Props and Backgrounds in Food Photography

May 13, 2020

Props and Backgrounds in Food Photography

If you’re reading this article it probably means that you don't feel like an amazing food photographer yet.

You consider yourself a good photographer, your food looks great, your camera is a professional one, you even read some tips for food photography, you do everything right. Despite that, your pictures are still soulless! Don’t worry! Let's go see what you're doing wrong!

Let’s Start!

I'm confident the reason your photos look soulless is that they’re missing something in their composition. It might be the case that you overlooked an important feature of food photography. In fact, in this particular type of pictures, it is fundamental to pay attention to the set, which has the same importance as the food.

The set is as important as the food you want to take a picture of.

Before losing your confidence and putting ​yourself at the same level as a 15-year-old girl who takes selfies with a portion of french fries in her hand, let's analyze a few things better.

Amazing Food Photography Needs Amazing Photography Background

First of all, I need to mention that food photography is one of the hardest genres in the field, that is because there are many variables to consider. Dishes, plates, glasses, ingredients, etc. All important accessories for taking a good photo, ​however, there are other important elements that will give a stronger impact on our shot.​

Do you know what I’m talking about? Simple, my green Italian eye! Did you fall there? No? I thought so! Seriously, I'm referring to backdrops and background props for food photography! They are the ones that will give to our photography an edge!

It is essential to create a set around the food, ​remember ​styling is the photographer's signature. We have to be unique​ and ​differ from other photographers! It's like matching the words with the music. They must go together well to form a nice song.

So, how do we start? The first thing to do is a careful analysis of the food, in order to understand which is the best food photography backdrop to use​. We don't have to fail this ​delicate ​first step! Working for a company, for a chef, for a friend or for ourselves, the rules don't change! Our picture must convey a message, ​it must show what​ is behind that food! 

Know The Main Food Photography Subject

Before starting to take any pictures, we must study the main subject in-depth. This is a priority for the construction of our food photography background. Knowing the origin of the food, who made it, who will eat it, and obviously ​its ​ingredients.

Let's start by considering the external​ aspects: the color, the brightness, the consistency, the reflectance, the three-dimensionality, the texture, the melting, the freshness that will be able to keep on the set, and so on. ​

By analyzing these elements ​we should understand what we can combine with the subject, for ​instance ​with colored foods we can add colored elements, with bright foods we choose a bright light and with dark food a low one.

Choose Shooting Point and Radical Changes In The Background

After the appearance we have to understand what​ is the best point of view where we can place in the frame the subject. The shooting point deeply binds ​with ​the construction of the set, the choice of materials, and the use of lights.

A sandwich, for example, usually has to be framed from the front, so we will need a three-dimensional set with a supporting backdrop and a vertical background, then we can also add elements that are three-dimensional and with a nice frontal point of view.

On the other hand, if we take a picture of a plate with geometric plating, it’s better to shoot from above. In this case, we have to use only the support backdrop without a vertical background. In images taken from above, we should use equally geometric props such as fabrics, cutlery, dishes. Be careful not to use objects that are too high,​ they can create distortions and out of focus.

A good food photographer has to examine all these variables in a short period ​of time. Additionally, if you want to do this job you must have a sense of beauty and intuition! Well, if I were you, I would start keeping an eye on all the foods before eating them from now on.

What Kind Of Style Do You Want To Have In Your Food Photography?

Now that you have eaten... oops, sorry... Now that you have analyzed the food, you have to feel which style will improve it. ​

At times​ we have a very clear ​idea ​from the beginning, despite this, ​I suggest you go around the web where you can find different suggestions​ that can give you a starting point: Pinterest, Instagram, ​art ​websites, Facebook, WhatsApp groups... No no no; no Whatsapp groups, sorry!

I see things that​ don’t inspire ​me! Logically you don't have to find images already done, just get an idea and ​develop ​it​ based on your needs. You can opt for a modern or vintage style, light or dark ​light​, desaturated or colored tones,​ you will be dragged by these into what will be your chosen style with a limited circle of backgrounds and props choices! ​I’m going to give some practical examples to make it clear.

Food Photography Backgrounds: How To Choose The Most Suitable Backdrop Color

This is an essential choice​! The color of the photography background is, in the truest sense of the word, complementary to the food to be photographed, it must give it importance but not run over it! 

However it is not a rule; we could also opt for monochromatic colors (of the same tone as the product to be photographed) or add more balanced colors at the same time, what matters is increasing the power of the subject. 

Come on, we're getting closer. Our food photography backdrop is​ taking form ​and everything that follows with it.

Cold Colors: Push Up The Contrast With a Food Photography Backdrop

Since the food in most cases is usually warm in color, the main focus is on the choice of cold colors. Blue, light blue, and cyan are very trendy lately, ​they shape modern and showy color contrasts​.

I usually apply ​them when I take pictures of pastry products, main courses (like pasta), cheeses, and when I have red elements on the set. Also green, which was recently considered unsuitable for food, is starting to be more and more used. ​Personally I use it to set a more artistic look.

Neutral Colors In The Food Photography Backdrop

Speaking of neutral colors, I would ​definitely ​start with white​ which is, in food photography, one ​of the most used background colors. We can get clear and bright images and we have the possibility of using many light schemes. White gives us the opportunity to take pictures of all types of food, it is perfect for making menu's pictures and for food that must have uniform backgrounds. 

Personally, I love using white backdrop​s​ with white food. You can produce high styled and professional images. 

Black and grey backgrounds are widely used at the moment, an excellent choice if you like dark food photography.Very dark sets, weak lights, flags to generate particular shadows, desaturated and almost unnatural colors; food becomes an artistic still life composition. 

However, we can also use grey for brighter sets, I often use it because in post-production it is easy to alter and insert dominants, both hot and cold.

Warm Colors: Create An Atmosphere In The Food Photography Background

I take pictures with warm photography backdrops when I want to recreate intimate situations, family atmospheres, or traditional restaurants. However, be careful not to overdo it, the bounce lights often make the colors too staggered and yellow. Difficult to use but ​with ​interesting effects. I use many wooden boards backdrops, bright, dark, and other various warm tones.

How To Use Light With Food Photography Backdrops

It is well-known that lighting a photo set is the main feature that makes our photography epic. I often had some ​issues ​during the lighting schemes installation. Reflections, lights, and shadows must be dosed well, incorrect positioning could lead to delivering ​a wrong message. The lights can completely change the food photography backgrounds.

Soft Lights For Soft Shadows In The Background

This light is generated by a large light source and especially very close to the subject. For ​instance​, with large and rectangular Profoto 4x6 or Profoto 2x3 softboxes we can obtain soft lights with natural reflections on the reflective elements (bottles, plates, glasses, cans), I ​apply ​them a lot in food photography.

When we have no reflective surfaces we can ​adopt ana Octabox Profoto Octa 3' or Profoto Octa 5', very comfortable and manageable. I also use the Matthews 18x24" and TRP Worldwide 24x36" flags to create interesting light and shadow effects on our food photography backdrop. 

Soft Lights Effects

We can create delicate images with diffuse shadows, ​or ​without shadows, it ​works ​less with three-dimensional but pleasant pictures with soft lights in our food photography backgrounds. It is suitable for giving the image of ​delicacy and softness. 

The use of backdrops with pastel colors is very appealing, especially with card stock and other similar materials, obviously white is also right. We must use soft lights when shadows mustn't be in the food photography backgrounds.

Hard Lights, Best Impact In Your Food Photography Backgrounds

We get hard light, of course, with small light sources and especially far from the subject. I'm used to working with softboxes​ like Profoto 1x1.3', Profoto 1x3' or direct light with Profoto 7” Grid, in this way hard lights will make our image and the backdrop really amazing. 

Hard Lights Effects

​These are better ​used with not too high elements. You obtain clear shadows that create a harmonious three-dimensionality. When ​I shoot from above, I often use hard light because it can generate a ​detachment ​between the subjects and the backdrop. Any type of food photography backdrop can be used.

How To Choose Surfaces And Materials For Food Photography Backdrops

Oh God, there are thousands of details to describe when explaining how to choose surfaces and materials. ​Obviously, I won’t be able to cover everything. Let's start with the easier things.

The most used and most functional backgrounds are undoubtedly the ​matte ​ones. The shadows are very uniform and pleasant, they don't reflect strobe or continuous lights and they work well with all foods and light schemes. With shiny surfaces, it is​ really hard​ to manage the lights, even if we could use them in specific cases ​as when we need special effects and great ​reflections.

Textured Top Backdrops, Traditions And Countryside In Food Photography

Let's start by saying that structured surfaces give the image a more traditional and country look, so it is better to use these surfaces when the food is intended for a more "​raw​" audience who likes fullness! 

When the quantity wins ​over ​the quality,​ that’s when we have​ foodporn! I'm used to choosing ​them when we have to talk about homemade food and ​not about restaurant dishes​ (even if it depends on the type of restaurant), ​what we look for is ​the feeling of a grandmother's table!

I use wood a lot. You can make surfaces with boards with beautiful veins or painted panels with textured paints. In addition to being easy to handle, wood can be painted in any color we ​like​. Other materials of this type can be stones, rough tiles, get creased fabrics, or special papers.

Smooth Top Backdrops For Modern Food Photography

With elegant or graphic foods I usually prefer smooth backdrops, they transmit cleanliness, professional style, and precision. Better if they’re solid colors but we can use them in all versions. They’re suitable for gourmet cooking and for important chefs. There are a great number of surfaces we can choose.

I often use painted wooden panels, they are comfortable, robust, and easy to handle. We can paint them several times ​for ​every type of set that we have to do. I also appreciate ceramics but I find them too heavy, I use them however for their convenience in the presence of liquids. 

Lately, I use laminate flooring a lot as I can clean them well. They are very light and, if necessary, we have the possibility of creating a large food photography backdrop.  

Shiny Top Backdrops, Special Effects In Food Photography

These backdrops are used a lot in cosmetics photography rather than ​in ​food photography background. The most ​common ​are plexiglass, glass, and ceramics. We can take creative pictures but ​managing ​the light is not very easy.

Use Fabrics In Food Photography Backgrounds

Fabrics can be used either on the whole surface or in some places with napkins and dish towels. Using fabrics ​gives ​a cool view to our photos, but they are often expensive and difficult to reuse in more than 2 or 3 environments, the risk is to the same photo over and over again. I choose to rent specialized stores or borrow them from friends and relatives.

Everything Can Be Used As A Background

Any material can be used to build a backdrop. Tables, floors, stones, walls, ​soil​, leaves, nets, hands, ingredients, pieces of wood​, however,​ food photography has one precise rule: ​showing the soul of food.

Enrich backgrounds with Props

We ​looked at about almost every kind of ​backdrop​ that can​ be used, now let's talk about the props, all those details that enhance and enrich the ​top of our background. There are many possibilities to combine these elements ​with​. If you ​are a beginner in food photography,​ you have to keep in mind only a few things at first.

  • Three or four types of tablecloths or kitchen cloths, choose them with neutral colors and textures with not too bright colors, so you can use them in multiple sets without ​them stealing too much attention.
  • ​Forks, knives, and spoons, ​you ​will need ​these. Choos​e them based on the style of food photography you have. Shiny when you want to give a bright and commercial style, ​pleasant the effect of reflected light that makes them totally white.​ Matte when your style is more vintage or you do dark photography, ​not having reflections they are very simple ​to illuminate and positional on the food photography backdrop.
  • ​Fairly neutral plates and saucers, both opaque and glossy. I usually use those of my customers, the dish is often part of the food itself, so, it’s better to be chosen by the chef who cooked it. Just get plates and saucers to add items like bread, spices, and ingredients.
  • ​Three or four types of glasses, preferably in pairs. Meal, aperitif, and dessert glasses.
  • ​Cups and mugs. I use them very often, especially blurred in the edges of the set, they push up the setting and do not catch too much attention. ​Even some of these take two or three pairs with not too bright colors.
  • ​Pinch bowls and small glass jars, I use them to add sauces and spices. Essential elements for filling empty areas in the sets. I recommend taking different types, they are very useful in food photography.
  • ​Cutting boards, slate tops, and similar items are often used when the set ​is ​about food preparations. Usually, we use just a few pieces per set at most.
  • ​Cookware and kitchen accessories, I prefer slightly smaller ones that work very well. Bigger sizes are harder to use and​, sometimes we have to crop them out of the background.

    Food Photography Tips For Beginners

    Taking food photography pictures is not easy, you need a ​certain talent to ​be a food stylist. I recommend you start with very simple sets, few photography backdrops, only one light point, and very few elements in the set.

    • ​Shooting from above is often better, easier to direct the light.
    • ​Testing and experimenting is the best way to approach food photography, you have to photograph homemade food, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.
    • ​Taking photos with your mobile phone, at home and in the restaurant, ​is ​an excellent exercise to learn the composition and combination of colors. You can use tables and tablecloths as a food photography backdrop, this is the secret to start ​well​, we don't have to complicate things​ when it is not necessary.

    First we need to understand the style, colors, and materials that we ​prefer​, then let's move on to buying or self-building the backdrops that are most suitable for us. There are no tricks, there are only rules ​to follow!

    Food Photography Tips For Experts

    If you want to improve your level, ​these are some basic steps to foll​ow:

    1. ​The first tip is to work with art directors and food stylists, it is absolutely necessary to extend your horizons and to find new types​ of backgrounds and new points of view. I have often changed my style ​after being influenced by them.​
    2. ​The second piece of advice is to study new light schemes, use both soft and hard lights, flags, and reflective panels. In this situation, the photographer really makes the difference.
    3. ​The third tip is to understand what is behind the food, you should always know what we are photographing. The photos must reach concrete results, they must convey the message the customer requires. It is useless to take amazing photos if they don't​ transmit anything,​ we must take worthwhile photos!
    4. ​The fourth and last is the most important tip, and obviously, is to choose the best food photography background for your food.

    Conclusion

    Wow,​ we finally reached the end! I swear you guys, this article squeezed me like a lemon (in terms of food). If you've come to read this far it means that you ​understood ​that in food photography there are many tips and rules to follow but ​also ​few tricks!

    To choose the backgrounds and props for the set you have to know the colors, the light, and your style must be very strong and clear. I believe you have to ​decide ​your food photography background, I ​believe you should start to take pictures now and I also believe that you must show me what you can do​!

    Hi, my name is Wilson Santinelli
    I specialize in corporate photography and commercial photography in all their forms: Food Photography, Reportage, Events, Portraits, content for websites and e-commerce, Still life, fashion, and advertising.
    My slogan. Photography as a form of language, lifestyle.
    Perception of a mood.

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