Food Styling: Props, Books, & Photo Quality


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I’ve mentioned before that I’ve really been enjoying photography and that I have a discovered a passion for it.  It feels like a door has been opened that was previously closed.  Or actually, a door has been opened that I didn’t even know existed. And it’s been so fun exploring!

One of the things I have been wanting to build is my stash of cute tablecloths, linens, placemats and pretty backdrops because I think they enhance pictures so much.

I hadn’t been seeing anything too cute or original at TJ Maxx or Marshall’s, but I ventured into Flashbacks which is a retro, used clothing store.

They have an awesome array of used, vintage scarves that I thought will be perfect for tabletop and countertop photographs.

Multiple linens for food styling

They are probably from the 1960s or 1970s and Made in Italy.  And a couple of them smell just like my Grandma’s linen cabinet.

Close up on tags on linens

How could food or things I get in the mail not look better when photographed on pretty scarves?

Side of 4 different colored linens

Receipt for linens

I would have loved to find something great at TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, or Target for $1 each, but I’ll take 4 for $26.10

Because if I ever get sick of using them for backdrops and blog photo backgrounds, I can always wear them because they are scarves.

Multi colored linens on top of one another

I also ordered a couple books about food styling.

Food Styling for Photographers Book

I had hoped when I ordered this book that it was going to give me specific tips on where to place forks, knives, and cups, how to use placemats and tablecloths to add depth to shots, and where to stand and at what angles in order to get the “perfect shot” of my food.  When the book came and I thumbed through it, I am realizing it’s not that kind of book.

But it has given me a glimpse into professional food styling.  The food used in ads is far more doctored up than you’d ever imagine.  And some of it’s not even real food.  It’s plastic.  That’s how they make the food look so perfect.  It’s fake food!

Great lengths are taken to make food look the way it does in ads…

Buns are cut with scissors and grill marks applied with a blow torch

Inside book showing how to make grill marks on buns

Acrylic ice cubes are used and fake bubbles are placed in with eyedroppers for cold beverages

Inside book on how to make fake bubbles on drink glass

Ice cream is not real.   It’s a mix of frosting, food coloring, and corn syrup that’s whipped together.  And then great measures are taken to create “ice cream cones”.

Inside book showing how to make the perfect ice cream cone

Applying the fake ice cream on top of the giant wooden toothpicks that will hold it in place.

Inside book showing how to stack ice cream on cone

Cake is held together with cardboard and the frosting “stripes” are hand-applied

Inside book showing how to make the perfect slice of cake

So although the book isn’t exactly what I was looking for for my own personal needs, it has been highly interesting and eye-opening seeing how food is styled professionally.

Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of great tips and if you’re serious about making your food photography better, you will learn something or many things from this book that will help your photos and shots look better.   And you don’t even need to use giant wooden toothpicks to hold your desserts together or fake ice cubes to make your drinks look better  if that’s not your style.

All that talk of fake food and food styling is making me hungry for real food.

How about a Cheezy Vegetable Bake

Cheezy Vegetable Bake

One pan, planned leftovers, and you can use up whatever odds and ends veggies you have

Plated Cheezy Vegetable Bake

And for dessert, try a homemade Vegan “Turtle” (No Bake, GF, easy!)

Hand holding showing bottom of vegan turtle
Hand holding one Vegan Turtle

From my last post about Kitchen Disasters & Shattered Glass, I am glad that I’m not the only one who’s had some serious kitchen mishaps.  I loved hearing your tales of woe.  We can all laugh now, but in the moment, kitchen calamities are stressful!

And many of you seem to have a potty mouth Guess we’d get along great!


1. If you’re a blogger, do you care what your blog photos look like?

I am trying to hard to make my photos look better.

I bought lighting gear

I invested in Lightroom 3 photo editing software

And of course, getting my DSLR camera helped too.

However, a point about nice cameras that I want to hammer home…

You can have the nicest camera in the world but if you don’t take time to figure out how to present your food beautifully, artistically, and with some creative flair, you will simply have ugly and unappetizing food, except that it will be in very high quality and high resolution.  Lack of staging and making things pretty will just be documented at a higher quality.

So an expensive camera will not ensure that you have beautiful pictures.  You have to do other things, too.   Like read about food styling and staging.

Use a point and shoot camera and when you really think you have exhausted the limits of it, then upgrade to a DSLR.  But don’t make that leap thinking all your food is going to turn out like Angela’s just because you have an expensive camera.  There is far more to it!  And I am not an expert, but am just sharing what I have learned and my observations.

2. As a blog reader, how important are photographs and the quality of them to you?

I think Kath said, “People come for the pictures, but stay for the writing.”  So true in my opinion!

I will read blogs that don’t have fabulous pictures, but as I said in this post recently about the wonderful food and recipes I saw in the ‘sphere last week, it makes me more inclined to keep reading and keep going back to their site when the blogger has captivating photos. 

That said, you don’t have to be a genius with your camera, because personality, “blog voice”, recipe quality, and other things all matter too.  But nice photos definitely help the cause, too. And they don’t even have to be “amazing” but just not dark, grainy, or teeny tiny ones.

3. For everyone, do you pay attention to the quality of the photos you take, in general?

Same as with blog pics, I now care much more what all the photos I take look like.  Even if I have no intention of posting something on my blog, I still want to have my pictures look as good as possible so that when I look back at the pictures, they represent how the event or moment really was and in as best quality as possible.

4. Where is your favorite place to buy pretty dishes, tablecloths, kitchen untensils, tools, picture “props”, and so forth?

Usually TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Homegoods, or Target are good bets but sometimes I find things at random dollar stores, the Pier 1 clearance rack, on sale at Anthropologie (must be on sale at that store!) or even Flashbacks like with the scarves being multi-purposed as tablecloths, i.e. picturetakingcloths.

About the Author

Welcome to AverieCooks! Here you’ll find fast and easy recipes that taste amazing and are geared for real life. Nothing fussy or complicated, just awesome tasting dishes everyone loves!

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  1. Love this article. We’ve reached that point at our drinking blog to where we want to get better at the photos we use. We upgraded to a Canon Rebel but still weren’t getting what we wanted. We’ve upgraded from the kit lens now to a F1.8 recently and have begin reading more and watching more tutorials. Can’t wait to see where it takes us.

  2. Interesting article. I am so glad I came across your photography articles since I am just getting started in blogging and was wondering how other bloggers take such excellent pictures. I really can learn a lot from your articles and recommendations for photography.

  3. Oh gosh, the food photography stuff! Gives another perspective in “truth in advertising”.

  4. I definitely care what my photos look like, but I actually EAT what I make. I don’t have the patience to take 30 minutes to set up lighting, tripod etc, when all I want to do is eat a hot dinner. I love taking beautiful pictures of food, but I love eating it more ;)

  5. Since I just blog for fun, and currently only on SparkPeople, I don’t pay much attention to what my photos look like. I try and get the point across, but that’s about it.

    I do like pretty plates and I have a bad habit of using scrapbook sheets underneath them, but that’s about it! I love and admire food photography though. And I think it’s crazy how fake it is in books!

  6. I also purchased a Food Styling book and it is very similar to the one you have in that it focuses on commercial food styling (which would be a really fun job!) but I’m also looking for something that explain depth, back drop, etc. Let us know if you find one!

  7. I don’t even know if I’d even refer to myself as a blogger since I rarely update but I’d say my pictures are kind of crappy. I don’t have the money for a better camera and I live in a dreary region of the US where natural light doesn’t exist 9 months of the year. I also don’t have storage space for various backdrops.

    As a reader, I wouldn’t say nice pictures don’t matter to me as much as I’d say my standards are probably lower than others. I actually enjoy reading so the pictures to me are just a bonus and as long as I can get an idea of what the recipe should look like I’m good. I read a ton of blogs and appreciate the work that goes into the nicer pictures but I really don’t want to see the same plate of food from 25 different angles. One or two clear shots is fine with me. You do a very good job and your pictures are a lot sharper than a lot I see.

  8. I do love me some pretty pictures of food!!!! Thank you so much for the insight. Sadly the food pics on my own blow are less than pretty. I am documenting my efforts to eat right, exercise, and find balance as a super busy bee attorney. Needless to say, the plating on many of my meals is less than fancy. I do strive to find creative angles and proper lighting. Which such little time it’s the best I can do. I totally agree that it’s the eye not the camera in front of it that makes a beautiful photo.

  9. Cute scarves, I have a collection of vintage my mom gave me and I love the funky prints – fun to tie on purses to jazz them up. And too funny, I have that same Food Styling book! Hubby got it for me for Christmas to go with the camera. I also found then Foodbuzz photography session really helpful for food photography with lighting, colors, etc.

    1. Yes, I’ve learned tons and become much more picky about my photography since starting the blog.
    2. Pretty important to make the food look appetizing. I really look for pics that emphasize vibrant, natural color and make the food look closer to nature.
    3. Yes, I look for clarity, color, positioning and focus.
    4. Tough call, I have Fiestaware now that I like for bright, but solid color – I like being able to pair contrasting colors with the food while not having a print on the dish that’s too busy.

  10. Now I know why food always looks so damn good in magazines!!! HA! I do try to take nice pics for my blog, but I’m not willing to invest in an expensive camera for it. Maybe if I had a much higher readership I’d consider it. And I do like nice photos in blogs, but I’m mainly there for the content, not the pics so it’s not a “make or break” situation by any means….

  11. I would say that pictures aren’t important, but when I first happen upon a blog, it’s the pictures that hook me in. So I think that quote is quite right.

  12. Love this post! I’m still exploring my camera and taking in as much as I can about food styling. To me, it seems kinda sad that so many gorgeous pics are of food that’s not even edible- seems a bit like false advertising. Oh well. I strive to take pics of the actual food I prepare and make it as pretty as I can by adjusting the lighting and props. No fake food on Keep It Simple Foods!

  13. averie, i love how photography has become a new passion for you. it’s so important to find and develop new interests over time, not stagnate with the same-old. thanks for sharing some of the info from the styling book! i always love looks at “behind the scenes” stuff!
    photo quality is not important to me right now. i have my point and shoot and have decided not to go for a dslr at this time. photo CONTENT and writing CONTENT are what interest me for my own blog. i try to include pics i find fun and that fit in with my blog post.
    nice work finding those scarves! i love the colours. i’m trying to collect bright and eclectic dishes; wish i could get to a target to source some more!

  14. I love all of those food styling tricks you shared with us! They seem so wrong, don’t they?
    I think your pictures are great! I’m so happy you have a new interest in food photography.

  15. There is nothing more aggravating to me than bad lighting. I get very annoyed when I’m out dining and the lighting is non-existent! So that answers your question. But I don’t really care too much about the pictures in other blogs, weirdly enough, because I prefer reading than viewing.

  16. Hi Averie, I am new to blogging and i wanted to learn more about food blogging photography I found two blogs that are very helpful and you might like them.(food bloggers unite-has some great tips & still*life~style-her blog is about props)You may have heard or seen these already.I just thought i would share.Love your blog!!! Tanya

  17. I care about how my photos look, and I prefer blogs that have good photography. I will stay even if the photos aren’t great, but if the writing or recipes are really good. I am more likely to make a recipe if there are many mouth-watering recipes of it however!

  18. Paper scraps and fabric scraps are what I use. Lately, I’ve been really time crunched, and I’ve been doing the Minimalist look – everything on white. I kind of like it though. It makes the food stand out that much more.

    If I had more time, I’d get WAY into food styling. That book has actually been on my amazon wish list for about a year now!

  19. First off – I tired (and posted about!) your DELICIOUS flax cookies. OMG – I’m trying NOT to eat all of them at once. :)

    Second – I do care about photo quality… but sometimes it is so hard / time-consuming / impossible-to-get-good-lighting. Pics DO draw me in, but it is definitely the content that keeps me coming back.

  20. I am trying to get better at taking pictures and think I am getting there. I am really interested in photography and want to learn more. I agree with Kath too, people will always stay for great content :)

  21. Wow, that actually sounds like an interesting read! I might have to check that out, thanks for the tip! :D

  22. Okay, that was fascinating! I mean I knew on some level that those food photos in mags and whatnot are really staged but all the details… wow. It’s kind of a work of art really. And I love your new scarves!!

  23. I must say that is the best photo you’ve posted yet of the cheesy vegetable bake. ;)

    Anthropologie sells the best bowls…and they are about the only thing I can afford in that store!

    1. No way. I cannot believe you commented today…and I had a cheezy veggie bake up. I have not posted it in…like weeks!!! Probably since the last time you commented. You have cheezy veggie bake radar, I swear!

  24. Those scarves are cool. Sometimes I use scarves, tablecloths, or even aprons as backdrops.

  25. That’s really interesting! They put so much work into making the fake food look appetizing! lol
    I try to make my food photos look good, but I have to admit there’s so much more I could do. I have a DSLR, but I only know how to operate the some of the functions. I haven’t played with lighting much at all aside from my detachable flash.

  26. I loved spending the time reading everyone’s comments! There are some great suggestions in there. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m going to stage a recipe, what colors go best, what props I can use… next to baking, photography is pretty awesome! I never in a million years would have thought I would like photography, but I look forward to coming home every night and spending time in my kitchen cooking + running around with my camera.
    I still have loads to learn and improve on, but practice makes perfect!
    I’ve setup a creativity room off our kitchen with all my blog props. I go to Pier 1 and Home Sense once a month and grab a couple of things that are on sale. I’ve never thought of using scrapbook paper, I’ll have to check that out!

  27. “an expensive camera will not ensure that you have beautiful pictures. You have to do other things, too. Like read about food styling and staging.”
    I LOVE YOU. Seriously. I am like, bowing down to you forever for saying this! I can’t tell you how many people say “Your pictures are great! What camera do you have?” or “Wow! Your camera takes great pictures!” or come into work thinking that now that they have a dSLR they are a pro photographer. I can’t help but feel a little offended even though I know it’s probably not intended to be a diss, people just don’t realize it. I just want to say “well, my camera’s nice enough, and yes, it certainly helps me to take a decent photo, but I also like to think I’m the one who saw the shot, decided the composition and what settings to use, and clicked the button…” I know I still have SO much to learn, and I am always working to better myself and learn as much as I can, so sometimes it’s frustrating when other people can pick up a dSLR and immediately make $$ on it without wanting to learn a thing. (AND undercut everyone else in the process.)
    Ohhh, well. Such is life.
    Whoa. Rant. Seems like I always rant about that subject to you, haha. Are you sick of me yet?! Anywho. That all said, I wish I put more thought into my foodstyling! I always imagine these fun “shoots” with a recipe I’ve made and then…get lazy and just wind up doing the same old thing. I really need to invest in some fun props to inspire me! Just haven’t made it out to TJMaxx or Bed & Bath in a while :P I definitely put more thought into recipes that I’ve created, whereas simple meals or whatever might just get a quick snap or two :]

  28. i feel like all my adorations as a child have been crushed! although it kind of boosts my self esteem. i worked at a TCBY for a while and could never make an ice cream cone look as good as the picture! it drove me nuts ha

  29. No offense, but there is something sort of unappetizing about the thought of a scarf that was wrapped around someone’s neck being near the food later. Some people have some sweaty necks. Maybe just me.

    I actually really dislike all the behinds the scenes stuff of blogging, at least for photos and such. I just want to see the end result. It takes away all the magic for me, sort of like seeing the bloopers of a movie that was pretty serious. And all that hollywood fake food stuff, gross! But glad you are finding the time to read at least, I know you’ve always said that’s been a struggle.

  30. What a neat insight into the food photography world. It’s amazing how much of what they photograph is completely fake. However, I think when it comes to blogging, the realistic aspect of the photos is what makes them special… of course they should look like effort and care were taken to photograph the food, but the food should be what’s truly on the plate!

  31. Great scarves!!! Branching out for food prop pictures is always fun…I have a drawer full of linens and placemats that I’m constantly digging into!

  32. I am SO with you. After getting my dslr, I realized that I have a huge passion for photography. I also realized that I really enjoy styling my food. It’s fun for me to make it look as pretty as possible. What a FUN book you found.

    1) I totally care ! I always try to make them look the best I can… only wishing I had a window or two in my kitchen so that my indoor pictures always leave something to be desired.

    2) Important, but not the most important thing… The content is obv why I go back and lovely pictures don’t hurt !

    3) I have always loved taking pictures and these days I care a lot more about lighting and compisition… so fun.

    4) TJ Max Home Store, Target , World Market are my top 3

    PS I am so excited I can be a regular commenter again… bc I certainly didn’t stop reading that whole time :D

  33. HEY my beautiful hearted friend! I have missed you soooo much! I am so happy to be back though! I hope you are doing wonderful. i loveeee your eats as always! i really need to improve my photography! haha. love you friend!

  34. Haha! I love the food staging!!The cardboard cake and fake ice cream crack me up!
    I used to work in a bakery and decorating the Styrofoam dummy cakes for show always made me laugh, too. I guess something about people salivating over cardboard and styrofoam tickles me. :P

  35. I love nice photography and good content. Not only pretty and professional but shots with character. It is the bloggers voice that gets me to stay. I have been following your blog for a while! And this post spoke to me, drew me to write a response to it. Nice one! : ))

  36. Great post! I have a goal to improve my picture taking skills and overall photo quality. This really gets me thinking, thank you!

  37. Averie,
    What a wonderful post! This one was especially helpful! I think the linens you have are adorable! I currently only have a Kodak 12 megapixel camera, but I definitely do my best to make it work! Being a college student on a budget means that I have to prioritize what I want to splurge on. Right now it’s buying organic and healthy foods, but I would LOVE to eventually get a really great camera! I love taking pictures! I think yours always look beautiful and super clear! :)

  38. I have definitely been getting into more photography styling lately as well. I’ve found that staging really enhances the photos, and I actually have to think about what I’m going to do for my pictures. It’s a lot of fun playing around with different set ups and colors.

  39. Goodness gracious, I am a scarf FREAK! I love them so much, I think I own close to 20? Totally fine:)

  40. I definitely enjoy looking at good photography, or relatively decent photography. I try hard to take nice pictures, but ultimately I have so much to learn, I have a nice DSLR camera, but I haven’t taken enough time to figure it out. I really enjoyed reading your tips with LR3! I would like to learn how to use nice photo editing software.

  41. I love food photography! I use to take pictures of my food before I knew this whole blogging world existed! (I admit I am quite late to all of this! If I had only known!!) Unfortunately I lack the funds for a nice camera (and mine got stolen, sad day) so until I can get one, I am forced to use my phone.. but hey, it works!! And beggars can’t be choosers! :)

    One day I will have a fancy-pants camera and I can only hope to take as pretty of food pictures as you do lady!

  42. I definitely like pretty food photos, but I do like real food. I know all the tricks, but I love good raw photography too. I don’t need everything in a pretty bowl or things that look perfect. You can throw it on a cutting board and if it’s good food, it will look good!

  43. The scarves are so pretty! Glad you found them. And I saw a special about the things they do to get food to look perfect for ads or tv…its gross! Makes you second guess what you’re seeing for sure. And you know I love your cheezy veggie bake!

  44. As a blogger I usually care about what my food photos look like, so I go to great lengths to make them pretty. I’m currently working on expanding my food photo backgrounds and making pictures look spectacular. I have lots of dishes, but buy more whenever I see ethibg i like. I find dishes just about everywhere, even Rite Aid! Big Lots, Kohls, macy’s, bb&b, etc.

    I plan to go to the craft store for food photo props. It is fun, but not when I’m hungry and want to eat what I’m fussing over, lol.

  45. I enjoy the pictures, but really can’t judge the quality. Have they been touched up? No clue. Like them being there though – and I can appreciate the work that goes in to it and the time it must take to get “the shot”.

    I don’t buy pretty dishes (we have china from our wedding registry). I still haven’t found a good place for tablecloths and napkins. Utensils & tools I either buy at Zellers (which has now been bought out by Target) or Home Outfitters. Occasionally I’ll be in a kitchen themed store and find some useful tools & utensils in there. Oh, and Pampered Chef has some good things, although they are on the expensive side.

  46. Nice scarves :D I’ve been thinking for the last week, week and a half-ish that I need to get some stuff for my pictures too. Since we don’t have anything in town I’m planning a trip to the next town over that’s a bit bigger. I’m thinking I’m going to hit up the fabric store. Might be cheaper than getting table clothes and I never put tablecloths on my table anyways(does anyone with little kids do that, seriously? haha) I’ll see what I can find… I don’t really have a clue other than that. Looking up in the comments I now see I’m not the first one with the fabric store idea :D
    Yes I care about my photos… but there are exceptions. My daughter got a hold of my green smoothie and got it all over her face and clothes. I needed a picture of that – no matter how awful. LOL
    Every time I comment I feel like I write a ton, lol. You always have such good topics to talk about :D

  47. I do care about what my photos look like but I usually don’t have the time to make something look amazing if it’s like dinner time and I really don’t want cold food. Hah I bet if I had a microwave my problem would be solved ! Also the light in the house I rent really stinks, so that makes things frustrating.

  48. Averie I think it was Kath who mentioned she buys scrapbook paper sheets and uses those under plates, etc — those are $1 each at the most — and that way around holidays you can have really festive pictures too!

    That book about food styling looks super interesting! I love learning stuff like that. The “eye dropper bubble” trick is hilarious.

    I do care what photos look like — to be honest what matters more to me are the size of photos on a blog — teeny tiny? no thanks. Super huge that take forever to load and or scroll through? Not a fan of those either unless the photograph is amazing. I think yours are a good size — not too large and not too small.

    I try to take good pictures, and now that we have daylight later than 5pm I’ve been able to do that. I’d like to get better and get nicer dishes, etc (not just for the blog but to have nicer dishes, period!).

    I like getting dishes and stuff at thrift stores, Target or Pier 1!

  49. You know I care about my pics ;)

    I buy almost all my dishes at consignment shops and the rest at Marshall’s, TJ Maxx, or Home Goods. As far as fabric goes, I try to find vintage when I can, but I mostly go to fabric stores and buy the “fabric squares” which are about a buck a piece :)

    1. “fabric squares” which are about a buck a piece = GREAT Tip! Thanks, Estela!