This post will probably appeal mostly to other bloggers / food photographers, or those of you who are curious about how the different photo looks are achieved. For the rest of you that are already yawning, I apologize and promise more delicious low carb recipes soon!
If you want a successful food blog you have to have good photos. With a few rare exceptions, that’s just a fact. Pinterest, especially, drives a lot of traffic my way, as do Foodgawker and Tastespotting, among others.
To take advantage of those sites to grow your blog, you have to up your game. Props and styling is an important way to do that. You can have excellent photography skills as it relates to camera function and basic composition – but that isn’t always enough.
With food photography you have to evoke a mood, or a desire to eat what you are looking at. Props are invaluable to doing this, but where should you begin?
There are lots of great books and resources you can find on food styling, and you should read as much as you can get your hands on. Two of my favorites are Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling and Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots. I learned a lot from both of them, but if you are only looking to purchase one, Plate to Pixel is my favorite and a must have for any successful food blogger in my opinion.
You can also collect photos from magazines of looks you like, moods you want to emulate, etc. I have a Pinterest board called Beautiful Food that I pin food photos to that I like or find inspiring. Once you figure out what you like, and what your personal style is, you can start building up your inventory of props.
When I first started blogging, my photos weren’t that great. I had no idea how to style and most of my backgrounds were plain white foam board (which makes achieving proper white balance and lighting difficult by the way). I still have a lot to learn, but one thing that’s been fun is finding creative ways to evoke certain looks to complement the food, which makes the photos more interesting and the food more appealing.
I used to look at food magazines and drool over a photo of a frosty beer and a loaded burger on an old wooden table with a dark wall behind it, and think they actually shot that photo on location in some old pub or cafe. Now I know that the reality is, it was likely taken on a few faux distressed wooden planks nailed together, with a painted foam board backdrop in a studio somewhere.
In this post I’m going to show you some easy and cheap techniques to get different looks. Also important for me is storage space, since I don’t have a lot, and I’m going to show you how to get the most out of your props so you don’t need a ton of them. Don’t judge me on the photos please, I didn’t diffuse the light or worry about composition, etc. This is strictly to show you how to get a few different looks using inexpensive materials from your local hardware or home improvement store.
First let’s talk about paint. It’s easy and cheap. You can get samples now in any color for under $3 from your local home improvement store. Foam board can be painted over, but it’s not cheap and it’s nowhere near as durable as wood. I picked up an 8 x 4 wainscoting panel at my local home improvement store for less than $10, and had my husband cut them into four 2 foot wide pieces. If you ask nicely, they will cut them for you at the store so that you can fit them into a regular car if you don’t have a truck. I painted the backs of them one color, and the beveled front another color for a total of 8 different colored panels.
I bought these in the spring when I was working on my cookbook, and I just repainted them all in darker, seasonal colors. In the spring, I’ll probably paint them again in whatever color trends are popular. I like that they can be used over and over again, and that the more I repaint them, the more character they’ll have – you’ll definitely get your money’s worth! Be careful not to go too garish with your colors though or it will distract from the food. Also, cooler tones have worked better for me than warm tones. It might take a few tries to get the color you want – keep some white paint handy and you can play with your samples to lighten them if necessary.
Now, I’ve seen some pretty cool faux finishing techniques that other bloggers have posted to get the look of slate, marble and even wood using paint and foam board. While I’m always impressed when I see the finished product, here’s how I personally feel about faux finishing…
Seriously, if you have the time and patience, then go for it. I do not have either, which brings me to my next tip.
Tiles – Stick on, laminate, natural stone and even ceramic. You can get a lot of use out of a single 18 x 18 inch (or even 12 x 12) tile that you can purchase for a few bucks. For example, this slate tile, which I bought for about $4. I can’t even tell you how many photos I’ve used this tile in – it’s invaluable to me.
I also have a lighter colored ceramic tile in the same size which gets used over and over again. Because I layer napkins or other things over them, along with the actual food, it doesn’t get repetitive. I also change it up often with other looks, instead of using the same background multiple posts in a row.
This one is stick on vinyl flooring made to look like wood – you can get it in all kinds of colors and styles. I got 2 pieces of this rustic look for free at a local supply store. Close up it doesn’t look real, but when you layer other colors and textures over it, you can get the look and feel of real wood.
Here’s another one that I just purchased and haven’t used yet. You get the illusion of marble but it’s actually a stick on tile that I purchased for less than $2.
I bought four of them and I’ll stick them onto a piece of poster board like I did with these in the photo below. Then I’ll layer other props on top of it, or use photoshop to get rid of the seams in the photos.
Now in some photos all I need is these bottom pieces because I’m shooting from above, or at a 45 degree angle, or in front of a window with parchment paper over it which just creates a blurred, bright background. But there are times when you want to shoot a deeper angle or have a different textured background to create a complete look. You can use the boards you’ve painted or a plain white foam board, but here are a few other options. Again – tile. There are SO many backsplash tile patterns that you can get already attached to the mesh. All you have to do is use a heavy duty adhesive to attach them to a piece of plywood and grout it with some ready-made grout to get the look of any high-end tile backsplash. I would just caution you not to use anything too shiny or sparkly which can cause glare in your photos – or too brightly colored or busy which can distract from the food which should always be the star. I bought these white subway tile pieces for under $3 each in the clearance section a couple of weeks ago. I had Matt hold them up for these photos because I had just bought them, but he’s going to set them for me and you’ll be seeing them used on the blog soon.
Another option is the textured poly sheets used for backsplashes, or even drop ceilings that are made to look like old tin. I picked up this one for about $16 last year. I used it a bunch of times for the tin side, but last week when I was repainting all of my old boards, I realized that I could also use the back of it if I painted it (originally it was shiny, black plastic). So I actually painted it two colors and I can now use the front for brushed nickel, or the back for either brown or tan which gives me 3 different looks out of one piece.
Ok, I could go on and on but I think this is enough for today. I’ve got more cool things to share though, and I’ll save that for part 2 of this series coming up soon.
I hope this post will inspire you to get out there and find some cool props to take your food photos to the next level! I used to hate going to the home improvement store with my husband because he’d browse around for what felt like hours, and I’d be bored out of my mind after the first five minutes. Now I’M the one who takes forever! I even went BY MYSELF the other day just to check out the clearance section, and pick up some new paint samples. Once you get started, it can easily get addicting! Now go have some fun shopping for props! And if you have any prop secrets of your own to share, please do leave them in the comments!