10 ways to add wow factor to your tabletop food styling

When it comes to food styling, working with raw ingredients and plating up delicious meals topped with the perfect garnish is just half the challenge. While the food might be the focus, the art of crafting an engaging food story is just as much about what’s happening around the plate. If you want to take your viewer on a delicious journey the narrative begins with how you set the scene, starting with the backdrop and the items you use to style your shot.

When it comes to crafting compelling food stories, Christall Lowe from The Style Tales knows a thing or two about scene building. Christall is an expert food stylist and food photographer, and a whiz in the kitchen who specialises in creating detail rich, moody photographs with a lot of depth. She is resourceful at finding ways to add warmth, contrast and texture using everyday items, without taking away from the star of the shot (the food!) and we are lucky to have her sharing her expert tips with us.

10 ways to create textural, detail rich, dynamic food images:

1. Get creative with your backdrops

Almost anything can be a suitable surface for styling food. Sometimes you need to look at things with a new set of eyes, and also realise that the camera itself has a different set of “eyes” as well. What might look like a simple piece of timber may translate beautifully through the lens, so don’t be afraid to try things out.

Start with printed, hand painted or textured backdrop boards, vinyls, large floor tiles from your tile store, and layer them on the floor or on top of an existing table or bench. Even look around your own home - concrete back door steps can be sprayed with water for a polished concrete appearance, your concrete path with its cracks and imperfections, your deck with its weathered timber!
Top Tip: working on the floor when it comes to overhead shots especially is quite advantageous, as you get a full view of the scene without having to clamber up ladders, or stand on chairs.

2. Salvage and recycle unusual surfaces

Look in your garage or recycle yards for rustic panels to use as backdrops. Things like old wooden doors, weathered desk tops, rusty sheet metal or even this part of an old BBQ create interesting and detail rich backdrops. Look for lots items with lots of patina - natural wear and tarnish.
Top tip: When selecting wooden items for backdrops make sure the wood isn’t too orange - orange hued backgrounds often make food look unappetising. Opt for cooler tones especially with backdrops and props, and if that’s not possible you can always alter the temperature of your image in editing.

3. Layer up your linens

Use samples and swatches of interesting fabrics as linens. Drape them over your table, under plates, or around the sides of dishes, or hang them in the backdrop to add more texture to your scene. Don’t be afraid to let them be scrunched or wrinkled as the shadows created in the wrinkles add more depth to your scene.
Top Tip: When placing fabrics think “grace and flow” - you don’t just want to have a solid piece of fabric underneath a dish as it’s not contributing to the scene at all. You want it soft looking, and with some movement - and even better if it cleverly draws the eye to the main focus dish.

4. Knitwear for your table

Look past the traditional style table top linens for interesting fabric textures. Blankets and knitted fabrics can add beautiful pattern and warmth to your photo. Try using a knitted sweater or scarf from your wardrobe for a cosy feel. Scour second hand shops for knitted jumpers, baby blankets, aprons and vintage linen. Scrunch it in store and see how it looks!
Top Tip: To make your fabric stay “scrunched” in your food scene, particularly if it’s stiffer or thicker, simply dampen it.

5. It’s what’s underneath that counts

Add layers to your photo for added depth. Kitchen basics like scrunched up baking paper are a simple and inexpensive way to add an extra element. Layer smaller dishes upon larger dishes, and add even further layers with foliage in the foreground (or background of a front on shot), or a chair popping out from under the table.
Top Tip: Think about how to add layers to your dish - in an overhead shot a sprinkle of powdered sugar over apple pie, flour over dough, sauce or cream over pudding, a dollop of yoghurt and a sprinkle of pumpkin and chia seeds over muesli - all create extra layers and contrast.

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6. Jump in the frame

Add a human element. Hands in shot can really make an image come to life, and can add to the storytelling.
Top Tip: Set your camera up on a tripod if you need to use your own hands in the shot. Get your scene styled and all of your camera settings sorted, then either use the self timer to fire off a series of shots at once, or use a remote (or your smartphone and the relevant camera app) for shots that only need one hand.

7. Add tension with triangles

For a more dynamic image remember the rule of triangles. Place your dishes in an uneven triangle to create visual tension.
Top Tip: Leaving negative space (empty space) around a third or more of your image draws the viewers eye to the main event - works a treat!

8. Your platter matters

Second hand, rustic and vintage items can make ideal serving ware. Look for items that look worn and loved, again with lots of patina, even if they are no longer suitable for baking!
Top Tip: Try to avoid shiny or reflective items as it will either produce glare, or will reflect your surroundings. This is why matte ceramics and older, tarnished silverware are ideal.

9. Indulge in some shadow play

Take advantage of direct, natural light to cast interesting shadows onto your scene. The light creates interesting patterns and adds another dimension to your photo.
Top Tip: put masking tape on your window for a “lattice” window effect, or a vase of foliage in the direct sunlight to cast shadows over your scene.

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10. Make a mess!

Don’t be afraid to add layers of raw ingredients or break off crumbs.
Top Tip: Be strategic about placement, you still want some negative space in your shot, so don’t feel the need to fill up every single space. Have the crumbs and raw ingredients  falling “naturally”.

You can see more of Christall’s images on her Instagram account @christall.lowe and visit her online at The Style Tales.  If you’d like to know how Christall got into food styling and photography you can read her latest post about How it all began on her blog, and read more about her creative process in our interview Serving up stylish food stories with Christall Lowe