Monk’s Advice on How to Improve Food Styling

Monk Angkor Wat

You read it right. This food styling advice comes from a monk. Well kinda. If you are thinking what does a monk talk about food styling, you will be surprised.

Before we get to the monk part, first let me tell you about one of our reader. Quinn is our regular reader and runs a blog She has started experimenting with food styling using styling techniques and concepts mentioned in elements of art in food styling. Recently Quinn took some chicken wings photographs for her post.

Quinn WingsChicken Wings by Quinn

There are several photographs of chicken wings in that post. Quinn is passionate about food photography/styling and wants to improve her skills. We exchanged several emails and I was amazed by her positive attitude and desire to learn. She is asking us (Yes!! you the reader too) to suggest how she can improve food styling in this photograph. I thought of the advice on…

Improving Food Styling… Monk Said So

I know what you are thinking – “What does a monk have to do with food styling?” Well you are right, nothing. But what a monk said has a lot to do with food styling. The monk said:

“Less is More”

That’s right. The monk said, “Less is More”. When you can do with less, don’t desire for more. When less satisfies your needs, just use less. Keep it simple and you will not be confused. Keep it simple and it will be beautiful.

Implementing Less is More in Food Styling

The advice of ‘Less is More” applies to food styling very well. In fact, Less is More advice is very important in food styling. But before jumping into that, let’s first understand what does a food photographer and a food stylist want to achieve.

The Purpose – Any food photographer’s and stylist’s ultimate aim is to make food look good. Food looks good only when it is appealing and stirs an emotion in you. A good photograph makes your mouth watery. You are tempted to eat that dessert (read lick the screen). Every time you feel that, the photographer is successful. See mouth-watering desserts photos and ask yourself are you tempted to eat that dessert.

Less is More… Beautiful

If you have observed this, in food photography, most food presentations limit the portion of dish to one serving. The key here is to make food appealing. And one of the way you can do that is to relate the person to the food. If you put too much food in a plate making it look unrealistic for a person to eat, the connection is lost. On the other hand, if the food is presented in a way that feels like it is served for you, there is a stronger connection and emotion. So here are my suggestions:

  1. Limit the Serving – In the photograph above, I would suggest, just present one or two wings. One or two wings seem realistic for a person to eat. It will also make the photograph personal, as if it was served only for your reader or audience. This will also give you some room for garnishing and the plate will look less crowded.
  2. Careful Garnishing – When garnishing the plate, it is easy to get carried away and put a lot of sauce or herbs or powder and create a lot of clutter in the plate. Use the principle of “Less is More”. Use garnishing sparingly. The main focus of your composition should be the food and garnishing should support the food not the other way.
  3. Plate Frame – Most plates have a rim/border. And most food stylists will agree that the rim or border is kinda sacred place. The rim is like a frame of a painting. All the art work is within the frame. Similarly, food styling is a painting that should be inside that rim. Rim/border should be absolutely clean and free from anything. 

The Caveat – Although, less is more, sometimes its not. While most food photographs and styles illustrate this principle, food photographs involving raw food and ingredients don’t. However, photographing and styling personal-sized plates is easier than styling large quantity.

The “Less is More” Principle is very well illustrated in the 10 seconds food styling tutorials. Take a look at the food styling videos and analyze them.

Will you help Quinn?

What do you think? How would you improve this chicken wings photograph? What suggestions do you have for Quinn? Will you drop a line or two in the comments below and support and encourage her and your fellow readers to improve food photography and styling? She is open to positive critique and suggestions to improve this photograph.

Please comment below and suggest how this food photograph and styling can be improved.

Do you want to improve?

What a wonderful idea to improve your food photography and styling! Getting inputs from so many readers is very helpful. If you are looking to improve your food photography or food styling skills and would like an opinion on your photograph, put down the link in the comments below.

Photo credits: Monk Photograph by Stuck in Customs – the famous Trey Radcliff

  • I don’t feel at all qualified to tell anyone how to take better photos but I can offer a tip. Sometimes before I take a photograph I search google or flickr for images to see how others have treated the same subject. Studying those images gives me ideas about how I should style food. I usually pick a photo I like and try to recreate certain elements, the composition the lighting etc. My final result is always from the picture I have chosen because I don’t have the same style plates or coloured props as the original but that’s okay. I am not looking to produce a copy of someone’s photo but I do want to copy their technique for making a great photo.

  • I think it’s a lovely photo, and frankly I don’t think showing two wings is too much. If you say one or two wings is something a person would reasonably eat, you don’t know much of America nowadays. I know people who can easily down ten, so I think four is a good number for the photo. The only thing I can think of to improve it is to have not had so much blank space at the top, or for it to have been white–that way it would have contrasted the food nicely instead of just being this dull blue space. And I’m kind of a fan of symmetry, so I personally would have preferred two wing tips to the right and two to the left. But most people probably don’t care about that. 😛 Overall, though, great photo. Love the colors and the composition!

  • Hi Neel,

    First and foremost, thanks for the comment. I do agree less is more but I thought 4 was alright. As much as I like food photography and willing to learn, it comes down to the fact that that roasted wings was a dinner for two of us and I blog about it to share with others, rather not serving for my audience.

    Love the rim/border idea but I was trying to cover up the oriental look rim since that’s the only oblong plate I have in hand. You can actually still see a little peaking out in pink and the plate actually looked like this (see pearl dumplings):

    I’m not ready to invest so much in props and tend to use what I have in hand.

    Erica: Great minds think alike! I cannot find the perfect pair of wings that have been roasted evenly browned. I am a freak of symmetry too!

    All in all Neel, thanks for the post and idea! I love them and will learn and adapt accordingly!


    • Quinn,

      Thanks for letting us use the photograph and for agreeing to be the first experiment 🙂

  • I agree with you, Neel. I think if two wings were plated with a fork and garnished with one orange segment and a few sprinkles of the red berries it would have looked more realistic. Though it is true that most Americans will consume four with no hesitation, you want to evoke a classier feel, as if you were at a cocktail party. Especially with the orange and berries garnish. If it were a Superbowl type food photograph, then maybe a cluster of four wings would be more appropriate.

    But then again, I am also just learning and have barely begun my experience so who am I to say? Anyway, I would truly appreciate feedback on any of my food styling and photography when you get the chance. Here’s the link to my Culinary Musings blog:

  • I have done some reading on plating lately, I cannot say I am an expert, but seems there are rules:
    – Garnish has to be something you eat and not there just to decorate.
    – There is talk of a virtual clock where meat is at 2 o’clock, starch at 10 and veggies at 6.
    – Less is more is one of the rules. A big plate with a relatively small portion puts the food more in focus. White or off-white plates make the food stand out more too.
    – There has to be a certain color match.
    – The main part of the dish, usually the meat should be put most in focus for example a little elevated.
    – Food has to be simply plated so the person eating should be able to eat without having to go through an intricate design to be able to eat.
    – The dish has a face and the part in focus (usually the prettiest) should be towards the person eating, I think we can safely say the “eater” in this case is the camera.
    – It seems it also helps to sketch your plating before actually put it on the plate. I never tried this but I tend to visualize mentally before plating.

    I hope this helps, a lot of these helped me improve, so I thought I would share.
    In the case of this picture I would lose the pomegranate seeds and the spinach and keep the oranges since they are part of the recipe. Or Perhaps use the veggies as a side salad on which the wings can be leaned.

  • damien short

    Monka can tell a lot about food.

  • Cannot say I am a great photographer but I am trying to get there. First I am do not cook meat . So I may be wrong.
    I like the picture but I would not like so much of green atleast not a bed of them. Reason I cannot eat that. but the pomegranate looks yum. The orange does not contrast as well. Will not a salad of the greens, orange look better?

    I will like to participate in teaching, analyzing etc. Basically my pics are no thought just shoot and run. But would like to improve on that. Neel Please can you tell me what I have to do?

  • I also don’t eat meat so meat styling is not something I can’t talk about. From my perspective there are two many wings on the plate. I would have chosen 1 and used the garnish on top of the wing with a little alongside it. I also do not like the green background. I am an amateur photographer, check my blog and you will see that. Sometimes I think I make a good photo, if I have the time to style and depending on the dish, other times I think my styling is rubbish when I see other peoples. Often I know what I want but I can’t quite get it. Thanks so much for sharing your information. It is a great topic to talk about and I will keep visiting because I am sure to learn more. Congratulations on your efforts.

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  • Dmytro

    Dear Quinn,

    I hope my advice will be useful for you. I’m starting my cooking blog as well and I’m starting to learn food photographing. My experience is not really reach, but I’ve got a few interesting tips from different articles and famous cooks.

    That’s strange, but I’ve already faced with the photographing of wings by my own self and with photo works of famous cook-bloggers. So in this case You can go to ways. First of all You can use oriental way of styling of this dish. Basically use Your way of styling (lettuce and grenade seeds), but with more number of wings putted in round. I know that it goes across of main idea of this article, but it will look folk-style. You should always pay attention to folk ways of serving a dish to not start to invent a bicycle.

    Second way is using specific shape factors of wings. Try to put wings like You does before, but very straight and linear to make any next wing looks just like previous. Put the orange slices in cold water for a 30 sec just before you will put all dish together. This tip will make orange slices look very fresh. Try to use only three strong colors at Your photo. For example: wings and orange is first, white plate is second and finally grenade seeds are third. This step will help You to not overload Your picture with colors. Remember that more than three strong colors on one picture is an object by its own self and it will pop into a competition with Your main object. And finally try to make a vertical photo from a top. Wings will look greate (but remember about linearity).

    That’s all. I hope it will be useful.