mailbox monday: photographing backgrounds

August 23, 2010 by Ali

Hi Ali! I absolutely love your food blog and all your hard work. I especially come here when I need some tips on photography. Anyway, you mentioned that your set up was a foam board and fabric. I was just wondering that when you photograph with fabric, how do you lay it out? Does it hang on the foam board or do you just lay it out on the table and let the board reflect the light? And when there isn’t any natural light handy, what do you do? Sorry for all the questions, but your blog has been a favorite with me, and I come to it when I’m looking for recipes and tips. It’s proven so helpful!

Thanks so much,
Isabel

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Hi Isabel!

Thanks so much for your kind words, and the great questions!

Ha – it’s so funny you ask about set-up, because this is probably the area in which I feel most amateur-ish! :) But hey, we make do with what we have!

As I mentioned on my Photography page, my house is super limited when it comes to natural light (only one room/window where it seems to work), and limited by space in that one room (small bungalow dining room). So as much as I’d love to do more natural, dining room table sort of layouts, I’ve settled upon this set-up in order to maximize the limited light and space I have. As seen in the picture above, this set-up includes…

  • my two tv-trays set up back-to-back (use these because they’re small, and can fold up easily – although ideally you’d like something level with the window or source of light)
  • a yard of plain brown fabric covering the trays (this is kind of my default background fabric, as you can see in many of my shots)
  • covered by a half-yard of whatever color of fabric I’m using as the shot background
  • my window (recommend using a window where you have some blinds or sheer curtains, so that you can at least have a little control over how much light comes in)
  • tripod/camera (not pictured, obviously — but it would just be moved a few feet closer from where its vantage point is now)
  • and…the piece of foam board I bought at Dollar Tree (the same piece I’ve been using since Day One – just $1!)

So to answer your questions…

Fabric:

I’ll throw this part in, since this is another question I often get. I buy all of my fabrics at JoAnn Fabrics. They’re literally the cheapest fabrics they have there — just plain solids, in a million different colors. I generally buy a half-yard (and almost always stock up when they’re on sale for $1 each!). Also occasionally shoot on burlap, or neat pieces of scrapbook paper.

Fabric Set-Up:

What you see is pretty much how I lay out the fabric for 80% of my shots. If I’m shooting something from a low vantage point — and thus, need the colored fabric to stretch back an extra foot so that it shows up in the background — I’ll unfold the yard of fabric so that it covers the full length of my little “table”.

The only time I’ve found that I need to actually have it tacked up is when I’m shooting pictures with my tripod at the exact same height as the food. (Most of the time if my tripod is even just slightly higher, the two feet of table space seems to stretch back far enough.) For those straight-on shots, though, I have one other piece of foam board I’ll stand up on the back end. And with my super high-tech method, I’ll just use a few pieces of Scotch tape to lift the fabric up a foot and tack it onto the foam board. The key with this is making sure that when the fabric drapes, there are no super-obvious folds or shadows, but that it’s stretched smoothly. For example, I did that for this shot, and then stuck the popsicles into a piece of foam to have them stand up straight (the kind of foam you use for arranging flowers – also from Dollar Tree!). :)

I should also mention that I often end up using one hand to tilt the foam board down slightly towards the food (and towards the window) when I shoot. Maybe it’s the direction of the window I use, or the way the light comes in, but I think it tends to look more evenly balanced and lit when I do that (than when it’s just at a 90-degree angle to the food).

Lighting:

I’m hoping that maybe in a year I’ll have a stellar new answer for this one. But at this point, I think almost all of the main food photos on this site (with the exception of some kitchen/prep shots) have all been taken in natural light. I had a friend loan me some basic little worklamps from Home Depot to experiment with when shooting after dusk, but I have yet to have very good luck with them. (I think my main problem is – again – lack of space. I know they’re not in the ideal positions!)

I’m hoping to learn more about alternatives to natural light soon. But as for now, the two pieces of advice I can give would be:

Tripod: If you don’t already have one, RUN to the store to buy one. I use mine for almost every shot. And the best-best-BEST thing about tripods is that you can use them to shoot with extremely slow shutter speeds….which are helpful in low light. Especially during the winter when it’s rarely bright when I arrive home from work, the tripod has saved me a zillion times being able to shoot in dusk or with less-than-ideal lighting. (And for what it’s worth, this is the tripod that Santa brought me this year for Christmas – 100% recommend it!)

White Balance: If you do need to shoot with artificial lights, be sure to adjust the white balance on your camera beforehand. I know that Photoshop can work its magic with that in editing, but learn about what tungsten, flourescent, etc., etc. lighting is…and adjust your camera accordingly.

***I also occasionally move my shots out to my back deck when needing to shoot in dusk, but know many other photographers who love shooting on porches too. I know this is basic stuff, but anywhere with a little shade (and not direct light) is always better!

Anyway, like I said, my answers are pretty amateur! But so far, this set-up seems to be working for me. :-)

Best wishes shooting!

~A

filed in Mailbox Mondays

About Ali

Ali Ebright is a freelance recipe developer and food writer/photographer, and blogs at Gimme Some Oven and Gimme Some Life. She also loves all things music, traveling near and far, actually making things from Pinterest, cozying up with a good book and her sweet pup, Henry, and spending time with a wonderful group of friends. Come say hello and follow Ali on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ & Instagram.

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9 thoughts on “mailbox monday: photographing backgrounds

  1. Thanks, this was a very helpful post!

    - Megan

  2. Great to meet you! We’re putting together 99 links to help foodbloggers take better photos. We’d love to include this post as a reference, and are asking your permission. Do let me know if you are okay with referencing you!

    Cheers

    Christine
    christine@knapkins.com

    - Christine

  3. Thanks so much for this. Your post prompted a weekend trip to the craft store for foam boards and neutral fabric, and so far they have worked great! I’m really just starting out, so any tips like these are invaluable to me. Thanks again :)

    - Patricia Ocon

  4. My food shots never look good. I will definitely be trying this. Thanks!

    - A Little Bit of Everything!

  5. I am so happy you posted these tips! As a new blogger, I’m looking for inexpensive ways to improve my impossibly horrible photos. Thank you so much!

    - Lars

  6. Hi Ali,

    What is that lasagna you’re photographing!!??? It looks amazing and I looked under mains and pasta but didn’t see it. My fingers are crossed that it’s an up-coming post.

    :)

    - leanne

  7. Love this post! (Found it via FoodGawker) I have been using sheets of coloured bristol board for my backgrounds, but they often cause an unappealing glare – I’ll have to try your fabric tip! :)

    Oh, and like you, I struggle with a poorly lit apartment. One thing that I’ve found REALLY helpful is having one of these Lowel Ego lights. If you look at my blog, every single photo was taken with that light.

    - andrea @ Food Not Fuss

  8. Love it! Foam board, what a great idea! I’ve been thinking about what I could use for a reflector, and the idea never even hit me!!!

    Awesome!

    - The Hungry Teacher

  9. Thanks for all the wonderful tips. I’ve been wavering on whether it’s worth it or not to get a tripod, wondering if I’d actually use it or if it would end up in a pile in the closet. Sounds like it’s definitely a worthy investment. ;)

    - Carolyn Jung