The Language of Food Photography Part 4 | Food Styling Q & A with Tami Hardeman


Tami Hardeman food styling photos

 In part one and part two of the series we started the discussion on food photography with how to see more creatively and a discussion of the elements and principles of design. In part three professional prop stylist Paula Walters shared her tips on how to choose the right props for your images.

Today Tami Hardeman, an Atlanta, Georgia-based food stylist who works on both film and print for clients like McDonalds, Olive Garden and Coca-Cola, as well as editorial clients, answers your questions on food styling.

She started her blog, Running With Tweezers , six years ago and was recently named as one of the 50 Best Food Sites by the UK’s The Independent. You can find some of her professional work You can also follow her via Facebook and Twitter.  Welcome Tami!

You asked and Tami’s answered what you most wanted to know about food styling.

1. Is there any specific equipment that food bloggers should pick up for styling at home?


For the person at home who wants basic tools to have on hand for light styling, here is a short list of things I recommend people have:

  • q-tips (for cleaning rims and insides of plates/bowls)
  • small scissors
  • a set of basic plastic handled paint brushes (with wood handled brushes, the paint on the handles tends to chip off which can happen in your food)
  • tweezers (for poking and pulling – think of them as skinnier fingers)
  • some clear oil like vegetable or canola for making food glisten
  • small ramekins for things like oil/water/glass cleaner (for those plates which are NOT going directly to the table)
  • a small spritzer/atomizer (the kind you get at a beauty supply or drugstore) for spritzing salads or the outside of bottles/glasses
  • small squeeze bottles for applying sauce or drizzles.


2. Any tips for making food look it’s best in natural light?

Natural light is the best way to make food look most appetizing. However, if you’re talking about the harsh shadows that the sun can cause on food, that’s more photography than it is styling. Diffusing light is a way to take the harshness off and still have soft daylight. Plate to Pixel from Helene over at Tartelette is a great resource in book form for photography for bloggers.


3. How do you style food with a natural look, without making it look like it’s been too styled?  How do you get to that perfect place between “not enough” and “too much” styling?

This all comes through practice and knowing the voice of your blog/photos and who your audience is.

Each blog and each photo is different – the highly styled photos of Mowielicious touch a different audience than say Ree’s photos over at Pioneer Woman. All of them are beautiful and they all have merit and there is an audience for all of them. You’ll know when you start getting your hands dirty. One thing I can say is…practice, practice, practice. You’ll start knowing and being intuitive and you’ll be able to stop before its “too overdone”.


4. Are there any differences when styling for messier mood shots?

watercress pesto

For shots on my blog, I tend to do a “cleaner” version and then mess it up in stages. That perfectly twirled pile of pasta gets a fork in it and a twirl.

Honestly, I think the best way to make dish look properly messy and lived in is to eat it…or approximate eating it as much as you can. When I post things on my blog, it tends to be stuff that I make to eat myself so the “eaten & messy” look is a no-brainer – I love taking shots of the plates when they’re on my lunch table or in the window sill that I tend to sit in in my kitchen.


5. How do you style “ugly” food such as soups, stews, curries and sauces?

curried red lentils

I wish there was a magic answer to give you that would instantly make brown food more attractive. Unfortunately, there isn’t one.

For things such as stews, one good trick is to cook some of the vegetable/non-meat items separately or  pull some of them out before they’re completely done. Let’s use beef stew, for example: taking out (or cooking separately) some of the carrots and potatoes will allow them to have more defined texture. Then, you can place them into your dish and brush a bit of sauce on them so they look “integrated” into the plate without losing all their character and color.

Outside of that, choose light colored plates or bowls….and choose some fresh herbs or a dollop of sour cream (on chili or the like) or a spoon of couscous to lighten up the dish. I’ve done an entire styling post about “brown foods”, which you can find here:


6. How do you make “boring” foods that are all one color such as rice, pudding, white food, pureed soup and dips look attractive?  How can we shoot white food without losing its texture?

Garnish, garnish, garnish…or make it pretty with interesting plateware.

Some recipes, while they taste good, are inherently flat and uninteresting, visually. Things like pudding or rice pudding need some texture so creating texture in the dollops is always helpful. Beyond that, sprinkle things with chopped herbs, powdered sugar, a bit of cinnamon, chopped chocolate – cue to something complimentary in the dish and try to distract the eye from the boring-ness of it.

You could also make it more interesting by the plating – a really interesting vessel to serve it in. Place the spoon in the bowl or cup. Use different ways of serving to jazz it up. There are no rules that says it has to be served in a bowl – put the pudding in a small jar with the spoon in it. Multiples of those kinds of things are always nice & add interest to a boring looking dish.  I tackled egg salad in a styling discussion that I presented at BlogHer Food, which you can find here.


7. How do you style foods that need to be shot very hot or very cold and that cool or melt quickly?

I wish I had an easy answer to give you – some magic spell – that would allow you to reverse the laws of nature and science and all and transport us to a land where cheese never congeals and ice cream always stays firm. However, there is no such thing. Time, patience, practice and extra product is really the only way to get the shots you want.

Try different cheeses on pizzas until you find one that doesn’t get greasy or translucent as quickly – unfortunately, those are usually cheeses with lots of artificial stuff in them.

For ice cream, scooping your scoops ahead of time and setting them on a plate or baking sheet will let them set up and buy you some extra time in front of the camera – just use an off-set spatula to lift them into the dish and start snapping photos. You could also harden them on dry ice but that’s getting into professional grade stuff there.

Ice cream and cheese & cheese pulls are tough stuff even for stylists so don’t be hard on yourself. Just be patient and practice a bunch.


8. How do you approach styling a salad to make sure that the ingredients look fresh and don’t wilt once the dressing is added?  When do you add the dressing and how?

Salad with Shallot Vinaigrette

When I style a salad, I look at the recipe and decide whether the dressing is important or the salad ingredients themselves should be the focus.

If the most interesting thing about the salad is the dressing, I’ll either brush the leaves with a bit of the dressing or toss them – once the dressing is on, though…you’re on the clock and there isn’t a magic solution besides shooting quickly – an example of a post on my blog is here.


fennel arugula salad


If the salad is more about the ingredients and the dressing is simple or a common recipe, I won’t bother dressing the greens. I might put it in a small bowl off to the side or in the background – most people know about a balsamic vinaigrette so I give them credit for knowing what it looks like and I focus on the beautiful fresh produce…or I just give the salad a bit of a spritz with a small spritzer to show moisture  for an example see my post here.


9. Are there any specific tips for cake and pastry styling to show the viewer both the finished product along with what the inside looks like?

I don’t really bake a lot in my “real life” so there aren’t a lot of pies & cakes on my blog. When I’ve done pies and such for photoshoots (I’ve done frozen pie packaging & slices on lifts, etc), there is a lot of construction involved that would render them not edible to people.

The simple fact is that a fruit pie is going to slump if you bake it and then cut it. You’d have to shoot it cold and place in the fruit to try to keep the crust propped up. Pies and cakes are comfort food and the audience reading the blog post or recipe knows that…and its more about the emotional connection and the crave of the flavors.

For layer cakes and such, I think Rosie over at Sweetapolita does a great job of playing with height and angles with her whole cakes and cake pieces.


10. How do you know what garnishes to include for a dish and where to place them?

avocado and cucumber gazpacho

My basic rule about garnishes is that they should be edible. I have never, ever understood inedible garnishes.

The garnishes should cue to something in the dish or be a complimentary flavor. For things like soups, garnishes are a good way to cue to the flavor profile of the soup and give some dimension to pureed soups for an example see here. As a personal preference, I think that parsley sprigs and such on the side of a plate (or the old school carved vegetable garnishes) are a little dated…and if you’re not using it to distract from the brownness of the food…makes your plates look a little behind the times.


11. What are the best ways to style layered sandwiches so that the filling appears visible and everything stays in place while you are photographing it?

Turkey Sandwich

I have an entire styling post dedicated to styling layered sandwiches – it’s a long one so be prepared! You can find it here:


Thank you Tami for sharing your secrets for styling “food that pleases the eye as much as the palate!”  For more great tips on food styling please visit Tami’s blog: Running With Tweezers.

(Writing, styling and photography submitted for this post by Tami Hardeman, all rights reserved 2011.)

Read Part 1 of The Language of Food Photography | Learning the Visual Elements of Design.

Read Part 2 of the Language of Food Photography | The Principles of Design.

Read Part 3 of the Language of Food Photography | Prop Styling with Paula Walters

What are some of your favorite foods to photograph?



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  1. says

    What a lovely post! So much info! Being that I just got back from Mexico City with Penny and then Food & Light last week with White on Rice and others, I am still in the soak up and absorb all I can mode 🙂

    I have always loved Tami’s blog, her photography info, and her gorg pics.

    Thanks for such a great post.

  2. says

    I sorta have a pet peeve about food styling on blogs. Blogs are not magazines or cookbooks. They are far more personal, and when done well they are a new form of art not seen in media before. Because they are personality driven.

    Though I certainly strive to have my food look good, and I believe in choosing props and environment that support the theme. Wee lit and well prepared are all givens. But if the photo takes more than 5 minutes I think the blogger has lost track of the idea that this is foremost a blog and I want to see the blogger’s POV. I want to (figuratively) see the hands of the blogger on the food. I want to know who that cook is. To me that is art. Styling often (not always) removes all of the art and gentrifies photos to the point of anonymity. Of course when it’s done well then you can’t even tell… and maybe that is the lesson in my rant. GREG

    • says

      Greg, I totally agree with you. I tire of photos in which the food is scattered with flowers and petals and herbs and am now bored with overly styled images where there is so much activity and so much going on (cups, cutlery, napkins on tableclothes, glasses and many props one would not even find on a real table when supposedly eating the food) that I tend to think these things are geared more towards the commercial than anything else. I also find that those who tend to style like this not only lose track of the food(!!!) but end up hanging on to this ‘signature’ style and repeat it over and over again. I join your rant. I would like to see not only cleaner shots but more individuality in styling. It has gotten too uniform. Thanks for starting the discussion. – BUT I do want to add that it is not because I don’t find these photos/this type styling anything but really pretty, just, as you say, overdone for a food blog and too repeated and uniform.

      • says

        You both have very valid points, and it all stems from the goals of the blogger. Those who are writing a food blog with the intention of developing a career as a photographer or stylist are much more intent on the time they put into their images and the comments the image itself generates. It is a totally different focus than a food blog where the emphasis is put on the writing and the personal interaction with the food, and a photo is a support to the story.
        What bloggers need to concentrate on, in my opinion, is being true to themselves and finding the right fit. I share my experience as a professional prop stylist assuming the reader will find a point or two that they can comfortably apply to their own work. It is not my recommendation that anyone spend hours seeking particular props or investing huge sums of money in a prop collection.
        I’m sure Tami’s goal in writing this post is of similar intention. It is defeating the purpose of food blogging if everyone gets to the point that they won’t blog if their photography is not “professional” enough, don’t you think? And how sad that would be…

    • says

      Looks like you started a great discussion with your comment, quite a few people have chimed in with their opinions too. Thanks for the great comment, I love it when a good discussion gets going.

  3. says

    This is excellent! So much to learn from. I need to get a tweezers for sure and i like the tip on boring food. We Indian cook a lot of curry and I find so difficult to make it look interesting. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. says

    A wealth of information throughout this series. I’m glad some of my questions have been answered in this post and now I’m off to follow Tami’s links to learn more! Like the tips about the tweezers!

  5. says

    thank you for compiling these useful tips! im quite green in foodblogging, so i’m amazed there is so much detailed work going into a picture-perfect dish. definitely learnt a lot reading this & i will practise, practise, practise! thanks again! =)

  6. says

    I’ve really enjoyed this series, and appreciate so much the tips you’ve offered. I’m new to food blogging and photography, so I’m constantly looking for ways to improve mine. Thank you!

  7. says

    Would it be too much if I just said ‘XOXOXOXOXOXOXOXO?’

    Hope not…this is great, useful info and I so appreciate Tami’s knowing that this is not professional styling I’m doing, this is simply preparing dinner to look as good as possible in a photo moments before someone is digging in. Only so much you can do!

    You may run with them Tami; I’m more careful, but the food tweezers I bought are invaluable!

    Thank you Sylvie…great series and what a warm heart, both of you, to share your expertise with others.

  8. says

    Tammy’s blog is THE place for me to find all the food styling tips! She is one of the most talented ones out there and is the cutest in person. I have learned so much from her and read all her posts to T 🙂
    Thanks for bringing her here Sylvie!

  9. says

    I don’t know wht you picked now for this series, but your timing is perfect! I have a few food blogs that I Look at in awe {one’s yours} I never thought that I could take photos anywhere close to these. But I am learning so much and eating up every word. Im not a pro yet bet this is giving me the confidence to break out of my shell! I LOVE this series!

  10. says

    Tami is THE BOMB!! having watched her first-hand, i know she is genuine and generous w/her knowledge and what she’s trying to achieve is to give blogger’s tools to create their own style. she and i have actually had the discussion that too many people seem to get stuck in ‘the formula’ or a ‘format’ in trying to replicate what they’re seeing other blogs – but that’s the rub – seeing how someone else styles a photo is a GUIDE and should be used as such.

  11. says

    Such great information. I love the “tool kit” per say, I’ve just added a few things she listed to my shooting equipment.

    And I have to agree, I don’t like inedible garnishes. Although I have been guilty of that in the past when I first started blogging.

  12. says

    OMG, this level of attention to detail totally floors me – I am in awe, Tami! But even if I do not go the whole hog, there are so many great tips here that anybody can put into practice. Thanks Sylvie for this series once again 🙂

  13. says

    Sylvie – thank you so much for this series on food photography! I am a very left-brained person, so styling, photography, art, and stuff like this is very hard for me. I’m way too literal and structured! Thank goodness my photographer is right-brain! But, he’s not a food photographer, he’s a nature photographer so we are both having to learn food photography. The information you have provided here is wonderful and I’m sure I will be re-reading it many, many times! Thanks!