Food photography is more than just taking a pretty picture of something edible. Good food photography tells a story and brings recipes to life. Pictures of food can make the viewer relive a memory, remember how something smells, or anticipate the flavor of food. It is a sensory exercise to entice the viewer.

You don’t have a lot of time to work with food, so a little planning is necessary. Gone are the days when food photos are made with fake items. Almost everything you see in print is actually real food. Granted, the Thanksgiving turkey on the cover of your favorite food magazine might not be cooked all the way through and it has probably been brushed with some Liquid Smoke, but there’s an actual turkey under there.

Even though the food will always be the focus, there are food styling secrets to help make your photographs of food look even more delicious. Here are my 19 top tips for styling food.

1. Look for the best fresh produce.

Be picky about looks in selecting fresh produce. Make friends with the people who work in the produce department of your local grocery store so you can ask for fresh herbs from the back if the ones on the shelves don’t look at peak freshness.

2. Incorporate authentic elements into your photos.

Think about how you prepare the dish. What tools do you need? Which ingredients stand out? What are the main colors? How do you want to plate it? Can you incorporate some of these elements into your shot?

Food photography styling secrets

3. Have styling tools ready.

Keep helpful tools nearby: needle-nose tweezers, cotton swabs, paper towels, toothpicks, paint brushes, mini spray bottles, and an offset spatula are essential for cleaning up plates and getting ingredients exactly positioned.

4. Use this trick for photographing soup.

When shooting soup, place a small, upside-down ramekin in a larger soup bowl before ladling in the liquid. Solid ingredients tend to sink to the bottom, and this keeps them on the top. It also keeps your garnish buoyed.

5. Use the right sized plates and utensils.

Plates should look plentiful, so use appropriately sized plates and utensils. Salad plates, small forks, and spoons are the perfect size to make your final shot look abundant.

6. Be mindful of frozen and hot foods.

When shooting foods that are meant to be shown hot or frozen, set up your shot completely before bringing in the food. Check your lighting, have the props and garnish you need, and do some test shots with a stand-in before you bring in the star of the show.

7. Don’t be afraid to composite to create the desired effect.

When taking a pouring shot, like of maple syrup on pan-cakes, set your camera on a tripod and take multiple shots at close intervals. In post-production, make a composite to get the perfect drippy effect.

8. Use authentic garnishes.

Garnish with ingredients from the recipe, and only garnishes that make sense: Shrimp cocktail with lemon wedges goes together; shrimp cocktail with raspberries does not. Save some ingredients and place them in the frame to add color, texture, and dimension to your finished dish.

9. Use this clever trick when photographing ice cream.

When shooting ice cream, scoop the ice cream in dollops onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and refreeze the scoop completely. Add dollops to your shot as needed.

10. Test various food heights.

Play with height to enhance highlights and shadows and to emphasize texture. Pile lettuce leaves high on a plate when shooting salads. Stack brownies at an angle to show the gooey centers.

Food photography styling secrets
Food photography styling secrets

11. Mist fresh produce.

A mini spray bottle filled with water is handy to moisten leaves, fruits and vegetables and make them look fresh.

12. Be creative when cutting foods.

Cut foods to show texture. Instead of cutting brussels sprouts in half, try cutting some into wedges, thin slices, or break apart some leaves to use in a process shot.

13. Get the clean shots first.

Start with the simple and clean shots first and then work your way to messy. You can always add, but you can’t always take away. For example, get a shot of a whole cake, then cut a slice and put it on a plate. Take shots from a few different angles. Cut a few more pieces and add more plates to the setup. Add crumbs around the plates. Take a bite from one of the slices, then get a shot of a bite of cake on a fork. A fun final shot is an almost finished slice of cake or multiple plates of cake that have been eaten. You can get many different shots from one setup.

14. Chill pie and cake.

Some foods will cut and slice better after being chilled. pies and cakes will always be easier to work with if they have completely set before you shoot them. pies need to cool a few hours before you can get a clean slice.

15. Photograph the cooking process.

Don’t forget the process shots. Retain some egg shells, the coated mixing bowl and whisk, or scatter some loose ingredients around the perimeter of the shot.

16. Use these hacks for foods that lack color:

Brown foods like steak are hard to make look appetizing. Use a paintbrush to dab on a little oil to add highlights. Try slicing into the meat to show the inside or fan out slices on a plate. Add crushed peppercorn or flaked sea salt and spoon on some of the juices to add texture and shine. Foods lacking color or defined shape require some out of the box thinking to make them look their best.

17. Create your own steam.

To show steam, microwave a cotton ball soaked in water. Carefully put it behind the subject to emphasize steam.

18. Use odd numbers.

When shooting more than one of an item, group them in groups of three or five. Your eye will naturally follow a path of odd numbered items.

19. Add a sense of place to your story.

Food photos should have a sense of place. Add texture with linens, utensils, and other items to give the viewer an idea of where the food is being eaten. Add a beverage or condiment, things that enhance the story. Soup is typically served with bread or crackers, for example. Use the breadcrumbs to add some interest to a table. Take a bite of something, place a spoon in the dish, tear off a piece of baguette, butter a slice. These simple steps add storytelling elements.

Photos by Bree Hester

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Click Magazine as part of a multi-story feature on food photography. Subscribe here and never miss beautiful features like this one.

Food styling secrets from a pro photographer