What exactly is a stylist anyway? (And how can I become one?)
Photographic styling is often a misunderstood art. For those of us working as professional photographers, particularly for high-end clients, stylists represent an essential part of the team, that fulfil a key role in making us (the photographers) look good.
If you take a cursory look around Instagram, it seems that pretty much everyone with an artistic leaning considers themselves a ‘stylist’ now. It's comparative to how everyone that owns an SLR camera considers themselves a photographer also. Of course, anyone can take a photo. It is valid that a photo captured with an SLR camera on auto mode can oftentimes look very good, particularly if you’re lucky with the light. But, being a professional photographer is a whole different ball game and it involves substantially more than pressing a shutter release button.
Similarly, a genuine stylist working in the genre of food photography also has a myriad of skills. In fact, there was a time that there was usually a food stylist and a prop stylist at any high-end shoot. These days it’s more likely that the stylist will double up and take on all these duties.
In general terms, the photographer is usually (but not always) in charge of the lighting and camera angle, plus managing the client as well as the project and team as a whole. The chef is in charge of prepping and cooking the food. The prop stylist is in charge of the sourcing, selecting and general positioning of all the props and backgrounds. The food stylist is frequently in charge of sourcing the produce as well as how the food itself will be presented (or plated as we say on set). They might also be involved in the recipe development – which theoretically is an independent role in itself.
Of course, being a creative process, there are lots of overlaps. The finished image is a team effort that depends on a combination of our roles and skills working harmoniously together. Being a great team player is an absolutely essential characteristic of anyone planning on a career in food photography. There is nothing less productive than an inflexible person trying to impose their personal preferences on the rest of the team rather than tucking their ego away, to defer to the big picture. As a side note, unfortunately, any discord can quite often be caused by the client and it’s therefore necessary to acquiesce!
Another challenging part of a professional shoot is that clients can forget to factor a budget for props. While most stylists will possess quite a comprehensive collection of props — and photographers often have their own little stash also — a budget for the hire or purchase of props is a bit of an essential. If we were to recycle the same props continuously, it wouldn’t take long for images to start to look rehashed and boring.
Fashion is unrelenting and there is nothing like a dated prop to make your image look 'tots 2018’ darling! It’s also impractical for a stylist to have an exhaustive in-house collection suitable for every kind of theme or style that will be shot during the year.
Until recently formal courses in prop styling didn’t exist. A considerable proportion of prop stylists will have a background in fine art, sculpture, interior design or even clothing fashion. As well as working on food sets, they will likely have experience in propping for all kinds of still life, from tabletop to large elaborate sets – even shop windows.
In general, an enormous amount of planning is invested in a food shoot and a prop stylists job starts well before the shoot day itself. Once a concept and general style have been agreed upon, it is up to the prop stylist to gather all the elements that might be useful on the shoot day. If you’ve ever gone shopping for one specific item and worn your shoes thin in the effort, then you can start to imagine how much time this can take. Sure, we have online shopping now, but if the shoot is in a few days, you can’t risk postal delivery, particularly in Australia! Of course in this case, you’re not just looking for one specific item – you’re looking for hundreds — backgrounds, plateware, cutlery, fabrics, sometimes even furniture. Then you have to figure out how to package and transport it safely to and from the shoot location.
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On set, you have to unpack and set out all the elements in a logical display so that when an item is required it is quick and easy to source it among the myriads of other items. Next you work with the photographer and food stylist to conceptualise and build the shot. Finally, you are responsible for making sure the items are clean, packed and safely returned to their source. Often stylists will source from specialist prop hire facilities, rather than purchasing items that might only be used once.
Food stylists generally tend to have established a solid background in cooking in some shape or form, before stepping into the realm of the artistry of food presentation. Theoretically, there should be a chef and ideally a prep assistant on set, but more often than not the food stylist is expected to jump into these roles also. Food stylists need to be expert cooks, highly knowledgeable in all areas and genres of cooking and food preparation and presentation. Preparing food for eating is an altogether different process to preparing food for camera. Since a photographed dish will be assessed in such minutia and usually at a large scale, every detail needs to be perfect.
One wilted or slightly yellowed coriander leaf can be enough to make the whole dish look sad. Congealed sauce is the enemy of freshness and brown food is the bane of every camera. Dry meats are unappetising and melted desserts are unphotogenic. The food stylist is the troubleshooter of all these challenges and more.
It is the food stylists job to source the produce, define the portion size, design the visual presentation of the food and ensure that it is on-trend. They also give the food as much visual longevity as possible for the camera, regularly refresh garnishes and ensure that the food looks absolutely delicious on-camera.
With all those skilled hands on deck (chef, prep assistant, prop stylist, food stylist, photographer) you might expect to get through dozens of dishes in a day. The reality is that producing images of a maximum of 6-10 dishes a day is normal for magazine quality imagery because there is an expectation of perfection. For advertising and product packaging, you might only expect to get through 2-4 images per day.
Social media is really challenging this idea because clients demand quantity. The problem is that quantity and quality don’t operate hand in hand, so something has to give. It can be debated that the quality of many images appearing on Instagram, while ‘professionally’ produced, don’t reach close to the bar of what would be considered editorial quality work.
Additionally, clients are increasingly reluctant to allocate sufficient budget for all the personnel required on a shoot and in many cases, photographers are doing their best to absorb all the roles. Food and prop stylists have almost all blended into one broader stylist role for some time now. Stylists more often than not also cover the role that a chef might fulfil.
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Personally, I will sometimes take on the styling role for small businesses, who are producing pre-baked or raw dishes or still life for non-food products. However, if there is cooking involved, I will only work with a stylist and possibly a chef, unless it’s for my own images.
When I was shooting for PAIRED: Champagne & Sparkling Wine, (The food and wine matching cookbook for everyone), the award-winning publication that I produced with my husband, I wore all the hats together – and I celebrated if I managed to get through three dishes in a full day! The time it takes to put together a full professional-grade food shoot from beginning to end is enormous – and don’t forget, if you’re the photographer, you’re responsible for the post-production also.
On any creative shoot there has to be one person designated with the role of creative director. The creative director conceptualises and drives the overall artistic vision of the shoot. With food photography several people can potentially assume the CD role. If an advertising agency or graphic design team has been employed by the client, then the CD will come from the agency. In the absence of an external creative team, the stylist will frequently assume the CD role. Having said that, there are many photographers (like me) who have a creative background that are willing and capable. If you are shooting a recipe book for a chef, they might choose to lead the creative. When there are several people on set who all have a background working as a CD, it is critically important to be respectful of whoever has been tasked with the role for that particular shoot, and therefore not get over-involved in the decision making.
Having said ALL that, in all the descriptions above I have compartmentalised roles to create some clarity around what are the expected duties of the various team members. In reality a stylists role on each individual shoot can be completely different. The specific requirements per shoot will depend upon; the unique skill base that the individual stylist can offer to the shoot; the skills of the other team members involved; the quantity of other team members involved (which is typically determined by the scale and budget of the project); the relationship the stylist has with the client; and the experience level that the stylist offers.
If you're keen on becoming a food stylist where do you start?
The traditional way to get your feet wet is to start assisting. Initially, a styling assistant is broadly a dishwasher and gofer. For the first few times, it’s sometimes considered to be an unpaid internship style of role.
A more experienced styling assistant will be expected to help with food preparation (and to be knowledgeable about it), as well as caring for the props. Caring for props including documenting and monitoring them so that they don’t get lost, misplaced, or miscategorised, as well as duties like steaming, ironing, and cleaning.
You could also get your first break by being a shoot-chefs prep assistant. Having some basic cooking training, as a minimum, will support you in scoring a role like this.
In the past few years, formal courses in styling have started to emerge. Personally, I actually have an online course for styling in the pipeline, suitable for beginners. You can signup to my database here if you’d like to be informed when it becomes available.
Styling involves long hours on your feet — we rarely stop for a proper break — along with early mornings and late nights. There is often an inclination to put in extra time without additional reward because people get creatively invested in the results.
Outside of gaining experience with established professionals (which I’d highly recommend), you can develop your own styling ability independently. You could team up with a photographer who is at the beginning of their career, and ideally an apprentice chef or two that would love to have their food documented, and all work together for TFP (time for photos) without getting paid. This means that you all gain experience and start to develop a portfolio as well experiencing what it’s like to work under pressure, with a team. It’s as close to a ‘legitimate’ shoot as you’ll get without having to genuinely deliver for a client.
TFP relationships can be tricky to manage, even without a client involved. It’s very important to make sure everyone is in agreement about; who is paying for everything (remember, produce and props are costly!); how the images can be used; and how each person is to be credited, before you begin shooting. Don’t forget to define what happens if a publication wants to feature your work without payment. Or if it is compensated, how the money will be divided up. Ideally put together a written ‘Heads of Agreement’, so you can clear up any potential issues in advance.
When you have a bit of a portfolio together, you can start approaching one or two potential clients, and ask if your team can produce some shots for a minimal fee, so that you can learn about managing a client relationship. Approaching friends or family is an excellent starting point. Even consider a local restaurant or bakery that you’ve established a rapport with. Maybe you could try approaching a blog that accepts guest posts. There is a multitude of options.
You could also submit work to a number of sites like Food Gawker to see if your images are accepted for use. It’s an effective way to gain some insight into where you’re going wrong if they are rejected because they do usually supply feedback. In most cases I wouldn’t advocate producing content for free for commercial websites, but in the beginning, if receiving feedback is a priority for you, it can be an option.
Overall, food and prop styling can be a very rewarding and creative career, with lots of opportunities to segue into multiple or different roles. It does demand a lot of time, effort, commitment and endurance. Competition is ruthless and pay rates can be very low or even non-existent in the initial stages. Receiving another form of income while you’re making your mark is highly recommended.
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Hi I'm Fran, a professional photographer and designer based on the Gold Coast in Australia. I’m a lifelong creative, passionate about producing drool-worthy images that provoke emotion and make you hungry!
My obsession is teaching others how to achieve the satisfaction of realising their creative vision too. I also love to produce high quality visual books (especially cook books) for my clients.