As a food photographer or someone who regularly shoots food, you need to have a collection of food photography props. Even if your style is more on the minimalist side, you’ll require some props to tell your visual story.
What is a food photography prop, you ask?
A prop is basically any item you place on your set that is meant to enhance the image. In food photography, this is typically kitchenware, like plates and flatware, serving bowls and utensils, or salt and pepper shakers and cheese graters.
Photography props can be any household item that helps you create a scene with your food subjects.
In professional food photography, different jobs will require different levels of propping. On big budget shoots, you may have a food stylist and a prop stylist. On others, your food stylist may also do the propping.
In my case, I arrange a lot of the photography props myself, as it’s something I really enjoy doing. I’ve also amassed a big collection of photography props over the years. If you’re a food blogger, you may already have collected your fair share of props as well.
How to Approach Photography Propping
Most professional food photographers usually have loads of props. This means they’re more likely to have on hand the item needed for any given shoot. Established photographers with studios usually have shelves upon shelves of props, linens, and other items to choose from. They also add to them regularly.
Having a lot of props allows you to be more creative. Sometimes when I find a special prop, it gives me an idea about what to shoot. Also, in the shooting process you might find that the prop you thought would work actually doesn’t. That’s when you need to find something else to replace it.
However, when you are working with a lot of clients on different types of food shoots, you’d be surprised at how often you’ll need to source a certain prop you don’t have in your huge collection.
Prop shopping is a continuous part of a food photography business. You need to buy more and more photography props, even when you have many props you don’t actually use.
Sometimes you’ll have a prop in mind but it doesn’t quite fit the story. You’ll have to get something more specific.
In the shot of the milk and cookies below, I needed a bottle for the milk. The regular milk bottles I had looked too big next to the cookies and as a result, the scale was off.
I had to search high and low for the right size, which ended up being a lot smaller than you would think. A regular milk bottle didn’t fit in my frame.
The other alternative is to have a smaller collection of carefully curated photography props. This is not the best option if you shoot for a variety of clients because you need to rotate your photography props regularly. The same items shouldn’t show up over and over again in your photographs.
However, if you’re a blogger or shoot stock photography, this is an approach that can make a lot of sense for you. It can help you be more intentional with your photography and help you focus on your composition. In addition, it’ll save you a lot of space!
When selecting food photography props, think about your style and what types of props would enhance it. My style is on the rustic side, so I tend to use a lot of vintage and antique props and heavier pieces of ceramic or pottery, like stoneware.
If your style is really clean and elegant, or more refined, such props would not make much sense and you’d be better off with more delicate pieces.
Once you define your style, think of key signature pieces you use regularly and keep on the lookout for their variations. For me that is small, dark cutting boards in various shapes and sizes, heavily tarnished cutlery, and small ceramic bowls in dark, neutral colours.
How to Select Photography Props
In general, stay away from very bright colours and bold patterns, as they will distract from the food. Colourful pieces add a point of interest, but they need to work with the overall composition and feel of the photo.
Sometimes I will layer a more colourful or patterned plate under a white or black one. You can also use a patterned serviette. Have it peeking out under your plate or artfully placed at the edge of your scene.
The key is to make sure it doesn’t draw the eye away form the food.
Most of the time you will need to use small photography props. Even regular sized dinner plates will look huge to the camera and dominate the image. You also might not be able to fit them into your frame.
I recommend using salad plates and smaller bowls etc. in your food photography, as well as small, stemless wineglasses. Scale and size is a very important aspect of composition.
Don’t use a lot of photography props. A few of the right props can have a lot of impact in telling a visual story, but too many will distract the viewer and dominate the image.
Watch for glare. Shiny utensils and dishes will reflect the light in a way that can be very distracting. This is one reason why I love the patina of vintage cutlery.
Get creative with props by using them differently than their intended use. For example, votive candle holders can make cute dessert cups, or shot glasses work for little starters like layered savoury terrines.
When selecting your props, start with one or two pieces, perhaps a neutral salad plate and a vintage knife or spoon. If in doubt, keep it simple.
Food photography is a process of building your scene and assessing it. You add things, then take them away, or move them around until you find the placement that looks best to the eye. White is always a good option.
If you’re doing dark and moody food photography, stick to darker toned dishes in black, blue and brown with a matte finish to reduce the amount of reflection produced by the light.
White dishes in a dark scene also draw the eye away from the subject unless they are balanced out by other elements in the frame.
Where to Buy Food Photography Props
One of my first stops for prop shopping is any type of secondhand or charity shop where kitchenware is sold. It can take some rummaging, but you may find a few gems.
You might find a couple of stores in your area with a large selection of housewares at great prices. For me, this is a Salvation Army store in a local suburb. I bought the copper pot in the image below for less than three dollars.
No matter when I go, I always find something.
Etsy and eBay are great places to shop for vintage props. I am partial to Ovenex brand vintage bakeware, and have also been scouring the sites for the perfect antique French cutting board in my ideal shape and size.
Pewter plates are wonderful to find, as is vintage enamelware and tarnished silverware. Typically these are more pricey than what you can find at the charity shops, but they can really elevate your food photos.
For new kitchenware and props, the following stores are good online sources:
- Pottery Barn
- Crate & Barrel
- Williams Sonoma
- Pier 1
- Sur La Table
- World Market
- Mud Australia
- Canvas Home
Photography Backgrounds and Surfaces
When you shoot food and still life photography, you will need surfaces and backgrounds. Although photographers often refer to both of these as “backgrounds”, there is a difference.
A surface is where you place your food and props, or whatever it is that you’re shooting. The background is what we see behind it.
You can use a variety of items for backgrounds, like fabric, craft paper, or large floor tiles. You can also get creative and make your own.
In this image of the pears, I used a canvas drop cloth used for protecting floors when you paint your home. I got it from a hardware store. I cut it into four large pieces and painted them with some paint samples I also got from the hardware store.
With little cost and effort, I have beautiful drop cloths that were not only inexpensive, but also roll up and can be easily stored.
You can also buy sheets of wood and paint or stain them yourself. There are also some great online resources for buying professional food photography backgrounds and they ship worldwide.
This is a good option if you don’t have the space to undertake these messy projects, but they’re more expensive than the DIY approach. Some good options for these are Erickson Woodworks, Soularty, and Woodeville Workshop.
Linens as Photography Backgrounds
I think of linens as photography props, so I will talk about them here. Linens can be a very important aspect of food photography backgrounds. Even if you don’t have a lot of kitchenware, I recommend collecting a variety of serviettes and fabrics for your food photography.
You can’t have too many tablecloths in a solid neutral colour – especially if they are 100% linen, as linen has a beautiful, natural texture that looks great in photographs.
The same goes for napkins. They can be pricey, so you can invest in a square at a time. Alternately, you can buy a metre at the fabric store and cut them into squares and dye them.
In the picture of the soup below, I dyed pieces of old, secondhand linen in the kitchen sink with fabric dye I bought at the drugstore.
I didn’t bother finishing the edges because I purposely wanted a frayed, rustic look, which suits my style of photography.
Whatever photography props you choose to use, they should make sense, and be cohesive within the context of your image.
They are placed in your scene to serve the story you are trying to tell and should not dominate it or distract your viewer from the subject—the beautiful food.