Book Reviews: Food Styling!

This weekend I’ll be teaching part of a Food Styling and Photography workshop at my studio. It promises to be lots of fun and I really look forward to meeting so many great new people. And since many of you have asked I may actually take my workshop on the road so stayed tuned! This is also the perfect time to review a few new titles on the subject of Food Styling. To say it’s a hot topic right now would be an understatement; just look at all the abundance of titles coming out. In this week’s book reviews the ever-so-wonderful Kristina Gill reviews a few titles as well as mentions some she couldn’t get her hands on just yet. The information in these reviews is invaluable I tell you! Take it away, Kristina! — Matt

My sixth grade math teacher, Mrs. Sweeney, used to get mad at us when we didn’t show our work.  She’d always say, “I’m from Missouri.  You have to SHOW ME.”  And that has kind of stuck in my character ever since.  When I started fooling around with food photography, I had many questions of Matt to ask. Sometimes he’d draw me diagrams, sometimes he’d explain it.  But then one day, I just bought a plane ticket and flew to Long Beach to work with him and Adam in person.  Matt and I have had long conversations about food styling books also.  Despite Matt’s compelling arguments on the utility of food styling books, I am still a firm believer that it’s the kind of thing I prefer to learn in three dimensions because there is a physicality to it that you can’t get from a book.  So if you have the time and resources to take a food styling class, I really recommend the experience, or if you have the opportunity to observe/assist in a photo shoot, you can learn a tremendous amount from that as well. However, I also believe in reference books, and especially in food styling, I believe in defining my work and identifying potential pitfalls before I embark on photographing.  Sometimes I photograph something and think “there’s something missing here.  This isn’t convincing.”  That’s where these two books come in.

Food Styling:  The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Delores Custer (Wiley 2010).   This, because of its enormous size and weight, will probably be called the food styling bible.  It is a comprehensive book on food styling.  Like every good food stylist, Delores is very methodical, and everything follows in a perfect logical order.  It is explained in clear concise English, and there are no doubts or what-ifs left trailing.  She goes from the choice of becoming a food stylist, through setting up your business, and concludes with a review of the transformation of food styling over the past 50 years.  There are technique and prop photos, recipes for successful on camera food (think fake ice cream, moist cake, perfect pumpkin pie).  Why do I like Delores’ book?  Because she has written it in a Problem – Solution format.  I’m not going to sit down and read this book cover to cover.  However, when I am tasked with shooting a cookie recipe, for example, I am going to look up the cookie section, learn where I may encounter difficulties and how to overcome/avoid them, and I will also learn how to make the best presentation.  You will flip through Delores’ book and think “Well I don’t do advertising photography, all of this is that perfect, slick, highly polished food.”  That’s true.  But how to represent melting cheese convincingly for the camera is a useful skill to know, whether it’s for a Lean Cuisine ad or for your blog post on images of your Nonna’s pasticcio.  In other words, this is a very useful reference book from which you can learn how to be better organized and how to improve your work.  You can also get an idea of what the life of a food stylist is like.

Food Styling for Photographers: A Guide to Creating Your Own Appetizing Art by Linda Bellingham and jean Ann Bybee (Focal Press 2010)  This book is considerably smaller and lighter (and paperback!) than the bible.  But its size does not diminish its utility.  Bellingham focused pretty tightly on the task at hand, starting first with very practical advice on how to approach each food styling session, so there is not the same level of detail in defining each food item or circumstance.  Bellingham begins with a bit about choosing props and prepping the surface on which you will shoot, all very useful when you’re doing this alone at home.  She explains what questions you should be asking yourself as you style. Bellingham’s following chapters include text boxes which highlight “Tricks of the Trade” and each set of food photography is followed by an explanation by Bybee of how the photographic effect was achieved, including a photograph of the lighting set up.  This book is therefore quite useful for the food blogger who is both styling and shooting their own recipes.  The clarity of writing is the same as Custer’s book, and it is just as organized and logical.  I have also compared notes on different techniques– such as preparing glasses for cold beverages or shooting ice cream, and their techniques are virtually identical!  Again, food styling is dealt with in this book in the context of making “perfect” food for the camera.  It doesn’t deal with how to make the imperfect perfect food that is so popular today.  All the same, I believe that you have to learn how to make something look perfect before you are able to make it look imperfect, if of course that’s the look you’re going for.  And still, many of you may decide that you are doing just fine without needing to separate your cake layers with cardboard to ensure that you space them evenly for a perfect look of the cake with a slice out of it.  You may be right.  But with either of these books, you are not only learning how to do that, you are learning what visual qualities are desired when representing types of cooking and different foods.

There was a third book on food styling released this year called Food Presentation Secrets: Styling Techniques of Professionals by Cara Hobday and Jo Denbury, which I was unable to get my hands on in time for this, which you may want to also explore.

And lastly, there’s The Food Stylist’s Handbook by Denise Vivaldo (Gibbs Smith 2010). This book isn’t out until fall so I wasn’t able to review it. However, I wanted to include it in this review so that you are aware of it and can check it out when it hits the bookstores. Matt will be teaching his workshop this weekend with Denise and he’s also a contributor to this book.


  1. says

    I had no clue there were so many food styling books out there. I have the 2nd one – Food Styling for Photographers, but I would love to get my hands on the others. Thanks for letting us know about them!

  2. Matt says

    Jessica, it’s amazing that there’s a selection of titles these days, isn’t it? They’re all excellent resources, each one!

  3. says

    Timely! About to go on vacation and this is my type of beach reading! Hope my local Barnes & Noble has one of these! Thanx! (PS wish i could attend one of ur sessions…)

  4. says

    So excited to read these. I’m getting frustrated with my lack of a thoughtful, repeatable process for styling our food. The food tastes great, and I want it to look great, too. Thanks so much for these reviews.

  5. says

    Great topic. Thanks for the reviews. Matt, let me put in my vote for a workshop in Austin!! Please, oh, please??

  6. says

    Awesome reviews. Great selection of books. I recently started reading Food Styling for Photographers. Great tips in that book. There is another one – Working the Plate which is a good book on presentation. It has some great photos and some recipes. Missing on tactical food styling tips though. Was a good read for analyzing food photos.

    Matt, thanks for sharing this.

    Kristina, thank you for your book reviews. Specially today’s selection is just awesome. Food Presentation Secrets was a great discovery for me in this post. Thank you for this great post.

  7. says

    I love well done food photography, especially when the food stays eadable (no glue, artificial colors, etc.) I’m sure these books contain be tons of great advise of how to improve my food photo taking. Thanks for sharing!

  8. says

    @Nancy – you won’t want to take the first book to the beach. Amazon says the shipping weight is 4.5 lbs but it feels like much more. It’s the heaviest book I own!!!

    @Neel – Thanks for reading the reviews and for your kind comments.

  9. says

    Hi Matt,
    Just caught your reviews of the all the great food styling books out this year. I’m the publicist for Denise Vivaldo’s Food Stylist’s Handbook (thanks so much for mentioning it) and I’d love to send you a review copy when it arrives in a few weeks.
    Email me at all your shipping details and I’ll add you to my list!

    Jennifer King

  10. says

    Yay! I was super bummed that I couldn’t come down for the workshop this past weekend – um, next time you have a workshop, I would like to suggest that you don’t schedule it the same weekend of San Francisco Pride 😉 but these books are a great resource and I’m glad you featured them!

    I actually own the first two books that reviewed here and they are a wealth of information! One thing to keep in mind with Delores Cluster’s book (which is incredibly comprehensive) is that a lot of the advice is for professional photographers and stylists, and as such, might not be as pertinent if you are blogger or a hobbyist.

    Not to say that you won’t learn an enormous amount from reading the book, but the idea of baking 100s of cookies or dozens of cakes/pies for the perfect slice/perfect hero shot is just not going to happen, and the idea of patching up cakes and pies with mashed potatoes or vaseline probably leads to the perfect shot for an ad, but isn’t really reasonable for the average blogger.

    That said, there is plenty to learn from the book on all levels. It’s an expensive book (though I think it’s worth the money, considering the depth of information given) but just realizes the book is mainly geared toward professionals and/or people who are thinking of going into the profession of food styling.

    I would recommend the Linda Bellingham and Jean Ann Bybee book to most bloggers first, and the Delores Cluster book when you want to bring your photographs to the next level.

  11. says

    I just found your blog. Where have you been all my life? I love that you host book reviews, and am now totally convinced I need Custer’s book. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction, Kristina!

  12. says

    ok. another small world moment.
    jean ann bybee is one of the photogs i have worked with here in dallas.
    i musssttt meet you one day.
    maybe on my next time out to l.a.

    you rock.


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