Low budget doesn't have to mean low quality. Here's a handy tip for keeping your backgrounds interesting.
Tiles for Texture
Having a small budget doesn’t need to stop you taking interesting still life photos. With a bit of lateral thinking, you can find all sorts of props that can be used creatively for an artistic finish that doesn’t cost the earth. The images to go with this article were all made using cheap or sometimes free backgrounds.
A good background needs to add some interest in terms of color and texture. One thing that I’ve found works well is a tile. They come in all sorts of colors and with a variety of finishes and textures. Wall tiles, stone slabs for the garden, roof slates, and more can all make perfectly usable backgrounds for still life and product photography. I tend to go for ones with a marbled look or where the color is broken up a bit, as a flat area of color is less interesting for me and more easily and cheaply done with paper.
There are two main ways in which I use things like tiles as backgrounds. I shoot them as part of the scene with the product, and I add them in an evenly lit photo of them as a layer during post-production in Photoshop for extra texture and interest (often as a slightly transparent soft light layer). You can, of course, combine the two. It can be very difficult to have a wide range of backgrounds for your photography. Yes, you can buy all sorts of things, but financial restrictions tend to mean we only have a handful at most, and so, our photos can all start to look rather familiar if we can’t add in more variation. Texture layers are a quick and easy way to freshen up a background.
Where to Find Them
Depending on what kind of look you are after and on what your budget is, there are various ways of getting tiles that you can use as backgrounds. Some kitchen and bathroom stores allow you to buy individual tiles instead of whole packs. If you’re lucky, they may even let you have a couple of samples free of charge. Unless you are shooting very small items such as jewelry, I would recommend getting the larger tiles (normally, floor tiles are bigger).
Reclamation yards or junkyards are good places to find things that are a bit worn. Photographers tend to like things with a bit of wear, as they add character. The trend for urban exploration is a classic example of this. If you want to try something less risky that you can also do in the safety of your own home in the warm and dry, then buying some antique or used materials can be a good way to experiment with the worn-out look. I’ve bought slate roof tiles and old paving slabs from junkyards that have a nice used look (patina) that works really well. You can sometimes even pick up the odd freebie as I did when I found a bit of scrap wood. You don’t want to bring home woodworm or a smelly bit of rotting wood, but if it hasn’t gone quite that far, then it is definitely fair game!
This image uses a glass brick with a textured surface, which I bought cheaply from a reclamation yard. It has a smooth, undulating face that is a little like the surface of a lake. So, you get some interesting distortion of the light through refraction.
From Outer Space to Abstract Shapes
When I shot a series of advertising images for Booja-Booja (an ice cream and chocolate company in the UK), we used cheap props from a DIY store to style the chocolate on. We had laminate flooring as the background for the Christmas image and slate tiles for the new year shoot (shown below). To make the space large enough to style the Earth and the surrounding stars and moon out of chocolate and ice cream, we put four slate tiles together. I edited out the joint between the tiles using Photoshop. The slate was also toned in post-production to make it look bluer.
Sometimes, I use two slightly different tiles in the same shot to add a bit of contrast and to create some geometric shapes. You can stack them on top of one another or push them up against each other depending on the effect you are after. The diamond pendant on the chain is shown off simply with darker tiles that make the chain and pendant pop. I put one tile at an angle on top of the other to create this look.
Working with complementary colors or some other form of color harmony can enhance the composition and unify the elements. If you are unsure which colors harmonize with each other, you can easily find complementary colors and other groupings using the Adobe Color Tool. Click on the wheel and then choose which harmony you want it to show you. You will then see the appropriate colors linked. For an example of this in practice, for gold items, something slightly blue can bring out the yellow more. Earthy browns can work well with various subjects, such as food. Something bold and bright may work in some cases, but you are likely to get more use out of something a little more neutral, as it goes more readily with a more diverse range of subjects.
Keep an Eye out for Bargains
I’m not trying to turn us all into hoarders, but it can help your creativity to have a variety of backgrounds at your disposal. Yes, you can, of course, buy beautifully hand-painted canvas or printed plastic or paper for flat-lays if your budget allows. Sometimes, you may even be able to persuade a client to buy one for you! But, if you keep an eye out and think outside the box a little, then you can find all sorts of possible sources for inspiration that can enable you to style your shots to look interesting and unique. Tiles, pieces of wood, and stone can all be very affordable props for still life, food photography, and product photography, in particular. Sure, there are expensive versions of them available, too. But, a stroll around a junkyard or a bathroom showroom might be all you need to find your next favorite prop.
All images © Joe Lenton
The first time I used tiles, I made the silly mistake of shooting on the floor. NEVER AGAIN! Definitely invest in a good, sturdy table if you plan on saving your back.
So the title? Zeppelin?
Not deliberately no. Just using the same expression. I probably better go listen to that now though