In our Food Styling 101 series, Lisa Bolton offers up food styling tips for conveying the stories you want your food to tell. Her advice will help you create food photography that entices readers to make your recipes and read your articles. This month she shares her tips for styling a meal that gets the Oscar for comfort food: pasta.
The aroma of salted water and simmering marinara. The sight of a heaping bowl of noodles, smothered in a tangy bolognese and a dusting of freshly shaved parmesan.
The sound of the slurp the noodle makes through pursed lips.
The just slightly toothsome texture when cooked to a perfect al dente.
And then there's the taste. A warm hug on a plate.
There's little debate that the Oscar for comfort food goes to pasta. The only question is how do you translate all those sensory moments through the lens of your camera?
Capturing Raw and Dried Pasta
Pasta has a beautiful story of composition and transformation. Especially when it's made fresh. I spoke about the importance of capturing raw ingredients in this article and it really holds true when it comes to pasta.
If you're making pasta from scratch, take a moment to capture “before” and “in progress” moments. And with those shots, there's actually very little styling required. Raw should be exactly that: raw. The messy flour and the cracked egg shells are all part of building the story for the hero to come.
Dried pasta is not to be overlooked in your styling efforts. In its dried form, it still has a story of transformation to tell.
In this example, I've captured a one-pot pasta.
STYLING TIPS: To style this shot, I inverted a small bowl inside the Dutch oven. First I added the dry pasta and the filled the remaining space with the spinach. The spinach acted as a false bottom on which I could lay the onion, zucchini and tomatoes.
Visually this makes for a much more inviting image then if everything was sinking to the bottom in water.
Hidden Props and Food Manipulation
This does bring up the topic of hidden props and food manipulation.
I will never use a false bottom or filler if it degrades the authenticity of the shot. That is, in the one-pot pasta case I'm using the false bottom to display the raw ingredients for the viewer. The viewer won't be presenting or consuming the dish in this state so I believe it's appropriate. A shot with the tomatoes sunk to the bottom would not just be visually uninteresting, but it wouldn't display to the viewer all the recipe components.
I would NOT use a false bottom to prop up the final product. The art in what I call real life food styling is the ability to portray an image the recipe tester could essentially create in real life In this case, I will only use the spaghetti itself to create height and nothing that props it up higher.
The Art of the Spaghetti Twirl
There's definitely an art to the spaghetti twirl.
I lean toward more rustic, relaxed composition in food styling and prefer a looser noodle plating. It's a reflection of how I would plate it at home.
STYLING TIP: If you're looking for that tighter twirl, I find this method works really well.
First, get a carving fork. Dig in and scoop out a fairly good portion. Then, using your hands, you can kind of straighten out the strands so they're draping on either side of the fork. Next you twirl, slowing moving it down toward the countertop.
Once you have a nice tight twirl — and if you want to get extra fancy — trim the loose ends with a knife so they're all in one straight line. Lay the twirled pasta on a plate and slowly remove the fork. From there you can tug at it slightly to loosen it up a bit.
The Importance of the Vessel
When it comes to photographing pasta shapes and pieces, the vessel plays an important role. I love to photograph pasta, especially baked pasta, in a cast iron pan.
Mostly this is because it's how I like to serve it, but the dark pan will make the pasta itself pop. It's very difficult to make a lasagna baked in a glass pan translate through the lens how delicious it actually is.
There are three ways to address that.
- First, photograph the pasta before it's baked, when the cheese is all curled up from being grated and the layers have not quite married together.
- Second, capture the action shot. Whether it's with a remote capture or with your significant other as a hand model, that first ooey gooey piece you lift out of a baked pasta with all the strings is a money shot waiting to happen.
- Finally, dish up a serving onto a plate and have the whole pan behind the shot, out of focus. Shoot the dish from just slightly below eye level, so you're almost looking up at the piece. This will allow the lens to capture the different levels and textures in the pasta.
The beauty of pasta is that it seems to transcend most culinary cultures. Your audience is already looking forward to that first bite so keep the scene clean and let the dish do the talking.
- Food Styling: Tips for Styling Sandwiches
- How to Food Style Waffles and Pancakes
- Food Styling Meat: Beef, Pork, Poultry and Fish
Lisa Bolton is the creator, writer and photographer behind Food Well Said, her blog about thoughtfully prepared, whole food recipes. She lives in the Lower Mainland of BC and you can reach her on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.