Secrets of a Food Stylist

Greek Baked Eggs
Greek Baked Eggs

One of the most popular photos I've ever styled is of a dish called Greek Baked Eggs. It's been pinned again and again on Pinterest since it was posted a year ago, and continues to be pinned everyday. The photographer Chia Chong and I were working on an article about backyard chicken farmers and all their quirky beauty for our blog, Salted & Styled. We got great portraits of the farmers and chickens ans wanted some with the delicious eggs. I love baked eggs for breakfast because they are fast and chic, so I created this recipe.

So many people are posting food pictures these days. The most successful food images are those that tell a story. Every element in an image informs that story…surfaces, dishes, flatware, fabrics. The talent comes in knowing when to stop, and that just takes practice. Take a lot of shots and play around. Make sure the food is fresh and lovely. Most importantly, shoot where there is light! Move your set up near a window and diffuse the direct light with a sheer fabric. You don't need to buy expensive stuff. Use what you have.

When our team travels to a location to shoot, there is always a back-story. That's why the photos are so beautiful. We are all on the same page and have the same feeling going in. For this image, we dreamed up a story about an art-school graduate-a young married woman who's trying to impress her visiting Greek in-laws. She loves to cook, but feels a little intimidated. Her favorite color is purple and her breakfast plates came from her husband's grandmother (she hoped this would score points), and the forks were a senior project she did in school. The hot and bubbly baked eggs were greeted with "ooos" and "aaahs," and one loud "Opa!" when she set them down on the outdoor table.

I think this picture appeals to so many people because of the composition, cool props, beautiful lighting, and the gorgeous fresh-from-the-oven food. I wanted people to look at it and want to be at the table-to grab a piece of the bread with their hands or use one of those interesting forks and break into an eggs. I'm selling a lifestyle, and I want the viewer to want to be a part of every photo.

People ask me all the time about what "fake" things I use when styling food. My answer is always, none. Fake food in food styling is old school. I can spot an image that has fake food in it a mile away. It's kind of like spotting fake boobs. I time everything so the food is just finished prior to dropping into the shot. It may need a little make-up or "lift" -i.e., a spritz of water or a brush of oil. Maybe some rolled up pieces of paper towel underneath to add height. There are tricks you learn as you go along, but any home cook could figure them out if they just thought about it. Take a roasted turkey. Picture your holiday turkey…it's plump and shiny from basting. We recreate that perfect moment. We photograph it slightly undercooked otherwise it might be dry. Adding a little brush of vegetable oil here and there mimics the beauty found right when you baste it.

On a professional job, the main thing is to be prepared and have lots of choices. I was once on a commercial shoot and I had somewhere close to 200 hamburger patties and the same amount of find the single perfect burger. (After the shoot, we took the leftovers to a food bank).

Don't be afraid to ask for advice. The first time I talked my way into a job on a big national commercial (I had no business being there), I was working on a cheeseburger, and I couldn't get the cheese to melt the way I wanted. There were 27 clients watching me on a monitor and a crew of about 20. So, I excused myself to the restroom and called a super talented stylist friend who talked me off the ledge and taught me about simmering a little water and gently dipping the cheese in it for a couple of seconds before laying it on the burger. It looks super-melty and perfect. Sometimes, you just fake it until you make it.

Libbie Summers is an award-winning cookbook author, blogger, and culinary producer whose body and body of work is all food-inspired.