Using fabrics in your food photos might sound simple, but it’s not as easy as you think. There’s a lot you need to consider when you’re working with fabrics in a shot, besides the color. The shot above is with linen napkins. Linen looks great, but it’s a beast when you want to get wrinkles out of it.
#1. The Fabric Color May Shift
The main thing you need to know about photographing fabrics is that our cameras may see the color of that fabric VERY differently.
Fabrics are obviously made with dyes and inks. Many of them also have brighteners and whiteners in them as well. All of these can massively shift how the color will look in your image.
Above is a table runner I just bought from Crate and Barrel. I love Crate and Barrel! We pull props from them almost every shoot. See the color of this in their website? It’s a nice dark blue-gray-slate color, right? They are calling it Graphite. The photo on their site looks just like the table runner in person. Guess what? It photographed horribly!!!
This is no joke. That lovely slate gray color photographed like what you see above!!! This is the SAME table runner – with a matching napkin that did the same thing. The dyes in these fabrics photographed purple. I even put a neutral gray card into the test shot to make sure my color balance was correct, and it was.
If I was to use this fabric, I would have to fix this color shift in Photoshop. If I were to tweak the entire image to fix the fabric color, then my food would have a strange color to it. This was going to take masking in Photoshop to get the background neutral and the food looking great.
This is not unusual, and there’s nothing wrong with the table runner. It’s meant to be a table runner, not a prop in a photograph. Clearly, Crate and Barrel did some major tweaking on their product shot of this to make it match the color in person, as they should have.
#2. Test Your Fabrics
Whenever you are going to use fabrics in your shot, test them in your lighting to make sure they are going to work.
This is a fabric test shot for a job I was doing. The shot was of a large plate of shrimp cocktail. The orange shrimp looked great on this turquoise background. In order to pick the fabric we wanted, I photographed about 4 or 5 different fabrics in the lighting I was going to use. This is the best way to see what you are going to get.
#3. Use a Table Felt Under Your Fabrics
The other thing I always use when shooting fabrics is a table felt. This is what you would put on your dining room table under your tablecloth to protect your table.
In the image on the right, you can see my pressure steamer. I love using that – it will actually get out wrinkles in linen, which most irons can’t do without a lot of work.
#4. That’s Right, Spray Starch, I said it
Ladies, remember Spray Starch? Well, I’ll use that on napkins sometimes too.
#5. Pick Fabrics with Subtle Texture
When picking your fabrics, pick ones with a nice texture to it. Linens DO photograph beautifully and their texture is subtle where you just see the weave of the threads.
This texture should be very low key and not distract from your image. As I always say, your image is about your food, not your props, not your backgrounds, and not your fabrics. All these things should complement your food and bring your eye right to it.
#6. For Napkins, Pick Fabrics with Body to Them
When picking napkins, it’s great to have a little bit of stiffness in the fabric. If it’s too soft, it just lays flat on your surface. You want your prop fabrics to have some body to them. In the shot above you can see I’m just using a corner of the napkin and it’s not laying flat on the surface.
#7. Get a Selection of Fabrics – Don’t Use the Same Ones Over and Over
I see it all the time. I even catch myself doing it. Using the same backgrounds, over and over. Well, if you’re putting them up on your blog every week, we’re gonna see it too. Switch it up! Hey, I’m telling you to go shopping for fabrics!
Notice I said fabrics, and not table clothes. Table cloths are so expensive compared to fabrics, so save yourself some money and buy fabrics instead.
Also, get a selection of fabrics in case one or more of them have crazy dyes that will shift on you when you shoot them. It is not possible to predict how a fabric will shoot.
Here’s about half of my favorite fabrics. I store them like this to protect them from dust, and when I go on location, they are easy to transport.
#8. Get Your Fabric from Large Discount Stores, NOT Designer Fabric Stores
If you are in a major city, there are always garment districts that have loads of fabric stores at really low prices. In Los Angeles, our garment district is downtown at around 9th St and Maple Ave. The fabric stores are packed into these blocks down here. The main massive one is called Michael Levines on Maple.
Sure, the designer fabric stores will have gorgeous fabrics. Do you want to pay $150/yard? I sure don’t, and neither do my clients.
#9. Get Enough Fabric to Cover Your Set
If you’re one of those bloggers using a 50mm lens, then you’re going to need more fabric to cover your shot as that’s a wider lens for shooting food. I would suggest at least 4 feet. I always buy two yards of fabric to make sure I don’t run out of anything. I often shoot on a 4ft x 8ft surface so I make sure to cover that.
If you are using a smaller table and have a horizon line, then you’ll only need a few feet of fabric to cover that.
#10. Iron Out the Obvious Wrinkles
If you are using fabric as a surface and your eye keeps going to a wrinkle in your shot, get the iron out! It’s surprising how many wrinkles show up when we take photos. The amount of wrinkles you’ll see depends on your lighting.
So if you see wrinkles, guess what, so will your viewers.
Now, I do have to say that sometimes, wrinkles are ok – as long as they aren’t distracting, and they look very natural. That’s a hard thing to do, but I’ve seen it work in some shots.
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