Looking back at my start as a food stylist and food blogger, there was definitely a big learning curve in figuring how to tell my story through photography. Food blogging is so much more than just a delicious recipe; because our readers need to connect to our food through a lens. It’s even more than just looking pretty, the images and the dish has to convey the right feeling. A roasted chicken is just a plain roasted chicken if it’s left on its own. But style that gorgeous golden bird in an antique cast iron pan, surrounded by herbs and vintage china… maybe with some textured linen napkins, and bold colors overflowing from earthenware plates on the side… and you create a narrative. Choosing your props is key to telling your food story. That’s where this article comes to the rescue, with The Best Food Styling Props for the Beginner Food Photographer!
Which attracts the eye more; the plain roasted bird on a white plate to the left, or the one on the right, styled with a cast iron pan and surrounded by fresh produce… Both images were photographed with a similar camera, but props & styling makes all the difference!
The Essential Beginner Food Photography Props
Many of us have fully equipped kitchens with loads of dishes, drinkware, and new kitchen tools. Some of these can definitely be used in food photography, but you would be surprised at how your everyday china and glassware can create strange reflections, or make your food look too flat, or how that border that you like in real life can interrupt the flow of your dish. I suggest that the new food stylist start to create a curated collection that reflects your individual style. This could be in the form of modern dark colored plates and sensuously designed glasses, or light as a feather vintage china and silverware. Decide what style best conveys your story and remember, this can change over time too!
For today, I am going to outline my personal favorite pieces; the ones that I always fall back on in my own food photography. These are timeless classics that can be used and styled in many different ways. One of my biggest tips for food bloggers who are just starting out is to buy props that you can use over and over. Things that truly speak to the personal style that you want to put forward in your images. They will help to inspire your food message.
Where to Buy the Best Food Props on a Budget
I’m starting with the most important part first! Prop shopping can get very expensive, very quickly! Here I’m going to share some of my favorite tricks for finding dishes and serve ware that won’t make your wallet cry for mercy!
First of all, you’re not shopping for an entire family. You only need two or three (and sometimes just one!) of any dishes, glasses, or silverware that suit your needs. Anything more and your photo becomes too cluttered. When out shopping, try to pick two to three different styles of plates within the same color range. That way they can compliment each other if they’re all used within the same photo. Details like glazing, speckles, or swirls, will also add a lovely touch. However, I’m always careful that I choose a plate that won’t overwhelm my food!
Once of my favorite ways to grab higher end plates and glasses is to shop the quarterly sales at stores like Pottery Barn and Crate & Barrel. These companies have amazing finds for food photographers; plates, glasses, and linens galore! Because we aren’t often buying big sets, we can really find some amazing deals in the single item clearance sections.
Target is also a treasure trove for the beginner food blogger, with lots of options on cutlery and ceramic dishes. Be sure to look through their kitchen linens as well!
Finally, the best for last: vintage or thrift stores are THE place to find one of a kind food styling props! If you’re willing to dig a bit through the dusty shelves, you can find absolute jewels for your collection. Vintage plates, glasses, and even kitchen tools can be found in off the beaten path stores. Some of my favorite cake stands, rolling pins, and jadeite mixing bowls are from my local vintage stores, and the prices are a steal! Be sure to develop a relationship with your favorite store owner, to get first dibs on the newest pieces to come into invatory!
Plates & Dishes for Food Styling
You’ve spent the afternoon cooking for your upcoming photo session, and now it’s time to plate! But, on what? One of my favorite must-have styles for food blogging are matte neutral colored dishes, ranging from off-white to creamy taupe. Earthenware or ceramic plates with a more natural form are just gorgeous when you are laying out a food flat lay shot, and the soothing colors help to highlight rather than distract from the food. Try to chose plates that aren’t high gloss, as low gloss and matte finishes won’t bounce any weird reflections from your lighting setup. If darker, moodier photos are your style, please don’t shy away from those bold black and grey plates! These deeper colors can help emphasize the vibrancy of your food, and really make it pop out of the photo!
Sizes and Details…
I prefer to use salad plates when I shoot main dishes or desserts. The smaller size is much easier to style because there’s less space to fill. Salad plates and several pottery bowls of various sizes (breakfast bowls, finger bowls, pinch bowls, etc), are a great way to start your collection. I tend to buy a la carte items, instead of full sets. This way, I can have a lot of pieces at my disposal to play with in my photography. I would recommend buying 2-3 salad plates per dish style for beginner food stylists.
Cutting Boards, Platters, & Cake Stands for Food Blogging
I think of these pieces as the supporting players in my food ensemble. They help set the tone for so many of my recipe photos! I would suggest adding a small & a medium size, off-white platter to your collection of food props. These can be styled in various ways, from presenting holiday appetizers or charcuterie platters, to showcasing a couple of cocktails or slices of cake. Platters (and their cousins, the cake stand) are so versatile!
Wooden cutting boards are a wonderful way to add character and place to a photo. They remind the viewer of all the work that goes on in the kitchen, and if you’re using a vintage style board, perhaps a scene from a long ago time. Cutting boards are great for behind the scenes shots or process cooking shots. I prefer to use boards that are darker in color and have some character, but the possibility are endless. Wooden boards of maple or walnut, or even cheese boards made of marble, are all great ‘anchoring’ items to have in your collection.
Table Linens & Cutlery for Setting Food Scenes
Just like cutting boards can anchor a scene, linens can also provide much need texture and color to your food styling! I like to think of my scenes in three steps; base element, plate or glass, and decoration. Linens can act as either the base or as a decoration, adding a beautiful lightness to a photograph. I prefer to use a medium to heavy grade linen for my napkins, but cotton and satin can be marvelous as well. I like to use neutral colored versions, with just a hint of decorative texture or colorful accents. Napkins aren’t the only way to go either! Try using placemats or dishtowels! Even scraps of fabric from the craft store can add a beautiful touch to your food storytelling!
Cutlery and other metal tools are elements that bring a human touch to your food photography. pieces of simple matte silverware or a couple of antique serving items are perfect for beginner for photographers. Tarnished is okay – you want to have something non-reflective, so it won’t throw any harsh highlights into your shot. Vintage cutlery is wonderful for this, because they generally have a matte patina from time & use.
Glasses, Bareware, and Crystal for Food Photography
Cocktail glasses and barware are some of my favorites to collect, and I actually have a full hutch of options to use for my cocktail shots! Similar to how I buy my dishes, I tend to only buy 2 of each type of glass. Other elements, like wooden muddlers, jiggers, and cocktail sticks are really fun and help to style your cocktails. If you are just starting out in drink photography, focus on purchasing fairly plain, classic glasses that can be used in multiple formats.
3 Essential Cocktail Glass Types
Classic Coupe Glasses
Coupes are phenomenal for both cocktails and desserts. You could choose a vintage style to give a retro feel to your photograph, or go sleek and modern with oversized coupes. These are the most used type of cocktail glasses in my collection.
Old Fashioned Glasses
These essential bar glasses are beautiful to shoot with a single ice cube and a pour of your favorite whiskey. But, you can also fill Old Fashioned Glasses with milk or orange juice to complement a breakfast food photography scene. Their versatility makes them a must for my glass collection!
Decorative Cocktail Glasses
Finally, have a set of slightly more ornate glasses for your cocktail photography. Perhaps a set decorated with cut glass, or maybe a gold rim. These small details will help jazz up your photographs and create a festive scene!
Once you Start, you Just Can’t Stop!
Blog props are seriously addicting! What started as a shelf in my kitchen cupboard, has expanded to a collection that takes up a whole row of industrial shelving in my basement. But the key for me is to truly love each piece. If you find something that inspires you, or fits within your aesthetic, that’s a prop to get! Avoid pieces that are so unique you will have trouble finding a niche for them. Each prop has a story to tell, and hopefully under the eye of your lens, the story will compliment your own.