Food Styling: Keeping It Real

September 22, 2008 | By | Comments (7)

Food styling is the art of manipulating food to look a certain way.  Usually the desired goal is to make the food beautiful or enticing, although sometimes historical accuracy or dramatic effect trump attractiveness — see Big Night or Tampopo.  Whenever you see food in the media — be it in magazines, books, newspapers, television commercials, or movies — a food stylist was involved.

Approaches to food styling can vary widely. Some stylists lean heavily on artificial colors and food additives. Common tricks include painting “roasted” turkey with brown coloring, creating scoops of “ice cream” from a concoction of frozen vegetable shortening and powdered sugar, and using white glue in place of milk.

At Cooking Light, food styling means portraying the honest character of a dish. We take great pains to show our readers an accurate representation of any given dish in terms of texture, color, and portion size. Blog_pictures_015

Our photography is natural – meaning that we typically rely on sunlight instead of artificial lighting, and that we never use fake foods or ingredients of any kind. Ever.

All of the food styling in Cooking Light is done by members of the Cooking Light Test Kitchen, which means that the food stylists are intimately familiar with each recipe and its individual qualities. This helps us show you each dish at its best while keeping it real.

Sometimes "keeping it real" means repetition.  Do you know how quickly a perfectly made soufflé falls? In minutes. That means that behind every gorgeous soufflé photograph in Cooking Light there was a hardworking food stylist making the recipe as many times as it took to get the shot.


The food stylist is not a lone operator. A photo shoot at Cooking Light is a real team effort, requiring the collaboration of many specialized talents. Along with the food stylist are a photographer, a photo stylist, a food editor, and a designer from the art department. We have to consider the big picture to do a good job on even the smallest photo.

We take great pride in the images we produce. We hope they please your eye and whet your appetite.


  1. Cathy

    There definitely HAS to be a full series of Becoming Human now!

    March 21, 2011 at 2:00 am
  2. Bing

    Good job.It’s a very useful article for me ..Thank you for share this information …And I wantn’t to miss them..Thanks again.

    January 12, 2011 at 1:37 am
  3. Kathryn

    Lipstick on strawberries –eeeeew! Sounds like a punishment, but for what I don’t know.
    Isn’t it amazing how different “real” light looks?
    Thanks for your comments and for sharing your blog. KC

    September 30, 2008 at 1:51 pm
  4. Ashley

    Great post! I think it’s really honorable that you photograph the REAL food. I’ll always remember a show that I saw as a kid that followed a food stylist using lipstick on strawberries, mashed potatoes for ice cream, gluing individual sesame seeds onto a hamburger bun, etc. I thought it was cool but can’t look at food ads or commercials the same way anymore.
    For my blog, I don’t have the luxury of natural light. We have dinky windows, and it’s almost always dark when dinner is ready. I recently got a natural light bulb and put it in one of those metal lamps that looks like a bowl with a big clamp on it. It’s helped SO much – but my colors will never be as good as they are when we’re grilling outside on the weekends!

    September 29, 2008 at 8:02 pm
  5. Lindsay

    Thanks for your ideas! It’s funny– I had another stylist look at my blog, and her comments were to get closer to the food and to clean up all of the crumbs–so the complete opposite of your recs. To each his own, right!? But, I’ll try your tips and see what I get. And I am a big fan of the natural light idea, too–I even take a lot of my pictures out on my deck in that great afternoon light!! This tip is great for pretty pictures, but not so great for husbands who want to “eat already.” 😉

    September 25, 2008 at 11:36 am
  6. Kathryn

    Great question(s) Lindsay!
    I have heard of using Vegemite to darken poultry skin and I have been on photo shoots (not Cooking Light) where heated skewers were used to enhance grill marks.
    I took a look at your blog and I think you’re doing great!
    The difference between our styling and yours is a mixture of experience and repetition.
    Remember – by the time we photo a recipe it has already been through our Test Kitchen. The recipes have been tweaked to hit their peak in flavor and visual appeal – all that happens before we set out to photo them.
    AND THEN – experienced staff bring together lighting (time of day- near a window, etc.), plate colors, background textures, camera angles, AND actual placement of the food. We are also prepared to make a dish many times if need be to get the freshest, best look for the camera once everythng else is in place.
    I do have two suggestions you might enjoy trying:
    1. try pulling away from the food a bit as you photo – close enough to see detail, but don’t be afraid to move back,
    2. let things be messy. Crumbs, melted edges, sauce on a spoon – those textural details deliver tons of information about the food.
    Thanks for your questions and for sharing your blog. K.C.

    September 23, 2008 at 2:15 pm
  7. Lindsay

    Not sure if you’ll divulge this info or not, but do you know if the food stylists use things like Vegemite to improve chicken color, and whether grill marks are individuals placed using heated skewers? Both of those things aren’t artificial, but they aren’t exactly “real either.” Just wondering because I have a food blog and I’ve been to food styling classes to get ideas on how to take better pictures. Unfortunately, most of the tips included semi-natural techniques like I listed above, which don’t work so well if you actually intend to eat what you cooked! Everything on my food blog is something I made specifically for consumption (the blogging about it is an afterthought), but I’m frustrated that the “magical” styling techniques seem to always involve alterations that make the food less tasty. Argh!!

    September 23, 2008 at 1:53 pm

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