Food Styling & Food Photography with White On Rice Couple {Workshop Wrap-up with Photo Tips & Styling Essentials}

Improve your food styling and photography tips with a few basic tips courtesy of Todd Porter and Diane Cu (White On Rice Couple).

There is something quite transformative that happens when you surround yourself with like-minded individuals. Gone is the feeling of self-consciousness. No longer must you feel like you have to self-edit before speaking your mind or sharing your vision. There is a common language and a shared understanding that needs no explanation or polite apologies about our obsession over plates, knives, stemware, beautiful produce, the texture in a piece of linen, chipped and aged boards, or the perfect curve in a stem of parsley. There is no jealousy over camera brands or equipment. There is only the photographer with his/her camera, the subject on the table and the light. Always the light.

Yeah, we get each other.

Several weeks ago, I had such a weekend. I had the privilege to finally be able to attend Todd Porter and Diane Cu's Food Styling & Photography workshop in their Costa Mesa studio. Todd and Diane are the multi-talented husband and wife team behind the very successful and absolutely mouth-watering blog White On Rice Couple. They have a very successful food and lifestyle photogrphy business and authored Bountiful: Recipes Inspired by Our Garden, their first cookbook (published in October 2013).

Check out this promo video for the cookbook. They are talented filmmakers as well!

Waking up at o'dark-thirty to get to the workshop in time for the 8am check-in from San Diego, I was tired yet filled with excitement and anticipation for the weekend ahead when I parked my car outside the studio and headed towards the front door. The moment I entered, I was warmly greeted by Diane who welcomed me like I was family. Then it was Todd's turn, who handed me a freshly pulled cappuccino served with a huge smile and friendly, "Welcome!" The smell of breakfast cooking filled my head as I looked around their bright white space -- "Our home away from home," Todd and Diane said many times over the weekend -- and I knew that I'd made the right decision in coming to this 2-Day intensive workshop.

The lovely Diane Cu during the first demo on the first day of the workshop. 
Both Diane and Todd are great in the kitchen and behind the camera but when on set, Diane usually takes on the role of stylist while husband, Todd Porter, below, shoots. 
You'll notice Todd is hand-holding his camera. Not once all weekend did he pull out a tripod.
In fact, everyone was encouraged to not use a tripod during the workshop and instead opt for the freedom of movement that comes with hand-holding your camera. This kind of workflow works especially great for food bloggers.  
Another part of the couple's workflow: always take the first shot "as is" (no light modifiers) to see the light the way the camera sees it. Once you see how the light affects the food, pull out any needed modifiers (black cards, bounce cards, diffusers, etc).
Something I've been doing for quite a while now, Todd shoots "tethered." Meaning, his camera is connected to his laptop or iMac while shooting. The images are automatically loaded into Adobe Lightroom, allowing for immediate comparison between shots for composition, sharpness and light quality.
Do you watch "Chopped" on the Food Network? We had our own "Chopped" pantry to choose items for our shooting sessions. Between the "pantry" and their 13 or so full-sized restaurant racks (see Instagram video below) filled with props, we were like kids in a candy store, I tell ya!

There were nine of us attendees. Three of us were seasoned photographers there not for the technical aspect of photography but rather the business aspect of food photography and styling. Others were also seasoned bloggers and a few had been blogging only a short while, using cell phones or point and shoots. One gal was completely new to photography even buying a laptop and camera specifically for the workshop. She was a dietician by trade and wanted to learn food styling and photography in order to create slides for her presentations and not have to rely on stock photography that didn't quit fit. So we ran the gamut and I remembered thinking as we sat at the table inhaling our delicious breakfast and introducing ourselves to the group, "How on earth is this going to work if we are all over the place experience-wise?"

I needn't have worried. Todd and Diane are so good at what they do, so gracious and patient that we all got what we needed from the workshop despite our varying levels of expertise.

My first shot of the workshop. I fell in love with this mini cake pedestal. So adorable!
Another trick I learned from Diane: food photographs should look alive and juicy. After settling on composition and light, she fills a little cup with some water, dips a paper towel into the water, then dabs and dribbles water on produce to give that juicy,  just cut look. My before shot was no where near as successful as this after shot with the pear "juice" flowing down onto the table.
The set up on the left and Todd explaining what he likes about the shot afterwards. 

It's not just about the end result; it's about the process

Food photography has gone mainstream. A discipline that was once reserved for professional advertising photographers with $10,000 cameras and food stylists who often manipulated dishes with inedible additions to make the food look just so, can now be found on thousands of food blogs and social media news feeds. Inexpensive digital cameras, quality cell phones and an array of specialized apps make it easy for many to start calling themselves a food photographer.

But that doesn't mean it's all good. Some miss the point completely, posting photos with yellow casts, with little to no composition, with distorted perspectives from using too wide a lens too close or with distracting elements left in the frame.

The good news is that it doesn't take a lot of money to quickly improve your food photography. It just takes a little basic preparation and a whole lotta practice.

This shot uses several of Todd and Diane's basic elements of food styling: lines (the knife), curves (the placement of the two branches of kumquats so that they create and "S curve"), movement (the folded linen) and height (the plate on top of the linen, the knife on top of the plate, one kumquat half on the background).

My top five takeaways from the workshop

These five paraphrased takeaways are just a small sampling of what Todd & Diane teach during the workshop. They have so much to share, this doesn't do the workshop justice. Until you can participate in a workshop first-hand, here are a few tips to help you improve your photography right now:

1. Believe in your story: What is going to make your work (or blog) different from everything else out there? Just because someone else is doing something similar to what you are doing – or want to do – doesn't mean you can't do it, too. The key is believing in yourself, in your voice and vision and making everything your own. From the ingredients you choose to the textures you incorporate into your shot, believe in what you're doing.

2. From mood, feel, voice, message: Know what you want to say. You need to think about your message, sometimes even before you write your recipe. Or, if you're working with a client, help your client identify their message. Sometimes it's easier to start with the mood (bright, happy, dramatic, dark) then cook the dish. And just like anything else in life, don't be afraid to change course mid-way. Sometimes, the journey isn't what you planned but planning makes the journey possible. Just break down each element of the job and tackle one at a time.

3. Food is about community and celebration: The process is just as beautiful as a staged and styled photograph. Those "as is" and "in the moment" story photos can sometimes be better than the "perfect" dish shot. Step back, look at the entire scene and see if the story goes beyond the plate of food in front of you.

4. Your eyes are your lens and your heart is your shutter: (That's my favorite quote from the entire weekend!) What you see everyday is going to influence and set the foundation for your own work. Start seeing the world around you as if you are your camera. Your camera is, after all, only a tool, you are the one in control, you are the creator of your vision. Feed your soul with as much inspiration as possible whether that's other food blogs, Pinterst, Flickr, food magazines or your own backyard.

5. Light is life, energy, emotion, depth. Food looks most natural and at it's best in natural light. Whenever possible, shoot during daylight hours near a big window or open door giving you one main light source. Use an old white sheet or tape white tissue paper to the window to diffuse the light. When shooting, think of the set as a clock. You, the shooter, are always at 6 o'clock. The light can be positioned at 12 o'clock, 3 o'clock or 9 o'clock depending on the mood and subject matter. Almost always, for food photography you want to avoid the light source being behind you at 6 o'clock as this will make for a very flat-looking photograph. Remember, shadows give dimensionality to your photographs, especially if used wisely.

The cupcake in front is my "hero" and the cupcakes in back, the crumbs, the mimicking of the red and white with the linens all help to tell the story.
Light or dark? Each have their merits. Personally, I go through periods where I want bright, airy, colorful and times when I like the drama of dark woods and backgrounds. Do you have a preference?
You can see from my Instagram below that I shot this on the floor with my light exactly at 12 o'clock and used two black Foamcore boards to modify my light and place it exactly where I want it. I also used layering, texture and movement in my composition.

The basic elements of food styling

1. Focus on the "hero": Always find the perfect, most pretty piece of food or food feature and focus on that without over-cropping in camera.

2. Look for balance: Don't over-crowd the shot. Leave room to "breathe."

3. Texture: In the food, the props and background adds to the mood and overall story
Color affects mood. What mood do you want? Light and bright or dark and moody?

4. Watch for lines: lines can draw you in or draw you out of the frame. Use them to your advantage from the direction of the silverware, to stripes in the linen or cracks in the background boards, always be aware of lines. 

5. Movement and motion: Photography is 2-dimensional so always consider movement when setting up a shot. From the curve of a stem of parsley to folding and creating curves with linen, movement will add life to your final shot. Consider creating swirls in frothy drinks, smoothies, dips or soups when plating to give the illusion of motion.

6. Height: From a 45 degree or head on view, the height of the food and props need to be considered for both balance and composition. In an overhead shot, consider layering props such as a chopping board on top of your background board and a linen draped over the chopping board and the dish set on top of that. Height adds depth.

This full working kitchen in the studio was large enough for us to gather around for the hour-and-a-half food styling basics demo. Diane concentrated on sharing with us tips on how to style some of the most difficult things to style: soup, salad, sandwich. 
More demos. This time, how to make a bowl of soup interesting. 
Editing time! Everyone was encouraged to load Adobe Lightroom onto their laptops for the workshop. Todd and Diane shared with us their Lightroom workflow which is another segment of the workshop I was looking forward to.
We had the opportunity to paint two boards on Day 1 that we then used on Day 2 and got to take home with us. This board has already made it into both a shot that graced the cover of the U-T Food section and for a shoot here on 'Confessions.'

During the last day's critique, Diane said this shot of mine was very Donna Hay-like. Did that ever make my day! I adore the food photography in Donna Hay Magazine. 
This was plain, cold canned tomato soup. I carefully ladled so that I would get the swirls in the soup for movement and added the tomatoes, garlic, basil and bread to help tell the story. Looking at this now, makes me want a bowl of tomato soup. Yum.

Ready. Set. Go!

The last shooting session of the workshop was a "shoot-out." While Todd was helping folks edit their work, Diane set up nine "sets" in various locations throughout their large studio. When she was ready, we each were blindly escorted to a location and when the whistle blew, we had exactly five minutes to look over our set and shoot. Some sets had light modifiers, some didn't. We could not touch or move any of the food. Basically, it was an exercise in being presented with sometimes less than ideal situations and learning to see the beauty in it. It was amazing how very quickly 5 minutes passes, especially if you're needing to change from a 50mm lens to a 100 macro! This was a really fun exercise.   The following images were my shoot-out favorites.

This is an iPhone shot. After we did the shoot-out, we were allowed to go back to any sets we shot that we didn't necessarily like our take from. Instead, I left my 5D Mark III at my desk and went around the sets shooting with my iPhone. Diane said, during one workshop, a gal used only her iPhone the entire time to force herself to see differently. I loved it. And again, it proves that even with a cell phone, if you have a basic understanding of light and composition, you can make a successful photograph.

Parting thoughts

The number one thing I got out of the entire 2 day weekend workshop? Don't compare your photographs to others. Instead, embrace your own story and remember that there is value in the imperfect photo. Because, above all, authenticity is beautiful.

Connect with Todd & Diane

Todd on Instagram. Twitter.

Diane on Instagram. Twitter.

Their blog. Their portfolio.

Find workshop information here.

Or purchase and download their Creative Live workshop.

Ready to take a workshop yourself? There's one this September. Register here

Until next time my friends! Here's some words of wisdom from Julia Child:

"Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it."



  1. Ani, what a lovely post. Thanks for sharing. Your pics are always so beautiful! xo

  2. I, too, had a day with these amazing folks, back before I even had a dslr, if you can imagine. I still look for my "hero" every shot I take. Your work is amazing, Ani - saw you in the UT this morning!

    1. Aren't they just an awesome couple? So open and willing to put ego aside and share their knowledge. And, thanks! That ceviche shoot was fun.

  3. What a fantastic post! It's a lesson in food photography in its own right. I love your photography, you have such a great eye. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Thank you, Lisa! I was hoping it would be. Although, taking a workshop first hand from Diane and Todd is just an incredible experience.

  4. Excellent tips and photos


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