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10 Affordable and easy backdrops for food styling and photography

Sophie Purser

Hi :) If you didn't already know, I'm a stylist and content creator too, so I want to share some affordable, everyday food photography backdrops and props with you, ones that you can get on a pretty small budget or may already have at home.  

I'm a big advocate of having lots of different options* and I'm not naive enough to believe or propose that you should ONLY EVER USE MY PRINTED BACKDROPS! :D For me, good food styling starts with a beautiful dish of food - everything else is purely framing - and using layers and texture is a big part of that for me.  So even though I often start with one of my backdrops when creating content, there will always be other elements and smaller surfaces to compose the shot and frame the hero. (UNLESS! I am creating content to sell the backdrop itself - then propping will be minimal to show the surface off!)

Styling surfaces come in all shapes and sizes, and if you're photographing food or other smallish still life cameos, it should be easy to find interesting, affordable backgrounds big enough for your needs.

Below, you’ll find 10 ideas for affordable food photography backgrounds with photographs I've created (many on my iPhone for content clients) using these backdrops or props.  I’m also going to tell you where to find them and how much you'd expect to pay (in the UK) – as well as what I think the considerations or limitations are for each prop.

But before we start! It's a good idea to make it known that you are on the lookout for interesting surfaces - tell your family, local charity shops, antiques centre etc the kinds of things you like and remind them that one mans trash is another mans treasure! So many times I've heard from friends 'yeah we had a massive clear out, it's all gone to charity and the tip' and you just know there was something awesome in there for you!

*lots of different options THAT WORK FOR YOU! It's important to know your own style (or your clients) and stick to a look - don't get dragged along by fads or worry that you need one of absolutely everything, that's a very slippery slope to spending a fortune on things you'll rarely (if ever) use and having a house full of random props.  Also a signature look and a bit of repetition is a good thing, it creates consistency in your work and then your social feeds and your work will become recognisable.  If you haven't found your groove yet I suggest you work up a mood board to focus your styling direction and create a props wish list - or you may just get very distracted and broke in this process!

So here are my ideas for 10 affordable and interesting photography backdrops and food styling props 

1. Old metal trays - serving, baking, roasting etc

Most domestic items are easy to buy from second hand shops and metal trays in particular last well and just get better with time.  Look for vintage styles, aged patinas and various colours that won't be too shiny or reflective and always flip them over to check the bottom out - it might be better than the top or you might get 2 backdrops in 1!

Don't be put off by a pattern or small area you don't like - Can you crop it out? Would a vignette help? You don't need a 100% perfect surface across the entire thing - you just need good areas of interest to sit between whatever goes on top and a couple of good edges if you want to layer with it. 

It's also worth checking ebay and Folksy/Etsy as metal trays generally post well - just be warned - a lot of the best vintage kitchenware comes from France, Eastern Europe and America so watch out for the shipping costs!  And as always an online reseller just like a retailer is going to charge a lot more than your local junk shop or car booter as they've done the work researching and curating their range for people like us. But on the plus side you may find a seller that you know you can always go back to and find something good when you have some prop budget to spend.

Get old trays from - friends, old aunties, charity shops, the refuse tip, house clearances, vintage/antique shops, folksy/etsy, ebay.  

Est. Cost - £0-£25 

favourite affordable backgrounds easy quick food styling backdrops how to tips I found this reddish metal serving tray in a vintage shop and just knew it would work as both a prop tray and full photography background for small flatlays.  The lipped edges create shadow and depth in overheads like this one, a shot of a Auguste Escoffier 1002 melon cocktail I created for a content client.


food stying affordable backgrounds backdrop how to tips easy cheap photography

Here you can see the same tray used in a product shoot for Royal Doulton.  The warm tones add to the richness of the shot and the layering helps add depth and frame the focal point, the product.  

affordable food styling photography backgrounds cheap easy quick DIY props backdropsAnother little baking tray I paid £1 for adding texture as the main surface for Tom Parker-Bowles' cheese on toast recipe.  Then another roasting tray as a side prop to a beef and eggplant fatteh recipe by Nigella Lawson.

food styling photography backdrop

2. Scrap metal and metal furniture

Sticking with metal, there are lots of scrap metal yards and builders reclaimers up and down the UK who often have beautiful bits of rusty and patinated metal they'll let you buy for a few quid.

The obvious considerations here are H&S (cleanliness, tetanus?!) and weight.  You might find something you love but it weighs a tonne, or is still stuck to the other side of an industrial washing machine.  

Make yourself known to the owners and tell them you only need small pieces and they can often rustle up some little gems for you.  

Also, always have cash on you - and by cash I mean change and fivers.  And if you have a nice car park it down the road a bit. (I don't have that problem.) And I guess also on 'if you have a nice car', put some dust sheets down in the boot before heaving your new heavy, rusty, jaggeddy piece of metal into it!

You can also sometimes find decent metal pieces at the tip, separated out for people to take away. (But check that you're not supposed to donate something for it!)

And they're always available at vintage/antique shops but the usefulness of metal trunks etc largely depends on the design.  Most will have shapes, joins and features to all sides - check out the bottoms for the largest, flattest area. 

Finally, don't expect your metal items to stay the same forever - all those lovely bubbles and colours are due to some chemical reaction science shiz I can't and won't try to explain.  What I do know is that if you know the type of metal you may be able to buy treatments to seal, protect or halt the process further, but how reliably I don't know. 

Get scrap metal and old metal items from - scrap metal yards, builders reclaims, the refuse tip, house clearances, vintage/antique shops

Est. Cost - £2-£100

affordable food styling photography backgrounds cheap easy quick DIY props backdrops
You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.  Thank you! These old Morris doors have inspired lots of background surfaces for me and been used as actually props for several clients. Cost £150 

affordable food styling photography backgrounds cheap easy quick DIY props backdropsA beautiful but very heavy piece of treaded metal. This is the underside - a rainbow of colour! Sadly I didn't treat it and it's gone very dark now.  Lesson learned.  Cost £6

affordable food styling photography backgrounds cheap easy quick DIY props backdrops

Various pieces of scrap metal I supplied to Absolute Press for a cookbook shoot for Tom Kitchin. Cost £20-55 each.

affordable food styling photography backgrounds cheap easy quick DIY props backdrops

 

3. Reclaimed building materials - slate, tiles, hearth stones, marble and more backgrounds!

 

 

Another readily available photography background resource is old and reclaimed building materials and natural stones.  

Smaller pieces can make great serving boards and help create depth through layering, bigger pieces or multiples can offer complete backdrops for your food styling set.  

The down side to this is the weight - probably ok for a photograoher/studio to invest in but hardwork for a stylist to cart about!

Get reclaimed building materials from -  builders reclaims, the refuse tip, house clearances, ebay

Est. Cost - £0.50 for slates to £100 for larger marble slabs

A welsh slate tile I paid 50p for acting as a lovely serving board for my avocado on toast.

 

 

A beautiful marble (?) hearthstone I use regularly as a kitchen worktop background.  I love the organic pattern. I think I paid £45 for this.

 

4. New tiles as photography backdrops

There's not a lot I can add to this as it's fairly obvious where to source new domestic tiles- but maybe you just hadn't though of them as a backdrop option before?

Have a look in Topps, B&Q, Fired Earth, Ikea etc as well as your local builders merchants

Cost - £1 to whatever you want to spend!

I bought a simple 60x60cm white and grey faux marble tile from Topps for £17 and its been used A LOT for clean, beauty style flat lays.

 

5. Worktop offcuts and odd ends for food styling backgrounds

I'll be honest with you, I haven't actually done this yet! But I guess kitchen retailers rip out a lot of sets and installers have a lot of off cuts that end up in a skip? I think it's always worth asking around and leaving your number with people - if you don't ask, you don't get!

 

6. Fabric backdrops - napkins, tea towels, vintage table cloths, bed linen, vintage patterns

I think fabrics are a great way to update for a new season or refresh your photography background options without breaking the bank.

  • if you've invested in nice linen napkins or place matts -will they do for a small backdrop surface as well, masquerading as a full table cloth? Don't rule out layering up too.
  • tea towels offer some lovely patterns and seasonal colours in small, affordable sets.  Give them a wash to get the harsh lines out of them and soften them a little before using as your background.
  • check out charity shops and vintage stores for retro patterns, embroidered table clothes, lace details and more.  
  • bed linen in high street stores such as John Lewis and M&S can have some beautiful details and you should only need to buy a single pillow case for a tabletop-sized background.
  • old clothes - worn cotton shirts, pin tuck details, knitted wool jumpers all look great laid out flat - or in a relaxed style - for very textural backdrops
  • towels - not your fluffy ones per se but nice striped hammam towels have a great weave to them.

Get old linens from - friends, old aunties, charity shops, house clearances, vintage/antique shops, folksy/etsy, ebay

Get new napkins, tea towels, bed linen etc from - supermarkets, high street retailers, department stores, H&M, Zara home, Anthropology

Est. Cost - £1-£40 each 

From top to bottom - linen pillow case from John Lewis, £24; grey table runner from Marks and Spencer, £12; yellow tea towel from Sainsburys, set of 3 for £8; purple hammam towel from TK Maxx, £6

7. Old books - open and closed

I find old books beautiful things - the craftsmanship in the binding, the materials, the smell.  

There's been a surge in printed papers - music, poetry, newsprint etc - being used in food styling and still life photography so if you can get a really nice version of a classic novel or a beautiful old book and it suits your style I'd say its a good investment to make.

Books are what I'd call a 'personal prop' - they add a personal touch to a scene, they're homely, and the title or text can steer the mood of your photography or story for your caption.  Books add age and softness, a relaxed feel, a realness.  But they can also add depth and drama, a stage.

Get old classics and antique books from - second hand bookshops, specialist bookshops, antiques stores, ebay, Etsy, folksy

Est. Cost - £5-£50 each (and then you get into collectors prices)

A beautiful, marbled-sleeve book from the 19th century sits beneath a comforting pud of caramelised peach.  Thankfully you can't read the text, think its all doom and gloom! £5

A Victorian photo - or appointment card - album adds height and interest to a pair of circular dishes.  £25

8. Paper backgrounds - newspaper, sheet music, paper bags, scrap paper, baking parchment, wrapping paper 

Paper is all around us and much of it is usable for food styling and photography - even scrap A4 white paper or brown packaging paper can be scrunched up and laid flat again for a lovely, simple but interesting texture to lay ingredients on.

In terms of cost - most of this I'd class as up cycling but you could of course spend money on sheet music, vintage newspapers, marbled papers or printed patterned papers.  You can also find lots of handmade and craft papers that look great with handmade bakes and smellies for gift photography.

Get papers for backdrops from - Paperchase, HobbyCraft, supermarkets,

Cost - Free to upcycle, high end printed papers can cost £20+ per sheet.

 

9. Reclaimed wood for photography backdrops - builders wood, railway sleepers, scaffold boards, reclaimed flooring

Everyone loves the texture of wood - it adds character, warmth and depth without taking over your image. I have a couple of pieces of wood I wouldn't want to be without and I'm sure you do too, but they're not the easiest things to store or transport, so finding an interesting piece of old wood, at a reasonable size to keep the weight down is just the best.

I'm constantly on the look out for nice wooden pieces - table tops, scaffold boards, cupboard panels - it requires constant research and investment to make sure I have good pieces in for when styling clients need them for shoots.

When looking for wooden backdrops you need to consider all sides of a piece - the underside of a table for example, the bottom of a tray or wine box.  You can often get several options out of one piece, or you may miss the potential of it completely if you don't pick it up and look properly.

Reclaimed floorboards are of course easier to spot but more expensive as they still have a use and value.

Get reclaimed wood materials from -  builders reclaims, the refuse tip, house clearances, ebay, antiques centres

Est. Cost - £10 for random boards/old tables, £10/m for scaffold boards, £30+ per square yard of reclaimed flooring, £100 and upwards for old oak, elm etc

A gorgeous old wooden panel with white flaky paint, so textural!

food styling backdrops affordable photography backgrounds tips

Scaffold boards making up a table top - gorgeous but super heavy! Cost £45

food styling backdrops affordable photography backgrounds tips

Two pieces of Victorian dock wood I'm making into a printed background design then going to use in my bathroom.  Each meter long piece needs 2 people to move it! Cost £160

food styling backdrops affordable photography backgrounds tips

10. My printed backdrops featuring many of the above textures - wood, stone, metal!

Because of the considerations mentioned above - weight, unreliability of supply, cost - I have developed my range of printed backdrops to bring real textures and high quality detail to food stylists and photographers in a lightweight, affordable and sustainable printed product.

There is nothing like the real thing - but who can afford or has the space for all the 'real things' we want to style with? I believe (and 160 customers so far seem to think so too!) that my printed background sheets offer a great, affordable solution without compromise in their professional photography.

Get them from - here!

Cost - £15 for an A1 paper sheet

Here are some examples of my backdrops in action, from me and some early clients - 

photography affordable backdrops food styling backgrounds

Bare hand-painted, plaster wall effect printed photography backdrop.

Storm  hand-painted printed photography backdrop, shot by Deb Porter, @foodphotographerdebporter

Hex patinated copper and turquoise printed photography backdrop.

Bridge mottled wood panel printed photography background, shot by David Loftus for @clarence_court

Zeus handpainted stone/granite effect printed photography backdrop

Plank wooden boards printed photography background, shot by Jasmin White @healthytwenties

 

Thanks for reading! I hope this has been useful for you, feel free to leave a comment below, I would love to hear what else you have found to style with!

Sophie xx

 

 


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