Before we get into Styling Dal-Tips and Behind the Scenes let us understand the reasons behind the choice of subject.
One of the questions I get asked very frequently is how to style a very simple dish such as ‘Dal’ and make it look inviting. Dals are Indian lentils and there are so many varieties of them. The term is also used to refer to cooked versions of these lentils.
What is Dal?
Cooked Dal is a simple, but comforting and delicious dish that resembles a soup or stew. They are tempered with ghee and select spices and usually eaten with white rice or Indian flatbread Roti. You can consider Dal as India’s lifeline and every household across the country has its own preferred recipe for it.
Now you know why Dal is important to every Indian and why every Indian food photographer would want to photograph and showcase it. Although it is a delicious, gut friendly and most sought after food, it doesn’t present a glamorous appeal the way colorful salads or cupcakes would. It doesn’t also have an inviting texture like pastas or sandwiches.
So how do we get drool worthy images of a plain yellow liquid?
Power It Up With Your Story
Nothing drives styling and adds depth to an image like a good story does. Every food has a story and so does ‘your’ Dal. What is that you want your audience to take away looking at your image? How is your Dal unique and different from others? Why do you even want to showcase your Dal? Giving these questions a careful thought will give a good jumpstart to your styling process.
A few things I wanted this image to convey:
- It is a very aromatic dal (as signified by the onions and garlic)
- I love eating dal with flame roasted pappads
- The dal is hot and fresh (notice the tongs and clean garnish/tadka)
- I love to eat my dal with a generous squeeze of lime
Use Rustic Background and Props That Add Character
The right choice of backdrops and pertinent props not only help you deliver the story, but they also amplify it greatly. In my opinion rustic backdrops and vintage props share a vibe that exhibit Indian food so beautifully. Here’s why I think so:
- Our recipes and cooking methods are hundreds and thousands of years old
- We use our traditional and old fashioned utensils (like kadhai) even today in our daily lives
- I learned to cook from my mom and grandma, whose kitchens portrayed a very rustic feel
I did not look beyond my kitchen to find props for this image. From the kadhais(pans) to the cutting boards, everything in there is stuff I use everyday in your kitchen
Vintage looking backdrops and props impart such a strong and powerful character to your frames. They have the ability to trigger nostalgia in your audience and make them feel the image as opposed to merely ‘looking’ at them.
Keep The Colours Minimal and Balanced
Yellow foods could be tricky to work with. The bright color draws the attention of the viewers right away. However, they may turn out to be overpowering also for the very same reason. When the hero is of a really flashy color like this Dal, it is important to keep the overall color palette very simple and balanced.
- A subtle blue or gray background highlights yellow food beautifully. White does a good job there too, but I think medium colors gives a closer to home feel
- Adding too much of other flashy colors such as red (think spices) to the frame, which is very typical with styling Indian food, not only makes your styling cliched, but also contributes to color clashes
- Including onions, green chilies, cilantro etc. in the scene just enough to tell the story keeps the colors simple, cohesive and balanced
- The props also have been chosen with a very careful consideration of their colors and their impact to the overall frame
Incorporate Layers to Make Your Hero Stand Out
Layers elevate the aesthetic appeal of any food. Using layers is a good technique to add emphasis on the hero and isolating them from other elements in the frame. They however have to be chosen thoughtfully and in alignment with your story. The layers must look natural and fit into the frame cohesively . The objective of using them is to elevate the interest of the hero and the overall image. Make sure they don’t take the spotlight away from the hero or clutter the frame.
There’s a lot going on in this image when it comes to layers
- I’ve used the cutting board as a layer to frame my hero (Dal) and make it stand out from the rest of the elements in the frame. I’ve nested the kadhais here to add some interest
- The tadka(seasoning on top) and herbs are layers added directly on the hero and the way they’ve been placed is very intentional. The idea is to make the Dal more attractive and spark the “I WANT TO EAT THAT NOW!” feeling
- The bamboo plates on the side are also layered just too add a wee bit more interest
Bring About a Lived-in Feel
An intentional mess strings the different elements in the frame together and imparts a homey and lived-in touch to the image.
Imagine how your cooktop or counter looks like just after you finished cooking
Try recreating that in your frame, albeit minimally. A napkin thrown into the scene casually, a few crumbs/bits of the food strewn here and there, tiny clippings of herbs etc. add a very organic finishing touch to your image. What’s important here is to know how much is too much. When it comes to mess, little goes a long way. Too much of it makes the scene look very clumsy and unappealing.
In conclusion, think deeply through your story, make intentional choices of every element and their position in the frame and build it step by step. Practice patience and most importantly have a ton of fun!
Here is a short stop-motion for you to see how I styled the above Dal image
Some other posts on Food Styling & Photography that you might find helpful:
How to create and style unique fusion dishes for food photography