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!
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
Sometimes your kitchen wall doesn’t cut it. Here are some great (and cheap) alternatives to dress it up:
- 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.
- Wrapping Paper: A slightly more expensive option but single sheets are much larger than a scrapbook paper and cover more space
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
This is an easy one: just look around your house.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Use what you have. Go through your cupboards and pull out that stuff you never use.
- 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.
- Thrift stores: wonderful for cutlery odds and ends – they’ll often have a big bin selling odds and ends at 3 for $1.
- 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.
- 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!
Don’t forget other accessories that can bring more life to your photographs.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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?
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
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.
- Ikea – cheap, loads of selection, you can buy onesies and they regularly introduce new items – often contemporary.
- 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”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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?