Props are just as important as the food in a food photograph. In this post I’m going to talk about how you need to become a little prop hunter to take your food photos to the next level.
The props in the image above belong to my good friend and prop stylist Amy Paliwoda. Amy and I teach classes together and she has an amazing collection of props and backgrounds for shooting. She has soooo many that she decided to create a new business with it. You can now rent her props and backgrounds. Her new business is call The Surface Library – based in Hollywood, CA.
If you are going to blog regularly and take lots of pictures, you will need lots of props. You simply can’t use the same props over and over. You have to mix it up in order to keep your photography interesting.
Sometimes I get inspired to shoot something just from one prop. That one prop can inspire an entire story. See my post about the little olive oil dish that I just had to buy and photograph. If you have a blog on baking there’s tons of fun antiquities to hunt for.
I am often trolling around on Ebay and Etsy for my antique props. Here is a list of phrases that will pull up all kinds of different props. You have to start learning what people call the things you are looking for. The descriptions are sometimes things you wouldn’t normally think of.
Search Phrases for Ebay and Etsy:
- Wilton Armetale RWP
- Pewter Plates
- Vintage or Antique anything – pie pans, pie tins, etc
- Vintage bake sheets
- Ovenex (the beautiful textured muffin pan above bottom right photo would be this) – they have several patterns – Starburst, Waffle Patterns, Crisscross
- Ekcoloy (same kind of antique bake ware as Ovenex)
- Bake King
- Milk Glass
- Kitchenalia (means misc. kitchen utensils or anything found in a kitchen)
- Vintage Farm Towels
- Primitive Kitchen or put Primitive in front of what you want – Primitive Utensils
- Primitive or Antique bread boards or cutting boards
The best way to get loads of interesting silverware pieces like you see above, is to look for “lots” of antique silverware on Ebay. There are two kinds, the antiques that are in perfect condition and are hundreds of dollars OR the “mixed lot” kind that are usually described as great for crafts. I spent $125 for 30 lbs of silveware and that is where all those beautiful pieces came from.
All these bread boards came from Ebay. The search phrases were “Antique Bread Boards” and “Primitive Bread Boards”. When you find nice ones like these be prepared to pay. The round one was $125 and the rectangular one was $150. There’s a ton of competition to get these and I looked for months as I was refusing to pay that much, then realized it’s just what they cost at the moment.
Don’t get caught in the “auction frenzy”!
So, here’s the deal. Create a budget for your props and stick to it. There will always be more things for sale. I use a website called Auction Sniper (not a paid endorsement). This way I don’t get all worked up about having to win the auction. You set your price on Auction Sniper for the item you want to win, then WALK AWAY. Auction Sniper does the rest. It will bid for you and warn you if the auction goes over the price you are willing to pay so you can readjust.
Other options for hunting antiques
Not into Ebay or Etsy? That’s totally fine. You have loads of options for your hunting. Simply go to the following types of stores:
- Salvation Army
- Thrift Stores (in Burbank CA on Magnolia Blvd. there are a ton of antique stores within blocks of each other – then, after your hunting you can go to Porto’s Bakery)
- Church Bazaars
- Antique Malls (usually a large warehouse building with loads of vendors selling antiques)
- Yard Sales
- Estate Sales / Moving Sales (check local listings on www.craigslist.com)
- Garage Sales
- Flea Markets
There are often antique store communities like the one I mentioned above in Burbank. There’s another one in Long Beach, CA on 2nd Street – they have a large antique mall as well. A blogger just told me about some antique malls on PCH in Long Beach too.
In Los Angeles we have tons of flea markets. To search for your area, just google “your city, flea market”, and see what comes up.
- 1st Sunday of every month is the Pasadena City College Flea Market
- 2nd Sunday is the biggest – the Pasadena Rose Bowl
- 3rd Sunday is the Long Beach Antique Market
- 4th Sunday is at the Santa Monica Airport (also on the 1st Sunday as well)
Update – I just found this great website to look for antique malls in your area. It covers the whole country: www.antiquemalls.com
Some not so antique options
When I shoot with Amy (prop stylist), she will often mix some old pieces with some new pieces. I love that look.
We usually try to make things look a little timeless unless we’re going for a specific era or time period in a shot.
Here’s a list of stores that we often pull from for jobs:
- Crate and Barrel
- Williams Sonoma
- Sur La Table
- Pottery Barn
- World Market
- Pier One
- Home Goods
Now – if you have time before your shoot, here is a list of online stores that have some great props:
- Gilt.com (this is a membership store)
- OneKingsLane.com (membership store)
- HeathCeramics.com (located in Los Angeles on Beverly Blvd)
- LunaGarcia.com (located in Venice Beach, CA)
Ok so I have to mention Mud Australia porcelain. I’ve been told many stores don’t carry them anymore because it takes 6 months for them to fill orders and they sell out extremely fast. Amy has several Mud pieces and they are really beautiful, and shoot really well. If you order any online, most of them are not made yet, so it will take weeks for you to get it. Oh, and they are very expensive too, like little works of art.
Backgrounds – you gotta have a background! (arms flailing right now)
The other element in your food photo is going to be some sort of background. Even if it’s just a white surface – that’s still a background.
I grew up with my dad doing lots of wood working, so I am very comfortable painting and varnishing things. I usually go to Home Depot, get cheap fence planks or floor boards, and paint or varnish them. They don’t need to be painted to last so it’s actually very easy. I also get Home Depot to cut them down to a manageable size. Some floor boards are 12 feet long so I cut them in half.
The background in the shot above is made from painted floor boards. I painted the wrong side of the boards so that you can see the rough texture and you can see the wood grain.
Amy has become quite the painter and has loads of beautiful surfaces that you can rent, like this one below:
If rustic wood surfaces aren’t your style, you can always use a real wood table instead. Please, just don’t shoot every one of your food shots on the same table. That will get boring real fast.
There is always fabric! I love fabrics and have acquired a huge collection over the years. Here is a shot of the colors we tend to use most often. I have lots more upstairs in my studio that we don’t use all that often as they were very specific colors for a certain project with a specific client.
Fabric is just a great way to bring in a complementary, or contrasting color to your food shot. If you use the wrong color, you can ruin your food shot too, so be careful when choosing colors. Notice that nothing in my collection has a pattern as that tends to compete with the food. It’s all about making your food look it’s best.
Here’s a great example that Amy and I did together. She loves pink and it really went well with the citrus. The pink acts as a frame and really brings out the color of the citrus.
**Updated July 10th, 2014 – I need to mention where to get good fabrics for a reasonable price. I always get my fabrics a large wholesale stores. Check for a garment area in your town. In Los Angles we have the garment district are there are a few blocks of warehouse spaces full of fabric stores. It’s a bit like the open market and you can negotiate when you buy lots of fabric. I do go to Michael Levine, Inc a lot and I know Amy goes there too.
I always buy 2.5 to 3 yards of fabric – it’s a total drag when you don’t have enough to cover a surface.
Also, my good friend Erika suggested below that she likes to look at the remnant sections in fabric stores. A great way to save some cash.
Tablecloths are very expensive and usually you are not seeing any edges of the fabrics anyway so no need to have fancy stitching on your edges.**
Some propping rules – Do’s and Don’ts
So now that I hopefully got you all excited about propping and backgrounds, I should mention several rules here that you really need to follow so you don’t get too crazy with this.
The basic rule when using props and backgrounds is they are to compliment and support the story you are trying to tell – not distract from it. So if you are looking at a food shot and are thinking, “wow, that’s a great plate”, you’ve failed in creating a great food shot. You are not selling your plate, or your napkin or your surface either. The first read should always be your food, then your eye moves around to look at the props to see what the story is.
- Stay away from big bold patterns
- Generally speaking, you should also avoid bright patches of color in places as that will also take your eye away from the food. Use bright color only when it directs your eye to your food.
- Use small plates – always plate your food so that it fills the plate. You don’t want huge quantities of food either. We are always shooting on salad plates or smaller unless we are actually plating an entire meal and need the room.
- Don’t pack your shot full of props. Be subtle with your story and edit your shot down to just the items necessary to tell your story. Again, you’re selling your recipe and food, not the props.
- Be careful with shiny surfaces that reflect light. Blaring highlights can be very distracting. If you have a prop giving off a gnarly highlight, spray dulling spray on it to take the shine down.
- If you are placing silverware, spend time placing it in your shot. Try it in several locations to see where it looks the best. It’s very hard to place the fork in just the right spot. It’s not always obvious where it should go, so try a few places and take pictures of each one and see what you like.
Well, hopefully this has inspired you enough to try some new props or backgrounds or both on your next food shoot.
If I’ve left any wonderful online stores off of my list (there’s so many out there), please comment below and let me know so I can add it.
Update – several of you have given me some great suggestions to add to this so as they come in I will be updating this post. Bookmark it to check back so that next time you go prop hunting you’ll be fully prepared!