Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Food Styling - It's What I Do

Photo Courtesy of Skorpil Photography

I guess it's about time to post an update as to what I do now.  Last September, I attended the AFBA Photography Camp hosted by Kristin Sheppard. It was a wonderful 101 class packed with many wonderful nuggets of information. It was in this class that I met one of the speakers, Melissa Skorpil of Skorpil Photography. Her warm professional smile and honest approach to teaching the tricks of the trade begged me to ask her if she ever used interns on her photo shoots. She said "sure" and the next week I was off to a shoot to follow her around and assist wherever needed.  By the end of the shoot we quickly realized we worked well together. I'm not sure if it's her positive energy that first drew me in or her extremely professional ability to be precise in capturing what the client's requests are.  Either way, I was excited to tag along any chance I got. After our first shoot together I confessed to her that I really had no desire to do the actual photography and that my heart was really in styling food. Call it coincidence or good timing  (I call it a blessing) but she happened to be looking for a full time stylist.  I quickly delved back into all of my food styling books. Though I had been styling for years, there were a lot of tricks that I needed brushing up on. Melissa has been teaching me her tricks on every job we do and I teach her what I know. We work with an amazing assistant Rachel Bendixon, whose calm spirit adds so much to the zenergy on each set. The three of us have melded together quickly and our shoots have been so smooth that Melissa one day referred to us as her "dream team".

What is a typical day of shooting like? There is no "typical" day, which is why I love this job so much. Every client has different and specific needs. On some shoots, I am recreating "chef prepared" plates. On others, I have to bring in a full kitchen and spend hours the day before preparing food for the shoot. You might find me on the ground with a paint brush on one job or in a chair with an embossing tool melting strands of cheese on another. I often get asked what it is I do as a food stylist. When it comes to food, the question might be more like "what is it that I don't do with food?"  Another subject I get asked about more often then not is the actual photography.  I want to make it very clear that I am NOT the photographer. These are two entirely different jobs.

So what am I? I'm a food stylist! What do you do all day? I carefully and artfully arrange food, I make sure that the perception of aroma and taste get in every shot the photographer takes. I use creative freedom to express a story with food. And at the end of the day, if I've made my photographer happy - and ultimately the client happy - then I have found joy in what I do, There is something very comforting in knowing what career you were meant to do in life. So now, after running a bakery and a catering company, working on film sets, writing a blog, and doing recipe development for 30 plus years, I can finely say that I have found my own inner peace within the food industry. I'm jus' sayin'!

Recently, I worked on a shoot that required hours of preparation beforehand as well as a long shooting day. To help answer the question about what a food stylist does, I thought I would include a rough breakdown of what I did for this particular job, most of which is typical for any shoot, and even though this is an incredibly rewarding job, there is still quite a bit of work involved. 

All jobs require a pre-shoot meeting with the client and photographer, usually the week before the scheduled shoot date. These meetings generally consist of strategy building, a discussion of potential props to be used, and the shoot schedule. I always put aside a minimum of 2 hours for this meeting.

Shopping & Props: If I am preparing the food to be shot, I'll need to visit the grocery store. Another common stop is the fabric store if small back-drops are necessary. Depending on the job, I may also need to visit specialty food stores, along with whatever stores may have the specific props being used in the shoot.  Luckily, I have a pretty large inventory of props and rarely have I had to go and buy new items. Time allocation for this will vary based on the scope of the shoot.

Prep: All food that needs to be cooked beforehand, needs to be done the night before. Most studios do not have usable kitchens, so I have to figure out what can be pre-cooked that will still look fresh on the set. For instance, for this particular shoot I needed scrambled eggs. I brought my single burner hot-plate and skillet to the shoot so that I could make them fresh. However, I made the chili the night before. I also prepped all my garnishes and "add-ins" for the chili the night before. This advanced preparation took about two hours.

Scrambled eggs made fresh on set.

Craft Services: Our shoots often go on for a full day and we are generally not able to simply leave for lunch. For this particular shoot, we were starting early enough that breakfast was also required. I placed orders for coffee and breakfast tacos so that I could pick them up on the way to the studio in the morning, and then later called in lunch orders for the crew. I also packed an extra plate of snacks that I put out for the clients while they waited in between shots.  Always make sure you ask in the pre-shoot meeting if any of the people going to the shoot have any dietary needs - nothing's worse then turning a vegan client off with a turkey sandwich for lunch. Time spent ordering, picking up, and putting out the food was about 30 minutes.

Prep My Styling Kit: In preparing for a shoot, I go over the shot list the night before and pack all the tools (utensils, cutting boards, etc.) that will be used, as well as any extra tools I think I might need, into my "kit". My kit is simply my toolbox - it contains everything I might need on the set.  I also double check that all my props are packed and triple check that I have plenty of garbage bags, paper towels, and make-up sponges as I always seem to go through plenty of these on every set.  I generally like to pack as much as I can in my car the night before. Doing so makes it easier to get going in the morning and helps keep everything organized. This prepping and packing usually takes about an hour.

Morning of shoot: Pull all of the refrigerated items out and get them in an ice chest. Once again, review the shot list - I do this because it's so easy to forget something. Get showered and dressed - wear black so you don't reflect light while the photographer is shooting.  Pick up the coffee and tacos pre-ordered from the day before. Get to the set and prepare to start schlepping. Depending on where the shoot is, parking may be an issue.  Remember that the further away the car is parked, the farther everything in the car must be carried. After all of the boxes, props, and kits are inside, I start setting up my make-shift work station. This usually takes 30-45 minutes.
Tray of Stand Ins and Heroes

Once my prep station is set up, the real fun begins.  I start by getting the first "stand in" ready for lighting. I then go back and work on the "hero". Once the hero is ready, it goes to the set to replace the stand in. I make sure to have a tray nearby with tools like tweezers, paint brushes, and eye-droppers in case the photographer needs anything adjusted or tweaked. I count on spending at least an hour per plate, from initial styling to shooting the finished photos. Throughout this process, I am constantly working with the photographer to get every detail managed. I try to never get frustrated by what the photographer needs me to do. As stylists, we don't always see things through the lens like they do. It's easy to sometimes take things personally in this job. It's very important to understand that though we are generally very good at your craft, so is the photographer, and ultimately it is their  finished work that goes to the client. If the photographer does not like how something looks or if they feel that the food needs to be manipulated, and then manipulated again, don't get frustrated. That's our job.  It's what we were brought in to do.  We keep doing it until it's perfect! If you have the privilege of working with the same photographer over multiple shoots, as I have, you will likely get to know their style and it will be easier to understand their vision with each new shoot. As with most everything, communication is key here. If the stylist and photographer are bumping heads on a set and showing any frustration then it will surly be revealed to the client and ultimately, I believe, in the finished photo. If there's a problem manipulating the food to do what is being asked then take a second and re-group. It's better to take a few minutes then to get frustrated and give up. There is always a way to make things happen. Staying calm is a key to this job!

Photo Courtesy of Skorpil Photography

As soon as that first shot is finished, there's just enough time to start on the next plate while the photographer (or the assistant) is changing the lighting. This is where the zenergy must kick into overdrive.
Melissa shoots "tethered" so the client can approve each shot as we go along. Having an assistant like Rachel who knows her way around a camera, computer and a studio is essential to a strong team.

After several plate changes, it's time to eat lunch. Make it quick, but take time to talk with the client.  I find that the more I get to know them the better I am at getting their vision across in the styled dish.
Then it's back on the set for the second half of the day. Prepare to stand more then you sit. Prepare to be up and down on your knees as some shots are close to the floor. Stay hydrated - it's easy to forget when in the work zone.

Tweezers and paint brushes become your "go to" tools of choice for small details.

There are a few additional things that I try to adhere to when on a shot. Keep it light but professional! In the attitude, the music, and the work. Being flexible goes a long way. Never forget that clients are in the room, so don't start chatting about any personal problems around them. Remember the first client is the photographer, try and understand exactly what their vision is for each dish.  If the photographer says they see a small hair or imperfection, trust them, they want to give the client a perfect shot, not give you a hard time.

When it's time to clean up, I like to go by the Girl Scout rule "Leave the site cleaner then you found it." If I made a mess I clean it. I take all garbage out of the facility.  Essentially I want the client or studio we rented to never know we were there by the time we leave.

For me personally, I always take a deep breath when I've loaded up my car and say a little prayer of thanks for another wonderful day of  learning working. A day of being blessed to be on such a wonderful team. And thankful for the clients that are so unique and fun to work with. On my way home, I think about how the day went and if I would have done anything different.  I also dream about someone else making dinner...
What you don't see is cubes of styrofoam under the chili and tomatoes and pintos placed specifically in the chili. each Strand of cheese is hand placed with tweezers.
Finished photo courtesy of Skorpil Photography
To see more beautiful pictures of food that I have styled, follow Skorpil Photography.
Interested in taking beautiful pictures like these? Or want to know more tricks of the trade? Then I suggest taking Food Photography classes at Precision Camera here in Austin. Melissa will teach you some of those tricks of the trade and you will have the opportunity to put what you learn to immediate use when you take your own photos from 6 different photo bays that I style in the class. To see more updates on photos by Melissa follow her on facebook at Skorpil Photography. And if y'all want to keep up with my adventures in styling, you can follow my girlgonegrits facebook page.