A conversation with Malaysian food stylist Sycookies on a career in styling food, tips for aspiring food photographers, and more
Lights, camera, food
We live in a society that's dependent on visuals and images—now more than ever. With technology and the advent of social media (especially Instagram), aesthetics take the cake when it comes to attracting audiences to your profile or brand. This applies to the food and beverage industry as well. In Malaysia, we can see restaurants and cafes design their space and culinary creations to go with the zeitgeist. The zeitgeist of visual attraction.
To do this, brands look to photography—with Sycookies (or Soo Yin) being one of the most prominent food stylist and photographer in the country. Currently with close to 34,000 followers on Instagram, Sycookies also operates Foodeverywhere, a blog that focuses mainly on unique gastronomy experiences.
We had the opportunity to speak to the food stylist and photographer about a career in food styling, tips for those interested to do the same, and more. Also—find out what her favourite Malaysian dish is!
Can you first explain what a food stylist does, especially for readers who are unfamiliar with the term?
"A food stylist is a creative professional—mostly in charge with hands on skills in the art of food arrangement—creating the most ideal appearance of food that is as perfect and as appealing as possible.
Food styling incorporates not just the arrangement of food, but also a complete understanding of the limitations of food's characteristics when needed to be visually appealing."
Have you always been into making food look visually-pleasing? What inspired you to get into the field of food styling and photography?
"Aesthetic has always been my utmost importance when it comes to my artwork. For the most part, since I first got involved in food styling and photography, I decided to make blogging into a career. Food photography is an important element in food blogs.
In blogging, I personally feel that the dishes represent culture and history, and it is important that they be represented accurately. This inspired me to learn about the importance of food styling so every food will not only then be accurately styled, but also not lose the aesthetic. At the same time, the food looks mouth-watering and tasty!"
When did you start a career as a food stylist and photographer?
"It started during my blogging career about seven years ago when my passion for gastronomy was cultivated to be reflected in food presentation and styling."
Are the skills of a food stylist learned? Is there a school or apprenticeship programme?
"The skills were self-taught and in most cases for many food stylists, skills are perfected with years of experience. I am not any different but I am grateful to have been born with a good sense in art—which has made composition way easier when shooting. I am also enrolled in a food photography and styling course; learning food photography and styling techniques. Having a good creative eye really helps in this line of work.
It is helpful to know the basics and fundamental techniques in food photography and food styling—but food is evolutionary and the list of trendy food is always growing. This means that there are more skills to learn and acquire."
Are there any challenges that come with doing what you do?
"There are hurdles everywhere we go and with anything we do. The real complication in this field of work would be coping with creativity progression and addressing the challenges to materalise the final visual output. As a stylist, we want to constantly come up with unconventional and unique ideas in every piece of our work. At the same time, we have to fulfill realistic requirements in the form of deliverables as requested by clients."
Part of being a food stylist is ensuring that the visual presentation is top notch. In your opinion, how would you describe the perfect food shot?
"Accuracy in delivering the message in the dish; what was supposed to be in the dish must be presented precisely so that anyone looking at the photo would want to eat exactly what's being photographed. Even with conceptualised shoots, food must look as close to reality as possible—in addition to looking as fresh as possible."
Why is visual presentation so important? Do you think social media, especially Instagram, has fuelled the need for brands, restaurants, and cafes to present the most aesthetically-appealing images?
"With millions of active users on social media, the platforms provide an unavoidable visibility in the development of consumers behaviour. Brands and businesses elaborate their e-reputation via images and postings so they are heard and seen with impactful reminders.
Instagram, in particular, has definitely played an important role in bringing aesthetics to paramount interest. Photos and videos are the most shared content on the Internet—and food content is a universal language. Visual presentation is an important factor for brands and businesses."
Can you describe a typical day at work as a food stylist and photographer?
"The work flow generally revolves around plenty of brainstorming as well as making drafts and curating related mood boards. Then, it's a plan of execution process: some shoots would need pre-planning and pre-prepping. Most of them require a lot of hands on and DIY (Do-It-Yourself) work.
Sourcing raw materials and ingredients are very challenging—especially if they are seasonal produce—so planning ahead would be helpful. A typical day usually ends with lots of cleaning and backing up of photos or videos."
If someone is interested in being a food stylist in Malaysia, how can they start? What are the necessary steps to take?
"Start by thinking twice about it. If anyone is serious about being a food stylist, begin by understanding food ingredients in their physical nature because that fundamentally determines the styling techniques in different styling tasks. Most institutes in Malaysia do not offer food styling as a standalone course so it's good to practise at home frequently.
Sign up for internships or apprenticeship with professional stylists. Commit a 100 per cent and be very hardworking. Knowing the basics of photography can be helpful and you can learn from YouTube or Google. To help the execution of food styling, you need to know how food photography works."
What advice do you have for someone who aspires to get into the food styling and photography industry?
"Believe in yourself, never stop learning, and be humble because these are the only way you'll allow yourself to gain knowledge. Practise to perfect your skills and be informed about food trends. Be curious and be experimental; as well as have lots of patience and perseverance. Most importantly, be creative and never let anyone tell you why you should get a real job—because food styling and photography is a real job."
What is your proudest achievement so far?
"Being recognised through the art of food styling and photography; being influential in the food industry; as well as when I was nominated as the top food influencer in the country at the first Gushcloud Influence Asia. This, to me, is beyond what I've hoped for and I am grateful to be able to showcase as well as create awareness and greater understanding of the food styling and photography profession."
In addition to being a food stylist, you are also an advocate of healthy living. What are your thoughts on healthy food trends in the New Normal?
"The New Normal has inevitably resulted in most of us being more attached to the Internet. With the Internet playing bigger roles each day, healthy food trends are now easier to be shared. There will always be misleading health stories all over the Internet but it is now absolutely easier to have people listen and receive healthy food trends willingly without bias."
Last but not least, do you have a favourite Malaysian food and why?
"Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country with distinctive cultural identities and each with their own traditional dishes. The Strait’s cuisine is my all time favourite—and in my opinion, the most accurate to represent Malaysian food. These dishes are filled with heritage and culture that existed alongside the tales and history of the birth and development of this country.
These are the dishes that were born from this region and I would proudly call them 'made in Malaysia'. My all time favourite from Strait's cuisine is the humble Baba Nyonya Mee Siam berkuah and our very aromatic Nanyang Kopi."
Are you ready to step into the realm of food styling and photography? As you embark on your aesthetically delicious journey, keep Sycookies' tips and advice in mind. We live in a world that places a massive emphasis on top-notch visual presentations—and with food being such an integral part of the Malaysian identity, food stylists and photographers play major roles in shaping the F&B industry in the country.