With the rise of Instagram, every meal has become a potential subject for a photographer. We’re sharing our food through photographs like never before, and higher quality imagery gets more likes in the world of #instafood.
But how do you create that styled look to your food photographs when you’re on a budget? Not everyone has the cash to drop on a whole styling kit of tableware, linens, and backgrounds. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ as the proverb says, so let me tell you about a few creative ways I’ve made the money go a little further when it comes to food photography.
Take the suggestions in this article as a starting point and be creative with your own ideas. Bring in skills you’ve already got (or would love to learn) in your quest to DIY your food photography on a budget!
Shop your home
It seems so obvious, but you’d be amazed at what you can find at home (or in the homes of your friends and relatives). The best thing about shopping your home is that everything is free! Take a minute now to take a look around your house and see what you already own that might work for food photography.
The kitchen is the first place to start – but don’t just stop at crockery and flatware! Ancient old baking trays make fabulous backgrounds, and interesting glassware can make great detail in an out-of-focus background.
Don’t neglect the bathroom as you make your shopping trip. More than once I have put food on a (clean) soap dish that happened to be beautiful in color or texture. From the living room, vases can hold a freshly cut flower for a food photography scene. Bedrooms are a treasure trove of trinket dishes, baskets, boxes, and fabrics (more than one evening dress has found its way into my shots as a textile element). Finally, check outside – weathered old plant pots or interesting bits of wood can really bring life to your food stories (once they’ve been scrubbed, of course).
On a similar note to shopping your home, don’t forget to visit your local thrift shops regularly! The staff in my local shops know me so well that they put interesting flatware, linens and ceramics aside for me now. Moreover, each item costs very, very little compared to buying them new.
Creating backgrounds and surfaces with interest
When you’re setting your scene for a styled food photograph, the background can really make or break the shot. You can purchase pre-made background boards designed especially for photographers that replicate various textures. They’re very and good, and I use them often, but they’re also quite expensive! While homemade boards don’t replace textures such as wood or marble they can be very effective for the right shot.
Head along to your local DIY store that sells sheet materials. There you can buy sheets of plywood. If you are lucky, the store will also cut these sheets of plywood into manageable chunks either for free or at a minimal cost.
It works out to be extremely cost-effective to create backgrounds using these boards as a base. A sheet of plywood that is 2.4m by 1.2m costs about £25 here in the UK and that makes eight neat 60cm square boards. You can paint both sides too, so it works out to about £1.50 per background (plus whatever paint you use).
Usually, I use cheap emulsion paint samplers to create backgrounds. Don’t be restricted to brushes for applying the paint either – a sponge is my favorite tool followed closely by children’s painting toys! Go bold with your designs; once you’ve made the background out of focus with a shallow aperture, you won’t see small details. Experiment with color – dark backgrounds can be as interesting as light backgrounds.
Build the set
Once you’ve created some backdrops, put one on a table next to a window and prop the other up behind it vertically like a wall. You now have a table set for a fraction of what it would cost you to buy special backdrops marketed to photographers!
While you’re at the DIY store buying your plywood, check out the flooring section too. Very often DIY shops will sell sample flooring tiles for people to try at home. For just £1.50 I bought all three of the flooring tiles in the pictures above. The boards are often quite small, but if you’re shooting close-ups, they can still work really well (they’re also good for jewelry photographs).
Customised table linens
Beautiful linens can help to make a food shot pop. They feel luxurious because they’re something you usually only use for special occasions. Plus if you keep your eye out, you can often find linens with unusual textures to the fabric or fancy trim around the edge, and these can help elevate your shots to be something quite special.
Table linens are, at their most basic, just a square of interesting (or not-so-interesting) fabric. To create the simplest DIY napkin that really packs a punch, head to a fabric store that sells dressmaking fabrics. Have a look through their linen selection. You’re after something heavy with lots of texture, and you’ll want half a meter of the fabric. Use sharp scissors to cut it into a large square (you should get at least two out of half a meter of fabric) and you’ve created your first designer napkin!
You can either turn the raw edges over and sew them with some matching thread or start pulling the threads away to fray them. Both styles give a different look to your shots as you can see in the shots above. Think about color when you are purchasing fabric; it can really make a difference to the mood of your shots. I’d suggest purchasing neutral colors first and then venturing out into colors when you have some good basics.
Many shops sell a ‘fat quarter’ of fabric (it is a meter of fabric cut horizontally and then vertically to make a rectangle). These cuts are the perfect size for a single oversized napkin. Once you’ve built up a stash of beautiful plain napkins, you can try venturing out into something a little more complicated.
Embellish your DIY props
If you browse the designer homeware stores, you’ll find that table linens often have intricate detailing like trim or hand-stitching on the edges. Back to the fabric shop again, and this time shop for some coordinating trim that matches some fabric you’ve got.
You can sew the trim around the edges of your napkins, or you can take some fabric glue to it. Food styling props for photography don’t have to be perfectly functional; they just have to look good on camera! Make sure you arrange your props so that any mistakes are facing away from your camera!
In the photograph above is white linen. The linen was made with very cheap white cotton fabric with fancy pompom trim stitched around the edge. It cost me around £3 in total. Considerably less than buying the fancy version I’d had my eye on in a shop! Photography is all about illusion. If the trim is particularly expensive just buy enough to go around two edges. You can style it when you shoot so that the other side doesn’t show.
The proof is in the pudding
In any good food photograph, success is measured by how much your viewer wants to eat the subject. I followed my own advice: shopping at my house, creating backdrops, buying fabric and trim, and then I photographed the results.
For under £15, I put together two completely different food photography sets that I can reuse time and time again. Moreover, the bonus is that if I don’t like the backgrounds in the future, I can paint over them time and time again!
Now it’s your turn; have a go at building yourself some props and shooting some food photos. I’d love to see what backgrounds and props you create for your food photography shots. Perhaps you can apply a skill you already know and create something really special that you just can’t buy in the shops.
Please share with us in the comments below.