Amateur’s Food Photography V: Pay Attention to Props

by Jenn on February 20, 2011

in Photography

White Gazpacho

This is one of the aspects of food photography that I struggle with the most.  Rather than beautiful tablescapes, I often instead choose to go for a rather minimalistic approach in the prop department.  I can make the excuse that I don’t own enough props, but really, we all have props right in our very kitchens.  Even a dishtowel can serve as an accent.  I often use cutting boards, plates, wine glasses, heck even a salt/pepper shaker or a strand of garlic can serve as a prop.  A prop doesn’t have to be a fancy piece of dishware, it’s just something that serves to highlight the food you are showing off.  Even food can be a prop – in the gazpacho above, I used some extra chives placed on my slate cheeseboard (yes, that gray stone is actually a cheeseboard) to balance out the chives in the soup.  It’s not complicated, but it still makes use of props.

I adore many of the photos by my favorite photographers because they are incredible geniuses when it comes to props (among many other great things like manipulating light, having an eye for color, styling food impeccably, etc.).  If you can use props and place them effectively, they can really add to a photo and help you to highlight your food.  I believe it’s worth thinking about the props that you use no matter what level of photographer you happen to be.    Careful consideration of props and accents doesn’t really require much technical knowledge, but can have a big effect on the outcome of your picture.

The important thing when first starting out though is to treat everything in your photo that is not your main food as a prop, and to step back and evaluate how each piece in your photo contributes to the overall “look” of your image.  Evaluate the plate or bowl that your food is on. The surface it is sitting on.  The flatware that may or may not be present. Maybe you want some background elements that give context to the food.  Really anything in the frame of your photo that isn’t the main subject is essentially a prop.  My advice for this week is to think about the non-food parts of your photo, and make decisions about how well they are serving their purpose.  Prop usage is an important facet to smart composition in food photography as well.  Too much, and you lose your food in the clutter.  Too little, and it may look a bit bare.

For example, I often like to use wide shallow bowls for soup, because a tall narrow bowl makes it hard to show off the soup – after all, with a liquid, often the only thing you are going to see in the photo is the surface.  Ignore the bad lighting for a sec and look at how the shape of this bowl affects the shot of broccoli cheddar soup –


This is a very straight-edged “mug” type soup bowl, which means getting in close to the soup to show it off is near impossible without the bowl taking over the photo.  Part of that issue is my decision to frame the soup so tightly, and part of it is because of the dish that I chose to photograph it in.  That, added to it the bad fluorescent lighting and well, it’s not helping anyone want to recreate this soup.

Now let’s look at a soup shot done in a shallow bowl –

Roasted Tomato Soup from Scratch

A wider bowl allowed the tomato soup to “open up” more in the photo, and only the bowl rim really shows itself, so that the soup and the garnishes can really shine.

There are times where a narrow bowl will work great, such as when you have enough on top to make it interesting – like this pho ga:


Here we had a broth based soup, and I figured everyone knew what brown translucent broth & noodles looks like; so instead I wanted to focus on the garnishes, and a narrower bowl let everything pile up and have height a bit.  Notice how I also altered my composition – I am not as close up on this shot either compared to the cheddar/broccoli soup photo.  So it depends on the situation.  One needs to think about the food that is going to be served, and what things would help show it off the best.

Not only is it good to think about the shape of dishes, but consider the textures and colors as well.  Sometimes complementary colors work, and sometimes contrasting colors work.  The bluish rim around the tomato soup served as a contrast against the red tomatoes.  The brown mug against the cheese soup did not work well at all. But I don’t think the brown stripes in the dishtowel below this plate of French toast is entirely awful (though you are certainly welcome to disagree!):

Sunday Morning's French Toast

And sometimes, I use virtually no props at all.

Gluten Free Chocolate Brownies

A lot of the specifics that I brought up are also matter of personal style and composition.  Like I said, I am no expert, and I struggle a lot in this area (but this is an amateur’s guide, written by a fellow amateur – I’m always still learning!).  But whether or not you think my use of props is worthy enough, the main lesson that I want to impart is to take the time to consider how the props you are using affect the quality of the scene you are trying to create and how it reflects on the photo.  Look around your home and get creative – you can find props in some unlikely places – sometimes all it takes is a wooden mixing spoon, or a napkin, or a dish swap.  Let the food guide you to the appropriate pieces to use in the photo, and don’t be afraid to move things around and try different approaches until you find the arrangement that “clicks”.  And I know it’s cliché, but most of all, have fun!

Looking for some inspiration with food props?
Food Props on Sunday by Lucullian Delights, an entire series dedicated to prop love.
10 Essential Props Every Food Photographer Should Own over at Food Bloggers Unite
Still Life Style – An entire blog all about food styling and using props
Prop Styling: great props make great food photography by Food Pixels

Missed a past Amateur’s Food Photography post? Catch up on the rest of the series:
1 – Look at photos with a critical eye (and making fun of one of my early ones!)
2 – Food photography is about celebrating light
3 – Take your time and find your “zen place”
4 – Angles of Light


Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite February 20, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Another insightful piece Jen. I struggle with so many aspects of my photography and props is one of them, mainly because I am not a fan of fussy, overdone shots (to my detriment, perhaps) – it’s just not me. I am hoping as my workload eases off in the next little while, I will be able to really take what you’ve written here and in previous posts and improve. There’s so much good information here. Thanks!

Jenn February 20, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Thanks Mardi, hope it helps!

Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite February 21, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I do like that you are keeping it simple, step by step. I think too many newbies (me included) try to do too much when really what your focus should be (haha no pun intended) is taking a great shot of the food in appropriate lighting. Once you have that down, you can think about the rest. That will be me, sometime in the next 10 years!

Lana February 20, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Great post, Jen! I need to put more thought in planning my shots, instead of running like crazy when the table is set! I have a nice selection of linens (thanks, mom!) and bowls (thanks, my hoarder husband:), and I don’t have an excuse. I just don’t have the feeling yet, I guess.
Thanks for inspiring me to strive for better every day:)

Jenn February 20, 2011 at 11:46 pm

Thanks Lana! Yes the real trick I think is planning the shot ahead of time so that there is time to think and consider various aspect of a photo…. sometimes easier said than done when it is your dinner too :)

branny February 20, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Great tips.

Jenn February 21, 2011 at 7:57 am

Thanks Branny!

Heather February 20, 2011 at 11:49 pm

You are an inspiration to me!

Jenn February 20, 2011 at 11:50 pm

aww thanks!

Tina February 21, 2011 at 1:09 am

Thanks for the great information! I just started posting my Mom’s recipes for friends and family, and am a terrible novice with our camera. (fortunately my husband bought a great one last year)

Jenn February 21, 2011 at 7:58 am

You’re welcome, glad it’s useful!

Karen February 21, 2011 at 2:20 am

This is very helpful for me with my blog. I recently made a decision to only use my own personal photos for all pictures on my blog. Then, I realized that I tend to take photos on the same table cloth or on the counter by the stove. I will definitely need to mix it up. Thanks for these great ideas! I’ll be visiting your blog again in the future. :)

Jenn February 21, 2011 at 8:04 am

Thanks – I’m glad it’s helpful for you! I’ve been trying to keep it not very technical for the moment :)

Maggie February 21, 2011 at 3:34 am

This is such a good series Jenn. I hope you’ll make a page just for these posts so they’re easy to find! This was a good one, I am a believer in minimal props too (yours are always perfect!) so it was great to read about your perspective. How do you feel about “process” shots? I like smitten kitchen because she takes so shots of the process. Not step-by-step, which can get annoying, but she integrates them into her post and I find it can be helpful. Know what I mean?

Jenn February 21, 2011 at 8:07 am

Thanks Maggie! Actually I keep a list on my Photography Tutorials page where I also compile other tutorials I find around the web. Process shots can be beautiful (Deb does a fantastic job). I’m usually too busy figuring out why my gluten free pizza isn’t rising or some other kitchen crisis to thoughtfully plan out more than a couple shots and I do not have adequate lighting in my kitchen to really suit many step-by-step photos, but I admire those who can make process shots gorgeous.

Rosa February 21, 2011 at 8:27 am

Interesting! Like you I always tend to go for a rather minimalistic approach in the prop department…



Jenn February 21, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Thanks Rosa! I would like to use more props and use them better, I think I am minimalistic simply because I don’t have a knack yet of how to use them.

Peta February 21, 2011 at 9:03 am

I am learning so much from you. I am thinking about a new camera what would you recomend

Jenn February 21, 2011 at 8:37 pm

It’s really hard for me to recommend a camera – the right camera for you depends on your skill level, what you have now, your intentions, your budget, personal preferences for controls, etc….

InTolerantChef February 21, 2011 at 11:14 am

N oooo… there are so many things to consider! I am trying, really. I need to have a list so I can check all points off as I go. I really love this series, and am trying to absorb it all. Thanks Jenn.

Jenn February 21, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Ha yeah there are always many things to consider when taking photos, I hope I’m packaging things into manageable enough sizes – trying not to get very technical (yet)…

megan @ whatmegansmaking February 21, 2011 at 4:16 pm

Awesome post! I have been thinking about props more and more recently and trying to get better at it. I don’t have a very “artistic” eye, but after looking at so many photographs of food, I really think I’m getting better. I love seeing tutorials like this!

Jenn February 21, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Thanks Megan! I also stare at lots of food photos – I try to envision how a scene of a certain photo would look on my table, to give myself a sense of things, but when it comes to actually creating my own photos things always end up so differently…

Krystal R. February 21, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Awesome tips & write-up Jenn. The gazpacho is beautifully photographed as well. I’m having a mad craving for some soup now.

Jenn February 21, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Thanks Krystal!

Amy February 21, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Great post Jenn – I love when other bloggers are willing to share out their photography tips. I wish I had some…but I’m still learning and don’t feel like anything I do would be helpful. I’m fairly happy with my catalog, but sometimes get so frustrated with the amount of time it takes to get that shot I’m happy with. Lighting is always an issue for me since I’m a prisoner to taking shots outside :( At least I’m finally out of Auto mode!

Jenn February 21, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Thanks Amy! Hey it’s all about the little steps…and making the leap out of auto is a big step, good for you!!

Barbara | VinoLuciStyle February 22, 2011 at 12:13 am

So much great information Jenn and what so many need. You’ve condensed months of trial and error down into the reality of these shots.

I used to use regular plates…learned pretty quickly that didn’t help; sure wish someone had told me that…and more.

If I’m learning from your experience I can only begin to imagine how valuable this would have been to me two years ago. Thanks a bunch!

Jenn February 22, 2011 at 12:16 am

Thanks Barbara – it really has been trial and error, looking back I think to myself oh if only I had read the right sources and understood photography before diving into food blogging, it would’ve been so much faster! It’s still mostly trial and error for me – maybe that’s not such a bad way to figure things out :)

Linda February 22, 2011 at 5:00 am

Okay, Jenn. I’ll be thinking more about props. I have so much to learn, but I love your style of showing right and wrong ways in these posts.

Jenn February 22, 2011 at 8:08 am

Thanks Linda!

Robyn February 24, 2011 at 2:36 pm

After aperture that was my next port of call :) Great post! I always struggle with props.

Jenn February 24, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Thanks! I struggle with them too…

Jenn March 6, 2011 at 7:51 pm

I can’t wait to read over your recipes but this post caught my eye first. I try props, once in awhile I’m very lucky, otherwise I get so frustrated and just have endless shots of food on a white background. I need a little variety. Thank you for this informative post and for the additional inspiration – aside from what you have given us.

Jenn March 7, 2011 at 4:20 am

Oh thanks, I’m glad this has been helpful! Adding props is a great way to add variety :)

Eugene @ Food and Scent March 12, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Thank you Jenn, this is a really helpful post. I’ve picked up food photography a few months ago and still consider myself an infant at it. I struggle most with props but your post cleared many questions and issues I’ve faced in the past.

Jenn March 13, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Thanks so much! I’m glad this series is helpful!

Paula Walters March 28, 2011 at 2:23 am

Jenn, thank you for including Still*Life~Style in your list of resources! Such sound advice you have given here, too, there is not a thing I would disagree with. Using props effectively can be a challenge, but it becomes more second nature when you find your individual style. Great encouragement you are giving your readers!

Jenn March 28, 2011 at 5:24 am

Thanks so much Paula! I’m an ardent fan of your blog, you give such great advice and inspiration :)

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