I’ve been promising to do another food styling post since my last post about the egg salad – the demo I showed at BlogHer Food ’10 – was so well received. When I put the call out on Twitter to see what folks wanted help with, the majority of people said “brown food” or “ethnic foods” – dishes that tend to be slow cooked for long periods of time and lose some of their integrity. So I whipped up a pot of curried red lentils and set off to work on getting a shot going in my head – these lentils cook for a while so I had time to brainstorm.
As I was heading to my table setup near the window in the loft – we’re blessed with some great natural light for photography – ANOTHER photo shoot (for a shoe catalog) set up camp in front of my window…and proceeded to put up a giant white fabric scrim to diffuse light. It sure did its job…because it completely ruined the light for my shot. So I relocated OUTSIDE on a very windy, overcast day to get these shots done. I went through an entire bunch of cilantro – the least of my challenges – during the hour or so I worked on these images…so know I was out there freezing my booty off trying to make it work. Don’t say I don’t love you all. Here we go:
This is what we’re dealing with, folks. For these demonstration posts, I tend to go over the top and pick something that’s the extreme example. This would certainly qualify. I found this curried red lentil recipe online and had hoped it would turn out…differently. I’m not sharing the recipe here in the post because, well, it’s not great. It’s extremely thick and not as watery as I had hoped. That having been said, it certainly gets the job done in the “icky colored food that looks like glop” category.
In my head, I started the process out thinking I wanted to try and plate this on a darker plate, which is a departure for me. Styling-wise, I’m really digging the dark plates and backgrounds together and I really love the look of tonal settings…so this is where I began. The brown-ish plummy plate on a dark wood background was the springboard here. This table surface is something that I made myself – drop me a line and I’ll give you some hints about inexpensive sources for table surfaces and some ideas.
To me, adding rice or some sort of grain/accompaniment that makes sense is the first logical step in styling something like this. Let’s be honest. This is one of those types of food that falls into the “looks like crap/tastes like delicious” category that you kind of have to just…accept. So adding a side dish/rice/grain/bread to the plate is essentially trying to distract from the ugliness. I thought about doing couscous or something here but I wanted there to be a lot of contrast in color – this is totally a personal preference. With the addition of the rice, it’s certainly better but we have a ways to go.
Color. Lightness. Freshness. These clunky, clumpy foods need a little breath of fresh air to make them look appealing. I think the easiest way to achieve this is with fresh herbs. A sprinkle of fresh parsley, some chopped green onions, or a sprig of fresh cilantro is going to make all the difference in the world. It’s interesting that even though it’s a darker color than the rest of the dish, it adds a lightness that looks really refreshing. I will say that nothing peeves me more than garnishes that don’t make any sense with the dish. Putting a sprig of tarragon on top of Indian food is not encouraged.
As I was looking at the plate, I felt like it was really heavy on the right side and needed some balance. I didn’t want to add more gloppy lentils…and I didn’t want to put pita bread or something else brown on the plate. I often usually squeeze lime on my lentils or in my Indian soups so I reached for one of those. Adding that little touch on the left helped balance out the weight of the plate and added yet another colorful touch to distract from the lentils. I also like that the light seems to peek through the flesh of the lime when placed this direction and the color is really lovely.
Since this is really your recipe to show the world, why not tweak it a little bit and add something to make it work? One of my favorite Indian dishes has green peas in it…so I thought adding a few of them in this dish might help with a bit more color. I have to say that in hindsight, I *HATE* that the peas in the front are so perfectly lined up. It’s all I can look at now and on set or in another job setting, I would have totally re-arranged them or taken one or two out to break them up.
Personally, I’m a fan of lime & lemon garnish that are cut horizontally (something you see most in European & Australian food mags – an example of it here) or that look like they’ve been used on the dish. I went with the latter just to see how it looks. It still does it’s job of adding something to the left side of the plate but it feels completely different. It looks more casual – like you’re at the place setting – but the color isn’t as interesting that way. This is a personal preference again – limes & lemons are cheap so experiment with what you like best.
Since we’re experimenting…and I wanted to get to a place where it felt like we were in a table setting, I reached out for a pop of color in the napkin. Food & prop styling is all a matter of taste and preference. For me, I kind of hate napkins. Depending on the angle, they look flat and they’re always a bit too big for my horizontal shots on this blog. I’m moving away from pre-made napkins for my photos and going towards pieces of fabric that I can cut and control the size. I did like the color and the slightly ethnic feeling of this linen so I went with it.
This is just to see what this shot looks like without the napkin in it. While I like the tonal look of the fork with the plate & table, it looks a bit empty – like someone accidentally left a fork in the shot. I’m not a fan so I decided to move on.
As I was breaking down the dark wood set, I set all my stuff on the lighter surface underneath it. It was interesting enough that I picked up the camera and shot a few frames. I added some of the items that worked in the last shots and revamped the cilantro – several rounds of garnishes had blown off the top of the dish by this point. Putting the fork on the plate instead of on the surface was something I wish I had thought to do in the previous set-up – I like that it continues to do the job of adding to the plate and accenting the gloppy thing on it. It also helps give me that sense of place, which I really like in photos and try to achieve. Frankly, I would have stopped this shot right here – I’m most happy with this composition and propping. Simple with context…and I really like the airiness that having the lighter surface achieves.
Having the lighter table surface in place – and since I’m a glutton for punishment – I thought I’d do a quick re-plate and see what happens with the lentils on a white plate. Bear in mind that I’m still outside, the wind is swirling around me and most of my food has either blown off the plate/table or is becoming dry and frozen. I will say though that, as usual, putting something yucky in a white-on-white setting instantly makes it look clean and fresh.
The lentils are way past their prime now and my food shot has now become an action shot with the blowing cilantro on top…but since the fork was still on the side of the set, I threw it in back there to see if having a fork on this setup would work. I think it would if it was a plain silver utensil – the wood handle is way too heavy in this shot. I do like the ding of light that the silver tines give in the left corner of the photo. On the right, the lime is doing great things with the luminous color that the flesh is giving. Too bad the food – as well as myself – are cold to the bone and not able to take anymore photos.
In the end, I think this is my favorite of the arrangements and would have been a shot I could use on the blog. For the final shot, I would have rotated the plate a bit clockwise to see a teensy bit more lentils and less of the white rice right up front…but other than that, I’m digging it. For a future styling post, I’ll explore something like lentil soup or something seriously brown and see if the styling notes would change.
There are some ethnic food focused blogs that do a really wonderful job of styling & photography – showing the ingredients and the dishes in a way that conveys the message but still manages to be beautiful. You should visit these folks for a little inspiration: