In really big food photography productions, along with a food stylist there is likely to be a prop stylist. This person is in charge of the plates, napkins, tablecloth, and anything else added to the scene that is not food. If you're styling and photographing your own food, then this job falls on your shoulders. And though it might not seem important at first, the props you use can really make or break a food photograph.
How you style the area around your food can greatly affect the mood and overall impression of the photograph (Figure 4.25). The props can suggest the location, time of day, season, and perhaps even who might be about to enjoy the meal. All of this can be achieved through the colors, textures, and shapes of your dishes, textiles, and props. The possibilities are endless.
Figure 4.25 To make this dish appear as if it were on a table at a fancy restaurant (or outdoors in a romantic setting), I added large string-lights to a black background to convey the sense of a darkened room.
Relevance and Simplicity
When adding props to a scene, imagine yourself sitting down at the table to eat the meal you are photographing. Picture the utensils, food, and dishes that might be set around you, things that you would actually use in real life. Then, take that information and apply it to your photograph.
Just remember, if it doesn't add value to your image, it's likely that it's taking away from your image. You want the props to be relevant, but you don't want them to draw attention away from your main subject. Keeping the scene uncluttered and simple is usually a good start, since you want to showcase your main dish. Some examples of appropriate props and additions to your scene might include silverware, prepared food (such as side dishes or ingredients from the main dish), drink glasses, and napkins. Also, when photographing a finished, prepared meal it's also best to avoid placing in your scene unprepared food items, such as whole peppers, potatoes or onions. If it's something you wouldn't normally eat in its entirety (or in an uncooked state), then it's probably not going to seem very appetizing in a photograph.
Dishes and Accessories
When selecting the plates and utensils to use in your photograph, you want to match them to your food. My general style is to use a lot of white, clean dishes—the meals I prepare tend to have a lot of color in them, and I don't want to compete with the food with a bright or busy pattern on the plate or bowl (Figure 4.26). However, if the food is very basic and simple (like mashed potatoes or a slice of cake), then I would probably use a colored plate, or maybe even something with a simple pattern. There's really no rule to this, though—just go with what you think fits your style and your food.
Figure 4.26 Here is a sampling of some of the dishes I use for food photography. As you can see, I prefer white or light-colored dishes.
The size of the dish is also important. I collect a lot of smaller plates and bowls and use them often in my photographs. Putting food on a plate that is a little smaller than one you might normally use to eat on gives the appearance that there is more on the plate and that the food item is larger than it actually is. This also works well with silverware—I will often use salad forks and smaller spoons off to the side of my dishes to give the appearance that the food is bigger than it actually is.
There are a lot of great places you can find dishes, cups, and utensils for your photographs. I like to shop at stores where I can buy individual items, instead of having to buy an entire set (since I'm typically only using one or two of the same dish in a scene). Thrift stores and yard sales are also good places to score unique dishes and accessories for really great prices. Another place I like to shop is craft stores. They often have interesting glassware and decorative items that are intended for other purposes (candles, for example) but that can be used as cups or bowls in photographs. I'm also learning to create my own dishes, as you can see in Figure 4.27.
Figure 4.27 I've started to create some of my own dishes for food photographs. Here is an example of a few of my pottery creations.
Textiles and Textures
Adding texture to a photograph is a good way to lend a sense of depth and realism to the scene, and there are many ways to add texture with food photography. I do this by using textiles, such as napkins and tablecloths, and also creating my own textured tabletops (Figure 4.28).
Figure 4.28 Creating premade cloth tables is an easy way to keep them ironed and easy to use.
One way to create easy-to-use tablecloths for your scene is to take fabric, iron it out so it's nice and flat, wrap it around foam board, and then secure it with tape in the back. This makes the tablecloths easy to store and transport without wrinkling.
If you want to use a textured tabletop, they are pretty easy to make on your own (Figure 4.29). You just need a thin piece of wood big enough to cover the table, a few different colors of paint, and some "crackle" paint (you can usually find all of this at hardware or craft stores). Then just follow the instructions on the crackle paint container to get a nice aged/distressed paint finish. You can also scour yard sales and antique stores for old wooden doors, or just use any other type of old wood that you can find lying around the house (Figure 4.30).
Figure 4.29 I like to use boards and two-by-fours to paint my own unique tabletops for my food photographs.
Figure 4.30 These boards are pieces of an old fence a friend was getting rid of. I like to use them for a rustic "picnic table" look in my photographs.