Food Styling 101: Burritos

When I put out the call for your food styling stumbling blocks after a quick primer on ugly foods, the responses were greatly varied, but a few particular dishes stood out from the pack.  Burritos caught my eye first, as more than one or two people named them as particularly uncooperative photography subjects. For good reason, these tortilla torpedoes are notoriously difficult to photograph in an appealing light; Packed with generally brown, red, and maybe yellow components, they’re not exactly bright rainbows of fresh ingredients. It’s easy for them to look tired, droopy, sloppy, or just plain greasy.

The good news is, there’s no need for them to ever appear that way through the lens! Although I would never suggest that I compose burritos like this for an everyday meal, special considerations do need to be made when they’re the “hero” of a shot.

As I was styling and photographing this particular specimen, I tried to think of tips and tricks that helped bring it into the world looking like a glamorous movie star, and not a second rate stand-in. Here’s what I came up with so that others might be able to fix their burrito blemishes…

  • Bear in mind which side you want to be “up” as you build a burrito. If you want the top to be smooth tortilla, then What you lay down first will end up on top. If you don’t mind a “flap” from the tortilla edges on top, then you can build it right-side up.
  • Try to keep mushier components to the bottom, so that when you slice it, they don’t smear through all of the following layers. This means guacamole, re-fried beans, hummus, and the like are better placed near the base of your assembly.
  • Include a good number of greatly varied layers, but don’t go overboard. 4 – 5 different things is about the maximum before it starts to just look like a mess of everything you had leftover in the fridge.
  • Be generous, but don’t over-stuff. A burrito blow out is never attractive.
  • Make sure you include something green, somewhere. Herbs, grilled zucchini, avocado chunks, anything! Green evokes the feeling of freshness, which helps to prevent the burrito from looking like a sad, reheated gas station offering. It also adds pops of contrasting color to create interest.
  • Strain salsa and other “wet” condiments to prevent a watery, mushy mess. Likewise, dab sliced tomatoes on a paper towel to remove some of the excess liquid before adding them to a burrito (or sandwich, for that matter.)
  • Save small amounts of every ingredient, to “fluff up” filling later. This is most noticeable in the beans- I like to show half of the sliced pieces to give it a more realistic look, but add in a few more whole ones to give it more texture and variety. Be sure to toss those whole beans in just a dab of oil to keep them shiny, or brush on a very thin layer with a clean paintbrush once they’re in place.
  • Use toothpicks to keep the roll intact. I usually start with one at each end, and break off the excess so that they’re not sticking out and visible. Then, as I cut and rearrange the pieces, I may add more in as needed. Just don’t forget that they’re there when you go to eat it later!
  • To cut your burrito, use a sharp knife, and apply gentle pressure while using a sawing motion. Don’t just smash the blade down and crush the fragile ingredients within.

Then, when it comes to capturing your burrito masterpiece…

  • Think about the “meal” as a whole to fill out the rest of the set. Consider including a beverage, sliced citrus, chips, dip, fresh herb garnish, and other simple, colorful, or graphic elements to add interest surrounding the subject.
  • Keep the colors light, bright, and clean. A burrito tends to look heavy by nature, so you want to balance that out with contrasting elements.
  • Use a mirror to direct a “spotlight” right onto the filling. Since I prefer a back light for most of my photos (just place the plate in front of the window, easy as that), the cut sides have a tendency to go dark unless otherwise highlighted.
  • Shoot from a low angle so you can see all of that glorious filling!

That concludes this class on burrito styling. Are there any more questions before we move on to the next? Raise your hand, speak up, and I’d be happy to go on! Don’t be afraid to suggest the next subject either, because if everyone enjoyed this, you can count on the Food Styling 101 series to become a regular feature here!

37 thoughts on “Food Styling 101: Burritos

  1. I recently learned how hard it is to take a decent picture of a sandwich and I remember spending half a day trying to get a decent shot of a filled crepe. Thank you for all these wonderful tips, Hannah!

  2. Great tips! I’d love for this series to continue. It would be really helpful if you could share some meta pictures – that is, pictures of your set that include light sources, placement, etc. :)

  3. “Tortilla torpedoes” is the best euphemism for “burrito” I think I’ve ever seen. Good one! :)

    I’m still having a hard time, since you last asked, of thinking of foods I think are ugly. I guess I’m not hard to please when it comes to edibles’ beauty, heh. However, I realized yesterday that it’s hard to make a banana split NOT look at least a little bit phallic. Does that count? :P

  4. Perhaps you’ve posted on this before, but it is really hard for to to make any soups look good! Are there any important differences in shooting broths vs. heartier stews? Thanks for all the tips. I do wonder, though; how long do you take to photograph a normal meal (one that you are actually planning to eat)?

    1. Soups can definitely be tricky, and yes, there are different approaches for dealing with a broth-y soup or a hearty stew. That could be a good upcoming topic!

      For styling and photographing a meal, I go pretty fast… As long as I’m going by my own artistic vision (aka, not waiting for approval from a third party that’s hired me) I can usually get through the process and be happily chowing down within 30 minutes.

  5. Thanks for all the great tips, I’ll have to refer to this next time I try to photography a burrito, it’s always a challenge!

  6. Thanks, Hannah! Great tips from the most stylin’ little vegan burrito ever (YOU!)!

    And thanks also for the sweet comments on my blog. It was wonderful to meet you, too (and Mama Bittersweet!). Sorry we didn’t have more time to chat–it was a whirlwind, wasn’t it? Next gathering, we will have to spend more time…xo

  7. If you could find a way to gently tell people that instagram doesn’t make their food photos any better than a regular camera phone picture, that would be amazing.

  8. I love this post and hope it is a regular series!!! I’d love some hints on photographing curries and other stew like things. Thanks!!

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