As a food writer and blogger, there’s an expectation that as well as being able to write about food, you’ll also be able to make it look amazing. It might appear straightforward, but believe me, after four years it’s still pretty challenging at times.
Scattering herbs, fannying around with props, getting the light right, fiddling with the settings on my camera, shooting it from every angle possible, trying trying trying to get the money shot. The one that just looks right. So would doing a course help?
I signed up to the Food Styling Course at Leiths School of Food & Wine in West London earlier this year to find out…
The sell: “Join revered stylists Sarah Cook and Jennifer Joyce on this seven week course to learn the tricks of styling food for TV, advertising and editorial, kit essentials and tips on amateur food photography and prop styling. The final weekend session will be spent styling your own dishes for food photographer Stuart Ovenden, resulting in a beautiful photo, suitable for your portfolio or professional blog.”
Who is it aimed at? In my opinion, anyone wanting a good introduction to the industry if they’re considering a career in it. But also food bloggers and writers (like me) who want to gain more confidence working with food to make it look fabulous for the camera. It’s also a great way to forge contacts with some industry experts who you wouldn’t ordinarily get to meet let alone spend a few hours with once a week.
- Sarah Cook – Food writer, Stylist & Home Economist – Freelance but formerly Food Editor at BBC Good Food Magazine
- Jennifer Joyce – Food writer, Author & Stylist
- Stuart Ovenden – Photographer, Blogger & Designer on BBC Good Food Magazine
Class 1 – Sarah Cook
General Introduction to Food Styling
Sarah described the basics about what a food stylist does, the different types of work out there and what we could expect to get out of the course. It was a friendly, down-to-earth ice-breaker session. In the final half hour we were given a supermarket ready meal and challenged to style it. This was a lot of fun and a real eye opener as Sarah explained some of the tricks of the trade from her experiences of styling these kind of products – including washing the sauce off ingredients so they can be seen more clearly on camera.
Top tips learned…
- Be organised and plan every aspect of the photo shoot on your prep days.
- Make as much as possible in advance of the shoot so you’re not trying to do too much on the day.
- Buy plenty of ingredients in case you have any disasters and need to make things again.
Class 2 – Jennifer Joyce
What makes a good plate of food? Styling and propping demo, plus what to pack in a food stylist’s kit
Not only is Jennifer is a highly experienced food stylist, but she’s a warm and inspiring speaker. I found her session fascinating and super useful. She emptied out her toolbox for us to look at, laid out lots of props and talked about trends.
As well as the usual kitchen utensils, here are some of the essential bits of Jennifer’s food styling kit…
- Tweezers for making little adjustments
- Brushes – for applying oil/glaze etc
- Hacksaws – for cutting meat
- Spray bottles – with water to refresh ingredients
- Paint gun – for melting cheese and browning
Then we watched her styling a series of dishes from kebabs to salad, pasta and hummus.
Top tips learned… so many!
- Use flat plates and super shallow bowls so the food can be easily seen
- Grind up your own black pepper so it doesn’t end up looking like dust
- Use olive oil to bring cold meats back to life with a glistening finish
- Pasta: snap spaghetti in half before cooking, stir in plenty of oil once drained so it doesn’t stick together, don’t put too much on a plate, twist spaghetti into coils with a fork and then arrange on the plate and scatter on the ingredients of the sauce so they can be seen.
- Don’t confetti-sprinkle herbs – do it in pockets
- Perk up brown food with citrus, yogurt, onion, chillies, herbs etc – just make sure it’s actually in the recipe!
- Keep ingredients chunky where possible so they can be seen on camera
- Leave some empty spaces on the plate for scattering ingredients
Class 3 – Sarah Cook
Guest speaker – Stuart Ovenden
Top practical do’s and don’ts when food styling
This was a round-table discussion session, where we’d all brought an example of food styling from a magazine to talk about. We had to think about how we would go about preparing and styling that recipe.
Most useful bit… Hearing Stuart talk about what happens on set at a food shoot and how the dynamic works between photographer, food stylist and prop stylist.
Class 4 – Sarah Cook
Demonstation and team practical – cakes, cakes, cakes – the dribble, the whip, the swirl.
Sarah’s a passionate baker and took us through lots of cake decorating techniques, as well as showing us how to split a cake in half using a piece of cotton thread. We were then thrown a challenge using plain sponge cakes, cream and fruit to make some creations of our own according to a set brief working in groups.
Top tips learned…
- Buy a dummy cake made out of polystyrene to practice your icing skills
- Use a grouting tool for smoothing icing
- Tiling tools create a great effect (see picture above)
- Get a turntable to make decorating easier
- Use silver tins to bake in, not black or your cake will colour up too quickly
- Use Elmlea instead of real cream for whipping as it holds its shape well and is impossible to over whip
- Always make double the amount of icing in the recipe – you’ll always need more!
- For piping roses use a 1D nozzle, for piping ruffles use a teardrop shape
Greek Salad Challenge Practical
We had to bring along any props we wanted to use and then use the provided ingredients to style our own riff on the Greek Salad. There were all kinds of interpretations which was great to see. I went for a plated salad to take me straight back to the tavernas of my holidays, with a modern twist of cutting the cucumbers into ribbons to make the shape of the salad more interesting to look at.
Top tips learned…
- Try not make any lines with the way you arrange food – my tomatoes above needed to be more randomly placed.
- Spray with water to keep the ingredients looking fresh
- Make sure the feta has herbs/black pepper for contrast
- Use enough olive oil to make the dish look appetising, but not so much it looks greasy
- Cut tomatoes so you can see the seeds
Class 6 – Sarah Cook
Practical – Food styling some of the classics
A series of challenges were set up around the room: Tomato Soup, Cereal, Burger and Banana Split.
We had 30 minutes to style from the brief with the ingredients and props set out. This was definitely my favourite week as we just had to get stuck in and have a go, putting everything we learned into practice. It was great to see all the different approaches the other students took with the same set of ingredients.
To get the look…
- I went for yogurt on my cereal bowls, but if you were using milk you can stir yogurt into the milk to thicken it up for the shot
- Make sure all the ingredients of your burger are on show – layering them up carefully setting each one back a little
- Don’t put too much of any ingredient on, or it’ll ooze out
- I squeezed two of the raw burger patties together and reformed them into a thicker shape before cooking
- I melted the cheese separately and then placed it on the burger using tweezers
- The bun was cooked on a griddle pan to make it look more appealing
- The burger was brushed with oil to keep it looking freshly cooked
- A good sprinkling of black pepper that’s not too finely ground
- The greaseproof paper, skewer and ketchup set the scene
Class 7 – The Final Shoot
Prepare a dish for shooting with Stuart
As summer was in full swing at this point, I decided to make a seasonal jam as I thought it would be perfect for telling a story. I sketched out my idea for the composition in advance and took along a lot of props so that there would be plenty to choose from on the day. I had a coffee pot, napkins, strawberries, fresh roses, a vase – all kinds of things that didn’t end up in the final shot. The look in the end was far simpler and let the jam do the talking.
It makes such a difference working with a professional photographer like Stuart who knows what works and how to get the light and angles just right. Jennifer was on hand to help make our visions come to life, with her experienced eye spotting that we needed a scattering of extra toast crumbs. I was delighted with the final photograph…
Final verdict on the course…
Value for money: The hefty £495 price tag works out at just over £70 per session, so it’s not cheap. This reflects the level of expertise of the tutors and top-notch Leiths name you’ll be able to put on your CV.
Would I recommend it? Absolutely yes, it gave me the time and space to practice my skills outside of my own kitchen, with industry experts on hand for much-needed advice and guidance. I loved hearing the inside stories about what goes on during food styling shoots, the useful tips and tricks, and the demonstrations were brilliant. I’ve been using what i’ve learned a lot since doing the course, and it’s made me become far more organised and thoughtful in my approach.
But if you are going to invest your money into doing this course, my advice is to get as much out of it as you can. You cannot sit back and expect to be an expert by the end of the seven classes. Push yourself forward, give things a try, ask questions and push for feedback. I’ve done a few courses at Leiths now, and they’re populated by highly ambitious students. Being a shrinking violet ain’t going to work if you want to get your money’s worth! It’s such a competitive industry after all, that you need to be ready to stand out from the crowd.
Find out more about booking The Food Styling Course at Leiths on their website