Food Styling & Photography Lessons from Alastair Hendy

Lucky me was invited to a food photography workshop held in the rather swish Irish embassy.

Organised by Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) and hosted and introduced by the Ambassador of Ireland, H.E. Bobby McDonagh , our teacher was the talented Alastair Hendy, a successful food photographer, stylist and writer.

Our class took place in the beautiful and ornate ballroom, with fantastic Irish food and drink products on display not to mention proffered in the form of canapés and drinks.

Before too long, we sat down and listened earnestly to Alastair’s best tips on food styling and photography.

Some of Alistair’s helpful advice:-

  • Chocolate, ice-cream and figs can virtually make food magazines walk out of the shop door – this goes a long way to explaining why magazines seem to come back to these themes again and again and again and again!
  • When taking images of food to illustrate a themed post or article, it is really important to make the main ingredient stand out as the star. This seems obvious but is sometimes forgotten in the rush to showcase quirky and colourful props.
  • Alistair often creates collages or series of images around a theme. He shared several such collections with us via a slide show, stressing the importance of working to a visual colour palette. In one collection about Scandinavian recipes, it was easy to pick up the brown, beige and white palette. In another, Alastair teamed brown and white with cool blue – not a colour I’d have thought of for an autumnal feature on walnuts, but it worked!
  • When shooting a series of images, go for as wide a mix as possible – shoot scene-setting landscapes and cityscapes, people portraits, close-ups of isolated details and of course, the food and drink itself. When trying to set mood and place, throwing in a simple image of a single Christmas tree decoration or a selection of worn cutlery can contribute to a themed set.
  • When shooting your close-ups of food and drink, avoid using bright direct sunlight as your light source – it can really bleach out colour. Instead shoot in the shade. And never use a flash!
  • As well as lighting, Alastair uses white balance creatively to enhance the mood of his shots, expressing a preference for a slightlier bluer colour tone than neutral, though not so much as to make the food look cold. (I always shoot in RAW for the flexibility it gives me to adjust white balance during processing without degrading image quality, as can happen when adjusting colour balance and contrast on a JPEG file.)
  • Unlike many food stylists and photographers, Alastair prefers serving up decent portions rather than unnaturally tiny ones.
  • Working on a surface the height of a coffee table rather than a standard desk or dining table makes it much easier to shoot from different heights without clambering onto chairs for the top-down shots.
  • When it comes to styling food, Alastair has a number of tips:- don’t overuse the water effect – spraying a mist of water onto some raw fruit or vegetables posed in a colander fits the context – doing the same for food that’s been plated up doesn’t!
  • Although it’s no longer new, the trend for white on white is a classic and it still looks great. It’s great when you want all the attention to be on a star ingredient.
  • Shots of partially (or completely) eaten dishes or items are great for expressing tastiness but should be set up – no mucky smears or dirty napkins.
  • Including cutlery and other naturally reflective props can be a problem if they are too shiny. There is apparently such a thing as dulling spray that will take the shine off and allow them to blend into the background better.
  • Although Alastair has a real talent for food styling within his home studio, he’s also a very skilled travel photographer. His motto is “if you see it, shoot it!” – don’t assume you can come back later.(As a keen travel photographer, this is something I have absolutely learned, often through bitter experience)

After the presentation we split into groups around the various tables of food and drink products. To my surprise, only two of us chose the sweets and chocolates products, myself and Sarah (Maison Cupcakes). You can see her excellent post on 21 Tips from Alastair here.

I think we did a great job between us of choosing and agreeing on props and colour themes, both drawn to pink, white and blue.

I really wanted to achieve some shallow depth of field images (as I’m a huge fan of these in food and travel magazines), which meant using my 100mm macro lens. The downside of this was the need to use a tripod and how awkward it was to position the camera at a sufficient distance and angle. I have only previously used the tripod when shooting wildlife from a distance, which requires far less frequent adjusting of camera position and height – quite a fiddle!

Here are my favourite images from the session:-


The pretty pink and silver of Hadji Bey’s Turkish delight sweets and box (made in Cork City) worked well against the blue paper backdrop, white napkin and simple glass bowl. I don’t usually like cutting off edges – I’m a fan of negative space around the main object – but I like both versions. The one on the left might work better for a magazine wanting space for a text caption.



Sarah spotted this sweet little glass bottle into which we transferred colourful beans from The Jelly Bean Factory. The Berry Burst mix gave us some hot pinks and a rich blue which looked great against the blue paper backdrop we’d already chosen. I found it really hard to scatter the beans in an attractive and natural-looking pattern and especially difficult to position some within the neck of the bottle.



After playing with the jar we tried the jelly beans in a saucer and cup, layering a larger plate beneath the saucer to give us a pink blue pink blue layered effect. I had hoped to have a few more beans sitting loose in the saucer but they quickly rolled down against the bottom of the cup. Perhaps tiny pieces of blue tack might help next time.


We also spent some time trying to style this chocolate and fruit cereal bar but I wasn’t completely happy with any of my images – I think we both found it hard to make the bar look good, visually. However, I’d been wanting to use this gingham fabric for something, and I think it works well against the plates and napkins. This is the only shot where I’m happy with the shape and lie of the napkin folds beneath the plates.

For our last few shots we returned to the pretty pink Turkish delight, arranging them in this gorgeous moss-green vintage tin. We put empty boxes inside to give the greaseproof paper and sweets some height, but again, the skill of artful arranging was tough to master. I also wish I’d noticed the oddly shaped torn protrusion of paper, which is distracting. I did place an extra cube of Turkish delight into that obvious gap at the back for a subsequent shot, but missed the focus!

I also wish I’d taken more close-up detail shots so I could create some collages, a speciality of Alastair’s that he uses to great effect in many of his published articles. I’ve tried to make a small one to show the idea, but it would be more effective with more images of more varied content.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the world of food styling and photography.

Many thanks to Alastair Hendy, Bord Bia and the Irish Embassy for a lovely evening.

Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!
22 Comments to "Food Styling & Photography Lessons from Alastair Hendy"

  1. ClaireTweet

    A great post Kavey. Thanks for putting in all the detail. I am SO jealous, would love to have come. How did you get invited? I especially like your cereal bar shot and the Turkish Delight montage.

  2. Kavey

    @Gill – glad you enjoyed!

    @Pei – hope you will find the tips useful!

    @Claire – I just got sent an invitation, I don't know how they came up with their invite list though! It's interesting that you particularly like the cereal bar one – I wasn't confident I'd made a good job on that one but it was best of the ones I took!

  3. Gill the Painter

    I particularly like the spliced image at the end.
    I've tried working out how to merge in photoshop, but cannot quite get it.

    This post makes me want to try that bit harder, rather than give up!

  4. Sarah, Maison Cupcake

    It was good fun wasn't it but it was quite overwhelming to “perform” in a short space of time with so much going on around us. I'm amused by the idea of putting blutack on the bottom of jelly beans, I can just imagine someone who didn't know casually picking one up after the shoot to eat it and getting a surprise. That vintage tin looked gorgeous but it was a bit of nightmare to get the sweets to look good in it.

    Alastair gave us an incredible amount of advice, you've covered loads of stuff that I left out in my list. See you again soon I hope!

  5. Ailbhe

    Another good post from that night. Interesting reading everyone experience. Love the blue and pink shots (and I love turkish delight!)

  6. Kavey

    @Gill – Thanks Gill. I don’t use any merging tools. Basically, I create a new empty file, with plain white background, choosing a size that’s much bigger than I need. Then I open up the other pictures, use the select tool to choose an area and copy it, then switch to the blank new document and paste it in. Don’t worry about position for now. Just repeat for the other bits of the collage, they can all sit on top of each other for now. Once you’ve done that, close the original image files so you’re just left with the new one. Open a palette called Layers, and you’ll see that each image has been pasted into a separate layer. Click to choose the layer and you have a move tool that will allow you to reposition the contents of that layer. So I just move them around to sit the edges next to each other as I want. Then, when done, I crop the whole thing so get rid of the excess white around the edges and neaten up the edges. Flatten the layers and save.

    @Sarah – yes it was quite a pressure to get it done in the time, it was hard knowing where to start, and difficult in such a crowded space, we all seemed to be using one corner of the ballroom! Thanks for your comment!

    @Reji – many thanks, glad you like.

    @Ailbhe – I love turkish delight too, thanks for your comment!

  7. Kavey

    @mathilde – your photography is great already, but I think all of us have something to learn, even the pros. I really enjoyed it a lot and many of the tips were so useful.

    @Dom – welcome to Kavey Eats and thank you so much for your kind comment. I'm really pleased indeed that you will find this post (and Alastair's advice) helpful for your blog too!

  8. Fiona Beckett

    Great post, Kavey. Thanks for taking the trouble to report it in so much detail which is great for those of us who weren't there. (Can't think why PRs don't invite food journos along to this type of event. Seems like bloggers get all the best gigs these days 😉

  9. Kavey

    @fiona – glad it's useful. I think you're one of a small subset of journos who do take their own photography, maybe that's part of it, not sure.

  10. Kavey

    @NorthernSnippet – if you're interested, you can make a few small changes to make some big improvements, but if it's not something that interests, I wouldn't worry about it! 🙂

    @Gill – glad to help!

  11. Greedy Diva

    This is sooooo good. I really need to learn how to use my (very basic) camera. I was blogging for months before Tehbus even showed me the white balance button.

  12. Kavey

    @GreedyDiva – if you shoot in JPEG I think it's worth setting your WB before shooting, as adjusting colour balance afterwards by more than a tiny tweak can really degrade the image. If you shoot RAW, then WB is not recorded within the image data and you can set it when you process the image. x

  13. Elizabeth

    I love the images and the silky pastel colors. What a fun day that must have been. As you found, your post inspired me to get my act together and take better food shots. It's hard to get the right set up at home, because the counter is such chaos when you are actually cooking.

  14. Kavey

    @Elizabeth – I'm thrilled that my post has proved to be an inspiration to you, and also that you have discovered other food blogs, such as the great Culinary Travels, through my blog roll. I know you are like me – really into your travel photography, but lazier about making the effort at home, with food. Good luck to both of us! PS No idea about that plate but it's really pretty, I like it a lot, where did you get it?


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