Seeing a photo of a big, juicy burger (or Beyond Burger), with crisp green lettuce and tiny droplets of water on thickly sliced tomato is enough to make your mouth water. The same applies when you’re watching a Coke commercial, when the fizz and spritz from the drink is so apparent that you suddenly find yourself thirsty. Food imagery is powerful, and making it look good is an important job. In fact, it’s an entire career all its own.
Diana Jeffra, who lives in Virginia, has been a food stylist for the past nine years. While a photographer is the person who takes pictures of the food, Jeffra’s job is to cook the food and set up the shot. Whether the photo is going to end up in a magazine, advertisement or product box, or if she’s helping shoot a commercial, the mission is the same: Leave the viewer craving whatever it is they’re looking at.
On the summer day that I called her to learn more about her career, she was on set styling a turkey for a Thanksgiving spread for a local magazine. Yes, the summer heat was sweltering outside, but on set, it was Nov. 24. Doing print work like this is Jeffra’s bread and butter, so to speak. “I prefer the pace of still [photos]. I find that the pace of shooting for big commercials is too fast for me,” she said.
In addition to styling food for magazines, she has worked with many brands that are likely in your pantry or fridge, such as Betty Crocker, Sabra, Justin’s and General Mills. But Jeffra wasn’t always a food stylist. It took a slight career pivot — and a lot of drive — to end up where she is today.
How to become a food stylist
Jeffra said she has long worked with food, just in vastly different ways than she does now. “All my jobs growing up were in restaurants,” she said. “I worked as a dishwasher, steaming crabs, shucking oysters … that kind of stuff.” Clearly she’s someone who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, a skill that would come on handy later on in her career.
In college, Jeffra majored in graphic design, and after she graduated started working for an ad agency that specialized in food service and hospitality. It was her job to retouch images from photo shoots and put them in different formats, such as banner ads. Jeffra said that while she liked her job, she felt a bit antsy sitting in front of a computer all day. At the same time, she started asking questions about what was happening on the photo shoot sets to learn more about how they worked. “The creative director told me that there was a photographer and then someone who comes in whose job it was to set up food for the camera,” Jeffra said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wait, that’s a thing?’”
When Jeffra started researching how to become a food stylist herself, she figured the best way to find out was to ask someone who did it, so she invited a food stylist in her area, Lisa Cherkasky, to lunch. (Pro job tip for anything you want to do in life: Find yourself a mentor.) “Lisa gave me the best advice, which was that it’s important to know how to make food for the camera,” Jeffra said. Yes, Lisa told her, it’s important to know about photography — like how to use lighting — but it’s also important to know how to make food from scratch (quickly!) that’s made for the camera.
Shucking oysters was one thing, but learning how to get food photo-ready was a whole other skill set. To beef up her knowledge, Jeffra enrolled in a cooking and hospitality program at a local community college. “The restaurant chefs I worked with while in cooking school were completely supportive of me wanting to be a food stylist and would allow me to come in and take photos,” she said. Eventually, she was able to start landing clients and building a portfolio, which led to booking more jobs.
What food styling actually looks like
A day in the life of a food stylist starts before arriving on set. The first order of business is to buy all the ingredients needed to make the food. “Typically before the shoot, I’ll get a shot list, listing all the photos they want to have,” Jeffra said. This helps guide how she’ll cook and style the food. For example, in some Thanksgiving food photos, the turkey isn’t cooked fully inside, but Jeffra said for the shoot she was currently working on, the shot list indicated that the turkey needed to be carved in some photos, so this meant Jeffra would have to cook it all the way through.
Jeffra typically has a call time, so she knows when to arrive on set. Then, she gets to work cooking and styling the food for each shot before a photographer shoots it. Attention to detail is a must. Jeffra is often plucking tiny hairs off raspberries or misting perfectly sized droplets onto produce. Sure, a photographer could edit or add these details later while retouching, but she does as much as she can herself so that they don’t have to. “It makes it easier for the photographer and it kind of makes them love you more,” she said.
Not all of the food Jeffra styles is actually edible: Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. For example, on TikTok, she showed that buttercream (a whipped icing) is often used in place of ice cream for shoots because it won’t melt. But if Jeffra is styling ice cream for an actual ice cream brand, there’s no fake ice cream allowed ― that would be false advertising.
“Ice cream and cheese are the hardest foods to shoot,” Jeffra said. “Both have to be melted in a certain way, and with cheese, some types become translucent when they melt, like Swiss cheese.”
Jeffra said her job isn’t always glamorous, either. The other day, she found herself making instant mashed potatoes using a water fountain because there wasn’t a full kitchen on set.
Tips for taking your food photos to the next level
Maybe you don’t want to be a food stylist. Maybe you just want to give your food blog or Instagram photos an upgrade. Is there anything you can do to level up your pics without resorting to buttercream and half-baked turkeys? Jeffra is happy to offer up a few tips. One is to use fresh ingredients, especially when it comes to produce and herbs. This is when the colors are most vibrant.
“Adding little droplets of water on food or drinks, like on … a Coke can, makes it look super fresh and refreshing too,” Jeffra said, offering up another one of her tried-and-true tricks. For some foods, like freshly baked rolls or a hamburger bun, Jeffra said that adding a little oil can give a nice sheen.
It’s also important to consider your lighting, as it can transform a food from looking flat to showing different dimensions and details. So if you really want to get the perfect shot, you just might need your friend to shine their phone flashlight on your food while you snap your pic.
If you love playing with your food, following in Jeffra’s footsteps and becoming a food stylist might just be the perfect career for you. It takes hard work to get there and it certainly isn’t easy, but Jeffra said she’s glad she put in the effort. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “I love everything about it.”