Cupcake Styling with Sam & Sab

on Food  

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I hope everyone had a great weekend! Yesterday Sam, Sab and I had a day of baking and styling cupcakes. I love taking photos of food but have never really put a particular effort into food styling, so this was quite a steep learning curve for me. These ladies have much more skill and experience with photography than me, and it was really great getting their advice (and substantial collection of props and gear!).

We operated out of my kitchen, and whipped up some gingerbread cupcakes with vanilla buttercream icing. Just a couple of recipe notes – we couldn’t find molasses for the cupcakes so substituted golden syrup, and I felt that it needed ground ginger to give it more kick. Rather than baking gingerbread to add as decoration, Sam had the excellent idea of using crushed gingernut biscuits to sprinkle on top. I used 6 cups of icing sugar in the icing (as opposed to the recommended 7-8), and added a dash of vanilla and a few tablespoons of milk. The recipe produced enough icing to decorate the 24 cupcakes that we made.

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Sabrina brought her piping gear and demonstrated the technique to us – I have never had any luck with piping and usually resort to just smearing icing on cupcakes with a knife, but having the right equipment, frosting with the right consistency and seeing how it’s done makes a world of difference! We practiced a few different techniques on a plate before scraping the icing back into the bags and piping onto the cupcakes.

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We set up by the window in my living room, which was getting some nice diffuse light on the cloudy afternoon. Sabrina brought her sawhorses, painted wood planks and foam core board to use as reflectors, and we took turns styling and photographing the cupcakes.

We also set up another station by my kitchen window, which gets quite harsh, directional light in the afternoon and needed some white fabric to diffuse it. I spent most of my time in there, but to be honest I really struggled with the space as well as with the styling in general. Most of the photos below I don’t love, but wanted to get down what I learned so I can do better next time.

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Lately I’ve been drawn to more dark, moody food photography, like a lot of the work on What Katie Ate. I tried some simple compositions with a small round plate, slate platter and a white tea towel, but besides the problematic lighting I think that it’s a little too simple. Some cookie crumbs or whole spices, maybe on the white tea towel might have helped?

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Next I tried arranging some iced and un-iced cupcakes on the cooling rack, as sort of a process-but-not-really shot. I found it a bit difficult to arrange the cupcakes in a way that didn’t look unnatural, and compose so that the diffusing fabric wasn’t visible. It also kind of draws a bit too much attention to how cracked and misshapen the cupcakes are beneath the layer of frosting – apparently this could be due to the oven being too hot.

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I had a bit more of a play around with some torn brown paper and other props, but I think it felt too forced and unnatural. I’ve learned that food styling doesn’t necessarily have to literally make sense, but the eye does pick up on things that aren’t quite right even if you can’t put your finger on exactly why. I also ended up getting in quite close and shooting in landscape to give less focus to the props, but the result was that the cupcakes don’t really have enough breathing space.

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Things got a little better when I moved over to the living room setup, got some more help from the others and switched to my 50mm lens. I think having a bit more space and freedom with composition made for a more natural, lifestyle-ish shot rather than a staged one – like someone is about to sit down at their table and eat cupcakes. They looked a bit lonely in the first shot, so we tried various props in the background. As much as I love my red teapot it really demands attention and didn’t suit the story of a serene afternoon tea, so we ended up going with my little white milk jug. Why would you just have a milk jug and some cupcakes on a table? Maybe the water for the tea is still boiling, and the pot and cups haven’t been brought out yet? But anyway, finally a shot I was completely happy with! The one above is the unedited version straight out of the camera.

I didn’t end up taking a pull back shot to show the full setup, but it used the white boards on sawhorses with a black board on the left and a silver reflector on the right. The window in the background faces east, and this was about 5pm on a rainy day so it was getting to the end of our light.

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And here is the edited version – I used a couple of RadLab filters to adjust the light very slightly, and removed most of the crumbs in Photoshop as I thought they were a bit too distracting. Looking at this now I should probably have evened up the edge of the ‘table’ whilst shooting or in post – next time! Overall I’m pretty happy with my final image, and learned so much in this process. I think I’d like to do a bit more research and planning for next time so I don’t feel so lost!

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And finally, here’s a a shot of all the cupcakes together – I think the middle tier ones with icing done in a rose shape are my favourite, although the top swirly ones give some nice height that works well at different angles. I always struggle taking photos of tiered cake stands, they are such an awkward shape to get a full shot of!

Here’s a quick summary of what I learned, mostly for my own reference:

  • Back lighting (with the window in the background) can give a really nice effect for food photography, although sometimes white fabric to diffuse the light might be necessary to make the highlights and shadows less harsh. Reflectors or black/white boards on the sides can add extra light or shadow.
  • Having a big collection of props to work with really helps! White flatware, wooden chopping boards and tea towels or fabrics in various patterns were probably the main staples that we used for this shoot. We also used some whole spices (cinnamon and cloves, which were in the cupcakes), gingernut biscuits, various bottles, cake stands, twine and tea stuff. I also realised I have zero teacups, which is something I must fix immediately!
  • Food styling props which wear easily should be used only as props (unless that’s the look you’re after) – my wooden chopping boards which are criss-crossed with knife marks and smell vaguely like garlic, and stained tea towels are not really very photogenic or useful.
  • A couple of sawhorses gives an easily transportable set, which can be moved to where the light is best and used with different surfaces for different effects.
  • For beginners like me, something that doesn’t need to be kept hot or cold is a good starting point with food styling and photography. We didn’t have to worry about the cupcakes melting or discolouring whilst trying out ideas, and they looked just as appetising at the end (when we ate them!) as they did when we began. I imagine that photographing ice-cream or a juicy steak would require a lot more planning to get the right shot as quickly as possible.
  • Having an extra set or two of hands and eyes is a massive help – from previous experience I know that it’s hard to cook, style and shoot on your own with no one to hold things or help clean afterwards.
  • I have a 16-35m f2.8L lens attached to my camera 90% of the time, because most of the photos that I take are landscapes, interiors and food in restaurants where the wide angle makes things a lot easier. But I found a longer focal length gave a much nicer effect, and I ended up most happy with the photos I took using the ‘nifty fifty’ 50mm f1.8 lens.
  • Adding varying textures (fabric, wood, slate, porcelain) gives dimension and interest to a shot without distracting from the subject itself.
  • Sometimes you have to just keep playing around until it feels right – especially if you’re just starting out and haven’t yet gotten a feel for what works and what doesn’t. Taking a test shot or looking through the lens can actually give quite a different perspective to how it is viewed with the eyes.
  • Use darker boards or reflectors to give definition to light coloured objects – in my final favourite shot, the right side of the milk jug was getting blown out and blending into the pale background, until we added a silver reflector to the right side in addition to the black board on the left. This gave the edge just enough definition to look right without adding too much shadow to that side.
  • Food photography and styling is hard work! Lots of bending, squatting, climbing stepladders, leaning in holding a heavy camera… quite the workout!

Huge thanks to Sabrina of Sabatomic Photography and Sam of Reclog / Sam Ee Photography for their help, direction and awesome collection of equipment to play with. We’ll hopefully be doing some more shoots together soon!

2 notes

  1. Uhh… YUMMM. Your photos look fantastic. I was just talking to a friend last night at dinner about good cupcake photography (no joke!) Food styling is one of those things that is a lot harder than it seems. You did a great job though. And those cupcakes look divine – will have to try that recipe.

    1. Thank you! I’m excited to see the others’ photos, their styling looked so much better! It definitely is much more difficult that you would imagine – tiny things make a huge difference.

      I really liked the recipe, but if you like things spicy I’d definitely chuck in some ginger, or add some spices to the icing.

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