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Image Background Basics in Food Photography

A food stylist and food photographer's toolkit includes a collection of backgrounds, props, and tools you need to create beautiful settings to show off your food subjects. Backgrounds refers to two things — the backdrop hanging or propped up behind the food subject, and what’s sitting just under the food you’re photographing. The background is really whatever falls behind your food in the shot.

Consider always trying a couple of different backgrounds when shooting any food subject. Mix it up and try to get a good variety of looks so you can provide different choices for your clients (or yourself, if you're just shooting for stock or a blog). If you use only one background and then don’t like the end result, you may have to redo the shoot, which is a waste of time and money.

How backgrounds can enhance food images

Backgrounds can complement the food subject and enhance the deliciousness of your photo. And some backgrounds can isolate your food subject when needed. From a highly stylized raspberry mousse set on a shiny white acrylic to an earthy muffin sitting on a little wrinkled parchment, your background choice is an integral part of the overall image.

Some great looks under food — plated or not — are papers, parchment, wax paper, cloth and linens, woods, and some metal pans. Note the metal cookie sheet in the following figure, which is a unique choice for a background that seems to pull off both industrial and homey at the same time.

A simple, metal cookie sheet provides a great background for these cookies. [Credit: Focal length:
Credit: Focal length: 40mm, Shutter speed: 1/15 sec., Aperture: f/3.3, ISO value: 100
A simple, metal cookie sheet provides a great background for these cookies.

Another cool option, particularly for bright, shiny foods, is using plexiglass or acrylic sheets or blocks. Setting your food or drinks on these types of backgrounds results in a modern image with significant reflections of the subject. Other items to consider for backgrounds include interesting trays, tables, chairs, flower petals, lemon slices — you name it.

Don’t feel limited by using traditional types of backgrounds. In fact, thinking outside the box often produces the best results. And, yes, sometimes thinking outside the box can literally mean placing your food inside a box, as shown in the following figure.

Even a box with paper can provide an interesting food background. [Credit: Focal length: 32mm, Shut
Credit: Focal length: 32mm, Shutter speed: 1/13 sec., Aperture: f/4.5, ISO value: 400
Even a box with paper can provide an interesting food background.

Gather up a healthy selection of backgrounds for your toolkit. Be sure to have several options available when you’re shooting your food subject. You may find it handy to always have a roll of white paper in your toolkit. No matter what happens with your other backgrounds, having the option to switch it around by using a white background is important.

Exploring other food background options

Three additional types of backgrounds commonly used in food photography are foam core boards, sweeps, and natural settings. Consider these versatile additions to your toolkit:

  • Foam core boards: Foam core boards are strong, lightweight boards that are typically white on one side and colored on the other with a layer of polystyrene in the middle. They can help block out any unwanted background items and replace them with a solid color. You can also cover a board with another type of paper, or even some material, for a brand-new look.

    If you use this type of setup with a tabletop and background and notice that the horizontal line where the two meet is just too distinct, or too dark, all isn’t lost. You can clean that up in postproduction by using a Dodge tool.

    This test shot uses a pink foam core background. [Credit: Focal length: 55mm, Shutter speed: 1/250
    Credit: Focal length: 55mm, Shutter speed: 1/250 sec., Aperture: f/6.3, ISO value: 640
    This test shot uses a pink foam core background.
  • Sweeps: When you want a clean background with no lines and little to no variation, you may want to go with a sweep. A sweep is a 90 degree curve of plexiglass, cloth, paper, or plastic that displays as a seamless background in your shots. You can find a full range of price levels for sweeps, from the paper roll that runs about a dollar, to shooting tables that cost upwards of a few thousand dollars.

  • Natural settings: What about a more natural setting for food images? Natural, as in what you may typically find in a kitchen, such as a table and chairs, plus that nice window with light flooding in. If you have good natural light in your studio, home, or at your client’s space, take advantage of it. And if you have a good-looking table available, that’s even better. Place your food on the table with a few complementary linens and shoot away.

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