That’s A Job! (Food Stylist)

With this interview, we look into another behind-the-scenes job. Many times, it’s the photographer who gets all the glory, when in reality, a whole team of people were involved in creating the shot. On a food shoot, one of those members can be a food stylist; a professional who makes everyone one the team look good! Settle in for our interview with food stylist Heather Shaw – she was very generous with her time and answered a ton of questions for us.

Name: Heather Shaw
Job Description: Food stylist – Food By Heather

Knock Twice: Are you freelance or employee?
Heather Shaw: Freelance

KT: Can you describe a bit about your job?
HS: If a client comes to me and says “I need a three-tiered chocolate cake”, if they have reference images of what they’d like the cake to look like they’d send them to me, and probably cc the photographer on them so they’re kept in the loop. Any other detail conversations, the photographer’s not necessarily involved. It’s just a back-and-forth between the client and I in terms of “what colour chocolate do you want?” “How big is the three tier cake?” “Is it something I need to bake the night before or can it be done on set, and do I need an assistant?” all those kind of things have to be worked out before I come on set the day of. The majority of the time, the client hands you a recipe… and go.

I do the shopping, unless I’m shooting product. The client will usually provide the product and ship it to the studio for you. I just recently just did a shoot for Carnation Eagle Brand, for a new product that they’re coming out with. It’s not in stores yet, so they had to ship it to me. If it’s something that’s new and it’s not on the market yet, the client has to provide it.

KT: You’re responsible for how the food looks, are you also responsible for the styling of the shot? For example, once that chocolate cake has been made, is it you who decides if it’s on a platter, or a stand, or a plate?
HS: Sometimes. If there is no budget to have a prop stylist stay with you on set, then yes, it becomes a collaboration between the food stylist and the art director. But I don’t have full say. If there’s an art director there, they tend to take over that kind of stuff. I can certainly provide input for what I think would make sense for the dish; you wouldn’t want to put a chicken breast in, like, a soup bowl…that just wouldn’t make sense. I have been on shoots where some people have no idea, for example, what’s the bet way to present risotto? Well, you should put it in a nice, shallow bowl, so it doesn’t go everywhere on the plate.

KT: What background do you have for this job?
HS: I went to school for photography at Sheridan College. I did my final thesis/art project shooting food because I really wanted to be a food and beverage shooter. After graduation I started working with photographers, and that’s when I met food stylists for the first time. I’ve always loved food and cooking. My uncle taught me presentation. It’s been a love of mine since I was a little girl. I didn’t know that was a career because it’s not something that comes up a lot in school. So I got talking with stylists in the studio, and though it would be a really awesome hobby. It’s way more than a hobby. You need just as much equipment as a photographer starting out, You need to put all of your efforts into one thing. I won’t go back to photography. I love it, but I’m happy with my decision. It’s been great.

This is now my full time job. I went completely full time two years ago. Before that I had three or four jobs at a time; I was assisting food stylists, I was working in a bakery, and was a shopper for food stylists, which is a great way to learn if you’re just starting out to learn about all the boutique-y specialty stores, like Harvest Wagon and Pusateris. You need to know those things, you need to learn that. That was the best thing I could have done while assisting, because they send you to places that you wouldn’t go to normally.

KT: What is your pay structure?
HS: I have a day rate. I also have a fee for my prep time/shop time. It includes both. Because I’m not going to shop on the day-of if it’s a huge job. I need x amount of hours to get everything ready. So that’s something the client has to pay for separately. Expenses, groceries, I either pay for them upfront and the client reimburses me, or you can always ask for a deposit to put towards that.

Editorial doesn’t pay as well as advertising. Sometimes they won’t pay for prep or shop time, it depends on the client. But as soon as you get more established, you don’t go below a certain rate. As an assistant or junior stylist, I think the most you’d make is $350. I quote the client based on the scale of a job. A shoot that requires four days of prep is obviously going to cost more than one where I just show up to style the thing that already exist on set.

KT: What is your average working day?
HS: If I’ve already done my shopping, then the big day is the shoot. Typically a shoot starts at 8:30 or 9:00. I like to load my stuff the night before so that I’m not loading in the morning, but if I have to load groceries, I’ll do that before I go. I get to the studio for about 8:30, unload all of my stuff, get prepared in the studio, have a conversation about what’s going to happen with the photographer, the art director, and any other client reps who are there. We’ll just discuss what’s happening if things are unclear. Like “What do you want to start with first?” that sort of thing. Usually aim for 4-5 shots per day. It’s really hard to go beyond 5. You can do it, but it’s really stressful and can be long. We aim to do 2-3 shots before lunch, then we break for lunch, and then you finish off the day with your last two shots, or one big shot, whichever it is.

KT: Does a client book you, or do they book a photographer and the photographer books you?
HS: It could go either way.

KT: What’s the most important tool in your kit?
HS: That’s a hard question….tweezers. If you’ve got to grab a little grain of quinoa, you’re not going to get it with just your fingers. I’d also say knives. It’s always great to have a good set of knives that are yours and you’re used to them. If it’s a food shooter, they tend to have things like scissors etc available to you. But I’ve got this little kit, and it’s tweezers, and paintbrushes, and eyedroppers…that is my prized possession – my kit. Everything else I could probably live without.

KT: What is an important skill for someone interested in this kind of work?
HS: Attention to detail, you have to be a really good listener, confident, on time. If you’re starting out as an assistant, you have to really listen to what they’re looking for so you can shop for them and know what they want. Each food stylist has a different way of working, so you need to be intuitive to pick up on the way they like things to be run, and the way that they like their food to be set up for them on a tray, or prepping. It’s attention to detail not only visually, but also with just what’s going on around you. Having a car is also an asset.

KT: What is the best thing you’ve gotten to do since becoming a food stylist?
HS: Style drinks for LCBO. Food & Drink Magazine, and LCBO are the height of their kind of publication…that was a goal than I really wanted to attain, and I’ve done that now.

KT: What happens with the drinks when you’re finished styling them?
HS: They get photographed and then dumped. It’s hard. You’re not allowed to drink them in front of the client.

KT: What’s the weirdest shoot you’ve every worked on?
HS: Recently we were shooting for a magazine that likes to do freestanding fruits and vegetables. It was a shot of asparagus, there was quinoa on there, and edamame beans. And we had to have the asparagus standing up, so we’ve got bamboo skewers and things hiding in the shot that that we’ve got some balance, and then they wanted edamame sitting with the asparagus, and they wanted quinoa cascading down the asparagus and sitting on the beans. It was so challenging, and for some reason of course, some wind in the studio knocked the photographers’ card over onto the set, so it knocked the whole thing over. And we were almost done, I just had to put, like, one more little quinoa on there, and we had to start all over.

KT: What is a misconception that people have about your job?
HS: That it’s easy. That I just go in and make the food look beautiful. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a lot of schlepping, and a lot of cooking. It’s fun when you get there, and you get to be artistic, but a lot of times the client has a set idea, and you don’t really have so much free reign to do what you want to do. I also think they underestimate the amount of equipment you need for the job.

KT: How do you get jobs?
HS: The key to starting out in anything is to assist somebody, and they may pass jobs down to you if they’re that type of person. I was very fortunate to work with people who were generous like that. Like in photography, you need to work your butt off to put together a book/portfolio of work. It’s very hard doing creatives. You can’t just go out there and get jobs because people don’t know who you are. Being an assistant gives you a chance to meet photographers.

KT: Do you do much marketing?
HS: Yes. I’m also attached to Judy Inc. They have handled a lot more PR than I probably ever could have on my own. On your own you put in so much effort and it’s time consuming…your emailing, and your website, and reminding yourself to email photographers, but on top of that you’re working. I was on my own for quite some time without Judy Inc, but they’ve got connections I don’t have. I was very lucky, they only had one other food stylist in Toronto on their roster. All of my jobs are through the agency now.

KT: Is there anything else people interested in this kind of work should know?
HS: Do your research. Talk to other food stylists, Meet as many people as possible. Introduce yourself to photographers, and ask them how it works on their end, because not every photographer hires their own stylists. You’re not just going to get work because you’re best friends with the photographer. I have a close friend who’s a photographer, but we rarely get to work together because clients already have a list of the people they want to work with, that’s just kind of how it goes.

I took a course at George Brown a number of years ago. It was a culinary course, a food styling course. I think they still have it. If you don’t know anything at all about the business, it’s worth it. You need to meet photographers as much as you need to meet with food stylists, so that they want to take photos of the food you want to style. It can take years to get a book together. It took me four years of assisting to get a book together that I felt was strong enough, and to get the confidence to just start out.

Doing a bad job for a client can ruin you. Don’t be a food snob. Be fun. People like to hang out with fun people. If you’re caught up on your cell phone all day when you’re on set, no one’s going to hire you again because you’re not personable. Don’t think you’re the shit. Know you are, but don’t act like you are.

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If you like this post, check out our other food related posts – a video on what it’s like photographing for a cooking show & an interview with a food photographer.

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5 Comments

  1. Interesting and fun read. Thank you. I’m in the process of becoming an assistant food stylist. Your article was very helpful to me. Cheers !

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  2. Erika, thanks for the information. I have a degree in Food and Nutrition. Through my career I have worked as a food developer, community nutrition, and clinical nutrition. Many years ago early in my career I was lucky to work one day with a food stylist in Omaha, Ne. I was intriged but I didn’t know how to get started. So now at the end of my career I would like to do something I would really enjoy and would like to be a food stylist assitant. I now live in the Washington D.C. area (Warrenton Va.). Do have any advise on how to find something like this in my area? Thanks again, Karen cobb.

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  3. When I was in grade 3 we had a food stylist come in and talk to us and ever since that day I have wanted to become a food stylist. I never looked into it seriously and had no idea on how I would get started. Today, I decided to look it up for fun… Thank you for all the useful information, now I know how/where to start!

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  4. Thank you for this information. I am not aspiring to be a food stylist but I needed this info for a project and it was very helpful thank you!

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