Food Photography Props on a Budget

Props don’t have to break the bank or overtake your home. The yellow bowl was a couple of pounds at The Pier in London. The matching red bowls were $3.99 for the pair at Homesense

Props are a pretty important piece of the food photography puzzle.  There’s linens, cutlery, dishes, glasswear, backdrops, and even other food items… and you can’t use the same items every single time!

Actually, that’s a lie, you probably could if you were trying to create a really unique signature look – either for yourself, a series of posts or even for a client if you are looking to shoot professionally.  However, for myself, that would get dull quickly.  I like pretty stuff.

Making your food shine also requires using appropriate props, which means that variety is something you need to consider in your prop arsenal.  But that is another post!

Pitchers are one of my favourite props: great for milk, juices, sauces etc. Three of these cost $2 a piece and the silver one is part of a tea set I never use. The egg cup dishes came from England with my mom and I would LOVE to find more items with this funky 60′s paisley pattern in my favourite shade of blue. And the rest of said tea set. Doesn’t need to be polished to be used as a prop ;-)

From what I can gather, most of you reading the Tips and Tricks posts are fellow food bloggers and not professional photographers working on shoots that have prop and styling budgets.  And if you’re like me, storage space is at a minimum.

So how do you do it without breaking the bank??  It’s surprisingly easy – so easy you can go overboard!

First and foremost, before you even consider budget, keep one thing in mind.  The star, or “hero”, of your photo is the food.  Props shouldn’t overwhelm it, just enhance it – so often less is more.

Photo Backdrops for Food

Sheets and Curtains

If you’re lucky to have great natural light streaming from a big window, it’s an ideal place to shoot.  Sometimes, though, it can create a lot of intense shadows.  White sheers or a white sheet can do double duty as a background and a diffusor.  I have white curtains – they make the kitchen much lighter and brighter but they’re too heavy to act as a diffuser except in the brightest sunlight.

Fabric, Papers, and Foam Board

scrapbook paper: solids, circles, swirls and colour. 3 for $0.99 at Michaels

Sometimes your kitchen wall doesn’t cut it.  Here are some great (and cheap) alternatives to dress it up:

  1. Scrapbook papers: they’re cheap, come in every colour and pattern imaginable, and there’s loads of seasonal choices. I buy mine at Michaels whenever they have a 3/99 cent sale.  Try to choose papers that can be used in a variety of shoots and make sure you have lots of solids.  If you see one you love and know you’ll use a lot, buy multiples – they easily get stained.  They work just as well as a backdrop and a surface cover.  To use as a backdrop, scotch tape them to a piece of heavy foam board and prop it up with a something heavy behind.
  2. Wrapping Paper: A slightly more expensive option but single sheets are much larger than a scrapbook paper and cover more space
  3. Foam Board:  An essential in white and black.  Either colour can make for an excellent dramatic backdrop or surface.  As mentioned, it can support lighter weight papers, it stands up with a little help from a heavy prop and either colour can act as a makeshift reflector.  At $3.99 a piece, it’s a bargain.  I’ve used the same 3 pieces for two years for all kinds of photography.
  4. Fabric:  They can act as a backdrop and do double duty as a tablecloth, napkin (fold it up and place it strategically in the shot so that excess fabric is cropped out), tea towel, and they’re great for evoking a mood or reflecting the roots of a dish.  While pricier than papers, they’re still cheaper than buying kitchen linens.
  5. Kitchen linens: Use what’s in your linen cupboard and check out flea markets and garage sales for others.  Find something that fits the mood of the dish.

use papers for backgrounds and surfaces: newspaper is great for fish and chips or coffee, old letters with a cup of tea and delicate cookies, and don’t forget seasonal papers like Christmas

Shallow Depth of Field

Using a shallow depth of field is a great way to disguise a background when you don’t have time to plan a shot or simply don’t have the materials on hand. (shallow depth of field is when the foreground is in sharp focus and the background is blurry).

With this technique you can even get away with using a fuzzy terry cloth bath towel.

Surfaces for Photographing Food

wooden chopping boards, kitchen linens or fabrics, trays, dishes all work as surfaces for photographs. The cutlery is my everyday stuff and the bright mugs are vintage FireKing mugs bought at an antique store years ago.

This is an easy one: just look around your house.

  1. Wooden surfaces: I’ve used my wooden chopping board 100s of times as well as a wooden bench from my garden.  Salvaged fencing would work as well.  Wood gives a great rustic quality to photos.
  2. Trays: I have a cheap wooden one from Ikea with a white surface and wooden sides.  Works great for lots of different shots.  Got a fancy tea set tray that you never use?  Try that. I’ve also used baking sheets as a tray or surface.
  3. Scrapbook papers, fabric, linens will all work.  If the shot is tight enough, the dishware can act as the only surface.

Dishes, Cutlery and Glassware

Glassware

Coca cola items can add a vintage feel and are great for milkshakes, floats, or snack item shoots. Vases, glass jars, pitchers can all act as containers for the foods or beverages.

  1. Use what you have.  Go through your cupboards and pull out that stuff you never use.
  2. Glass jars: old wide mouth jars, canning jars etc are great for holding cookies, candies and are really popular as serving dishes for desserts right now.
  3. Thrift stores:  wonderful for cutlery odds and ends – they’ll often have a big bin selling odds and ends at 3 for $1.
  4. Collections: do you collect anything?  See if you can incorporate it into your shots.  I have lots of Coca-Cola and FireKing items that I’ve collected or have had given to me that can give great mood to a shot.
  5. Family: your grandparents or parents might have items in their china cupboards that are very hard to buy in stores now that make wonderful props.  Ask to borrow items!

Accessories

That buildup on your bread and cake pans, muffin and pizza trays just adds a rustic feel to the photo :) Don’t worry about the wear and tear on your tools – it all adds character!

Don’t forget other accessories that can bring more life to your photographs.

  1. Kitchen Tools: your wooden spoons, ladles, whisks, knives, baking trays, cake pans can all add some visual interest to your photos. Don’t worry if they look worn or have a patina on them – that adds character!
  2. Ingredients: look at what’s in the dish.  Can you put a dish of raisins next to the dish, sprinkle some salt on the surface, etc.
  3. The Garden and Green Grocer: pieces of fresh herbs, flowers, leaves, whole unshelled nuts, vegetables and fruits are all great, natural props.  Making lemon curd? Use fresh whole lemons in your photo.  Pesto? Use some basil leaves.
  4. Go really low end: paper plates, plastic cups, plastic cutlery, straws, paper napkins all come in bright colours and are wonderful for BBQ shots or children’s party dishes, picnic foods…
  5. Odds n Ends: cookbooks, ribbons, string, baking cups, parchment paper, brown paper and twine can add a festive look or make a dish look more rustic, and emphasize natural/organic ingredients.
  6. Items totally unrelated to your kitchen! Use your imagination. It’s free!  How about the TV remote with wings and nachos for a superbowl photo? Beer bottles for salsa?  My little M&M figurine for cookies full of M&Ms?  Baskets for holding muffins or croissants, kids toys for kids food items, a little buddha next to some Thai food?

The ribbons and little paper cups came from a box of chocolates that were a gift and can be used for homemade candies. The red spoon is a Dairy Queen blizzard spoon that works for parfaits, and the left over party items can all be used as props. And my attempt (poor) at a Douglas Coupland type collage of stuff around the house shows you items that can work if you use your imagination!

Seasonal

A package of glitter styrofoam hearts on a stick was $1 at the Dollar store. The Christmas wreath has been in my decoration box for years.

Don’t forget the seasons.  Christmas tree ornaments, wreaths, wrapping paper, candles can all work for Christmas.  Pastel colours, stuffed rabbits, netting, fresh bulb flowers are great for Easter.  Paper crafts work for all seasons: fold up some white printer paper and cut out snowflakes, make paper hearts for Valentine’s Day.  Pumpkins and Jack ‘o Lanterns or bowls of candy corn for Halloween photos are all easy to find.  Work with what’s in season – it’s often the cheapest food in the grocery store and you can buy a few extra for props.  Dollar stores are a great resource for seasonal bits and pieces that can dress up a photo.

My Favourite Resources for Photography Props on a Budget

The blue and black dishes were all single items bought at Ikea for pocket change. The rustic looking pottery and special coffee mugs were already in my kitchen cupboard. I rarely use them but they’re great for photographs!

Here’s a list of my favourite low budget places to look.  The best part?  Almost all of them let you buy in pieces and not place settings or sets.

  1. Ikea – cheap, loads of selection, you can buy onesies and they regularly introduce new items – often contemporary.
  2. Homesense Canada (HomeGoods in the US).   I’ve never visited the US version but the Homesense in Canada has improved a lot. Prices are very cheap and you can buy in singles.  Check out their clearance section for some really great scores. Don’t look for stuff you’d use when you entertain – look for items that will make a great photo.  Think “eclectic”
  3. Flea Markets/Garage & Yard Sales/Thrift Stores: you can buy terrific stuff for a quarter.  Look for old Pyrex, CorningWare or Fireking if you want something a little retro – some of the patterns are beautiful, funky and or bold and graphic, and buying them in an antique store is starting to get expensive.  I’ve got great stuff from Value Village on a regular basis.
  4. Your own house: got wedding china you never use?  Use it.  Look outside your kitchen and repurpose vases, decorative bowls, and other knick knacks as accessories.
  5. Friends and Family: see something you like in their kitchen or china cabinet?  Ask if you can borrow it. I’m always scoping out my mom’s stuff.  Just make sure you give it back promptly and in the condition it was given to you. (I fail at this unless reminded)
  6. Antique Stores: I rarely buy here because it’s usually out of my budget for props and often you have to buy a full set of something.  But sometimes you’ll score a great find.
  7. The Farmer’s Market or green grocers: In fall you can usually buy mini squashes for 50c – $1 a piece.  Citrus fruits are very inexepensive in winter.  Apples in early fall, fresh berries and stone fruits in summer can all be bought inexpensively and you can eat them afterwards! (no long term storage!!)

A couple of other tips? Keep an eye out when you travel – especially in flea markets and yard sales. What might be hard to find in your part of the country, may be plentiful in another region.  Also, if you’re looking for something specific, eBay and Etsy can be great resources as well.

And last but not least…

Use Your Imagination!!

You have more props already in your house than you could ever hope to use.  Look at everything around you and ask yourself how you could use it or repurpose it.  When you create a dish, think about its roots/history, the ingredients, different ways you could serve it, the reason you’re serving in the first place (party? a gift, snack, picnic, everyday dinner?) and incorporate items that will enhance those pieces of the puzzle.

You are only limited by your imagination.  Browse through your existing cookbooks, check out food magazines at the bookstore and look at the photos for inspiration and ideas.

Wrapping it Up

I have probably spent less than $100 on new props for my photographs (not counting food items that get consumed later) since I started over a year ago.  Most of what I use already exists in mine or my mom’s kitchen or in my craft bin.  I don’t have gobs of space.  I don’t have a studio. Almost everything is stored in my kitchen and linen cupboard. Some of my items actually double as decor in my office.  And I have never spent more than $6 on any one item that I have bought specifically for a prop.

Now obviously, if I was shooting for a client, that would be different – they may want very specific items.  But for my blog, there is no need to have masses of props (as much as I love pretty stuff) or to spend a fortune on them.

I know this is a monster post but I’m sure I’ve missed tons of things and resources so please, feel free to share your ideas in the comments!  What is your best place to find inexpensive props?

 

 

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35 Responses to Food Photography Props on a Budget

  1. Michelle March 9, 2011 at 5:02 PM #

    Thanks so much for an really informative post. Just goes to show you don’t need a lot of money to create some amazing pics. After reading this, I wandered around the house, and would you know it, found at least four items I would never have thought of using in a food shot.

    One of my favourite places to shop is Dansk and Jysk. They almost always have some cute quirky items and I love to collect odds and ends. Other half complains constantly about all the junk, but hey, he gets to eat the results once the pictures have been taken :-)

    • Melissa March 9, 2011 at 6:29 PM #

      Thanks Michelle! I love your blog – never come across it before but I’ll be going back to check it out more. I have a Jysk just up the road from me but I never think to go there – I’ll definitely have to go take a look!

  2. Lisa March 9, 2011 at 6:06 PM #

    What a fantastic post! I appreciate all the information that you have given here in addition to the wonderful photos of the items.

    Thank you for a great share!

    In addition the photos of the bake wear and utensils would make great kitchen art framed in Ribba frames.

    • Melissa March 9, 2011 at 6:30 PM #

      Thanks Lisa! Glad you got some good info from it :)

  3. Madalina --duhlicious.com March 9, 2011 at 7:04 PM #

    awesome post :)

    • Melissa March 10, 2011 at 3:35 PM #

      thanks! glad you enjoyed it :)

  4. Melody Fury // GourmetFury.com March 10, 2011 at 12:56 PM #

    Fantastic ideas and very informative. You are so resourceful! Thank you for sharing your tips.

    • Melissa March 10, 2011 at 3:35 PM #

      Thanks Melody! That means a lot coming from you :)

  5. Megan March 18, 2011 at 4:43 PM #

    Thanks for the great ideas! I’m getting rather tired of my same old white dishes in all my photos so I think it’s time to spice things up.

  6. aishahias March 20, 2011 at 5:24 AM #

    Thank you for the great ideas! :D

  7. Cristina March 30, 2011 at 10:05 AM #

    Lovely blog!

    Some great ideas…thank you for a fantastic and inspiring post. Luv those little red bowls…so cute!

  8. Joy April 10, 2011 at 5:13 PM #

    Great tips and you have such nice stuff! Ah, I really have to tap into the thrift stores for props. I’ve never been in one in years — half a decade, maybe?? My friends started passing off their dishes and wedding loot since last year to use as props, so now I need to make space for them.

    • Melissa April 10, 2011 at 7:39 PM #

      ahhh… space. I think it’s good I don’t have a lot of space. I’d have WAY more stuff if I had space!

  9. Jeanette April 16, 2011 at 6:25 PM #

    Hi Melissa,
    I just came across your blog and love it! Thank you for sharing your food photography tips – I’m working on it, but wish I had more time to devote to it.

  10. Rachel April 17, 2011 at 7:42 PM #

    This is a great post! I just spent a good deal of time this past weekend at a flea market and couldn’t help but get a few gorgeous plates and bowls (which my husband immediately noted “those aren’t for us to eat on, are they?”). Of course they are after I take the pretty pictures. :)

    Btw, even though I disparaged the “distressed wood syndrome” in the comment in your most recent post, I do love the rustic look it gives. I love using my wood chopping block, too!

    And yes, I agree. The wear and tear on the kitchen utensils does add character and a nice, personal touch.

  11. Heather May 3, 2011 at 4:38 PM #

    I really enjoyed this article and picked up some scrapbook paper tonight :)

  12. Ethan June 2, 2011 at 11:27 AM #

    wow. just wow! I was going to write about this and still may, but you’ve covered pretty much everything. I’ll come up with a different angle:)

  13. Jackie @ marin mama cooks December 15, 2011 at 8:33 AM #

    Hi Melissa! I just want to say that I love your blog. I just discovered it a few days ago and you have so many wonderful recipes and amazing tips. I just love this post as you gave me so many great ideas! Your photographs are simply amazing. You have quite a talent!

    I can’t wait to make those Starbucks giant ginger cookies. WOW!

    Jackie :)

  14. Sheila February 3, 2012 at 6:51 AM #

    I love all of this information! So helpful. I’m trying to improve my pictures for my blog {really need to work on lighting too} and I have looked at so many links. This has been most helpful. And another bonus, I discovered a great blog to read regularly.

  15. Cliff April 16, 2012 at 9:19 AM #

    Hi Melissa,

    Thank you for a fantastically resourceful article regarding food photography and props. I’ve linked it in my little tips and tricks article for people who need/want more info: http://www.pixelcoma.com/digital-food-photography-10-simple-and-easy-tips-to-take-great-pictures-of-food/

    I look forward to drooling over many more of your blog posts… ;)

    Cheers, Cliff

  16. Spandana May 9, 2012 at 8:57 AM #

    Loved reading your post!! It was so informative.!
    Loved your collection too :-)

  17. Joan Hayes@chocolate and more June 22, 2012 at 8:52 PM #

    Great tips! I use the fabric a lot. I’ll buy up a yard of seasonal fabric, after the season, usually at 50-75% off and since I hate ironing, I use those skirt hangers to hang 5-6 fabrics in the back of my closet. Then I can just flip through and pull on the one I need. Lay it out, no wrinkles, then when done, as long as I haven’t spilled or left a mess, just hang it back up for the next time.
    I also use the foam boards, got mine at the Dollar Tree for $1 each and I use a collapsible cooling rack to prop it up.

  18. Asiya @ Chocolate and Chillies August 1, 2012 at 10:05 AM #

    Very informative post….you’ve got my mind going for things around the house I can add to shots..Thx for all the useful info!

  19. Mina Joshi December 18, 2012 at 6:51 AM #

    Lovely Post and I love all your suggestions. You make it sound so easy….But I bet you are very creative. I am hopeless at using props and when I do- they don’t look creative.

  20. Marlene May 14, 2013 at 8:19 PM #

    Such a helpful post!

  21. Ayngelina September 9, 2014 at 9:29 AM #

    I didn’t think of scrapbook paper, great tip!

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