Tips for mounting and sealing your photography backgrounds for food styling and more

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Paper backdrops are great - they are an affordable way to expand your prop options, they take up minimal space, are light and easy to move, can be rolled up and transported in the parcel tubes and can be used as scoops. However, you may want to mount your printed backgrounds to make them stronger or seal them so you can style food straight onto the surface.  

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Mounting your backgrounds will of course make them stronger, meaning they last longer and can be easier to hang/set up to work with.  Sealing them can also make them waterproof, scratch resistant and more durable on the surface so even better for food stylists and other messy creatives. 

I get asked a lot about what I use to mount and seal my backdrops so here is a quick post about the products and techniques I use - with links to the items on our kit page (which will take you to Amazon to buy if you wish).  I will flesh this out with images and hopefully videos at a later date but at the moment it's the school holidays so I'm pretty stretched!

I believe there are essentially only 2 ways you can mount your backgrounds -

  1. Temporarily on card or foam board, or

  2. permanently on MDF or plyboard. 

So I'm basically saying - I wouldn't try to mount them on card and think they will last forever. If you want them to last a LONG LONG time, invest in plyboard or MDF and go the whole hog with sealant too.

I'm also saying - see the card option as temporary because, I don't know about you, but I can't handle an A1 sheet of paper so well that I can get it in exactly the right position in one stick, without bubbles, so permanent, immovable sprays like Spraymount are out of the question for me - I recommend using a repositionable spray like Re Mount, which is of course, a temporary fix.

And while we're here, just quickly, lets consider that there may be some benefits to props with a short lifespan.  

  • If you charge props or background rental to clients it can be quite nice that they come in for the shoot and go soon after, leaving you storage space for your key props and more 'evergreen' items that merit taking up space in your studio.
  • If you work around the seasons and refresh your content regularly, or just enjoy pushing your own creativity, why hold on to things? I've tried to make it cheap enough that you can be playful - that's one of the many reasons I wanted to print instead of paint every backdrop - less investment, less risk, more creativity, more fun!

Getting back to the point of this post, once you've considered your mounting needs  - either permanent or temporary, here is how I recommend doing each.

Mounting your backgrounds on to card - temporary

What you'll need - thick A1 card or foamboard, repositionable spray adhesive like Re-Mount

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I've designed my backgrounds at A1 size to make it easy for you to mount them at home on card or foam board that is readily available in the UK.  I would suggest using the thickest card (perhaps called mount board) or foam board from your local art shop (or The Range etc) or if you are able to order a few at a time I've had this pack of ten of foam board several times via Amazon and not had any problems with damages in the post.  I prefer buying foam board to card as it's stronger, stands better and is really useful for bouncing light back into shots - I always have a few sheets around in my studio.   

To adhere the backdrop to the card/foamboard I use Re-Mount - a version of spray mount which I find much easier to apply avoiding air pockets.

    1. Put the backdrop face down on a clean, flat surface. If it curls from being rolled, place some small weights at each corner.  Have the card/board ready on another clean, flat surface.

    2.  Spray the back of your backdrop sheet evenly with the Re-mount (moving any weights you've used so the whole sheet is covered with adhesive).  Please follow the manufacturers instructions for this and always use in a well ventilated area and/or wear breathing masks.

    3.  Holding the background sheet horizontally facing you, take the top left corner to the top left corner of your card/board.  With the design facing up and the sprayed side against the card/board, place the top left corner of the sheet onto the card/board and smooth down the short side of the sheet, lining the edges up.  I don't worry too much about a slight scew or overhang - getting a smooth, overall surface is more important than loosing a few millimetres around any edges.

    4. Work your way across the sheet, moving your hands up and down slowly to press the sheet in place as it uncurls across the card/board from left to right.  If you get any air bubbles simply lift it back to the left and smooth again with your hand, pushing the air out to the right as you go.

    If your printed background sheet is slightly smaller than the card/foam board you're mounting on (due to printing/cutting tolerances)  I recommend lining it up in the first top left corner so you have a top and side edge with it right to the edge.  This means you can butt-up to other surfaces and not have a white gap.  I wouldn't try to cut the other two sides of the card/board down to the size of the background - unless you have very long rulers AND arms this rarely goes well!

    If you wish to you could also reinforce the corners or all edges of your background with tape such as masking or magic tape - it really depends how you want to style with it - if you only shoot overheads/flatlays and don't mind losing 5mm round each edge this can really help you get a longer lasting background by protecting the edges from peeling back and being damaged in storage etc.


    Mounting your backgrounds on to MDF or plyboard and sealing  - permanent

    food styling product photography stylist still life flatlay backdrop background surfacefood styling product photography stylist still life flatlay backdrop background surfacefood styling product photography stylist still life flatlay backdrop background surfacefood styling product photography stylist still life flatlay backdrop background surface

    What you'll need - MDF or plyboard cut to size, paste-to-wall wallpaper paste, large paintbrush/pasting brush, plastic scrapers, damp cloth, matt water-based varnish, foam roller ALL SUPER CLEAN! (Optional - wood batons and PVA to back your board)

    This is my preferred option - it may sound like a ball ache but if you put this effort in now, your backdrop could last a really really long time, even with Spaghetti Bolognese slammed against it.  Not sure what kind of shoot that would be, but anyway!

    MDF and plyboard you can buy from B&Q, Buildbase etc and they will cut it down to the exact size for you (although you may be charged for a whole 4x8ft sheet).  As previously mentioned, due to printing/cutting tolerances your background sheet size could vary by a few millimetres so I would wait until you get the sheets in your hand and measure it before asking somebody to cut wood down to size for you.  Lets go for perfect with these ones!

    I prefer to work with plyboard over MDF.  Plyboard is slightly more expensive but it is stronger and less prone to water damage.  Just watch out for twisting - I recommend using at least 9mm thick ply, 12mm is best if you can get it - and also make sure the surface has no defects - they will look like tiny lines and could come through as a ripple on your background.  

    MDF does have a more reliably smooth surface BUT it is prone to bulging and swelling when it gets damp so I would recommend sealing all edges and the back of your MDF board if you go with that option.  The corners will also be 'softer' and damage easily so be careful how you move and store it or consider running a small wood batton along the top and bottom to protect the edges when it stands or leans against a wall (just stick it with PVA).

    So, once you have your back board cut to size, this is what you need to do.

    1. Place your board on a completely clean, flat surface.  You must be in a clean, dust free room to do this - any small bits of dirt (or a greenfly as I once found) can ruin the smoothness of your surface and create bubbles.
    2. Paste the board - not the paper.  It's sooooo much easier and gets exactly the same adherence. I buy the ready mixed paste-to-wall tubs but if you are only mounting one or two backgrounds the mixing powder would be more cost effective as you can use as much as you need adjusting the ratios on the packet.  I haven't tried the coloured pastes that go on a colour and dry clear - I'd be dubious of them staining the background.   You need very little wallpaper paste - I use only two large brush loads for the entire A1 board. Ensure the entire board is wet by moving to view it in different light - it will absorb quickly so move fast but don't be tempted to add more as you will only spend more time pushing it out and risk ripping your paper due to it being too wet and becoming soft. (I'm not recommending a pasting brush as any large, clean (as in like new - absolutely no dust or particles) paintbrush would do.
    3. Place your background sheet onto the evenly pasted board, uncurling it from left to right to try and push any air out to the right as you go.
    4. Give it a general smoothing over with your hands and slide it into position, lining up to the top left corner so the left hand side and top edges line up (the paper shouldn't stretch but I always find it best to work to an edge).
    5. Now working with your plastic scraper, drag and press (leading with your hand rather than pushing which would be leading with the scraper) from the centre of the board, pushing the excess paste and air out to get a tight fix. There is a sweet spot with the amount of pressure you apply - enough to get the paste out effectively but not too much that you scratch the surface design.  I work in a circular, clockwise order, starting from the centre to 12 o'clock, then centre to 1 o'clock etc to ensure I move across the whole board from the centre outwards systematically.  You will notice the scraper slow down in areas with lots of paste - keep working over them firmly but steadily to remove the excess. Wipe the paste off the board edges as you go.  Any paste that gets on the printed backdrop surface can be wiped with a damp cloth as you go too.  You need to work efficiently as bare MDF and ply will absorb the paste and make your background print stick on fairly quickly. 
    6. Once you have smoothed over the entire board have a look at it from different angles, looking for bumps and air bubbles and smooth around any areas with excess paste still left.  The smoothing process can take up to 10 minutes and feel arduous but it is worth it to keep going and get a perfectly flat surface before the glue dries.  Luckily the drying process itself also helps pull the paper flat against the board. 
    7. Make sure you have wiped any paste off the surface with a damp cloth and leave on a flat surface to dry for at least 24 hours before the next step.
    8. To seal the background so you have a very strong, water resistant surface use a water-based matt varnish.  Do not buy oil-based - it will tint your print yellow and take hours to dry while filing your home and lungs with smelly stuff.  I like this one from B&Q, Wilkos etc or Amazon.  
    9. Apply with a foam roller in neat rows from the left - you will get lots of bubbles and lines - don't worry about those on your first pass - just get it across the entire board evenly and efficiently as it dries fast. You will probably need 3 dips of your mini roller to cover the whole surface.  Once it is all covered, go back to where you started and with the now almost empty roller, go over the bubbles, smoothing them and merging any lines.  The bubbles should get smaller and they will pop as they dry - use a lighter hand to remove lines without creating more!  
    10. Allow to dry for an hour (or more if it says so on the tin!) and apply a second coat in the same manner.  (If using MDF seal the sides and back too to avoid water damage. You will of course need to do this after the main surface sealant has fully dried so it is protected while you lean on it to seal the rest of the MDF.)

    My preferred rollers are the foam mini ones which you can dip straight into the tin of varnish.  ALWAYS use brand new rollers straight out of the packet for sealing with varnish - you don't want any dust, paint particles, left over muck etc in there.

    NOTE - some people are using spray matt varnish - I haven't tested this yet so can't advise on it but if you are only doing a couple of boards it may be worth considering.  I will investigate and report back soon!

    Hope this is helpful for you! I can't wait to shoot some how-to pics and videos for you, feel free to get in touch if anything isn't clear or you need more help.  Or please comment below and ask anything so I can add it here!

    I will be offering mounted options on all my designs soon just waiting on my new studio space :). Thanks for reading!