you posting again. Loved your explanation, picture and thought process, as always.

penny de los santos March 24, 2010 at 9:21 am

what he said!

Food GPS March 24, 2010 at 11:06 am

I’d never heard of the motor oil idea before, but I really hadn’t thought too much about food styling before reading this post, or listening to Susan Spungen speak at the “Julie & Julia” event. Glad to see you clear up that misconception.

Miri of Laura|Carmen March 24, 2010 at 11:51 am

Aw, this brought me right back to our food styling workshop. We learned so much… but I definitely don’t remember anything about motor oil. Yick!

David Richter March 24, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for the fun read! It definitely brightened my day of spring cleaning.

Jennifer March 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Great entry… and so very true!! Thank you.

Elliot Gould March 24, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Nice article. Do you find that your clients typically think you add non-edible elements to the food in order to make the shots look good?

Brooke @ Food Woolf March 24, 2010 at 4:54 pm

MMmmmhmmmm. I like it when you get angry. I like it when you stand up for something you believe in and set the record straight. Because you’re right, in the olden times, motor oil and marbles were the norm in food styling. But now it’s all about good old-fashioned skillz in the kitchen and an eye for fine art.

I’ve seen what kind of results Adam can get with a few well-placed toothpicks–and that sandwich was looking so much finer (and not smidge less tasty) because of it.

Chiqui March 24, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Thanks for the post Matt! Sometimes clients just need to be educated about what’s out there when it comes to making the best possible food photos. As a food stylist, I’m all for simple, fresh and natural all the way! I’ll save the motor oil for the tune-up :)

Divina March 25, 2010 at 2:33 am

Great post and insight.

Stephanie @ March 25, 2010 at 5:47 am

It is a shame at one point this is what was needed to my advertising folks to take a good photo. Let’s hope real food photos will one day take over the world. It is so much nicer knowing a photo is really food, and not something else.

Sigrid March 25, 2010 at 7:34 am

I soo much agree on this! Food styling really is one of the most underrated jobs in the world. I get to work all the time with people that just don’t seem to get that preparing food to shoot or food that someone should actually eat (I’m not even speaking of motor oil here, just aesthetics :-) are two totally different things. So I have destroyed and rebuilt more than one ‘chef’s plate before, and I’m affraid many others will follow (but hey, I should be the one doing the pictures, remember…)

Laura March 25, 2010 at 11:02 am

Matt, that was great! I’m a food stylist and while yes, I do love me some spray bottles, brushes and tweezers, I more often than not work with food as naturally as possible. A great deal of food styling is actually about positioning. Sometimes that lettuce needs a little boost from a clear cube so it sits up *just right* and the camera can see it poking out behind a piece of fish, or about blue-tacking a sliced beet at the right angle so the photographer can capture its lovely striations. I have yet to scoop Crisco into a bowl and call it ice cream, but I do so very often under cook meats and veggies so they look great, so I say Amen to your post!

Danielle March 25, 2010 at 11:47 am

I love this post, but I like the photo better. That pecan bun looks like it’s getting an acupuncture treatment!

Simone March 25, 2010 at 3:33 pm

It always amazes me too the misconceptions that people seem to have when it comes to foodstyling! Great post!

TripleScoop March 25, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Matt – that was a great post I hope that other read this and are demystified that hair spray and motor oil is NOT the tricks of the trade.

Sarka March 26, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Wonderful post Matt! About a half year ago I had no idea what a food stylist was. Then I fell in love with food photography and food styling and got several books where “old food styling” was described. Staff like motor oil, glue instead of milk etc. were described as a common food stylist equipment. Thanks to blog posts and internet articles, like yours, I got a clear vision of a contemporary food styling! :)

eva March 27, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Hi Matt, now I understand the strange look people gave me when I did a food styling for a magazine a month ago, I think they were expecting a pro with serious props, motor oil and all those tricks and gadgets :) instead there was me with a red dress carrying freshly cooked food, fresh vegetables, real cake with chocolate glaze and fresh raspberry, colourful cutlery and odd shapes plates packed in a bright pink suitcase :))) Didn’t do it on purpose, I am not really a food stylist, so I really did not know all these oil motor thing exist until I read your post :)

papawow March 28, 2010 at 9:29 am

I thought it was more Elmer’s Glue than motor oil… nevertheless it does make sense that little else besides food should be needed to shoot food. Most tomfoolery seems like it would be more work than just cooking good food to begin with. Great site, loads of info. Thanks!

Julia March 28, 2010 at 11:54 am

Good for you, Matt, in pointing us toward a clearer perspective of today’s world vis-a-vis food styling. Does your partner have a blog? If so, could you mention it in a future post? Also, I wonder if we – as the viewer – need to ‘see’ the food in as lucious ways as possible. We still don’t have Emeril’s Smell-O-Vision built into our computers, so it might be that we’re making up for the lack of smell, which is our strongest and most primordeal sense of them all. Or perhaps even trying to trigger our sense of smell by doing the styling? Whatever it is, food styling is artistry. I wish I were much better at it. But learning more about it is super. Thanks! :)

Culinary Cory March 28, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Great post. When I tell people I take food photos, they seem to immediately go the to motor oil comments. I agree, with just a few simple techniques you can take some really beautiful photos without having to raid the toolbox.

kitchenbeard March 29, 2010 at 10:00 am

I’m not a pro (yet) but people ask me what my tricks usually are and I tell them none because I can’t waste money by making my subjects inedible. Right now a pair of chopsticks, some tweezers and a roll of paper towels are more my speed.

marla {family fresh cooking} March 29, 2010 at 6:55 pm

This is a great post that follows the conversations that were shared at the FB Forum this weekend. I love that the goods can be eaten if the shoot is quick enough ;) You and Adam are a great team/couple. It was wonderful to meet him this weekend.

pita bread March 30, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Well, let’s face it, food styling is important, because when you see a pic of food looking good, you want to eat it, right? That’s the reason I always buy cookbooks with pictures – I want to see it!

Cindie April 3, 2010 at 9:58 am

I am having this printed on a tee-shirt to wear on the next shoot!

lisa April 6, 2010 at 7:17 pm

This was really funny — but hmm, I don’t recall going over motor oil techniques in your workshop. Nice article.

Samantha April 23, 2010 at 4:35 am

I’m a foodstylist in South Africa and loved this post. Chefs here do not seem to see the need or the value a stylist can add. Its an ego thing and we are often excluded from restaurant shoots. They dont get that its about how the food translates through a lens and how it performs on set etc and very often I find ‘chef styled’ food just looks like a plate of food. Next time I am asked to quote on a ‘restaurant’ job – I am going to attach a link to this post. Many thanks

Foodista November 16, 2010 at 7:18 am

LOL! This is funny.

Whatevergirl November 9, 2013 at 2:50 am

I love this, I love your blog and I love you! So great!

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