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