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What It Takes to Get "The Beauty Shot," As Told By a Food Stylist

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Readers of various food media sources are well-accustomed to images that are deemed "finished," which have already gone through some sort of editing process.

But how exactly does a beauty shot come to exist during a shoot, and—most importantly—what creative decisions do food stylists and photographers make in order to get that final shot?

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The set-up.
The set-up.

It’s funny, the circles we spin as food stylists and photographers. Invariably, both parties come to set with a specific idea about how something should be shot. The goal for everyone involved might be the same—to highlight the food, with the props, atmosphere, and light serving as supporting players—but once food lands on plate or platter, we bow humbly to its aesthetic needs.

Herein, we take away the edits, and present the various stages of one shot, in this case taken during a shoot in the Hudson Valley, at the food photographer Matthew Benson’s farm-turned-studio.

The subject: a 12-pound bone-in beef shank, which I braised for a full day in aromatics and white wine (it’s still fall, after all, and a warm one at that), just as I would have if I were serving it for a party. Since meat that’s cooked this way only improves, it’s the perfect subject to hold for a long time under lights, only requiring an occasional olive oil brush to keep its sheen.

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The journey of the beauty shot, from infancy to adulthood:

How we got there:

I approached the shot sure that this huge hunk of meat would be best photographed overhead. Our goal was to highlight the meat in its grandiosity, to give this shank as much spotlight as a turkey would get on a magazine’s November cover.

I plated it, with some stand-in garnish, just to get a sense of how it’d look, and the shank quickly made itself known that this was not the angle that would make it shine most brightly. The shank felt dwarfed, as if it were a mere (albeit extra wide) lamb shank. The perspective just didn’t read and the composition felt awkward.

Looks like it could even be an individual portion.
Looks like it could even be an individual portion.

Matthew changed his camera setup; I stood the shank upright. He took a shot, and we immediately looked at each other and smiled. The angle was indisputably more effective. From this perspective, the vertical expanse of the shank occupied about 90% of the height of the frame. And rightly so. Far better. Moving on.

For me, the question of garnish is a no-brainer. I had roasted heaps of fall produce—beets, multi-colored carrots and their tops, shallots, red onions, and parsnips—and didn’t for a moment think that these accompaniments wouldn’t add some aesthetic intrigue. Little did I know that I’d be proven otherwise (again).

Add, the garnishes did, but perhaps too much.

Styling, like writing, is an exercise in editing. And so, despite my love for the veg, I cut back, specifically on the red onions, which I found distracting:

Red onions: Now you see them (left), now you don't (right).

This felt pretty good, and we considered keeping that knife in the foreground, as a foreshadowing of what was to come.

But then I edited some more, and perhaps we went in a downward spiral, because we changed the surface. And now, its blue slate tone contrasted with the background. Compared to the image before, it felt as though it were on a set, in a contrived environment as opposed to a realistic one:

A switch to a blue-ish surface makes all the colors—and the focus—change.
A switch to a blue-ish surface makes all the colors—and the focus—change.

And so we changed the background:

What world are we in? Barnyard meets warehouse?
What world are we in? Barnyard meets warehouse?

When I look at this image, I see pretty food, a pretty surface, and a pretty backdrop (though note how there’s a split in the wood, evidence that we were just testing at this point. Had we liked the change, we’d have pushed the planks together properly). But zero synergy. The platter started feeling odd in this environment, too, like an extra element that just didn’t jive with the rest.

How to make this massive subject stand most regal? Perhaps, we thought, best to remove all distractions. Remove the now-misfitting oval platter, be gone with the garnish, and change the totally competing light-colored surface. We kept it simple and stayed within one warm, brownish color palate, which in retrospect somehow heightens the drama of the meat—an arguably drab study in browns—itself.

And—to us, at least—this worked.

Nothing but the meat.
Nothing but the meat.

Matthew framed up on a super tight shot. I poured pan juices down the length of the meat to add some shine and contribute a just-out-of-the-oven feel to our still shot.

I seasoned with some coarse salt, made sure some of the butcher knots were facing camera (a small moment of intrigue), and hit the wooden board with some crisped rosemary needles from the roast, trying to garnish without overthinking. Somehow, perhaps thanks to Matthew’s skillful manipulation of light, the deep tannish color of the bone picked up the lighter highlights of the meat. The background felt cohesive and nearly warm, complementing the sturdy wooden board beneath the roast.

Doesn't look as natural when you take a step back, does it?
Doesn't look as natural when you take a step back, does it?

And so, our lesson was one in simplicity. But only in the process of overthinking were we able not to overthink. It’s not always the case that we stylists and photographers happen upon the most obvious answer in our creative dance, but when we do, it’s a particularly welcome slap in the face.

Tags: food styling, photography, beauty shot, hero shot, hero image, lamb, lamb shank