My 3 Biggest Mistakes In Food Styling

This year marks 20 years I have been working as a professional food stylist. Things have changed A LOT from my early days working on editorial articles, using film and polaroid.Then came digital, a new learning curve, and I moved onto to bigger productions, massive commercial campaigns, TVC, and motion pictures. Along the way I have learnt lessons that have been invaluable to my food styling career. Some lessons were practical; how to make the perfect roast chicken. Some lessons were personal; how to have good boundaries.  Some lessons were good business practices; how to quote correctly.
There have been mistakes along the way, some that could be fixed ( the not so perfect chicken) some required hard work to fix ( those darn boundaries keep tripping me up ) and some I simply wish I had learnt earlier !


Below are the 3 biggest mistakes I made and wish I had learnt earlier about these 3 things.

  1. I never learnt the basics of photography

I started food styling in 2002, but I never picked up, and I mean held a camera until 2017. That is not the problem though. One need not be a photographer to be a food stylist. However understanding how photography “works” is so important as it overlaps with food styling when creating a visual narrative. Learning the basic principles of photography would have stood me in good stead earlier on in my career. Understanding light is crucial to photography. In food photography the light will affect the way certain items are styled. For example, where to place garnish, or where to drizzle the delicious looking chocolate sauce on a scoop of ice cream. Understanding this principle is key to the foundation of your food image. I wish I had taken the time to study the principles of light, and other photography principles; colour, composition, negative space, balance, grouping, symmetry, leading lines etc. I encourage you to make time and effort to familiarise yourself with these basic principles of photography and how they apply to food photography. You can read a couple of articles I have articles on this blog about colour theory and composition. 


  1. I was intimidated by technology. 

Okay I still am. Anything requiring tech kind of freaks me out. I have got better at adjusting my mindset. I tell myself I don’t need to be an expert ( just enough to know what’s going on )  Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, Video editing software, gosh even now Reels on Instagram, they all make my head spin. I shied away from anything to do with the post- production of an image I helped create, believing “ it wasn’t part of my job.” Strictly speaking it wasn’t/ isn’t, yet as a stylist you create an image with a certain idea in mind,  being able to communicate that to a photographer including any expectations of the post processing involved is a huge benefit. In addition to the bigger picture and the over all look of an image, there is also a level of requirement for the smaller details. Clients will often ask a photographer to “ do that in post” or “ fix that in Photoshop.” Understanding the many hours any of these “small”requests might add onto a photographers work load will not only make you a better colleague, but definitely a better stylist and more attentive to the details. ( clean the finger marks of the plate, dust the crumbs or any unwanted bits off the backdrop etc) 


   3. I spent too much money and focus on props.

Gasp! I know! Everyone just lurves collecting props and alllllll the pretty things. My advice; Don’t do it. Take it from someone who wishes they hadn’t.
I wish I had known how to curate a collection of basic items, and had the self discipline and self control Not to get taken in by all the shiny objects. A lot of prop collecting is simply chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I have been guilty of making this mistake, thinking that having the perfect prop ( that beautifully aged tray with just the right amount of patina, a collection of gently worn cutlery, the stunning coloured cast iron pot in just the perfect colour) would/ will make my image, well, perfect. Until the next shoot when I needed the next pretty thing.

Props are, undeniably, an important element in food styling, and often play a very big role in creating a visual narrative. However, you need not spend a kings ransom on a cast iron pot just because the colour matched your scene, only for it to then gather dust in a storeroom. I wish had spent more time and attention on choosing and collecting items that were more suitable to a wider variety of images. If this resonates with you I have a free resource about curating a capsule prop cupboard. 

The great things about my mistakes, is that it isn’t too late for you to start doing any of these things. Whether you are just starting out or a little way along in your food styling journey, you can do what I never did, and learn from my mistakes, it will make you a better stylist!

Styling Taryne Jakobi for Cafe Del Sol

Images – Roelene Prinsloo



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