as pretty as egg salad: a food styling post November 5, 2010

As many of you know, I was asked to speak at this year’s BlogHer Food conference. I was completely floored & totally flattered. Then…I heard who I would be speaking with and I almost fell out of my chair. I would be sitting alongside two amazing food stylists whose work I truly admire: Adam Pearson and Delores Custer. Our topic of food styling, as it turned out, was one of the most anticipated sessions of the conference & I hope we delivered on everyone’s expectations. I know the three of us had a great time taking part & sharing with all of you.

After the panel was over, I had many people come up to me – or email me or hit me up on Twitter – saying that my part of the presentation was really helpful to them. I had put together what seemed to be kinda goofy slideshow of how a shot developed for a blog post as a step-by-step discussion. In racking my brain to think of a subject that might be a photographic challenge, I came up with one recipe: egg salad. It wasn’t inherently pretty and it was a blank canvas to shoot however you’d like. Since so many folks have asked me to do a post about that presentation, here it is. As I encouraged in the panel itself – please leave comments, ask questions, or send me an email if you wanna chat. Also, do let me know if you find this useful and maybe I’ll make doing such posts a regular occurrence on RWT.

As with most sandwich salad recipes, you first think to put it between two pieces of bread. I had some dark, seeded bread at home so I thought it would be a good contrast with the lightness of the plate I chose & the color of the egg salad. If this were a recipe for the bread or a product review, this shot might work. However, my recipe was the egg salad…and you don’t see it in this photo. From here, I started thinking of ways to highlight the recipe I’m talking about: the egg salad.

As I was brainstorming about my next move with this shot, I kept looking at the sandwich and focusing on one single thing: that seed on the front of the bread. It was so different in color from the rest of the bread that it’s placement made it look like an accident rather than an enhancement to the sandwich topper. Sure, you could just photoshop this out but one of the rules I’ve learned as a food stylist is trying to get the dish as close to perfect in camera before you depend on post-production. The seed had to go. Also, please no comment about my John Madden photoshop scribbles.

The next logical step to be was to try to gussy up the sandwich so it wasn’t all bread. Adding a splash of color here was really helpful to break up the heaviness of the bread. Still, though, this was more about the bread and not the salad recipe. Also, the green was just being weighed down by the bread and looked like arugula fangs instead of a beautiful garnish. It was time to rethink the bread thing altogether.

Now we’re on to something. While the handful or arugula is a little unwieldy, it definitely opens the shot up and focuses more on the egg salad. Showing tuna/chicken/egg salad in an open face presentation is a great way to showcase the recipe. One of the points I made sure to make at BlogHer Food is that if you are developing a recipe for your blog, as opposed to a client in a paid gig situation, that recipe is yours to feature however you want. You’re allowed to editorialize it and show the world its merits however you see fit – you’re not limited to stuffing it in between two pieces of bread. That rule applies to recipes of all sorts.

So I kept going with the open faced theme and started thinking about tea or party sandwiches. I also went overhead with it, which I try almost every time I shoot something these days. Penny de los Santos said – either in her IFBC talk or on Twitter – to try different perspectives on shots while you’re shooting. I think overhead makes some foods look really graphic and interesting. In this case, it certainly shows off the egg salad. It’s just…a little boring, though.

Keeping in mind how much the touch of green added to the shot but also knowing that too much is going to overwhelm the recipe, I went with a little smattering of chopped herbs. This does two things here: it is a colorful touch that breaks up the uniformity of the recipe…but it is also another visual cue to the herbs in the recipe. I had some leftover thyme and tarragon, so that’s what I used as my sprinkle of garnish. It adds a cue to freshness that really helps with the egg salad.

Adding a little to the plate makes it much more editorial and casual. While I went a tad overboard for the sake of example, you can see that sprinkling the herbs on the plate makes it a shot you’d see in a magazine vs. a shot you’d see in an ad for the mayonnaise or a recipe card for a product. We’re back to the overhead shot, which I think is really working here. At this point, I have the direction for my final shot in my head…and I’m going to show you the last few shots that led me there.

Since I was on the way to changing out the surface I was shooting on, I took the cream colored fabric out from underneath the plate I was styling on and set it down on the table. Seeing the white plate & the contrast with the darker wood surface confirmed to me that I needed more contrast in the shot as a whole to make the thing I’m selling – the egg salad recipe – really pop. See how changing the surface totally altered the look & feel of the photo?

Whoa! Yeah…when I said I was changing it up, I meant it. Taking everything I’d learned in the 21, 366 shots I’d taken so far, I realized that a wood cutting board or surface would really be an interesting contrast with the darker bread blending in a bit and then the pop of the egg salad on top. I kept the herb garnish because 1) it’s totally adding value to the shot and 2) did I really want to pick 344,999 pieces of chopped tarragon off these sandwiches with tweezers? I felt like I was almost there with this shot but the angle still wasn’t quite right.

Just having a piece of fabric under the surface I was shooting on – in this case, a cheese board from CB2 – helped mask the main table top I was working on. I originally had no intention of showing it in the shot but I fired off a couple of frames with it situated like this and I think it would work & be considered a beautiful photo. You could certainly crop it differently to show the handle of the board or not, as well as more vs. less of the linen fabric surface. The food, however, looks great – you’re selling the egg salad, the placement of the sandwiches is random but styled, you’re seeing some cut sides of the bread as well as crust, the herb garnish looks balanced.

This was my personal choice for a final shot. For some, the herb garnish is over the top. I like the casual feeling it gives – I can see someone just taking their fingers and sprinkling this fresh touch over the food. It’s got everything I’ve been looking for in this shot: green touches to freshen up the shot, good placement of the sandwich pieces, a good contrast between the egg salad – the thing I’m selling after all – and the other elements in the shot, and the overhead perspective that I’m so fond of.

I hope that this post is valuable to those who were able to attend the session and want to revisit the information, as well as those who missed it or didn’t even know about this session at BlogHer Food 2010. This is not intended to take the place of seeing the Food Styling panel in it’s entirety – Sean was the hardest workin’ liveblogger in San Francisco that morning.  There was so much information dispensed during our session – Adam and Delores were so amazing and knowledgeable. The online roundup of this year’s conference can be found here. You can also get a livestream pass by going here.


Lana @ Never Enough Thyme Nov 5, 2010 03:11 pm

Styling and photography are such a huge struggle for me. The cooking and writing, not a problem, but I stop dead in my tracks every time I start to plate and photograph. I’m still trying to learn but it just doesn’t come easily for some of us.

This is one of the most valuable posts I’ve read about food styling. I love the way you stepped through your process, both your thoughts as you progress and showing the physical changes you made in the setup. Please, please do more posts just like this!!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks so much for the positive words, Lana. I will, after the response to this post, definitely be doing more of these posts in the future.

Dee D. Nov 5, 2010 03:11 pm

Great post! Really helps :) I suck at food styling :( Glad i found this!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks, Dee! Your blog is awesome. Just keep at it! :)

Wendy Nov 5, 2010 03:11 pm

Another fantastic post! Love the play by play how you came to the final shot. I also think we have the same day ware – English White from Mikasa? :)

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Actually, it’s a one-off plate from IKEA! :)

Broderick ~ Savory Exposure Nov 5, 2010 03:11 pm

I can only hope that will be the first of many food styling posts, T.

Kalyn Nov 5, 2010 04:11 pm

I loved this post and would love to see more. I’m a bit food-styling impaired (no imagination when it gets time to take photos!) I was so sad I couldn’t be at BlogHer but I did watch the video of your session (not quite like being there in person, but better than nothing.) Hope you will be a speaker again next year!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

So bummed you weren’t there at BHF, too, Kalyn. I hope I get a chance to speak again next year, as well!

Holly Nov 5, 2010 04:11 pm

Just mre reinforcement that I need more and better props! I also tend to stick with one set up. I need to open my mind a bit more. It is amazing the to watch how slight changes can make such a big difference. Thank you for the great example.

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks, Holly! Props are really important…and I’ve often thought about doing a post solely on plates and surfaces. I may try and add that to the list of upcoming posts. Thanks for leaving such positive feedback…

kelly Nov 5, 2010 06:11 pm

I love the logic of how that first shot evolved to the hero shot. Working with food daily and having to photo plates a lot, this sort of progression through your process is endlessly helpful and thought-provoking for me. Please continue to do these!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks so much Kelly. Look out for more of these in the future.

Lana Nov 5, 2010 06:11 pm

This was an extremely informational post. Seeing the process step by step, up close, with your thoughts along the photos, gave me courage to start playing with my food:)
Thanks for sharing (I was very disappointed I could not attend the BlogHer:( Maybe next time…

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

So glad you got a lot out of this post. I will definitely be tackling more food styling subjects soon, Lana.

Cookin' Canuck Nov 5, 2010 06:11 pm

I found this presentation so helpful at BlogHer Food. Even though I took plenty of notes, it’s really helpful to see the photos here again. Thanks for posting this, Tami.

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Your comments at BHF were one of the reasons I decided to post this on the blog. Thanks so much for your positive feedback…

Laken Nov 5, 2010 07:11 pm

This was a really helpful post!
It’s encouraging to see your train of thought.. I always get frustrated if the first few shots don’t turn out. I guess I need to learn to stick it out and work through what doesn’t work.

Thank you for this post and definitely keep them coming!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

As I said at BlogHer, it’s not like you’re using up lots of expensive film. Pixels are free…so keep shooting and practicing. :)

Caitlin Nov 6, 2010 02:11 am

Do you have any tips on lighting? If I happen to make something during daylight hours, it’s fine. But since I work full time (and have a pretty big commute), I’m often not home at all during daylight hours, and all of my shots are either blurry and yellow (from halogen bulbs) or washed out (from my camera’s flash). Any ideas for making something look awesome when the sun isn’t shining?

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Unfortunately, there isnt a magic trick to working around dark lighting. It’s either artificial light or cooking during the day. This is something many people have commented on so I will try and address the lighting issue here in the future…

Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table Nov 6, 2010 03:11 am

This is great! I’m a terrible food photog.

Your dishes always look fantastic. Thanks for the hints!!!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks, Laura. Just keep cooking and practicing…

Prerna@IndianSimmer Nov 6, 2010 06:11 am

What a great and helpful post! A new blogger like me always hunts for such tips which although seem simple but can really make a lot of difference. And the slideshow is very well elaborated.
thanks for sharing!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Prerna, your blog is gorgeous! I’m not sure you NEED much help! :)

BigFatBaker Nov 6, 2010 08:11 pm

I am SO glad I clicked your post on Foodgawker! This was extremely helpful for someone like me. I am still new to the blog world and having a hard time with this. I find my lighting to be the biggest problem though…if you have any suggestions on how to get decent lighting i’d love to hear them!
Anyways, love the photo progression, it helped a lot to see your thought process. I will definitely be thinking about this post when I go to take pictures from now on.

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks! I will be tackling some other food styling subjects in the future. Lighting is a comment that’s come up often and I’ll try and address that coming up, as well.

AmyRuth Nov 7, 2010 02:11 am

thank you! A great read and the fresh herbs “stuck” w/me as I will be blogging good some now too

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

So glad you found the post helpful, AmyRuth!

Amelia from Z Tasty Life Nov 7, 2010 10:11 am

Tami: incredibly valuable post. It’s amazing how much work goes behind making a photograph seem casual, relaxed, and NOT styled. Your step-by-step is fascinating. And BTW, egg salad is a tough one to photograph, with the white contrasting over the dark bread. Thank you for sharing your thought process!!!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks, Amelia! I will be doing more of these demo food styling posts in the future. Let me know if there is a subject you’d like for me to tackle in a post…

Joy Nov 8, 2010 02:11 pm

Very interesting! What do you use for lighting? I find that’s the hardest part for a nonprofessional photographer while shooting food – natural light is hard to come by, but yet produces the best pictures. I’m wondering, without spending tons of money, what kind of light to use if natural light is not an option. Thanks!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

This is also something I commented on in the session. I set aside days when I am not shooting to work on my blog stuff….so most of my photos are taken during the day in natural light. Many folks like the EVO lights but I have not used them before.

gary Nov 8, 2010 02:11 pm

Excellent presentation! One aspect of final shot not mentioned is that, by going back to the overhead angle, you eliminate depth-of-field issues in the food itself. Having the wood background slightly out of focus is OK, much better than having some of the food blurry — which is often a problem when not shot straight down.

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Great point, Gary! Thanks for taking the time to comment…

The Teacher Cooks Nov 8, 2010 04:11 pm

Please do more of these posts on styling. This was very helpful and beautiful.

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks, Wanda!

Sari Nov 8, 2010 07:11 pm

Wonderful, helpful and very informative post! I’m sad I couldn’t be at BlogHer Food and see the whole food styling panel. Thank you for sharing your food styling tips and I hope to see more of these posts here!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Sari- I’m bummed too that you couldn’t have seen it at BlogHer, too. Adam and Delores were so informative and interesting. I’ll be doing more of these food styling posts in the future, don’t worry!

Rachelino Nov 9, 2010 04:11 am

Thank you so much for pulling this together and putting it up on the blog. I can appreciate the time that went into it, because you translated your verbal presentation very well.

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks so much, Rachel! I’ll be doing more of these in the future :)

evanjohnson Nov 9, 2010 12:11 pm

Thanks for the overview of the process. Very worthwhile.

Would like to see a little more yellow yolk in the final shot- it got a little washed out (by the herbs?/ by the wood background?).

Before I read the title and saw the photo in the top shot, I thought “Fetta”.

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks, Evan. Very interesting point. This egg salad isn’t as “yellow” as some others but you’re right…could use a bit more oomph on the color.

Sally Nov 10, 2010 04:11 pm

The walk through was very instructive. I hope you do more of these in the future!

tami Nov 15, 2010 03:11 pm

Thanks, Sally. From the response to this post, I definitely will do more of them!

katie o. Nov 15, 2010 09:11 pm

Oh what I wouldn’t give for A) props like these and B) the daytime to take the beautifully lit shots. {sigh} Totally jealous. :)

allison Jun 18, 2011 04:06 pm

what IS your recipe for egg salad? it looks delicious.

[…] You could also make it more interesting by the plating – a really interesting vessel to serve it in. Place the spoon in the bowl or cup. Use different ways of serving to jazz it up. There are no rules that says it has to be served in a bowl – put the pudding in a small jar with the spoon in it. Multiples of those kinds of things are always nice & add interest to a boring looking dish.  I tackled egg salad in a styling discussion that I presented at BlogHer Food, which you can find here. […]

Lisa Feb 5, 2012 05:02 pm

Thanks for tips. Sometimes food is just plain UGLY and I sometimes I just don’t have the “vision” to make it prettier. But I’m slowly learning.

The Healthy Apple Feb 6, 2012 05:02 pm

This was so helpful; I love your styling and all of your photography. I’m going to email you as I’d love to chat and have been following your blog for so long … it’s amazing! xo great work and congrats on last year’s BlogHer Food panel!

Gerry @ Foodness Gracious Jul 19, 2012 05:07 pm

Fantastic post, so informative and nice to see I’m not the only one who gets ticked off by the little things like the seed ;)