Food Photography: Behind the Scenes (on a Budget)

Jump to recipe

food photography behind the scenes

[Here’s a quick behind the scenes look at how I do my food photography on a budget!] 

I’ve always been artsy, but my love for food photography didn’t emerge until after I’d been blogging for a while. Reclaiming Yesterday was born out of my desire to share what I’d learned about healthy eating and natural living. And the quick iPhone shots I began with were just a means to get that information across.

Food Photography 1

But soon I realized that the food I felt so strongly connected to was beautiful in a way that no other subject was (to me). I started playing around with lighting and staging and backgrounds, and before I knew it, I’d fallen head over heels for my new hobby of food photography! 

At some point, my husband (a lover of gadgets and anything that makes his wife happy) announced, “You’re pretty good with those pictures. Why don’t we get you a real camera?”

So he did some research and pretty soon I was holding my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D3300. I love it now, but in the early days I found it EXTREMELY frustrating as I tried to teach myself (by way of YouTube) to shoot in manual mode. It was worth all the frustration, though. Shooting in manual gives you so much better control of the photo (I might save that topic for another post). 

Food Photography on a Thrift Store Budget 

Cameras and all of their associated equipment definitely aren’t cheap. But after that initial investment I returned to my lifelong dedication of penny pinching, while trying to not give away the fact that a total amateur was behind the lens. 

So, for transparency’s sake (and because I, myself, always enjoyed a good episode of VH1’s Making the Video) I’ll run through a quick “behind the scenes” tour of food photography as it happens in my house. 

Food photography surfaces

Surfaces and Backgrounds

To start, I’ll let you know that I do most of my shooting in our guest-bedroom-turned-food-blogger studio. This was a sneaky doing on my part, and a decision that didn’t at all involve the other inhabitant of my house. 😁 As you can see, the previous guest bed has been uprooted and now leans dejectedly against the wall. Its new purpose in life is to support my ever growing pile of photography surfaces. (there are actually more outside, as well)

I’m really into a rustic look, so the majority of my surfaces are made of actual reclaimed wood. I’ll go through a quick rundown of how I procured each of the ones shown above. 

  1. My very first surface, I Macguyvered this faux table out of a wooden pallet that someone left outside. This was when Pinterest “pallet mania” was in full swing, so finding it felt like a real treasure. See it in action here.
  2. One of my favorite surfaces to shoot on, I put together this wonky wooden surface from some reclaimed barn wood a friendly farmer let me have. It was from an old tobacco barn, which is why it has that interesting reddish hue. I love the old nails and nail holes. See it in action here.
  3. This is an actual door that my best friend and I nearly killed ourselves trying to pry off of a dilapidated barn (with permission) from the same farmer I just mentioned. He was going to tear down the barn anyway and encouraged the head start we gave him with that. The door was painted white, and I painted over with some blue paint. I have another larger door from the same barn that I keep outside in our shed, which I kept the original white. See it in action here, and the original white here. 
  4. I fashioned this surface out of an old fence my neighbors were throwing away. One sane person’s trash is another crazy person’s treasure…isn’t that how the saying goes? I have painted this one multiple times, because I always want a change. It’s currently blue. See it in action here.
  5. This is an old table top that I bought for $5 from a local flea market/junk warehouse. See it in action here
  6. This is an old metal ceiling tile that I got from another flea market for $10. The front is a nice chipped white and the reverse is a tarnished grey with a texture and design I’m really into. See it in action here. And the other side here. 
  7. This wooden surface actually used to be a part of a vintage wardrobe I picked up from the flea market for $40. It was HEAVY but I managed to drag it out to the back shed before my husband caught me with it. The other panels I made into shelves in my pantry. I use this quite a bit as a background because of it’s height. See it in action here.

Food Photography-5

Last but not least is my favorite thrift store purchase EVER. This table that (someone other than me) made out of reclaimed barn wood. It was a big spend for me ringing in at $70, but sometimes you just gotta splurge. I use it all the time–and when I’m not shooting on it directly I use it as a base for my other surfaces. You can see it in action here. Damos the cat has claimed it as his bird-watching perch, also. 

The Right Light for Food Shots

That big window is a good transition into one of the most pivotal factors to great food photography (in my humble opinion). GREAT NATURAL LIGHT. North light is pretty much the gold standard, since it stays consistent throughout the day and produces an indirect light. That’s helpful so you don’t have to worry about harsh sunlight breaking up your frame. (you can determine North light by using the compass on your phone!)

BUT this adopted studio of mine happens to face South, and I’ve actually come to love the lighting situation I get from it. Although I do tend to chase light around my house during the year (setting up a photo shoot by an open door or other window in the house). I really love the light from this window because it creates some really dramatic shadows which I love. 

For a contrast, the image on the left was shot in North light in another area of my house, and the image on the right was shot with South light. I do have to play around with what time of day I’m shooting and whether it’s a perfectly cloudless day. That’s because the sun will stream in through the window harshly at times. In that situation I move my table a bit further from the window, and sometimes I diffuse it through a very thin curtain. 

food photography  

Collecting Food Photography Props 

Food Photography-3

I’ve always been a “treasure hunter” when it comes to shopping. I love discount stores that you have to do a bit of digging because it makes it so much more rewarding to find something awesome (and it’s CHEAP). So hunting for cool food photography props is something I really enjoy.

I always keep my eyes out for worn pieces that have a lot of character, and I’ve found that the best and most affordable place to locate those pieces are at yard sales. I also do a quick run through of the Goodwill or thrift store once every week or so. Sometimes I purchase props on Etsy or Ebay. 

Another great resource is the people you know in real life. My friends and family know that I’m always looking for eclectic pieces for my photography. So they’ll offer to give me things if they’re cleaning out their grandmother’s attic, for instance. 

Food Photography-2

Fabrics and Texture

I like to add color and texture to my photos with interesting dish towels and napkins. My trick for achieving that look and feel without actually having to purchase dish towels and napkins (which can be surprisingly pricey) is to check out the remnant section of the fabric store. (that’s the end pieces that get discounted because they’re too small to sell at full price).

I like to look for linen because I think it photographs well and looks richer (better than shiny fabrics). I can usually find something I like for less than $2 and cut it into napkins or whatever size I need. And sometimes I use larger pieces for backdrops. 

The striped fabric on the left is one of my favorites, and the turquoise linen on the right is definitely worth the dollar and a half I paid for it. It was a large piece of fabric that also became napkins. 

food photography

Equipment and Resources 

As I mentioned before, I started out shooting with my iPhone, which can actually capture some really high quality images. There are limitations when you’re using your smart phone, though. For example I really wanted to control the depth of field (how focused the foreground is in comparison to the background). And that is something that I just couldn’t get with my phone. The DSLR camera that I ended up getting is a great option in my opinion for beginner/intermediate photographers. And the price was something that I felt I could manage.

What I realized is that the lens is what makes a big difference in the images you’re able to capture. So after about a year playing with the kit lens that came with the camera, I graduated to a Nikon 28mm f/1.8. It was actually cheaper at the time I bought it, but I had to save up for a long time. You can also find some gently used equipment and save a lot of money, which is what I did with my tripod. (I actually purchased it from a friend who also happens to be a professional photographer). 

To learn how to use my camera and become proficient in manual mode, I cried spent a lot of time on the free University of Life known as YouTube. My favorite account to get tips from is Jared Polin, aka Fro Knows Photo. Another really helpful resource was Plate to Pixel by Helene Dujardin. 

To edit photos, I use Adobe Lightroom almost exclusively. It’s inexpensive and easy to learn. I purchased Lightroom 5 in 2014, but there is a newer version available now. 

food photography behind the scenes

My photography is always a work in progress. It’s funny to look back at old pictures that I thought were really pretty great at the time, only to find myself cringing at the sight of them now. That’s the way it is with all art forms though. And it’s proof that we’re always getting better at our craft.

When I started out with food photography I saw other images and I desperately wanted to learn how the photographer achieved the look they did. I hope that this little glimpse into my behind the scenes didn’t bore you to tears, and actually was helpful! If you guys are interested I may do some more posts like this in the future. Let me know if there are other things you’d like to hear more about! 


*Disclaimer: this post contains links to products that I genuinely use and find helpful. If you end up purchasing any of them through the links, I will receive a small compensation in return. 


13 responses to “Food Photography: Behind the Scenes (on a Budget)”

  1. Great post! I appreciate all your advice, especially the fabric bits as props! And my windows face South too so I’m often chasing or dodging sunbeams!
    Thank you!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. The idea of a props box makes sense; I’m generally rooting around my Hoosier cabinet and cupboards looking for just the right thing, and having it stashed in one place would make sense. I too am a devotee of natural light but haven’t found the perfect spot in my house l. With your suggestions in mind, I will keep looking!

    • I had my props spread ALL OVER until it drove me crazy and I had to get them all organized and in one place. It’s also helpful for when you’re looking for that one specific spoon or whatever!

  3. I’m so glad you did this post, Allyson! I love to see what others do for their photography setups and I am now convinced that I seriously am lacking in the prop department since seeing your stash, haha! Now that the weather is getting warmer hopefully there’ll be more yard sales, which is one place I’ve never thought to look! I truly hope you do more of these in the future too!

  4. This is exactly the kind of experience and info I want to hear about! I am trying to learn these things myself and I hung on every word. Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.