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Secrets of the Stylists
The unsung heroes of photography, food and prop stylists must embrace the unexpected with resourcefulness and creativity.

by Elise Craig

It’s not easy to destroy a basketball. Nearly impossible, even. Artfully dismantling $1,000 worth of rubber and leather Wilsons takes some serious creativity.

In fall 2012, ESPN asked Austin, Texas–based prop stylist Robin Finlay and her photographer husband Adam Voorhes to deliver images of torn-apart basketballs in time for the NCAA tournament. Their only instruction? “Destroy a basketball in as many ways as you can come up with,” Finlay says.

Left: Food stylist Randy Mon uses his favorite tools—chopsticks—to place a raspberry atop a perfectly sculpted pile
of nondairy whipped topping for an image that will appear on the product’s package. Right: Prop stylist Robin Finlay
had 48 hoursto build an image for a Details cover about visionary people. At first, she and photographer
Adam Voorhes considered 3-D printing the design, but then decided that creating it with foam board,
X-Acto knives and a ton of Super Glue would be faster. The floating sections were hung with
thin wire, which Voorhes retouched out of the image.

So she bought sixteen balls and used some imagination. She cut one apart with sharp shears, shoved another through a wood chipper and crushed yet another with a vice. Voorhes took one out to a local ranch and blew it apart with a shotgun. After a semi-successful attempt to freeze one of the balls with dry ice, Finlay went all out. “We ended up with a giant tank of liquid nitrogen that we get refilled and use from time to time,” she says. “We like to freeze things and blow things up.”

Which is convenient, because neither is an unusual request for a prop stylist like Finlay. When a magazine wants a perfect shot of a model brain, it’s her job to figure out that casting a brain out of resin will produce an unwanted, cloudy result, whereas casting one out of sugar will lead to a perfectly clear model organ. When Caesars Hotels and Casinos wanted an image of its laurel-leaf logo assembled from knife blades, it was up to her to drive to eleven stores to procure 60 versions of the exact same knife. When she needed a completely pink pig—no spots, please—for a story in Details magazine, she used Craigslist and Facebook and finally found one at a local barn.

For food and prop stylists, almost no request is too weird. The final image needs to fit a certain aesthetic, whether it’s a look for a magazine cover, an advertisement or the front of a cereal box. Client work falls into two main categories: commercial, which includes advertising, packaging and catalogs, and editorial. Commercial jobs tend to pay a lot more, but editorial usually allows for more creativity. On editorial shoots, the stylists often create the image’s final aesthetic themselves. “Advertising pays the bills,” says Helen Quinn, a New York–based artist and stylist. “Editorial is supposed to be more beautiful so you can use it in your book. You want the editorial to be super-gorgeous or it’s not worth it.” Magazines also provide high-profile exposure, which helps stylists land the cushier commercial gigs.

In advertising work, stylists are usually following a creative director’s specific vision, which could have them, say, spending an hour and a half arranging a bay-leaf garnish for a photo on the packaging of a cookware set, as San Francisco–based food stylist Randy Mon found himself doing not long ago. As silly as that may sound, the work that food and prop stylists do is crucial for the agencies and magazines they work for. “I think of them as being really important in making a shoot look effortless,” says Paul Wang, senior design director at Prophet, a San Francisco branding firm. “I’ve done shoots where the prop stylist is almost as important as the model or wardrobe—if not more important.”

That can be particularly true in food styling, where something as detailed as the way cereal flakes are arranged can make or break a photo. Though the industry has mostly moved away from the days when turkeys were shellacked and strawberries were painted with lipstick, food stylists still use a lot of tricks to create appetizing photos. To make sure a bowl of cereal looks perfect, Mon will start with “a carefully manicured bed of Crisco, so if you’re sticking flakes or granola clusters you can spend two hours composing each flake before ever adding milk.” Aesthetically pleasing bacon starts in a microwave for a perfectly curled look, then is cooked slowly, submerged in oil so it browns uniformly. The best way to get perfectly gooey cheese? Melt it with a clothes steamer.

Sometimes, though, the most complicated parts of a shoot have nothing to do with the food. In spring 2013, Mon was sent to a Napa, California, vineyard to work on a television commercial for Canadian cookie brand Peek Freans. The concept was to use a rigged table that would pop up and spill all its contents, tossing food and breaking china. Played backward and in slow motion, the footage appears to show all the ingredients coming together. “Things rise up very slowly and collide and come back down to the table as platters of cookies,” Mon says. In real life, of course, Mon, his three assistants and the prop stylist had to prepare for everything to fall apart—which meant having eight versions of the same porcelain teapot and saucer, plus plenty of oats and chocolate chunks, which he made himself by chopping bars of chocolate and melting them down. “The job for me was more logistical than creative,” Mon says. “I was given a budget of $1,200, which wasn’t very much, and had to decide, given doing it eight times, how to ration that money—how much to spend on chocolate chunks and cherries out of season at $92 a case.” Craig
Elise Craig ( is a freelance writer and editor based in San Francisco. She has written for Businessweek,,, Wallpaper* and other publications and has held positions at the Washington Post and Wired.