Anatomy of a photo: styling and shooting my Pesto Pasta

Aug 23, 2021 | Food Photography, Food Styling

You guys have been asking for it, so it’s finally here! The first in a series of posts analyzing the styling, lighting, and composition of one of my images. My Pesto Pasta image won the Instagram poll, so that’s what we’ll be dissecting today. This was a recipe that I made up so I had total control of all of the garnishes and ingredients in the dish and could use them to make exactly the dish I was envisioning, so it was an extra fun project to plan.

The Lighting

I shot this dish with natural light in my big window in my studio. I pinned a large sheer curtain up to diffuse the light but also held up certain parts of the curtain to make the light more dappled. I also have a curtain with holes cut in it that I use for a similar effect. Because the window is bigger than my scene, I also used a black foam board to block half of the window to direct the light and create a darker, more defined shadow.

The Food Styling 

Since I had full control over this recipe I thought through what ingredients would provide a flavor contrast and also a visual contrast and built the recipe from there. I liked the color pairing of a green pesto with a yellow squash blossom, and the textural difference between a toasted pine nut and the bigger noodles.  I also added some artichoke hearts so there were some larger items in the bowl, and added shredded cheese on top to add a brighter highlight to the dish and some extra visual texture. I also topped it off with some large basil leaves for the finishing touch.

I chose to shoot this dish on two bowls, one deeper bowl, and one flat pasta bowl, both with more of a rustic feel. I also used several saucers and pinch-pots with a similar rustic feel to help build out the scene and showcase some of the ingredients. When I’m styling pasta I usually start by carefully layering the noodles together and then slightly messing them up with a fork so they don’t look too perfect. I also keep my pasta well drizzled with olive oil to catch highlights and keep it from sticking.

In the flat dish, I chose to keep the pasta to one side of the plate and offset the visual weight with a fork for a more interesting balance. Finding ways to play with visual weight is a super fun challenge when styling that can lead to very interesting results!

The Composition

For the top-down shots of this dish, I played with a Fibonacci spiral and a golden-ratio grid, respectively. After years of shooting, I don’t have to sit back and really think about these grids, but it’s sort of second-hand to rely on these visual principles when I’m creating a scene. Occasionally I’ll look up these grids if I’m feeling stuck, but I also think it’s something you just tend to do without thinking. If you’re new to those terms, I’d recommend reading up on them and downloading overlays to put in lightroom so you can see how your compositions line up on these grids. They’ll help you to create compositions (or crop existing photos) in a way that is more balanced and harmonious to the eye.

That’s it! That’s the tea on my process for these images. I’d love to know if you found any of these tips helpful!

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  1. Chris

    Love this. It would also be really helpful to see how you have draped and blocked the window & light to create that dappled effect 🙂

    • Moriah Brooke

      Glad it was helpful! I decided against sharing the photo of the curtain for multiple reasons. But instead of seeing my setup, I’d love for you to maybe take the concept and find your own way of applying it. It’s amazing what we can create when we translate an idea into our own environments!


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Hey! I’m Moriah– a commercial and editorial food photographer and creative entrepreneur who is perpetually drinking coffee and covered in dog hair. I write this blog from New York City where I run my creative agency, The B Edit. I write this blog in the hopes that you can one day have your creative dream job, too!   

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