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’s easy to make but finicky to photograph: sandwiches.
The sandwich. A deceptively simple meal that’s anything but when it comes to making it pop in camera.
For something that can literally be assembled with an efficient fridge forage, the sandwich is always one of my most finicky styling subjects.
Unless you’re shooting a hot sandwich, the good news is you have lots of time to play with the components and get them just right. The bad news is that building a camera-ready sandwich can actually be quite time consuming. The key is having patience to spend perfecting each layer so it all comes together for the perfect shot.
Not unlike approaching most food styling projects, quality ingredients are going to be your first step. For the sandwich, they’re even more critical. In most cases the sandwich is shot with ingredients in the raw, merely sliced, and therefore getting the reddest, firmest tomatoes, and the crispiest, greenest lettuce is most important.
Each layer of the sandwich is a focal point and needs to be given every opportunity to shine.
Some would argue the single most determining factor in a what makes a sandwich spectacular is the bread. This creed holds especially true in food styling.
When possible, choose bread that’s unsliced so you can maintain complete control on the size and thickness of each slice. Your best bet will always be the bakery.
Bread with colour (i.e., rye or whole wheat) and texture (i.e., flour dusted, topped with grains and seeds) will always pop off a page, over a straight pre-cut loaf in a plastic bag.
Unless you’re shooting a clubhouse, in most cases you’ll want to cut your bread slightly thicker than a sandwich slice width.
Just like my earlier article on photographing raw ingredients, don’t forget to grab a few images of just the bread, or the bread and some of the sandwich ingredients. Part of composing any image is telling the story, and shots of a really beautiful loaf of bread can give that story a beautiful beginning.
The key to a beautiful sandwich is height. Each layer is lightly draped on top of the next to create as much vertical space as possible. When I make a sandwich for my six-year-old, everything lies flat, on the same plane. The bread and the “filler” — the cheese, the meat and veg — are evenly stacked in a vertical flat manner. This does not a pretty photo make.
When preparing a sandwich for a shoot, approach each layer with intention.
As you build out each layer, don’t lay it one on top of another; rather, either pull it forward slightly or push it back slightly. Often I start by pulling each layer back ever so slightly and then adjust once I’ve seen it in camera to ensure it gets adequate real estate in the lens.
When applying any condiment or spread, dollop the spread close to the edge of the bread with a small spoon. Using the back of the spoon, gently push and spread the condiment toward the edge of the bread so it just dips over the edge. If not enough is showing, you can always use a toothpick or a small squeeze bottle to dab a little more out.
As with most aspects of sauces and food styling, it’s always easier to add more than to take away, so use a gentle hand.
To create dimension with the sliced deli meat, you’ll want to create a sort of gentle ruffle. Depending on the shape of the meat, this is achieved by either pinching the slice in the middle and creating almost a rosette shape or folding it in half but not quite evenly, so the edges have texture.
Toothpicks can be extremely helpful in this process. As you fold and build each layer, small toothpicks will help hold the sandwich fillings in place.
Sandwiches can be shot from a variety of angles, but slightly higher than a horizon or overhead are two of my favourite ways to highlight a sandwich.
Because the layers are being built at a slight angle, sometimes shooting straight on can expose gaps in the sandwich. By lifting the lens up slightly you can still highlight all the layers but avoid seeing any hollow spaces. Try capturing a shot straight on and then a second one ever so slightly above that and see what appeals to you more.
My preference for most of my shots is to capture an overhead perspective. For a sandwich, that doesn’t always highlight its best side. To still achieve that bird’s-eye view, I remove the top slice of bread and capture the sandwich open face. This still puts all the layers in view, but tells a different story by bringing more elements into the frame.
The sandwich is a great food to get some practice with your food styling: no complicated recipes and you can just work with what you have. Practice the order of the layers, cutting ingredients into different widths and shapes. Start with a horizon shot and snap ten images moving the lens up slightly with each shot to discover the angle you prefer best.