A Food Stylist's Guide to Selecting Props
Since the world looks little different through the lens of a camera, there are a few practical considerations to be aware of when selecting your props for food photography.
Size matters. When it comes to tableware, smaller is better.
The camera limits our view to the edges of the frame, so a full size dinner plate or soup bowl can dwarf the food through the viewfinder. A large expanse of empty plate with a small arrangement of food may look very classy and modern in real life, but in a photograph it's just a lot of plate and not a lot of food. By choosing a dessert or salad plate instead of a full sized plate to present your dish, you'll help ensure that the food remains the center of attention. Be sure and keep the scale consistent with all of your props, an oversized wine glass next to a salad plate can throw off the illusion, so keep an eye out for small scale cutlery and glassware when you're shopping.
Additionally, the cameras lens can distort our perception of distance and size. When we zoom in we are doing more than just magnifying the view, we are also compressing the view. Compare the two photos below. In the shot on the left I stood very close to plate of cookies with a wide angle view, and for the next shot I backed up a few steps and zoomed in until the plate seemed to occupy the same space in the frame as in the previous image. Notice how the background seems to advance in the photo on the right, the back of the wooden chair across the table and sofa across the room both seem much closer once I've zoomed in. I often refer to my longer lenses as my 'cozy' lenses because of this effect, they seem to bring all of the elements in the frame closer together.
The wide angle view (photo on the left) not only affects our perception of distance, it also affects our perception of size. Objects in the foreground will appear larger relative to objects in the background. Notice how much smaller the mug in the background seems compared to the plate in the photo on the left vs the photo on the right. The lens you choose is just as important as the props you select when presenting your dish. If the scale seems off in your photo, quite often the answer is a different lens, not a different plate.
Much like the right throw rug can really tie a room together, the props you select when styling your recipe can make or break the final photo. I approach food styling a lot like interior decorating in miniature, using the the colour of the food as my jumping off point for selecting the palette of the background elements.
Unfortunately brightly coloured dishes, especially saturated primary colours (red, yellow, blue) can sometimes be difficult to work with in food photography. In my experience, hardly anything looks appetizing when photographed on a fire engine red plate. I tend to use brighter colours in my linens and backgrounds, and stick to softer more muted tones for the serving pieces themselves. Less saturated shades or tints of primary colours are usually a safer choice as they are less likely to compete or clash with the main subject.
For a basic primer on colour theory, click here.
You can't go wrong with classic white dishes, most recipes will look appealing when presented on white. A variety of white plates, bowls, and cups in various sizes will serve you well. If your personal style is more dark and moody, basic black dishes can be just as versatile, if a little trickier to light.
Dishes with a matte finish are much more photo-friendly than shiny reflective pieces since they avoid potential issues with distracting highlights. The viewers eye will always gravitate toward the brightest part of an image, and glossy surfaces can create bright highlights and unwanted reflections in photos which draw attention away from the star of the show. These highlights can be especially distracting on darker pieces, compare the highlights and reflections in the little pigs below. The little white pig has a few highlights which reflect the shape of the window next to the table, but the highlights on the little black pig are much more pronounced and the dark surface clearly reflects the legs of my tripod, which is never desirable. So, try and avoid super shiny dishes especially if you are using darker colours.
Silverware can pose it's own problems when it comes to reflections. A spoon will often act as a little fun-house mirror reflecting the photographer and whole set. Select cutlery with some patina or a satin finish to avoid these issues.
Picking a china pattern was once a rite of passage for a young bride, in many ways traditional china patterns reflect the identity and aspirations of the young woman who chose them. I like to imagine their stories whenever I use vintage pieces to style my food photos, vintage linens and china can bring a sense of tradition and history to a recipe.
Sadly, ornate tableware (vintage or modern) is tricky to work with as a food stylist. Strong patterns can easily distract or compete with the food or make the composition far too busy. I usually opt for subtle patterns or designs that are limited to the rim of the serving piece to avoid potential conflicts.
Of course, there are always exceptions. If your subject is a solid colour, without much visual interest on it's own, it can work beautifully when presented on a busy background. In the photo below the cookies are simple brown circles, so the ornate pattern on the plate does not compete with them, it frames them nicely.
Plates vary widely in depth. It's rare to find a perfectly flat plate with a thin lip, so when I do, I snatch it up quick. The depth of a plate is super important if you plan to photograph your subject from eye level because a fat lip will block a portion of the 'hero' from view. Anytime you are styling a dish to be photographed from a low angle, consider the lip.
Ideally, the items we employ as props for food photography act as supporting players, like bridesmaids to the bride, they flatter the 'hero' but never upstage the star of the show.
For successful food styling, keep these five things in mind when your selecting the props; size, colour, finish, pattern, and the depth of the plate.