Every picture of a frozen margarita makes me want to run to a happy hour. I don’t like frozen margaritas, mind you. But every time I see one on the page, I think “Boy, does that look good.” And I’m compelled to go order one.
There’s just something about food photography that always gets me. I’m so much more likely to order something off a menu when a colorful photo accompanies the choice. And don’t get me started on fast food adverts. We’ve all seen that ad for a juicy burger or steaming fresh pasta that makes us salivate. Hell, the amount of times I’ve seen a commercial for Olive Garden and changed dinner plans on the spot are too many count. Deep down, I know that in the handful of times I’ve visited Olive Garden over the past decade that I’ve been vaguely disappointed. But put that food on the screen and I’m transfixed, convinced that it will be the most delectable culinary experience of my life.
Which makes me wonder: How do they do that? How do they get me every time?
Simply put, good food photography is an art. It’s not easy to make food look delicious on the screen or page. We witness the end product, a tantalizing photo that triggers a sensory response. But behind the camera, there’s a whole team of people working to make that salad look as crisp, and refreshing as it is in our imaginations. And one of the most important people on that team is the food stylist.
The reality is that every major ad or cookbook recipe (that you’re going to completely ruin with your terrible cooking skills) looks amazing because of a talented stylist. Food stylists are the magicians of the food world — creating a world of perfection with a bag of hat tricks and an assortment of aces up their sleeves. It may not be real, but we’re delighted by the illusion.
In my quest to understand just how these photos could trick me every time, I talked to food stylist Hannah Canvasser about what her job actually is, how to become a food stylist, and the tricks behind those gorgeous food photos that make you so ravenously hungry (and why you probably don’t want to actually eat the food off the page!).
Good Culinary Skills Are a Must!
When I thought of food styling, I imagined a chef on every set making the food and the stylist simply arranging it prettily on the plate. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most shoots don’t have a chef on site so the stylist is responsible for executing the recipe with perfect precision.
When I spoke to Hannah she was on her way home from a shoot where she had just spent the entire day making dozens upon dozens of soft pretzels until she got the perfect looking specimen. And that’s pretty common. A stylist will often attempt a food or recipe many, many times before getting the food to turn out exactly right.
And Hannah has the cooking experience to make the food turn out flawlessly. She went to culinary school after college and worked in restaurants before deciding to venture into the styling world. “I didn’t really think that the restaurant lifestyle was one that I wanted to have,” she said. So soon after graduating, she became interested in the food styling world. It combined her love of cooking with art and lots of creativity.
It’s Really Fun to Build Layered Foods on Camera.
When I asked Hannah her favorite food to work with, she was super enthusiastic. “I love doing desserts and I love doing sandwiches or burgers or anything that you really need to build on camera,” she said.
The precision and creativity you need to make a food pop off the page enthralls her. Each layer has to be carefully cultivated to make the food look delicious.
All That Delicious Looking Food is Probably Cold As Ice.
“Generally you don’t want to ever be styling hot food,” Canvasser said. “You’re going to be playing with it a lot and so if anything’s hot it can change the way it looks on camera. You want to do whatever you can to make it staylooking hot but not actually be hot.” This involves tricks to make the food look melty or steaming without actually changing the composition of the food and causing it to melt right off into a mess. For cheese, she might use a hair dryer to melt the cheese just enough that it will stretch nicely for a slice of pizza.
There are some tricks that are pretty standard, but most of them come from trial and error.
“There are lots of tricks of the trade and those are things that you learn mostly by doing,” she said. “Just messing around, and thinking creatively while you’re there. You just have to have your box of tricks ready to do whatever you need to do to make everyone happy.”
You Have To Work Super Quickly Under Lots Of Pressure.
“Everything is so fast paced!” Hannah said. “Food is so delicate that it can die on camera so quickly,” she explained. So you have to be extremely efficient when getting the product ready for its showbiz close up. There’s a limited window where the food will look right. And because it’s food, a stylist will be sent all sorts of curveballs.
“I’m sure on almost every shoot I have a moment where I feel like things are a little crazy,” she said with a laugh.
It Can Be Really Gross.
When food has to be actually bitten into on set, things can get messy. Our actual bites leave things crumbly and gross looking. So a stylist like Hannah has to control every single aspect of the experience. “To have the bite look perfect, usually I’ll hold the piece of food for them so it doesn’t move as they take a bite,” she said. “And then I always clean the bite up to look how I want.”
“It’s not necessarily the most appetizing thing,” she admits of having to touch and style people’s partially eaten burgers and sandwiches. “Which I guess is the funny thing about styling food, it looks beautiful but I don’t often recommend that people eat it.”
Becoming Successful Is All About Networking.
Like all freelance jobs, if you want to be a food stylist it’s all about the hustle. “When I first moved to Los Angeles, I pretty much google searched stylists in LA and I started emailing and letting people know that I was here and ready to assist,” Canvasser said. She started assisting and her name slowly got passed along to other projects and photographers. Now, she’s incredibly busy, but freelancing has its downsides.
“There are definitely ups and downs,” she said. “I love freelancing. I don’t think I would be able to have a Monday through Friday 9-5 job. But the negative side of it definitely is you can’t ever necessarily know when your next job is.”
It’s a Really Fun Gig… That Most People Don’t Even Know Exists.
Hannah says at the end of the day she can’t imagine doing anything else as a career. “Because every day is different, it keeps it exciting,” she said. “I’m always learning something new and able to be creative every day. Every shoot is different.”