Most of my recipe related photographs are shot my studio so I like to have a good selection of interesting background props at hand.
When composing an image I'll introduce elements of colour, texture and/or pattern into the background, depending on the items of food that I'm shooting. Often, I'll layer several different items to create greater depth and interest to the background. For instance, placing a linen napkin in between the plate of food and tabletop.
The choice of background can really set the scene for the image. Take a simple sponge cake as an example. Displaying it on a pretty vintage china plate which is set on a rustic garden table, shouts summertime. The same cake though, presented on a stylish cake stand on a crisp white linen tablecloth suggests elegance and formality.
How do I choose a background?
Initially, I need to decide on what mood I want to convey. What story do I want to tell? Then I choose the background accordingly. I tend to favour fairly minimalist images which obviously influences the style of backgrounds that I prefer to use.
Usually the first choice to make for the background is what I'm actually going to display the food on. It may be a plate, bowl, mug, glass, basket, tray, board, serving dish or even a piece of tissue paper. Questions to consider here are things like, is colour appropriate or should I stick to white? What about some pattern or will it be distracting? Stylish, fun or rustic looking? And the shape, could I use an unusual shaped plate or is a classic round one better? Would the food be better displayed in a bowl rather than on a plate?
The next stage is to decide what the plated food is going to sit on. Does it need some textural elements? Or a splash of colour? Will adding some pattern work? What will add the required elements? A place mat? A napkin or a piece of fabric - folded or flat? A bare tabletop? Dark, light or painted wood? Distressed or polished? Or what about a tile of some sort? Slate, limestone or cork perhaps?
The choice of colour is important; it needs to enhance not detract from the subject matter. Sometimes a suitable background colour will be obvious, other times it's a matter of trial and error. Knowledge of colour theory can be helpful to determine a suitable colour scheme. More often than not though, it's an intuitive decision. It just looks right, regardless of whether it fits any theory.
Depending on the camera angle and closeness of the intended image, it may also be necessary to choose a 'wall' background too. So again it's about choosing a suitable colour. Contrasting or harmonising? Plain or maybe patterned?
Then, it's time to compose the image. Adding, repositioning and removing props until I've created something that I'm happy with. There's no secret formula. It's just about tweaking the composition until it looks and feels right. That's it.
So, what's in my background props collection?
CROCKERY - plates, bowls and serving dishes in different shapes, sizes, materials and colours.
BOARDS & TRAYS - wooden chopping boards, various trays and cheese boards.
FABRICS - a selection of fabrics, mainly patterned but also a few plain colours with prominent textures. Pieces of fabric are useful for using flat in place of a tablecloth or folded like a napkin. Patchwork suppliers are a good choice as they sell fabric by the fat quarter which means you get squarish pieces of fabric. If you order a normal quarter metre of fabric, a long quarter, you would be given a strip of fabric 25cm by the width of the roll (usually 115cm or 152cm). However, the fat quarter is a piece 50cm by half the width of the fabric which would be either 57.5cm or 76cm.
TEA TOWELS - these are handy to use as mini tablecloths. Obviously much cheaper than the real thing and there are lots of lovely colours and patterns to choose from.
PLACEMATS - bamboo, fabric, slate, reed, faux leather, glass and plastic are all great for adding textural interest. I usually look for the ones that are sold individually as I rarely need to use a full set of placemats.
TILES - slate, cork, limestone and marble. You can buy individual sample tiles from most suppliers.
WOOD - as well as my actual tables, I've also got various mock tabletops made from different woods and with several finishes. Most are reversible so one side is painted and the other is polished or oiled.
PAINTED FOAM BOARDS - I like to recreate painted wall backgrounds by painting large foam boards with emulsion. You can buy foam boards from stationery and art/craft shops, usually in A3, A2 and A1 sizes. Then I simply buy tester pots of paint and paint each side a different colour, so I've got a selection of 'painted walls'. These can then be repainted as and when necessary.
WALLPAPER - sometimes a patterned wall background is more appropriate so wallpaper offcuts or samples are ideal for this. I just pin or clip the piece of wallpaper to a thin wooden board so that it's easy to change patterns.
I hope that you've enjoyed this look behind the scenes. In the next food photography post, later this month, I'll be writing about styling food for photography.