A Food Stylist's Guide to Shopping for Props
Would it surprise you if I told you that many of the recipes on my blog were inspired by a particular prop?
It happens all the time. It might seem kind of odd, but when a plate speaks to me, I obey.
Prop styling for food photography is more than simply showcasing the food to its' best advantage, it's also about telling a story. The linens, dishes, and accessories you choose set the scene for your recipe. It can feel formal or casual, modern or nostalgic, dark and moody or bright and playful, the story is yours to tell.
Building a collection of props and backgrounds for your blog can be a challenge when you're on a budget. Over the next couple of weeks I'll be sharing some of my tips for selecting the most versatile dishes, linens, glassware, and accessories for photography, and where to source them at a good price.
After more than a dozen years as a stylist, I've accumulated a fairly extensive prop library full of pieces that I adore. Hoarding can be an occupational hazard in my line of work, but it's also a necessity when you operate out of a small city with limited local resources. Or, so I tell myself anyway.
The good news is that I've been able to amass most of my collection for a song, and here's how I did it.
A food stylist's guide to prop shopping:
Thrift Shops/The Goodwill
Persistence pays when it comes to thrift shopping. Seek out the shops in your area. If you can arrange to pop in once a week, be in and out in 15-20 minutes, you'll have the best luck. I frequent my local Value Village and Salvation Army outlets as part of my routine. I rarely spend more than a couple of bucks and yet I've found countless treasures. I also check out markets and thrift shops when I travel (near and far) for styling props, they're inexpensive and also make fond souvenirs.
Yard Sales/Flea Markets
The good news is you don't have to get up at the crack of dawn to buy tableware at yard sales. Typically, dishes and linens are not the first to sell, so you can arrive later and haggle more successfully. People often sell the extra leaves from their dining rooms table at yard sales and they make great shooting surfaces, so keep an eye out for these gems. On Friday nights, check your local Kijiji listing for sales in your area and plan your route for the weekend. If you are looking for vintage, you'll have the best luck among the stately old homes in more established neighbourhoods. If you are searching for funky or handmade pieces, check the area around your local art college, especially in the spring when everybody is moving. A general rule of thumb is the further you travel from the city center, the better the prices.
A great source for antique pieces, you'll usually get the best price by buying lots and splitting it with a friend or two. Vintage bakeware, glassware, linens, and silverware are the items I look for at auctions because they are harder to find in thrift shops.
Check your local Asian market for dishes. I've found many well-priced small scale serving pieces and table accessories at my local Asian grocers, beautiful little rice bowls and chopsticks, all sorts of table accessories. If you are lucky enough to live in a city with it's own Chinatown, I'll bet you'll discover bargains galore.
Make it a habit to browse the clearance section of your local housewares retailer as end of season sales can offer deep discounts. Again, persistence will be rewarded, always keep your eyes peeled for those red tags.
- Friends and family can be a great source for dishes and serving pieces. I've found that as long as I return things in a timely manner, people are generally more than happy to lend me stuff. Ask to poke around cupboards and attics too, you'll often walk away with undiscovered gems. One man's clutter is often a treasure to a prop stylist.
- Organize a prop swap with other bloggers in your area, it's a great excuse to connect and bring some new pieces into your rotation.
- Browse your home for miscellaneous accessories to dress your set. Items like a champagne cork, an empty wine bottle, old ticket stubs, a child's toy, reading glasses, or a treasured family cookbook can be effective devices to help tell your story. Dig through the junk drawer, check your recycling bin, the bookshelf, look for things that evoke a memory for you. Including personal items can help establish mood and add an additional layer of meaning to your photos. By re-purposing found objects you'll not only create unique props to use in your food photography, but save a bunch of money too.
- Discarded building materials like old fence boards or wooden doors make great shooting surfaces. A little dumpster diving can yield some fabulous finds.
Remnants from your local fabric shop can serve as a tablecloth or napkin for a fraction of the price. You can transform cheap and cheerful dishes from the dollar store with spray paint. They won't survive the dishwasher, but they'll work for photos.
Make a few background surfaces with some lumber and paint. Start with 2' x 4' or 2' x 2' sheets of masonite or plywood, or a couple of packages of wainscoting, and get creative with some paint and stain. A selection of these surfaces will prove invaluable, they can used either horizontally as a tabletop or vertically as a background. Click here for a fantastic tutorial with simple step by step instructions.
Everyone has their weakness and I save my splurges for handmade ceramics, I love the rustic flavour that they bring to a vignette. Because each piece is one of a kind, your images will feel more personal. Investigate your local pottery studio or art college for student sales and help support a budding artist.
Be sure and check back next week, I'll be sharing some strategies for selecting the props that will make your food styling a breeze.