We all have those friends on Instagram: the ones who find it absolutely essential to share pictures of every home-cooked dish with their virtual pals across the country. There’s nothing wrong with getting excited about posting a photo of a recipe you put extra TLC into, but sometimes they just don’t translate well on screen. “This picture doesn’t do it justice” is something we read often online, but there are little ways to ensure your food looks absolutely irresistible—whether you’re snapping a quick Instagram pic or setting the table for dinner guests.
Taste of Home Lead Food Stylist Kathryn Conrad knows a thing or two about ensuring every recipe we publish looks totally delicious—while still looking real. Here, she shares the “three C’s” of making food look as incredible as it tastes (and makes me pretty hungry while she’s at it).
The Three C’s of Food Styling
When it comes to plating recipes, Kathryn stands by the “simpler is better” rule of thumb. “Plain white dishware or white dishware with a simple color on the rim and no pattern automatically gives you a great canvas for your food,” she says. “Busy, high-contrast patterns and colors can compete with your food and steal its natural visual appeal.”
Going further, Kathryn explains that the crisp white background helps make the food you worked so hard on become the real star of the show. “Envision a slice of hot, juicy blueberry pie on a pale ivory-colored plate with a thin red rim.” (Don’t have to tell me twice.) “Some deep blue juice is oozing out onto the plate, dotted with delicate flecks of crust that have broken off the golden homemade lattice crust. Now, picture the same slice of pie on a blue plate with a red and ivory paisley pattern. Or a red plate zigzagged with ivory and blue. The colors are the same—but now it’s hard to focus on the luscious pie.” Try out her tip with any of these fresh blueberry recipes.
Both to your taste buds and to the eye, a little contrast adds a lot of interest. “Think about chopped salted peanuts on ice cream,” Kathryn says. “You’ve taken something creamy, cold and sweet, and contrasted it with something salty, crunchy and room temperature. You have also taken a smooth, melty mass and contrasted it with something piecey with sharp edges.”
And don’t forget about garnishes—they may add a hint of added flavor, but their fresh pop of color makes the overall dish look more appetizing, too. “For a big plate of red sauce over pasta, add a sprinkle of chopped parsley or basil and you’ve doubled the visual pizzazz,” she says. “And with crispy, salty french fries, cool, vinegary, red ketchup is perfect for a reason—it’s not only a delicious combo, but it positively pops off the plate.”
Let’s face it: Unless you’re running a Michelin Star-rated restaurant, you’re probably not plating up Tuesday night’s dinner with tweezers. The eye is attracted to what it easily understands—food that is recognizable and achievable. When you’re photographing food, you want to make it look like it really would just before someone digs in. For example, Kathryn explains that sometimes imperfection makes for a more visually interesting photo: “Ladle some tomato soup into a bowl at the stove, then cross the room and sit at your table,” she says. “Now look at the inside rim of the bowl—I bet some of that soup lapped up the sides and left a little behind. That’s what happens with soup. That looks real. Now ladle some soup in a bowl and carefully set it down like…well, like you would never do in real life. That perfect inner rim has no life to it, no yum factor.” (Totally makes sense!)
And if her imagery doesn’t make you hungry enough, Kathryn lets us all breathe a little easier by explaining how being a teensy bit messy pays off in food photography. “Imagine a double scoop of strawberry ice cream in a sundae glass. Nice. Now add a drizzle of chocolate fudge, whipped cream and a cherry. Better. Now let the ice cream begin to melt just a little, let the dish fog from the cold, let a sexy slurp of that chocolate sauce slink over the rim of the dish and juuust start to drip. BEST.” (I’m sold!)
One Last Thing
When you come down to it, the most important thing in making food look extra delicious is to keep it real. Kathryn says. “Real food has crumbs and broken bits, drips, divots and breaks. You don’t want to go too far and make things super messy, but if you let the food be what it is rather than forcing it into a formal version of itself, you will find the beauty at hand.”
You don’t have to have a mega-expensive professional camera to take beautiful pictures of food. These tips and techniques are simple ways to make your dishes pop from the screen like an Instagram star…or, with a little practice, like a super talented food stylist like Kathryn. (Start by making and photographing these gorgeous Instagram-worthy recipes.) And if you’re interested in the behind-the-scenes magic our staff makes every day, take a virtual tour of the Taste of Home photo studio.