As a food photographer who works out of my home (photographing food almost exclusively for my stock portfolio) I get to prop and style all of my dishes. Over time I’ve found this to be challenging, but also very rewarding and I’ve accumulated not only a lot of dishes, but I’ve also discovered and created several different tools and techniques I use when working with food. And, as is my nature, I thought I’d share these resources with you!
So to learn more about the items I use as well as where you can get them (like fake ice, for example) be sure to keep on reading. Enjoy!
Fake Ice: If you ever photograph drinks, or ever plan to, then you should really invest in one or two different types of fake ice. The professional grade stuff, like custom-made splashes, can be extremely pricey, and most often is usually rented (not purchased). However, for at-home food photographers there are much less expensive options out there. I get mine over on Amazon and you can find them for under $20/bag.
Foam Board: Of all the tools I use, these are by far the least expensive and most useful. I use them for reflection, diffusion, blocking light, and even tabletops (I wrap cloth around them and secure it to keep the wrinkles out).
I use the 20-inch x 30-inch size, and to make them stand on their own cut them in half, and then tape them back together (I use gaffers tape, but you could probably use duct tape, too). This way they will fold like books and stay propped open to add fill light, just like I did in this photo to the left.
• You can buy foam board at almost any craft store (or department store where they sell craft items).
Tacky wax: Sometimes you have something positioned “just so” and you need it to stay in place.This will usually be a small item, or a napkin or doily you need to stick to the table, just like I did with the photo of this cannoli. When you run across a situation like this, the absolute best item you can use is Tacky Wax (or something similar). It’s pretty sticky stuff, but it’s clear-ish (like hair wax) and helps keep trouble items in-place.
• Buy Tacky Wax on Amazon.com; you can also get it at craft stores, and even some camera stores carry it.
Valspar Crackle paint: I love this stuff! It gives your table-top surfaces that “weathered” look, and you can really get creative with different color combinations. I tend to use this on wood surfaces, but I’ve seen other photographers use foam board with just as much success. My favorite brand is Valspar. I’ve tried the Martha Stewart stuff but it didn’t work nearly as well (and is actually kinda worthless, IMO). I’ve also seen posts where people get the same look using Elmer’s Glue, so you might want to look into that, too.
Water bottles: These are good for filling with water (or whatever your spritzer-liquid-of-choice may be). I use them to add water to fresh herbs, fruit, and vegetables, or even for flowers for still-life images or add-ons to your food set. (I will also often carry a tiny water bottle with water in my camera bag for macro shots when I’m doing landscapes). You can get these almost anywhere, such as a department store (Target, etc.), Amazon, craft stores, etc.
• Food styling tip: Just Add Water
Dulling spray: When you have dishes or flatware that shines, it can add odd or unwanted hot-spots in your photos. It also tends to show the reflection of whatever is in your room or setup. The quick fix for this is to get a can of dulling spray and give it a smooth and even surface to reflect off of. It only takes a few minutes for the paint to set, and is a really great idea for props and silverware that you use specifically for your food photography.
Vinyl Backdrops: I recently discovered that I can use vinyl backdrops with table-top backgrounds printed on them to use with my food photographs! I’ve purchased a few, some were hit and miss in terms of quality, but overall they are pretty good (and so much easier to store than dozens of wooden boards). Here’s a photo I took with one. They clean up pretty easily, too … and I kind of wonder how difficult it would be to make my own :)
• Ink & Elm: http://www.inkandelm.com/
Styrofoam and Small Bowls: When you need a to add little bulk to your food, the easiest way is to place something underneath. For slippery stuff, like pasta, styrofoam is a good fit. However, this will usually be for food you are not planning on eating after you photograph it, as you’ll end up with little bits of styrofoam stuck to the food. Another option is to use small bows, placed upside-down in the dish. This helps bulk up the food without messing with it (in other words, you can have your cake and eat it, too). :)
Cardboard and toothpicks: When you want food to stay put, and you don’t mind adding a few things inside of the food to make it work, then consider using cardboard and/or toothpicks. For food that you want to add a bit of bulk to, particularly things like sandwiches or stacked foods, then this is a good trick to keep in mind. And, as long as your cardboard is clean, you can still eat the food after you’ve disassembled everything. :)
Creme Brûlée Torch and Charcoal Starter: Adding a little extra char, or even grill marks to food on-set can be done easily with the right tools. A creme brûlée torch will allow you to selectively “char” your food, and a charcoal starter can add thick grill marks. Careful with these, though, especially the charcoal starter! That thing gets super-heated … I would highly suggest using it in the kitchen, as opposed to directly on-set. :)
Hand Steamer: A hand steamer is a useful tool to have for a few different reasons. First, it’s an easy way to get those pesky wrinkles out of linen. Secondly, it can make a fun toy to play with if you want to do creative shoots, like in the example to the left. I added the steam with the hand-steamer and then used Photoshop to mask out the unwanted areas.
Here’s a link to the original article with a step-by-step tutorial: Adding Steam.
• This is the steamer I use: Steam Buddy Handheld Steamer
Lastolite Tri-grip Diffusers and Reflectors: One thing I use in nearly every single shoot is a diffuser behind my setup. This cuts the light down and softens it, and it also will kill harsh light (if you have the sun coming in through the window. I prefer the Lastolite TriGrip brand because they prop up easily right on the table and lean agains the window (or my foam board), unlike circle diffusers which tend to roll around a lot. :) I currently have a 1-stop diffuser, but will be adding a 2-stop to my collection, soon.
Note: The difference between the 1-stop and 2-stop is the amount of light that they will block; the 1-stop cuts out 1-stop of light, and the 2-stop cuts out two stops of light (or, double the amount of light the 2-stop). If you have a LOT of harsh light coming in through your windows, or you do a lot of photography with strobes or flashes, you may want to consider the 2-stop; if you have a soft and diffused light coming in through your windows then the 1-stop will probably suit you just fine.
Books, Websites and Classes: There are a lot of other places to find education and resources about food photography. I’ve listed a few below, and if you head over to the “Learn Food Photography” website you can find a ton of other books and resources on their site.
• Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (print book)
• Food Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Second Edition) (print b00k)
• Food Styling for Photographers (book)
• Penny DeLosSantos on CreativeLive (video class)
• Learn Food Photography (website)