Stylized Photography | Choosing a Theme + Styling a Dinner Party

I find inspiration everywhere: the salty smell of the ocean, the misshapen shape of a homegrown carrot, a lilting chord progression, freshly sharpened pastel-colored pencils, the wispy texture of cotton candy. A bumpy, grey pumpkin can make me dizzy with excitement for butternut squash soup and flannel blankets; the soft buds of a dogwood tree send me into daydreams of chilled rosemary lemonade and pedicured toes. So, when I’m hosting a dinner party, I choose a theme based on color, scent, texture, a song, or the weather. The origin of my inspiration is limitless. Today, in the final installment of this stylized photography series, I’m sharing how to choose a theme and how to style and photograph a dinner party.

Choosing a theme is easy, but incorporating the theme into the meal, décor, and music can feel daunting. My rule-of-thumb for easy entertaining: pick a song, color palette, or menu item and make a quick list of word associations that stem from your original idea. If you’re inspired by the deep pinks of an Ikat pattern, you could throw a Moroccan feast for friends. You could serve kefta tagine and mint tea and have your guests relax on oversized floor pillows. Hoping to make the end of winter more bearable? Have friends over for board games, serve hot chocolate in festive mugs, and decorate the table with twigs, evergreen branches, and fresh white flowers.

My last semester of college, I took a road trip to Tennessee to visit my little sister. It was a seven hour trip, and I listened to Mumford & Sons the entire time. And the entire drive back. Winding through I-40, the golden sun pierced the changing trees; the leaves were dying, but everything felt alive. Because of this road trip, I always associate Mumford & Sons with autumn and the brilliant oranges and reds of the season. I could easily throw a dinner party to commemorate my Sigh No More road trip: warm apple cider, moody, charcoal-grey candlesticks, gold flatware, a jewel-toned floral arrangement, and a huge pot of spicy chili.

For this casual end-of-summer weeknight gathering, all you’ll need are easy-to-assemble snacks, a few summertime tunes playing on the turntable, and a bright, colorful dessert. With a limited budget and an excessive heat warning, I wanted to simply celebrate the seasonal produce: juicy Porter peaches, plump plums, fresh cantaloupe, and ripe tomatoes. To round out these easy snacks, I put out a couple store-bought pizzas and a cheese plate.  After hosting a few dinner parties, I’ve learned people are very intimidated by cheese plates. (Not me. I’ll hover like a greedy mouse anytime cheese is involved.) So, if you’re serving a cheese plate, try cutting into a couple of the cheeses so guests feel invited to dig in. And if you accidentally cut a round of Brie into the shape of Pacman, someone will comment on it.

Photo Styling 1To style your next dinner party, grab a few linen napkins, a vibrant table runner, pretty serving dishes, and your favorite plates and glassware. (I keep forcing these lavender Fleur-de-Lys glasses into my tablescape, regardless of the theme.) Now that you’ve laid the foundation, adorn your table with a few mementos, like seashells from a recent beach trip or fragrant blooms from your grandmother’s backyard. Then, set out the food and drinks for your guests and turn on music to accompany the meal.

If you’re shooting stylized photography to capture the hand-dyed placemats you’ve designed or you’re working with a brand to capture their product, you’ll want to get detailed shots. But remember: context matters. Without meaning, like a bouquet of flowers and a manicured hand reaching into the snack bowl, you just have a sad bowl of homemade trail mix. And the photo on the right? It would be more visually appealing if you could see more of the tablescape and if the plate was more appropriately full.

Photo Styling 2Alright, let’s quickly recap. So, you’re hosting a dinner party and you want to grab a few snaps for Instagram. Whether you’re taking the photos for your personal account or for a brand you’re partnering with, try applying the components I shared in the first and second installment of this series. Arrange the items to complement the subject, then fill the frame. Take several photos testing different angles and perspectives. Try eliminating or adding props – whether it’s adding a vase of flowers or pushing a glass out of the frame. Refrain from zooming and use the crop tool instead. Always use natural light if it’s available. Test different backgrounds, and double-check that you’ve removed any distracting clutter. Gently rub the lens against the inside of your shirt to ensure a clear, smudge-free photo. Shoot in square mode if you’re publishing to Instagram to avoid losing photo quality. Use two hands to help maintain focus on your subject. And finally – have fun! While these suggestions aren’t arbitrary, they’re what I’ve learned from personal experience, and I’m honored to have the space to share my ideas with you all.

And hey, let’s meet back here in October for autumn tablescape inspiration. What do you guys think?

If you’re in the Interior Design program at Clary Sage College, now is a great time to begin taking photos of your projects and accomplishments for your portfolio. Your portfolio is the best visual tool to show potential employers and brand partners your education, skills, and ideas. Having purposeful, staged photos of your work will only enhance their experience of discovering your talents.