How I Got My Job: Food Stylist Ella Tarn

Do you love taking pictures of your food and making it look as delicious as possible? Then becoming a food stylist may be an interesting career for you to consider! We spoke to an expert in the field, Ella Tarn, who works with a long list of clients including Waitrose, Co-op and Wahaca. Keep reading to hear about the most surprising food styling methods, the impact of Social Media and how to make #foodporn a career…

How did you end up working as a food stylist?

I actually did a History of Art degree, but spent a lot of my lecture time googling recipes and planning my dinner. I then started working in food PR but quickly realised it was just the food I was interested in. I enrolled in a 9-month culinary diploma at Le Cordon Bleu in London to learn how to cook properly. As soon as I finished I started to assist other food stylists, landed myself a job at Delicious Magazine and went on from there.
 

Photography by Toby Scott

What does your typical day look like?

I’ll get a food delivery in the morning, then pack my food styling kit, get in the car and drive to the photographer’s studio. We usually start at 9am and try to fit in six to eight shots per day. There are quite a few days when I literally don’t sit down until I get in the car to go home at about 5pm. Dinner will usually be whatever hasn’t been eaten or shared on the shoot – that is if I haven’t already picked at what I’ve been cooking.

How would you describe your job in three words?

Creative, busy, fun.
 

Photography by Toby Scott

Did you always enjoy cooking?

I’ve loved cooking for as long as I remember. I used to subject my parents to some questionable homemade cakes from a very early age. I like to think I’ve improved significantly since then!

What advice would you give the Instagram community when it comes to taking pictures of food?

Natural light is key, food always looks best when shot in daylight. It’s annoying when you’ve got a beautiful plate of food in front of you and it’s dark or you’ve got artificial lights overhead, but the shadows just won’t do your food any favours. Try taking the picture from overhead, unless you’ve got a calm and attractive background, or it’ll take away from the subject.
 

Photography by Toby Scott

What’s your advice when it comes to editing images of food?

Don’t zoom in too much on the food, it’s good to see what it is from the first glance. It’s tempting to slap a filter on your picture, but it’s a bit old news and can take the vibrancy out of the colours.

Can you tell us about some surprising methods food stylists use to make food look better?

Food fakery varies hugely from project to project and stylist to stylist, but Christmas Turkeys are a prime example. A lot of the time they’re wildly undercooked, then painted with a combination of Marmite and fairy liquid to brown them. This isn’t always necessary but if it’s got to sit on set for a long time, it’s got to look the same the whole time. A quick painting of oil or water are key to making food look hot and fresh. and a scattering of every fresh herbs goes a log way to perk up a dull looking dish.
 

Photography by Toby Scott

What impact do you think Social Media has had on your career?

Instagram has had a huge impact – it’s a platform to show what you can do, especially with food. It’s made some food stylist’s careers by giving them a name. I’ve been booked purely from a picture I put on Instagram, but that’s pretty rare. I also have another account which has absolutely nothing to do with food – sometimes you need a break from feeling hungry!

What was your most challenging food styling job so far?

Shooting five perfect scoops of ice cream in cones next to each other, all at the same time, on a very very hot day. I’ve never moved so fast.

How do you get started if you want to become a food stylist?

A culinary diploma is the best way to start. You need to be able to cook anything. The down side is that diplomas are really expensive, but you could learn on the job and work in a restaurant kitchen for a while to learn the ropes. Other than that, assisting other food stylists is the only way to learn all the tricks of the trade.
 

Photography by Maja Smend

What is your favourite food to style?

Cakes, baking, bread, anything sweet – you name it. I did a patisserie diploma and that’s where my heart is. You can be so creative with cakes, a single slice of cake can look so dramatic.

What are essential tools you need for your work?

Sharp knives, firstly. My toolbox is filled with some weird and wonderful things but a good paintbrush for oil, spray bottle for water and a julienne peeler to cut vegetables nicely are probably my most used tools.

 

Hero image credits: Portrait photo by Ant Duncan for ellatarn.com, cake photo by Faith Mason