When you’re photographing food, your tabletops and backgrounds are important. Luckily, making your own tabletops is pretty simple. Let me show you how i make mine.
I make my own tabletops from MDF board. MDF is a good material, primarily because it doesn’t bend or warp, like plywood often will do. It’s also easy to cut and it paints well, resulting in a smooth surface. I went to the building materials store and bought a large board that i cut up into three 80×60 centimeter pieces, which is a good size for a typical food photography set. These boards of course work equally well as backgrounds.
Sponge painting tabletops
To get an organic pattern on your backdrops, sponge painting is as great method. Let me show you how it’s done. First of all, this is what you need:
- water-based paint, at least two different colors
- a sponge – either a synthetic or a natural one
- a piece of board
- paper to cover your floor
- paper plates to hold your paint
- a pair of sawhorses to lay your board on
- plastic cups for mixing paint
- a wooden stick to stir the paint
- latex gloves (optional)
- a spray bottle (optional)
Begin by covering up the floor with paper to avoid paint spills. Set up a pair of sawhorses and place your board flat on it. Bring out your paint and the tools you’ll be using for mixing and painting so that you’re completely set up before you open the paint buckets. If you’re mixing paint, paper or plastic cups make great disposable mixing containers. Just pour your paint in the cup and give it a stir with a wooden stick.
My estimate is that you need about one deciliter of paint for a 80 by 60 centimeter surface like the ones i have. In the picture below, i had poured a lot more paint than i ended up using. It’s a good idea to pour your paint on a deep paper plate until you get a feel for how much you need. If you pour your paint directly on your surface and pour too much, it will be messy.
After you have poured your paint, just grab your sponge and start dabbing. It’s good to work over the entire surface, so that you get an even look and an even distribution of colors.
Natural or synthetic sponge?
A natural sponge will of course give you a more random and natural pattern, but it’s much more expensive. If you would rather use a synthetic sponge, try cutting it up a bit to get a more irregular shape. I have used synthetic sponges for most of my projects, and if you vary the angle when you’re applying the paint, it works well.
If you get a natural sponge and take good care of it, it will serve you well for many years. I read up on natural sponges and apparently, they’re harvested in an eco-friendly and sustainable fashion, so you can use them with a clean conscience. Rinse it thoroughly right after you finish painting to remove all paint and then let it dry completely before storing it.
Other ways to paint your tabletop
Another method is to prime your board with a roller and apply a structure to it by sponge-painting a different color. Try mixing a color that is very close in tone to the base color and you’ll end up with a surface that looks like marble. You can also spray your board. Dilute your paint with water until the consistency resembles that of milk. Place your board flat and spray gently from a distance. Make sure you cover the floor with paper, because the spray will not only be on your board. Always let the sprayed surface dry completely before you move your board, or you might ruin it. Also, clean your spray bottle well immediately after you’ve used it. If you don’t, it might get clogged up and be ruined.
These shots below were made using one of my spray painted boards:
When you feel a surface has been used enough or if it’s been scratched, just repaint it. Sandpaper it a little to make sure you’re starting with a smooth surface and give it a new look. Always wipe the surface clean with a damp cloth before you begin painting.
What colors work best for food photography?
You are of course free to choose your own colors, but i will give you some tips. Generally, i think subtle colors work best. I started out with a jar of black and a jar of white and mixed different shades of gray with those and it turned out great. I prefer colder colors, like blues, which complement the colors of food, which tend to be warmer. Keep in mind that your background is not supposed to be the hero in you shots. Discrete colors and discrete patterns is what i prefer. If you think otherwise – knock yourself out!
If this post inspired you to make your own tabletops, please post some photos and @mention me on the socials so i can see how it turned out.