Props are more than just pretty objects that fill a scene. They are the elements that build your food story, and THAT creates connections to the viewer. That knife? It produces leading lines that direct your eye around the scene until you focus on the subject framed by that old wire rack. So, what are the essential food photography props, and where do you buy them?
When I first started photographing food, I felt I needed to buy all the props to recreate any and every scene I saw. I snatched up every plate and cup that caught my eye, buying without direction. In the end, I spent a lot of money to fill shelves with props I wouldn’t ever use.
I’m here to tell you, you don’t need to drop a small fortune at the onset to style great food photos. Build your prop collection purposefully and as you need to. Have a cocktail shoot coming up? Take a pass through your local thrift store. A summer cake? Swap out that moody background for something brighter. Before you know it, you’ll have a well-rounded prop collection for any situation.
Photo Surfaces and Backgrounds
A photo surface provides the background (read: foundation) for your entire scene. If you can only purchase one surface, go for versatility with a neutral color around 21″ x 34″ in size. It’s all-purpose and large enough for a variety of shooting angles.
Ready for more? If you shoot across a range of moods — such as bright/dark or modern/rustic — add one light-colored surface, a darker one, and one made from wood. Together, these should see you through almost any type of scene or client work.
Linens and Napkins
A diverse collection of linens and napkins are a must for food stylists. Well-placed linens add form and texture while guiding the eye around the image. Look for muted colors and simple patterns so as not to overpower the subject. Flour sack towels are inexpensive, semi-sheer, and work in almost any scene.
Ready for more? Larger, neutral-colored linens can even serve as a backdrop for natural, lived-in scenes.
Cutlery and Flatware
Forks, spoons, knives, and servingware add that human element to food photography. A fork digging into a piece of pie helps the viewer recall familiar moments, creating a personal connection to your image. Flatware also naturally draws leading lines or easy paths for the eye to follow through different elements of the photo.
In general, avoid shiny silverware, which can pick up unwanted reflections. Vintage silverware always looks stunning with its matte finish and beautifully ‘lived in’ quality. Pick up a set of vintage, mismatched silverware from Esty, eBay, or antique stores.
Ready for more? Seek out a unique kitchen knife or paring knife. A Japanese knife with a wooden handle looks more ‘photo ready’ than your more practical kitchen workhorse.
Plates, Bowls, and Mugs
When it comes to plates, bowls, and mugs seek out neutral-colored, matte props — whites, off-white, grays, gray-blues, beiges, and blushes. Shiny or brightly colored props compete with the subject and introduce color-casts and reflections onto your beautifully styled food. Also, don’t buy a complete set of everything. You can easily get by with one or two of each. Plus, different shapes, sizes, colors, and textures adds more visual interest!
On size, look for smaller plates and bowls. Too many large elements can be overpowering and dwarf what’s on the plate. I gravitate towards dessert and salad plates over dinner plates. I also prefer wider, shallow bowls because it is easier to style the contents within.
When bigger is better, I reach for oblong or oval-shaped plates and platters to photograph family-style dishes. The elongated shape can stand on its own with few additional props and really let the subject shine.
Ready for more? I always seek out locally-made artisan ceramics whenever possible. Not only are you supporting craftspeople, but handmade objectives add character that mass-produced items cannot. The good news is that affordable ceramics are popping up all over Etsy, Art Fairs, and even stores like West Elm. For one-of-a-kind ceramic pieces from local artists, google “[Your City Name] pottery” or “[Your City Name] ceramics center.”
Bistro Salad Plates [Williams Sonoma]
Enamelware Dinner Plates [West Elm]
Rustic White and Blue Trimmed Enamelware [Etsy]
Gray Oval Ceramic Platter [Etsy]
Ceramic Serving Plate [Etsy]
Farmhouse Shallow Bowl [Etsy]
White Ceramic Plate, Large [Etsy]
Rustic, White Ceramic Soup Bowl [Etsy]
White/Brown Ceramic Salad Plates [Target]
Bone China Dessert Plates [West Elm]
Bar and Glassware
Slowly build an assortment of bar glassware, glass bottles, and jars. Tumblers and Collins glasses are perfect for cocktails, while vintage milk bottles look good with any baked good. Again, you don’t need a complete set. In fact, you’ll add more dimension with a small collection of different heights, thicknesses, and textures than with a single, uniform set of glasses.
Ready for more? When shooting a lot of cocktails, there’s no better investment than a solid set of rocks glasses. Smooth or fluted, these classic glasses can be used in a wide-rage of cocktails from boozy old-fashioned to tart margaritas.
Weck Tulip Jar, 12.5 Oz [Amazon]
Weck Juice Jar, .25 L [Amazon]
Classic Old-Fashioned Glasses [Williams Sonoma]
Dorset Crystal Triple Old-Fashioned Glasses [Williams Sonoma]
Duralex Picardie Glass Tumblers, 8.75 oz [Williams Sonoma]
Open Kitchen Thin-Walled Tumblers [Williams Sonoma]
Cookware and Bakeware
Start simple with a good cast iron skillet. Paella pans, two-handed roasters, and carbon-steel skillets can come later. But, a good cast-iron skillet can go from oven to table and look beautiful doing it. Add a metal or ceramic pie plate, and you should be set.
Ready for more? Check Etsy and vintage stores for antique pie plates. Their storied dings, stains, and scratches add instant character to shoots.
Kitchen Tools and Cutting Boards
Parchment paper, cutting boards, wire racks, and sheet pans are some additional props that I recommend to everyone building out their collection. These kitchen staples work wonders by creating layers (read: more visual interest!) as you build your scene.
Ready for more? Look for items with character on Etsy, vintage stores and flea markets. In most cases, the more beat up, the better, but a beautiful handmade cutting board is always right.
Boos Live-Edge Cherry Board [Williams Sonoma]
White Square Slate Cheese Board [CB2]
Marble & Wood Cutting Board [West Elm]
Rectangular Wire Gater [Amazon]
Vintage French Round Wire Cooling Rack [Etsy]
Vintage Crinkly Wire Rack [Etsy]
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