Taking beautiful food photographs isn't as easy as it seems. But with a few tips and tricks of the trade, you can make your food look like its best self. Join us for our Food Styling Workshop this August and our team of food stylists will give you the inside look at how we prep, plate, and shoot all the photos at Food52.
Though the salads did not present the same technical difficulties (no melty puddles of chocolate ice cream here), they had their own idiosyncrasies: Nearly every plate is round (booooring); the dressings that make the leaves lush also wilt them; and there are so many different components that all need to be displayed (but which are often lost to the bowl's depths).
Well, after messing with sixty of them, we've finally learned a thing or two. Here are our best salad-styling tips (and we hope they'll help you if you're photographing a salad, or just serving one at a party, too):
1. Half the battle (and the fun!) is sourcing the ingredients.
For many of the freshest, most beautiful salads—especially those in the summer salads family—the most important part of styling is sourcing ingredients: the reddest tomatoes from the August farmers' market; arugula with personality; tiny, thin-skinned cucumbers that slice into coins.
But since we couldn't source every ingredient locally, we would choose our "stars"—the ones where careful sourcing would make a visible difference (most frequently, these were raw, or finicky, or the hero of a photograph)—and then track the top contenders down, always buying extra. (And, all this searching means that if you ever need to know where to find the best-looking produce in the New York City metro area, shoot us an email.)
Once we had procured the finest specimens, it was all about keeping them happy: When we ran out of refrigerator room, we filled coolers with ice in order to keep our greens and herbs cool (and calm, and collected).
2. Put dressing where it matters; otherwise, leave it off.
Dressing makes delicate greens wilt and sog—but it also makes salad delicious. So what's the solution for a salad that you want to look both lively and well-dressed?
First, move quickly. But also, take the dressing "on the side." We'd mix the ingredients gently, with our hands, in a large bowl—or build the salad directly on the plate—and apply the dressing carefully, with small spoons or fingertips, to leaves that caught the most light: These are the areas where glistening dressing is most prominent. (We'd also strategically drop dressing blobs on empty areas of the plate—a dressing suggestion.)
Of course, with grain salads—which we wanted to look well-dressed and shiny—or with hearty, massaged greens, the same rule did not apply.
3. Some salads get by with a little help from a friend.
And by friend, we mean an egg, or a piece of bread, or a big distraction.
You know those salads we referenced above? The kind where, as long as you have beautiful ingredients, the dish will, as we say, "style itself"? These are not those.
These are salads that veer mushy and skew brown—the lentil salads, egg salads, crab salads, shrimp salads of the bunch. For these fellas, delicious but not outwardly gorgeous, accessorize with any number of "real lookers" that are sensical additions: bread slices or hunks; crumbled, shreds, or dollops of cheese; rips of herbs; a poached, fried, or soft-boiled egg. The bonus is that these dazzling add-ons will probably make the salad taste even better, too—and thus, your photo is now helpful serving suggestion.
4. Let the sunshine in(to your bowls).
It's likely, and also logical!, that you serve large salads from large, deep bowls. But when photographing salads, shallow bowls with shorter sides are ideal: Without the high sides casting shadows, light can flood the inside of the bowl and highlight all of your ingredients.
And the same holds true goes for single servings. You might eat your portion of salad out of a big old mixing bowl IRL, but for photography's sake, we're going with a plate.
We love these low-sided bowls so much, we gave them a pet name: "blates" (that's bowl + plate). Here is a shortlist of our favorites:
5. Coarsely ground pepper and flaky salt are regular salt and pepper in stage make-up.
While you might not add pebbles of pepper and shards of salt to your salads on a regular basis, these are the seasoning sizes that show up best on camera. Think of them like stage make-up: exaggerated accentuations you might not wear (slash eat) in real life, but that look normal when viewed from a distance (or in a cookbook).
6. Color outside the lines.
Don't let the shape of the plate define or restrict the shape of your salad. Let your greens fly free! Most salad plates are round (though not all), but the actual salad need not be laid out in a tight circle to match.
Loosen up your salad, and break up the boundaries of the plate, to make the pile of leaves, grains, and proteins look more relaxed (and more appetizing)—a good tip for if you're serving a salad at a party, too. (Or, plate the salad in a deliberately not-round shape, to stand in opposition to the plate.)
7. Smaller portions read better.
Take a close look at some of the photographs of salads (or pastas) on Food52 (and elsewhere) and you might think to yourself, "Would that be enough food to satisfy anyone?"
And the answer is probably not. But smaller portions—where the components, with their distinct shapes and colors, can have some breathing room—make for more easily-identifiable ingredients. That means, in a salad with croutons and bacon and pine nuts and torn mint (I have made up this salad), you can "call out" each of those delicious bits immediately upon viewing the image.
If you're taking a photo of a salad for Instagram (or to send to your mom), serve yourself a little, fuss with it, then plop down a more reasonably-sized portion.
8. Cats are great helpers!
This is a real tip. Your cats can help you style salads and edit recipes. Just look:
Our newest cookbooks come out on April 11—but signed copies are available for presale right this instant.
We're re-running this post in celebration of the books finally being available for the world!
What are your favorite salads based on looks alone? Tell us in the comments below.