Of all of the different types of food I style, two things are a re-occuring theme in my life: pasta and sandwiches. I can fluff some noodles like nobody’s business and I enjoy working with pasta…but sandwiches really are a love of mine – both to eat and to style. I’ve done them for print photography and televisions commercials – imagine a little kid flying around the kitchen holding a styled sandwich being held together with toothpicks and a prayer – and I really get a kick out of making them. Since I wanted to do another styling post during my birthday week and have a little fun while I was at it, I chose sandwiches as my subject. There’s a lot going on in this post so let’s get to it…
Okay…a few more quick things before we get started:
1) I chose very basic ingredients for this example that would be available to most people and might be common in everyday kitchens. Don’t be fussy because I didn’t do a post on how to make a mushy roasted eggplant panini look good – that’s a different show.
2) All stylists do things differently – we’re like snowflakes. This is my way. That having been said…on most shoots where sandwiches are involved…I have hours to work on a stand-in and then a beauty (called a “hero”) sandwich. I’m also not the one taking the photos as well as styling…so…I’m juggling a lot of pins here. This is about basic techniques you can apply to your recipes. Is this a loose-y goose-y way of styling a sandwich? No. Is this the only way to do it? No. Will you now be expected to make your child’s sandwich look like this? No.
3) I am not eating this turkey once this styling post is done…but my boyfriend will.
Now we’re ready to get started…
When I’ve been fortunate enough to speak about food styling, I always tell people that the styling of a dish starts with the recipe and choosing your ingredients. I don’t think anything demonstrates that like a sandwich. Each component of the sandwich needs to be thought about. In many cases, the ingredients are going raw into the sandwich and not being cooked down into another component…so each item on the sandwich needs to be as photogenic as possible. Pay attention to what you’re buying at the store to compose your sandwich. Buy the reddest tomatoes that are slightly firm – this will help in the even slicing of them. See that spritz on part of the tomato vs. the dry tomato? We’ll be coming back to that later.
There have been times where I have pulled every loaf of bread off of store shelves…and deemed them all too scrunched up and wrinkly to use and asked for flats of it to be brought out from the back. The rub is – a lot of prepackaged bread has labels that cover the parts you really need to see. You’re looking for even distribution of the bitties on top (I prefer darker wheat bread but this all depends on your recipe), a smooth crown and a notch in the side. Just remember – in theory, all you need is two pretty pieces!
Lettuces and greens for sandwiches always do well with a little swim in an ice bath. It shocks them and perks them up so they stay friskier longer. If I know the sandwich might be sitting around for an extended period of time, I try and buy myself some more time with adding a little Fruit Fresh to the water. You might know Fruit Fresh from old-school canning days….but it works well in keeping greens and other veggies from turning brown from oxidation. When buying your lettuce, take a good look at the edges. A nice tight ruffled edge free from brown spots is optimal.
This is a peek at a simple styling tray I keep on set – this is very similar to every other tray on my shoots. I tend to just keep stuff with me that I need in order to keep a space clear to work. Some things to keep handy – some brushes for dusting away crumbs and brushing on a little oil, small scissors from trimming away jagged edges of meat and bread, an exacto knife (in case i need the big guns), tweezers for making adjustments, wooden skewers for holding things in place (you’ll see those in action later), canola oil for adding moisture – it’s edible/won’t poison anyone and it’s colorless unlike olive oil, and windex/glass cleaner in case I need to clean off the edges of a plate. Needless to say, if this is something you’re feeding to anyone on said plate, skip the windex step and just wipe the plate down.
So I’ve chosen my “beauty” breads – they’re well matched in shape, not puckered on the top and have the notch I’m looking for on the side. For things like sandwiches, which may have to be moved around or slid onto the set once you do the initial build, I like to make them on a paper plate or a cutting board. That way, once you’re done fussing with it, you can slide it off into place. I’m also, at this point, deciding from which angle or perspective I’m going to style the sandwich. I’ll make most of the styling decisions based on which direction the sandwich is facing the camera.
One of the most grueling parts of food styling is being on your feet all day and being hunched over a work/prep table. When I have the chance to lift the work space up, I do. Anything like an apple crate, a small cooler, a footstool or a large can will give you another 10-12″ so you’re not killing your back. For the shots in this post, I used a tall glass vase to place my work board on.
Being organized and having your components prepped gives you a huge advantage going into any shot but especially so when dealing with produce that will wilt or brown and meats/proteins that will change color as it sits out. Using a mandoline for your sliced produce eliminates any uneven cuts on tomatoes and cucumbers. For the meat component of my sandwich, I chose a high quality name brand smoked turkey. Having the slightly darker edge on the sliced meat helps give you definition in your folds (which are coming up). As much as I hate to say it, the better the quality of the meat…the tougher it is to work with. Freshly cut turkey or roast beef from your deli doesn’t have as much water content and fillers as the cheaper pre-packaged stuff…so it will tear and break apart more easily than the cheap stuff. You’ll just have to practice working with it and find a brand that makes you happy.
I’d say the main issue with sandwich photos is that the sandwiches tend to look flat and lacking dimension. That’s where the folds come in. This is the fun part, folks. Everyone does theirs differently. I tend to go two ways with mine…and mix it up as I work with the product and get going with the sandwich. One way to approach it is the laid down wavy fold. This is pretty self-explanatory. Just kind of gently lay it on the bread and make a wave. Easier said than done, huh? It takes practice so just be patient.
The other way I go about it is making a cold cut “rosette”. Remember those origami paper fortune tellers from middle school? I always think back to those when I’m making rosettes. You can make the waves and folds as wide or as narrow as you want and the thickness of the folds helps get some height on your sandwich. A few layers of those and you’re rockin’ and rollin’.
Here is a close-up shot of one of these foldy rosettes. The flowery looking thing is deli sliced turkey. The things that look like ham are actually my fingers. Also – if anyone knows a lotion company that would like to be my sponsor, please advise.
Once you get the hang of making the foldy waves, start putting them up front in the area that you’re focusing on as your perspective. This technique is for shooting a whole sandwich. If you cut this sandwich in half, all the wheels are going to come off. I often have to style two individual halves instead of easily cutting one in half. See how there is motion and height going on? We want that.
I like keeping the lid or top piece of bread nearby so I can periodically pop it on just so I can judge the progress and not be surprised by styling the sandwich all the way, topping it and then realizing it’s not working. I’m also trying to visualize the other components of the sandwich on top of the meat. You don’t want the sandwich to be outrageously tall (or maybe you do but just keep it real). Keep in mind the other items you’ll be putting on top of the protein portion.
Despite the angle that I’m shooting the sandwich from, I like to make sure the entire bottom layer is covered. The edge that isn’t showing doesn’t have to be as photogenic as the front but having an even layer helps build an even foundation for all your other ingredients. I should say…that you can absolutely change the order in which you place your ingredients. Want to put your meat rosettes on top of the lettuce? Do it. I’m just doing this as a basic guide so go crazy with your own recipe.
Here is a fun little trick: DIY Swiss Cheese. You certainly do not have to make your sandwich with Swiss cheese. I chose it for this demo so I could show you this trick. When you buy pre-sliced Swiss cheese…sometimes you just don’t have a Swiss cheese “hole” – the thing that really cues to Swiss in your recipe – where you need it. You can easily take a pastry tip (or anything else small and round – teensy cookie cutter? Sure.) and cut out a hole closer to the edge of the cheese. Voila!
I’m starting to get into my build now and here is where the wood skewers become way handy. You can also use toothpicks for this and they’re certainly handier…but sometimes I find they aren’t tall enough – with a skewer, you can cut it to the height you need. They also tend to poke through the top piece of bread way easier than a thicker skewer – the bread tends to just rest on top. You don’t have to keep the skewers in but in the effort of keeping one layer in place as you add another on, it’s a lifesaver. Once you get your build done and feel like your sandwich is solid, remove them if you want. Another given – if you’re serving this to someone, please please please take the wood picks out.
The tomatoes being tethered to the picks allows you to make slight movements with the slices even once things are on top of it. You can also just lean them up against the skewers and they’ll be propped up and not fall off the back of the sandwich. For the lettuce, I just use the front ruffly part and discard the tough, lighter colored end. Don’t worry about seeds and crumbs and such as you start adding on – you’ll have time to brush that stuff off and do final touches at the end.
In this instance, cucumbers could equal pickles or any other sliced veggies you have in your recipes. Using them as another layer to help fill in the gaps between the veg and the bread is a smart move. It’s another small item you can easily tweak instead of making major changes with the meat layer.
Popping the lid back on to take a peek, it’s mostly looking good except for the lean off the back side of the sandwich at the top. The top piece of bread needs to be settled in and smooshed down a bit to look natural and integrated with the rest of the sandwich. We’ve got some gaps in the front which will fix themselves once the back corner is tilted forward.
See how much tilted up that back corner helped? Now once the condiments are on and we do a little gentle smoosh, we’ll be good. It’s got nice height, the waves are good and everything looks pretty balanced.
The traditional slather-it-on-with-a-butter-knife really doesn’t cut it when it comes to your condiments. My preferred method are these awesome squeeze bottles that I get at a local cake supply store (brought to me by my awesome friend/assistant turned fellow stylist Abby) – they have a coupler on them with inter-changeable tips. You can use a very wide tip on this if you are applying a thicker condiment or a thin chutney or the like. You could also apply your condiment or sauce with a brush and do a quick flip of the top bread to put it on. The great thing about these bottles? You can gingerly get the tip of it in there to add more sauce without mussing up the rest of the sandwich.
I just put an initial squeeze on the areas that might show with the bottle. I can always add more later. In the world of food styling, it’s easier to add more than it is to take off. Taking off usually ends up meaning “doing it over”.
Lookie there! It’s looking even…the meat looks awesome….the mustard is showing without being goopy and the produce is still frisky. It’s time for some last looks and any final touches.
A slightly elevated angle but the same turn on the sandwich shows the cheese more on the sandwich. If the cheese is a key component of your recipe then, by all means, pull it out to make it more prominent. It’s up to you as to which elements of your sandwich are most important – those are thing things you should notice first.
For a final shot, I pulled the sandwich off the board, spritzed the lettuce and the tomato (I told you we’d get back to that) and brushed any crumbs off the lettuce and tomatoes. If I was to go back and make any change to the sandwich, I would pull that back cucumber – the one that’s less in focus – around to the front a bit to center it more on the bread. Other than that, I think it looks yummy and I’d eat it. Minus the turkey.
If you’ve made it this far through the epic sandwich styling post, you deserve a reward….and I have one – at least for one lucky reader. To celebrate my birthday week and the fact that I frikkin’ love my job and love sharing it with you all…I’m giving away a styling kit. Not just some brushes….not a bottle of glycerine to paint stuff. A full on styling kit.
You’ll get this Husky (my preferred brand of styling kit bag – they’re really for construction but they’re super tough and travel/fly well) pocketed bag full of the things you’ll need to work on your food photos. There’ll be some spritzers, a few squeeze bottles, some brushes, a set of my beloved extra long tweezers, some browning liquids, some Fruit Fresh, skewers and whatever else I can think of to include between now and Sunday – the value is already somewhere around $100 and I’m still adding. You have until noon on Sunday, June 26th to enter for a chance to win. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post. Tell me what you learned (or didn’t learn), say hi or Happy Birthday – whatever you want. One winner will be chosen at random and will be packin’ some serious styling heat. Good luck everyone!
UPDATE: My dear friend Helen from Tartelette has thrown in a copy of her awesome new book, Plate to Pixel, for the winnner of the styling kit. It’s a wonderful resource for all things food photography and styling & just makes this giveaway that much sweeter!
WINNER! A winner was chosen at random at 2:30ish today. It chose comment #267, which belonged to Lauren of Celiac Teen. Congrats…and thanks to all that stopped by.