Food Styling 101: Soup

Nearly a full year (!) has elapsed since my last entry in this series, but it was never my intention to let it fall by the wayside. There are, of course, a million different foods with their own unique sets of photographic challenges, so it was never for a lack of material that the posts lagged. Without wasting any more time, let’s dive right back in… To a big bowl of hot soup.

Whether rich or wan, thick or brothy, soup is particularly difficult to style and capture in photos. For those who’ve mastered the art, the results could be worth of a calendar composed of photos, showcasing your best soups for each month. The category is huge, spanning all cultures and ingredients imaginable, but there are a few guidelines to remember for documenting any liquid lunch.

Cook everything (or as much as possible) separately.
When cooking for myself, soups are a favorite one-pot meal, but stewing all of the ingredients together does not yield the most visually appealing results. Vegetables have different cooking times, and although it’s fine to eat a slightly overcooked, greyed pea, it’s not what you want to see in a photo. Keeping the components separate also gives you control over the exact amounts of everything in each bowl, and what is most prominently featured as well. If it’s a tofu soup, I want to see some tofu! The carrots might be in perfect dices and that’s all very nice, but those backup singers shouldn’t get the spotlight if the recipe is named after something else.

This may mean deviating from the given recipe slightly, so be aware of what can and can’t be removed from the main procedure. In general, the main body of a soup should remain intact (especially if it involves caramelizing or stewing anything thoroughly) but all mix-ins should stay out of the pool until the end. Noodles in particular need special attention, and must be rinsed in cold water once they’re cooked through to prevent them from becoming mushy. Fresh herbs must remain far away from all that heat until the very moment you’re turning on your camera and beginning to focus the lens. They wilt in mere seconds, so be prepared to switch out droopy herbs if you need a second or third take.

Build your bowl from bottom to top. Assemble your “hero” dish like a layer cake. Put the nice looking, but not gorgeous solid ingredients at the bottom, and be more meticulous about arranging the best examples on top. Once you have the body or “meat” of the soup in place, very carefully pour broth on top. Readjust the filling as needed, and only then can you add garnishes.

Choosing where to build your bowl of soup is an issue that even I struggle with often. It’s a fine line to walk; wanting a generous portion of liquid, but not wanting to spill it while moving the dish to the set. I’m notoriously clumsy about these things, so I often style the base of the soup off set, adding just a small splash of the soup itself. Once it’s safely in place where it will be photographed, only then do I top it off (Very carefully!) with a final ladle full of broth.

Go heavy on the veg, light on broth to prevent it from looking watery. The same concept is applicable to thick, creamy soups as well. If you’ve only got a few of the goodies floating around in there, it’s gonna look skimpy no matter how lavishly you decorate the set. However, maybe you want just a plain, chunk-less creamy soup, and that’s perfectly fine, too! Just stick with one or the other; a spare soup is no fun to eat or look at.

Enhance broth with just a touch of turmeric to make it look richer. A tiny pinch goes a long way, but evokes that classic look of a long-simmered stock, bursting with flavor. Since you can’t actually offer viewers a taste, give them a hand with that visual cue to say “this is a deeply savory, well-seasoned, and delicious dish.”

Finish with a flourish. For perfectly smooth soups, add something exciting either to the side or in the center, to prevent it from looking too plain. A dollop or swirl of vegan yogurt is always a favorite, since it adds such great contrast and motion all in one swoop. Fresh herbs are a classic addition, as is a tiny drizzle of oil. More than one garnish is perfectly acceptable, but don’t go too crazy. Remember that simplicity is best.

Mind the glare. Think about each bowlful of soup as a giant mirror, and you’ll be two steps ahead of the game. Know where your light source is, and check in the viewfinder to see how and where it’s reflecting. If you want to show off all those lovely components you just spent so much time preparing, a steeper downward angle is better for capturing them. A little bit of shine and highlight is necessary (not to mention, unavoidable) but you generally want to avoid having a glare across the entire surface of the soup. When you shoot at a steeper angle (say, 45 degrees or so) you’ll pick up more of that reflection, and bear in mind that if you have more than one light source, you’ll have many more hot spots to keep in check. This would be a handy time to break out a black bounce card or gobo to cut down on those overly shiny areas.

Don’t forget about adding steam, too! Demonstrating that the soup is piping hot does wonders to evoke hunger, since it looks like it’s ready to be devoured right at that very second.

Speaking of which, what styling tips are you hungry for next? If you want to see more of this series, I need your suggestions!

42 thoughts on “Food Styling 101: Soup

  1. I love the idea of this series. These are great tips (turmeric in soup!). I find myself just snapping away tons of photos and crossing my fingers that one comes out good. I would love to see tips on food photos in low light as well as any post-processing tips.

  2. Thank you for this! I am trying to get into food photography as well, so this is quite helpful. Especially as I consider soup not to be the most beautiful food ;)
    I usually struggle to make nice pictures of cookies. Or muffins (not cupcakes). And green smoothies that turn out brown! (even though… I guess they are just ugly. No lack of photography skills here ;) )
    Taking good pictures of ice cream BEFORE it melts is kind of tricky, too…

  3. Hannah, you totally rule. These are great tips. I need to read up on your other info and advice from this series. I see my food photography getting better over the years but you’re absolutely in another league and class of your own. Guess I should’ve paid more attention at art school (and particularly to the photography instructors) instead of just always wanting to make my own stuff my way, forgoing much of the traditional, serious, technical instruction. Now I’m making up for it!

  4. Thank you for sharing all these tips, Hannah! I’ve been making a lot of soups and I was looking for ways to control the amount of light reflected on the surface, so I appreciate advice on black bounce cards! I’ll have to try something like that.
    I’d love to read more posts on food styling and photography, too. And now I really want to make your zucchini & chickpea soup.

  5. Wowww these are seriously great tips!!! I’ve never thought about the whole turmeric addition. And I’m glad to know that one thing I TRY to remember to do is adding the quick-cooking ingredients last. Doesn’t always happen though! :P

  6. You always blow me away with how gorgeous your pics are – and soup, oh soup, can be SUCH a pain. The reflection and the glare and the steam and it all, well, you know. “Build your bowl from bottom to top” – yes in Helene’s book and in a class I took with Matt Armendariz and Adam they said the same thing – build up. The layered look, if you will.

    Stunning images, as always!

  7. These are great tips – such an interesting topic – I studied it a little at college, but reading this has got me interested again – how I long for a better camera – meantime, I’ll be using your tips to help me get better results – thank you!

  8. Hey I love this! I just started food blogging too and my photography skills are absolutely horrendous. These are awesome tips and I’ll definitely use them in the future. Also could you recommend a good camera? I’m thinking of upgrading from my digital to an actual camera.

  9. This is such a great post, Hannah! You definitely have a gift for photography (and writing!) and it is so kind of you to share tips with us. Thank you! My food photos are mediocre so I can definitely apply a lot of your tips!!

  10. I’m not sure what you’ve already given tips for, but I’d be up for one on desserts — to narrow it down just a bit, baked goods (cookies, cupcakes, bars, pies…).

  11. This was such a useful post! Thank you for sharing your great ideas and gorgeous pictures. I especially like the idea of cooking everything separately and then laying in the essential highlighted components at the end.

  12. Terrific post. I’d love to see some shots of your prop closet, and to hear how you built it up. Yard sales? Store clearances? Years of collecting?

    I’d also be interested in hearing about where your photo shoots take place. I’m finding that photographing outdoors yields much better results in terms of lighting but comes with its own set of challenges — like wind, for one. Where I live, it is really windy.

    1. I’ll see if I can get some shots of the “prop closet” shortly, but it’s a tight space, and has actually now spilled out into an entire second room, in addition to parts of the kitchen as well. It’s a little out of control!

      To reach this size, it’s taken a bit of all of the above. Bargain hunting is key, and anywhere that you can get discount dishes is a good place to look. I buy a little at a time, so I can use and appreciate each addition before acquiring something new. They key is to keep everything more or less accessible and visible, so you don’t forget what you have an either neglect it or buy it a second time.

      I almost never photograph outside, simply because I have less control (over light, weather, and wind, as you mentioned). It’s certainly brighter, but unless you diffuse the sunlight, it’s direct and can be rather harsh. If it’s working for you though, that’s what counts most! Go wherever the light is. :)

  13. I love your food styling posts, thanks so much for doing another! You have included so many great tips here…I really love the idea of adding a pinch of turmeric to enhance the broth — I will be trying that!

    I’d like to see a post on styling casseroles. They don’t usually stay together nicely on a plate, but I’m sick of just photographing the whole gratin dish. I need new ideas, lol.

    1. Oh man, casseroles are about my least favorite thing to photograph too. I guess that means it would be a worthy subject to cover… I could use some practice anyhow! This is one I’ll definitely add as a potential styling tutorial.

  14. Wonderful!! I try not to spend much time on photos because I try to just blog for fun and not think about it-if I think about it, then I start feeling the need to improve, and then I just won’t do it! Messed up, eh??!!!!! Wonderful photos-and we all know making soup look great isn’t an easy task!

  15. Thank you! Soup is one of my least favorite subjects to shoot, because it just never looks appetizing when I’m finished. It’s irritating, because my education is in photography, but they never taught us how to shoot food in art school (go figure), so when something small like this trips me up, I kind of lose my mind over it. And adding steam is just brilliant! Thanks again, Hannah, you’re brilliant!

  16. Thank you so much for this post! I was so engrossed, I spent about an hour going through all of your prior posts on food styling & photography. Your blog is such a great resource for great recipes, stunning photos, and now a guide for improving our photography! Thank you! :-)

  17. Thanks Hannah. I love this series. It’s funny because I used to think I took pretty good pictures, but after a few rejections from Foodgawkers and the likes I started questioning my photography. Through a lot of trial and error I have managed to turn things around and take acceptable pictures, but there are certain foods that totally befuddle me…soup being one of them. so when it cools down and I am inspired to make soup again, I will be using these techniques as I photograph. Thanks again!

    1. Aw, this makes me sad to hear! Don’t let anyone, Foodgawker or any web-based clique especially, let you think any less of your own work. They’re only seeking a particular style of photography, which isn’t to say that it’s the best or only “correct” way to capture your food. There’s a certain formula for creating “acceptable” images for those purposes, but keep experimenting beyond that, and do what you think looks best. Don’t allow anyone to trample on your creativity or tell you what to do!

  18. Wonderful post Hannah! It’s amazing how you manage to make soup look so appetizing! I feel hungry just looking at your photos!

    I find it a hard subject to photograph so the tips that you have given is more than helpful! It will be good if you can do a post on photographing one pot dishes like stews…or one colour dishes like risotto and mac & cheese.. just naming some off the top of my mind…

  19. Thanks, Hannah. I now see just how much useful photography info you have in your archives, I’ll be going back and reading through that. There’s so much more I could do on the photography. You do a great job putting that yogurt garnish on in a beautiful way, there must be some kind of art to that. The baristas here in Seattle always do such a beautiful job of swirling and decorating their cups of coffee, reminding me of the marbling art projects I used to do. Wish I could make the tops of my soups look so nice.

    1. I’m seriously thrilled to think that I might have inspired you so! It does bother me how the older posts are just lost in space, if you will, because it’s so hard for anyone new to the blog to even know what they’re looking for. The fact that you would go back and read those neglected posts really warms my heart. :) Thank you!

      And seriously, I wish I knew how to make latte art. Someday I’ll have to pony up the cash and take a formal class. Hey, it’s all part of my education/college expense, right?

  20. Fascinating. Thanks for the tips! I do wish I had more time to be a food photographer and less of a get-it-on-the-table-cause-I-wanna-eat food blogger :)

  21. Love those styling tips Hannah. I know ( well usually) how to take a photo but that doesn’t mean I know how to style! And yes soup is not the easiest to do.. Maybe do something about curries or stews next. I know loads of people struggle with that!

  22. Not only are your photos droolishus, but they really make me want to hurl my old camera (faithful as it is…how fickle am I!) into the Tamar and race off and hock the dogs for a new one. I dare say I would still take crap photos, but there is something about all of those new unfamiliar buttons that until you learn what to press and when, give you an elevated sense of your own ability to take wonderful photos. I am starting to think that perhaps it ISN’T just the cameras…sigh… ;)

  23. I love this series (and goodness knows I need the help!). Since you’re taking suggestions… how about some tips on styling foods that are already yellow- like a pineapple curried fried rice, for example. The pictures I took of it look like I had bad lighting (I didn’t, really) and that’s why they were yellow… when in fact it was the food itself!

  24. pinned this post! its a struggle to take appealing pictures of all the indian daal and bean stews. this is so helpful. keep this series going

  25. With the baking season right around the corner, I would love to see some posts on photographing desserts (cookies in particular). Per usual, you do an excellent job in photographing food and explaining how you do it!

  26. I have a post that I need to put up tomorrow and the photos did NOT turn out when I took them today. Your tips on soup are great! I’m going to see if I can’t make this soup look as good as it tastes :)

Leave a Reply