There are several types of food photography backdrops, backgrounds and surfaces to choose from these days. I’m going to break down the different types, and when it’s best to use each one.
I’ll also share some resources for where I get mine, show you how I store them, and how I show them to clients before our shoot day.
The very first thing we need to do is define these terms as many food photographers are actually confusing some of these terms when describing them.
Table of Contents
What Is The Difference Between a Background, Backdrop, and a Surface
In food photography, anything your food is sitting on is a surface. Anything BEHIND the horizon line of your surface is a background, which some people also call a backdrop.
I’m not sure how this started but when food blogging was starting to take off, several bloggers started calling anything under their food, backdrops.
This can get confusing. A “Backdrop” can be a few different things. Traditionally it is referring to a painted canvas, or scenery on stage that is placed in the back of the stage so it is behind the actors.
So again, In food photography, anything that the food is actually sitting on top of is a surface, but just understand that there are companies selling products that they are calling backdrops or backgrounds because that’s what all the bloggers are calling them.
A new photographer will call them backdrops, someone who has been shooting for a long time will call them surfaces and backgrounds based on how they are being used.
The reason I am telling you this is because you are going to get clients who do not know the difference between a surface and a background either, and that could be an expensive mistake.
So when I get clients that ask for “backdrops”, I have to get further clarification what they mean. Are they referring to something under the food (surface), or behind the horizon line (background)?
The Different Types Of Backgrounds, Backdrops, and Surfaces
There are several options for us now when choosing backgrounds, backdrops, and surfaces. I am going to break down each type and tell you when it’s best to use them.
Vinyl Printed Backgrounds and Surfaces
These are the newest options for us in the photography world. They are called Vinyl backgrounds to make them sound fancy, but they are actually just using the same technology as printing large banners.
There are 3 main problems with this kind of surface or background:
- The printing resolution is not that high.
- The “matte” surfaces aren’t actually 100% matte.
- If you store them rolled up, they will get horizontal bumps in the vinyl that will take time to lay flat again.
Let’s address the first problem – the printing resolution.
Vinyl printed backgrounds and surfaces (banners) are using ink jet printing processes on a vinyl substrate. The problem with this kind of printing is the lack of resolution, and the limitations of the ink jet printer heads.
You see, normally a banner is being printed with the intention of that banner to be seen at a far distance – NOT close up. The printer head is spraying out droplets of ink. The smaller the droplets, the finer the detail.
Banner printing normally does NOT use very fine detail in the printing process. This is the problem.
What this means is if you need to do a macro shot, or a close up of something on one of these vinyl surfaces, you will actually see a printed dot pattern from the ink jet printer. You are actually photographing a photographic image.
If your vinyl surface is a print of wood planks, when you are shooting a detail of that, it’s very obvious you are not shooting on a dimensional surface, but on a flat print.
My other issue with the resolution is a lot of the photographers creating images to be printed onto these vinyl surfaces are NOT using a camera with a big enough digital sensor.
This makes their images too small to actually be printed 2 foot x 3 foot, and even worse at 3ft x 4ft and will give you a print that is out of focus. That’s fine, IF you are using that as a background behind your set.
You can get away with using these blurry images of concrete or stone printed on vinyl only if you are not doing a detail shot up close to that surface.
Now for the second problem – the “matte” surface.
These surfaces or backgrounds are all sold claiming they have a matte surface, but they actually aren’t 100% matte. There is a slight sheen to them which will catch light at certain angles.
In the painting world, this texture is called an eggshell finish, again, not matte.
This can be a problem with photography because if our surface is actually reflecting light in the room, then it no longer looks like the wood texture printed onto it, it looks like a piece of vinyl.
Also, if using a wood printed vinyl, the spaces between the printed wood planks that are printing black on the vinyl surface actually look gray (instead of black), and flat (no depth) and have the eggshell texture of the vinyl banner material.
However, there are ways to use these vinyl surfaces and backgrounds as long as you learn to work with their limitations.
The last issue – storing them rolled up produces ridges.
The last issue I have with these vinyl products is when storing them rolled up, you will get ridges in the vinyl that will go across the entire surface. You will have to plan time to lay out your surface to get it to lay flat without ridges.
The advantages of vinyl surfaces and backgrounds:
These vinyl printed surfaces and backgrounds are best for overall 3/4 shots and also for wider overhead shots, (again, not closeups).
They also have a nice price compared to buying the real thing. The better quality ones start at about $35. DO NOT BUY THE CHEAP ONES. They look horrible.
Another advantage is they don’t take up as much space as the real thing and are much easier to transport and carry around.
REAL Wood, Concrete, Metal, Fabrics, and Paper Backgrounds and Surfaces
This is obvious, nothing beats the look of the real thing in our food photos.
There are times however when you MUST use the real thing instead of a printed version of it. When you are doing close up food photography, I’d say 99% of the time you must use real wood, metal, concrete, and fabrics.
As I mentioned previously, vinyl just doesn’t have the printing resolution needed for detail work, so using printed vinyl of a wood grain will have a dot pattern instead of actual wood grain, for example.
Unfortunately, real wood, metal, and concrete are also the most expensive options and they take up a LOT of room, so storing them can be an issue if you just don’t have the space.
Another affordable option if you just want a color surface or background would be using just a few yards of fabric. I have a TON of fabric that I use for food photos all the time. The key here is to keep them organized by color so that they are easy to find.
For fabrics, look for linen blends with no patterns! See this post about working with fabrics and how I store them.
Seamless papers are another great alternative. They come in large rolls, two size options, and lots of colors. Savage is a company I have used many times over the years.
The only drawback for us food photogs is that paper and fabric will get stained easily. So if you are using paper, it’s not very environmentally friendly because of the waste.
How I store My Surfaces And Backgrounds
I store my vinyls rolled up in large mailing tubes that I found on Amazon. I have about 50 of these so it’s not easy storing them flat.
Instead, I have them grouped by size, color and textures, and I roll up about 3 or 4 vinyls in one tube.
Then I print out images of what is in each tube so they are easy to find.
For my rigid surfaces and backgrounds, I store them vertically so they are also easy to get to.
My Surface Library For Clients
This takes time but it’s worth it in the end. I have pictures of every surface and also the surface being used, if possible so that clients can see this gallery and pick which surfaces they would like for their shoot.
Resources For Food Photography Surfaces and Backgrounds
Alright! Now that we’ve covered all the pros and cons of each type of surface and background, here is a list of some favorites that either I have used, or are very popular with others.
Here’s the deal, your surfaces and backgrounds have got to be at least 2 ft x 3 ft, and ideally they should be 3 ft x 4 ft.
You will run out of surface area real fast with the small 2 foot square surfaces and backgrounds that are jammed together, so I am not a fan of those and will not recommend them.
They force you to compose your images to fit the backgrounds instead of composing for what is right for the image.
Real Wood Surfaces and Backgrounds
Woodrow Studios Located in the UK and does custom work.
Woodville Workshop Located in Russia (I have several of these) – look for the section on the website where you can customize the front and back side of the surface. Also does custom work.
Erickson Surfaces (I also have several of these) located in the US. Also does custom work and has other wood props now as well.
Foodi Fancy – located in the UK
On Etsy, you can find several shops that make “real wood surfaces for photography” (that’s the keyword phrase to use to search for them). Here is one example – ASPaulJoy And another one called Texturit and one by my friend Corina Daniela called Food Photography Store
Hard Substrate Flat Printed Surfaces and Backgrounds
Bessie Bakes Backdrops – Her boards are the bare minimum of 2foot x 3foot. Avoid the ones with busy patterns or textures. Based in the US
VFlat World – they have some larger boards called Duo Boards which would work well but avoid the busy patterned ones! No clue where they are based – another company who gives no info about their location on their website, but it looks like you can buy from them directly, or through other larger retailers.
Best Ever Backdrops – They also have the bare minimum size of 2 foot x 3 foot – but they have a lot with very busy patterns and textures so avoid those. US based but ships to Canada, UK, and EU with no duty tax.
Vinyl Surfaces and Backgrounds
Now with some of these, they are set up for portrait photographers, but many of these will work well with shooting food. I’ve yet to find one that works well with close up images.
Artisan Backgrounds – UK based, so outside UK you might have to pay customs.
Capture By Lucy – UK based – you can actually get custom printed vinyl surfaces and backgrounds here.
Ink And Elm – their resolution is NOT the best, so you cannot use these for detail shots at all. I have several of them. Avoid all the busy pattern ones.
Club Backdrops – They have 3ft x 4ft vinyls, AND they also offer custom solid colors.
Stile And Co – US based. These are magnetic vinyl substrates that you roll out and put them on their metal board – which sadly is sold out at the time of writing this post, but I’m sure you can still use the vinyls without the metal board.
Fox Backdrop – This is another portrait based store, but again, many of the simpler, not so busy backgrounds can work well for food. They are based in China. I have not used them, so I would assume they are not good for close up detail shots.
Backdrop Outlet – A portrait based store that has many options for backgrounds behind your set.
HSD Backdrops – Portrait based store that also has larger solid backgrounds for behind your set. Based in the US.
Black Velvet Styling – Another UK based shop. They offer vinyl and paper backgrounds. You may have to pay customs shipping outside the UK.
FPF – Stands for Fondos Para Fotografos. Based in Italy – I have a few of theirs and they are quite nice.
Canvas or Fabric for Backgrounds
These backdrops would be great for hanging as a background behind your set. They make a lot for portraits, so same rules apply for food shooting – avoid busy patterns and heavy textures.
Intuition Backgrounds – A portrait based store that has traditional backgrounds made from fabric along with a few other substrates.
Kate Backdrops – Another portrait based store that has fabrics and vinyl.
Ok that was a marathon, but hopefully a valuable resource for you. If there are any companies I left off this list, please let me know in the comments below and I can add them.
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