I used to scroll Instagram admiring people’s beautiful breakfast scenes, and thinking how fortunate they were to happen to have a rustic wooden table or marble worktops in their home. I used to try to and create my own pictures by dragging old chests of drawers and tables to the window, or using our lovely old floorboards to arrange a scene on. I soon realised though there was a real difference between something looking nice and being photogenic. For example our old oak refectory dining table and benches, although lovely was just too orange, too smooth, and too badly lit to ever be useful for photos.
Eventually I twigged what was probably happening was that people were using backdrops. This realisation opened up a world of possibilities, all you need is the vision, and the storage space! I immediately went out and bought some tongue and groove, nailed it into some hardboard and painted it white. Ta-da! My very own white table top. I don’t actually use this one any more but it was a total game changer for me. Now I could follow the best light around the house, and position myself in that perfect 2pm December sunshine just as it hit that spot on my living room floor. You see it’s not only about having the right surfaces, it’s about having the right light on them.
I have since gathered myself quite a collection of backdrops. I have two pieces of marble from reclamation yards. They are very heavy and difficult to manage, but there is definitely something about the way the light falls on real marble rather than formica. I paid around £10 for each of them. I also have a nice collection of scaffolding planks. Rustic wood is really my preference over the tongue and groove that I first used. I scoured reclamation yards looking for the most bleached out and characterful wood I could find, and this is what forms most of my photography surfaces.
I sawed another set of planks into lengths and screwed them together, then painted them with white emulsion. To create the distressed look, you can use a “resistance” method of applying vaseline to sections where you don’t want the paint to stick, and then wiping the paint away. I found this wasn’t necessary because the emulsion was easy to scrape away from the wood once it was dry. For this reason, don’t undercoat, just slap the paint on! I used a wire brush and fine sand paper, and scraped and scoured until I had the effect I wanted.
If lugging heavy wooden boards or chunks or marble around isn’t your cup of tea, or you struggle for storage space another great option is to use vinyl photography backdrops. These are commonly used in studio photography, and sometimes huge rolls of them are hung on the walls and lowered down as needed. You can of course buy any size piece you want, and they are super handy for food and product photography and are easily transportable.
A couple of years ago I spent quite a lot of money (and import tax) on some from America. Despite my best efforts, I’ve never got on with them, because they have a textured finish which I find is really visible in the photos. It might work with a very shallow depth of field, but it definitely didn’t work for me. This is something to really look out for and avoid if possible. However there are far better ones available now – Capture by Lucy has some gorgeous designs, and prints them on smooth, low reflection vinyl. I’ve been tempted to try these for a while so I bit the bullet and ordered a couple. They photograph really well and are definitely much quicker and easier to get out than a huge wooden board. The one below is called “grey temple walls”.
Another great option for vinyl is Pixers. They have an incredibly extensive range of designs – I found the best way to navigate their website was to type into the search what I was looking for. Try “concrete”, “brick wall” or “rustic wood” and you will get some fantastic options. These stickers are designed to be used on the wall, but they make equally good surfaces for flat lays. You can either roll them up afterwards and this way they are easy to store, or what I did was to stick them onto sheets of foam board, which is super lightweight yet rigid, and still allows me to easily take them in the car to different locations if needed. The distressed concrete one below works brilliantly.
So, don’t rip out your kitchen or beat up your dining table just yet! These are all handy solutions to the problem of backdrops, and all though I have plenty of photogenic surfaces in my house, the fact that these backdrops can be moved around to the best light is really what makes them so useful. If you have an online shop or are a florist, you will probably find having a backdrop that you can pull out and lay by the window means you will be able to photograph your products regularly and easily. Consistently using a couple of backdrops or settings, will also give your product photography a recognisable style and make your website look lovely!
Now all you’ve got to do is get creative with what sort of backdrop you fancy.. x
(All these photos were taken and edited on iPhone)