Thursday, October 11, 2012

Food Photography: How to Create Your Own Tabletop

There’s a lot more to food photography than meets the eye (pun intended).

One aspect of food photography that causes some complexity for me is what I call tabletops. A tabletop could be an actual table, a tablecloth, placemat, tray, large sheet of paper, marble board, cutting board, etc. Anything that is flat and large enough for your scene, is a possibility.

When I set up my studio I started with a table from IKEA (they actually call it a desk but it’s a table) that has a basic particleboard surface. The size is perfect, and it’s perfect for laying “tabletops” on top. On its own, it’s a bit shiny and blah to show off a muffin. So I’ve been searching for props that can be tabletops.

I recently decided I wanted a white wood tabletop, something that looks finished but not covered with paint. Something simple that shows off my baking projects. I searched the internet for how to create tabletops for food photography, and came up with very little that was useful. There are lots of tutorials on how to distress wood – maybe I’ll do that someday – but I wasn’t really going for the old distressed look.

After much research (and numerous trips to Home Depot – a place that I’m just starting to get familiar with), I decided to use a whitewashing technique. Here’s the recipe:

1. Start with an unfinished a pine wood tabletop. Lightly sand the top using 150 grit sandpaper.

2. Having read that pine may need priming before staining, I then applied a coat of water-based pre-stain wood conditioner. This is like a primer, but will not affect the color. Once dry, lightly sanded again.

3. Next comes the first layer of whitewashing, using a water-based whitewash pickling stain. This is applied like any other wood stain. Use a brush to liberally spread the stain. Let it sit for 5-20 minutes (depending on how much color depth you want), then use a cloth to stroke from one end to the other, removing most of the stain. The more you wipe, the more stain you will remove. Always wipe with the grain of the wood. Let it dry. The wood will now have a distinctly white cast, but it will still look like wood:

4. I used two layers of whitewashing, as I wanted a little more depth of color. You can repeat the stain/wipe step as many times as you need to, to get to the color you’d like.

5. The last step is to apply a water-based polycrylic finish. Before applying, I lightly sanded one more time. (As a side note, each time you sand, be sure to wipe down the board with a damp cloth to remove any excess dust, before proceeding.) If I were making this a tabletop to actually eat off of, or as a furniture piece, I would have applied more than one layer of finish (at least two is recommended), but as a photographer I want to avoid shine – so just one coat. Also note that polycrylic finishes come in satin, gloss, high-gloss, etc. I went with satin – as again, I wanted it to be camera-friendly. Applying the finish is much the same as applying paint. Use a small brush, stroking with the grain, and lightly cover the table. This needs to dry for a t least 4 hours before you touch it.

Here is the finished result on top of my work table:

And a few test shots:

(I'm obsessed about making my own jams. More on that in a future post.)

Here you can see the table beneath my brownies on the left, and a white napkin on the right.

Incidentally, all of these photos were taken with my new Canon 40mm pancake lens, which is ultra-affordable, and could become one of my favorites for food photography.

What's your favorite tabletop for food photography?

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