I’ve been running workshops around Instagram and phone photography for almost 18 months. One of the most intriguing subjects for many who attend is that of the backgrounds I shoot with: those things which lie underneath the dish or are sitting distant from it, but very much still connected, in the background. They’re such an important aspect of food photography.
These days, food photographs feature all kinds of exotic surfaces beneath and behind. Cookbook photography in particular has seen a shift over the last 10–15 years. Browse the pages of a cookbook published just a few decades ago and you might find wooden tabletops (to sing of naturalness and comfort) or linen tablecloths (which would boast of impeccable housekeeping). These days, it’s all up for grabs, with industrial metals, abstract grounds and everything from shabby-chic to full-on rust and grunge being used to show off the recipes and food writing of our times. I have a cupboard of bits and bobs which I hold onto just for photography, from old floor tiles, roof slates and salvaged bits of wood to boxes full of paper, tissue, linen and cloth.
I always try to consider two things when choosing backgrounds:
1) Light. Remember that dark surfaces will absorb light and bright surfaces will reflect it.
Mid-tone colours, especially grey, are great neutral grounds to put food onto (it’s no surprise you see so much metal and slate in cookbooks these days). Wood (especially worn wood) is always a favourite surface of mine – it suggests homeliness and an accessible kind of cooking. Generally, I go for plain backgrounds with enough surface texture to provide interest, but not so much heavy detail or pattern which would detract from the food.
2) Can the selected background help to tell my story even better?
Brownies baked fresh from the oven and removed to a pristine clean plate can look nice enough. But the crinkled, grease-stained baking parchment that lined the tray they baked on or the scratched metal tray itself speaks so loudly of ‘them’. I love that the story of their creation is still there in the shot. A wire cooling rack might also tell something of that story. I try not to look too much further than the things which have got me to this point. Similarly, a few beautiful carrots brought from the farmshop, leaves, roots, dirt and all – you can do a lot worse than show them on top of the brown paper bag they were bought in. There is a belonging and recognisability that can’t help but feel right.
A simple paper bag makes the perfect backdrop for this farmshop produce
Quite probably the biggest obstacle to growing my own personal collection of backgrounds is a limited space in which to store them. And so it’s a lovely thing to have discovered Black Velvet Styling. Well, I think we sort of discovered each other at the same time! The person behind Black Velvet is Sophie Purser, who I first came to know as the co-founder of Woodrow Studios – which she set up with her fiancé, Tom Cockerill. Tom continues to make bespoke one-off hand-painted backgrounds at Woodrow. But Sophie launched Black Velvet as an affordable alternative for stylists and photographers, offering papers onto which she has printed images of her own beautiful handcrafted designs. And she knows a good look when she sees one: she has worked as a food, still life and interiors stylist for much of her professional life. See the images below for a sample of what’s on offer: dozens of different designs, printed onto heavy-duty matt A1 paper – and they all sit lightweight on the shelf or can be rolled away into a tube and stored neatly out of sight.
From If you shoot from above, as I so often do, they are the perfect flat-lay material to work with, and many of the designs continue to work really well when shooting lower down or front-on. They are also hard-wearing, which is really impressive for a paper, and mine have been wiped down many times with a damp cloth after photography with no damage or warping to the paper. Some of my favourite recent work features Sophie’s papers (and Tom’s Woodrow boards too for that matter – he even named one of the boards after me!). The quality of the Black Velvet papers is reason enough to shout about what Sophie is all about, as is the price point – £15 per paper, so affordable for even the tightest of styling and photography budgets. But the best bit about recommending Black Velvet? Sophie’s one of the nicest people I know in the styling world and so it’s a real pleasure to see her business going from strength to strength. Go and take a look for yourself and discover the other really useful resources on her site, such as how to mount your papers onto board and inspirational blog posts about what and how to style. And if that’s not enough, there are usually monthly giveaways over at Sophie’s Instagram feed where you can get your hands onto a few of these lovely papers.
Probably my favourite of Black Velvet Styling’s papers: their ‘Bridge’ backdrop showing off Tomahawk steak (left) and chorizo French stick and wholegrain loaf (right)