The objective of food photography is, usually, to portray the inherent beauty of food. And, just as when you are preparing food for eating, garnishing is one of the easiest ways of enhancing a dish for the camera. A carefully chosen garnish can add just the right splash of colour, textural detail and/or height which really lifts the final image. Some foods, such as mousses and soups can sometimes be tricky to photograph because of their flat and monotone surfaces. Adding a garnish makes it so much easier by providing you with a focal point for the image.
Depending on the set up for the image, I often like to think beyond the plate when I'm garnishing. I supppose in effect, you could think of it as garnishing the image. By this I mean, things like adding a sprig of mint or a flower to the side of the plate or scattering a few chopped hazelnuts over the table top as well as on the plate of cookies. Another idea if you're photographing something like cakes, pastries and cookies is to use the crumbs as a garnish. It sounds a bit odd, but a few naturally positioned crumbs can really bring the image to life. Is this really garnishing? I think it is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb to garnish means 'to decorate or to embellish' which is exactly what you do to the image, albeit with a few crumbs. Obviously you wouldn't do this when serving the food but there's more room for creative licence when you're choosing garnishes for photography. Whilst normally you wouldn't really want to garnish cookies with inedible flowers, pretty coloured raffia or crumbs, for photographic purposes it's perfectly acceptable!
Let's get back to the more traditional view of garnishing now and have a look at some garnishing fundamentals ...
How to Choose Relevant Garnishes
I like to break this down into three categories and classify garnishes as:
- a reflection of the ingredients within the dish
- suitable accompaniments
- integral elements of the dish
Now, let's look at each of these in more detail ...
1. A Reflection of the Ingredients within the Dish
This is one of the easiest and most fail safe ways to choose a garnish. Look at the ingredients that you are using and see if there is anything there that you can single out to use as a garnish. Replicating one or more of the ingredients doesn't mean that you need to use the same form that is in the dish though. So, say for example, the ingredient you've selected is coconut milk then you could use toasted coconut flakes, shredded or desiccated coconut as the garnish. Here's some more examples:
NUT MILKS OR GROUND NUTS - flaked, chopped or whole nuts (toasted or raw), praline
FRUIT (PUREE, DRIED, GRATED, CHOPPED ETC.) - whole or sliced fruit, fruit compote
CHOCOLATE OR COCOA - chocolate shavings or curls, grated chocolate, a dusting of cocoa powder, piped chocolate shapes, cacao nibs
CITRUS FRUIT - zest, slices, quarters or wedges, candied peel diced or sliced
2. Suitable Accompaniments
It's commonly accepted that many foods, in particular meat, fish and poultry, have certain foods that are known to be suitable accompaniments for them. Where possible, it therefore makes sense to use these foods as garnishes. Many of these pairings have developed over the years, and even centuries, so you can be sure that they are tried and tested partners. Whilst some of the accompaniments are obvious such as pork and sage, others may be less well known, like lamb and lavender for instance.
Here's some ideas for food pairings:
BEEF - horseradish, mustard, thyme, bay leaves, mushrooms, shallots, roast/baked cherry tomatoes
LAMB - mint, rosemary, lavender, capers, olives, garlic, redcurrants, rhubarb, roast/baked cherry tomatoes
VENISON - juniper berries, cranberries, chestnuts, orange, dark chocolate
PORK - apples, pears, sage, fennel, rosemary, mustard, onion, garlic, caraway, cloves, juniper berries
HAM/GAMMON - parsley, bay leaves, cloves, citrus fruit, pineapple, redcurrants
TURKEY - cranberries, bacon, chestnuts, sage, onion, lemon
CHICKEN - sage, onion, tarragon, chervil, coriander, rosemary, bacon, lemon
DUCK - sage, orange, cherries, plums
FISH & SHELLFISH - dill, chervil, parsley, tarragon, chives, fennel, watercress
OILY FISH (eg. mackerel) - sage, gooseberries, rhubarb
EGGS - dill, parsley, tarragon, chervil
CABBAGE - caraway seeds, bacon
CARROTS - mint, thyme, parsley, coriander, lemon
PEAS - mint, tarragon, lemon
TOMATOES - basil, olives, oregano, capers, thyme
POTATOES - spring onions, lemon, mint, chives, nutmeg, capers
CUCUMBER - dill, mint, tarragon
3. Integral Part of the Dish
Sometimes you don't need to add a garnish as such as the individual components within the dish can themselves become the garnish. Accompaniments like sauces, vegetables, salads and fruits can all become attractive garnishes. This is such a subtle way of garnishing that you probably wouldn't even class something like a handful of french beans as a garnish. But they are.
Techniques for Adding Garnishes
I either use the following techniques independently or more often than not try a combination of different techniques. Always keeping in mind that less is often more though.
The following ingredients are all great for scattering/sprinkling over or around dishes - over the food, on the plate and/or even as part of the background:
- salt flakes
- cracked peppercorns
- chopped or sliced vegetables
- pomegranate seeds
- chocolate shavings
- coconut flakes
- micro greens
- and don't forget the cake, cookie or pastry crumbs!
I prefer to use a light touch with this technique and try to avoid totally obscuring the food. Dusting of one or more of the following ingredients, over or around the food, creates colour and textural interest:
- icing sugar
- cocoa powder
3. As Nature Intended
Food in its natural state, such as a wedge or slice of lemon, a sprig of herbs or a bunch of cherry tomatoes on the vine are all ideal garnishes. If I'm using clusters of a particular garnish I think that they usually look more harmonious if they are grouped in odd numbers. Depending on the angle of the photograph, I sometimes find I need to position the garnish slightly differently than if I was serving the food. Sometimes it helps to bring the garnish forward slightly to make it look more aesthetically pleasing in the image. Then I just keep tweaking the position until it looks right.
4. Formal Garnishes
Positioning the main garnishes in geometric or symmetrical designs helps to give a more formal impression. I use natural garnishes, as above, or immaculately and evenly chopped, diced fruits or vegetables. Or, occasionally, if I'm feeling particularly creative and dextrous, and it's appropriate for the dish, I create some arty fruit and vegetable garnishes. To soften the look of the formal garnishes, I'll then scatter or dust the dish with other complementary garnishes.
5. Integral Garnishes
As previously mentioned, side dishes and sauces are subtle garnishes that make the dish look naturally beautiful. Colourful vegetables, salads or fruits are all ideal for this. Sauces too, either pooled or drizzled artistically on the plate. I'm not a great fan of smearing the sauce accross the plate but if that's what you like, then go for it! If I want a more natural look, I'll pour or drizzle the sauce over the food. I think it looks better though when photographing food with sauces, if the main food isn't completely smoothered with the sauce.
Accompanying salads, vegetables and chunky salsa type sauces don't necessarily need to be placed on the plate. Arranging them on top of the food can often look far more effective. Particularly for giving an image of a flatish piece of fish or meat some colour and height.
And don't forget the usefulness of 'cooked on' garnishes too. Sliced tomatoes on top of a quiche or savoury bake, the crunchy golden top of piped mashed potatoes on a cottage or fish pie, seeds baked onto crackers, egg glaze on baked items, chopped nuts baked onto cakes or muffins and griddling marks all make the food look more beautiful and appetising.
So, that's a look at some garnishing ideas for food photography. If you'd like to share any of your own tips and ideas then please do in the comments section below.