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If you’re just getting into cocktail or food photography and aren’t sure where to buy surfaces or just want to add some new ones to your your styling collection, this is a list of my favorites, many of which I use on a weekly basis when photographing our cocktails. To help you decide which ones you want, I’ve also included links to sources, sizes I prefer (and the reasons I prefer them), cost estimates, and tips for best use.
Pros: Affordable, Easy to Clean, Easy to Store, Easy to Transport, Come in a Wide Variety of Sizes & Patterns, Lightweight, No Glare
Cons: Wrinkle Easily, Can Be Reflective, Don’t Look as Realistic as Real Textures in Macro Shots
One of the more commonly used and most versatile materials for food and cocktail photography surfaces is vinyl because it’s affordable and very easy to clean. I have used at least one vinyl surface in almost every single one of our photos and couldn’t imagine not having them at this point.
My two favorite brands are Poppy Bee Surfaces and Ink & Elm Backdrops. Of the two, I own more Ink & Elm surfaces because they’re the most affordable and offer a wider range of patterns and colors, but I personally think Poppy Bee’s quality is superior. Their surfaces are matte, meaning they aren’t nearly as reflective as the Ink & Elm ones are, which is important to me because I don’t want to spend time removing reflections that shouldn’t be there in Photoshop. Their textures also look more realistic to me, rather than obviously being vinyl with a pattern printed on it.
My only qualm with the Poppy Bee Surfaces is that they have a little white stripe along the shorter edges. It’s not a dealbreaker and may not be one for you either if you intend to shoot from higher angles, but I photograph our cocktails from the front, so the white stripe is almost always visible and has to be photoshopped out. The Ink & Elm surfaces are full-bleed on three out of four edges, and they also have the pattern names and sizes printed on the remaining edge. That simple feature has been surprisingly convenient because I store ours flat to avoid wrinkles and stack them so they don’t take up too much room. With the names printed on the edges, I can quickly flip through them to find the ones I want.
Tip: When deciding which patterns to order, stick with neutral ones that you know you’ll use again and again at first. After a few shoots, you’ll find out which brands you really love and can then build your collection over time without dropping a lot of money on surfaces you may not really love up front.
Example: Pear Cobbler
Pros: High Quality, Very Realistic, Easy to Clean, Easy to Set Up, Lightweight
Cons: Expensive, Fewer Pattern Options Available, Must Be Stored Flat, Can Be Reflective, Can Cause Glare
A very well-known brand of rigid boards is Replica Surfaces. Although I love some of their finishes and patterns, I actually don’t own any from there yet, and the reason why is because they only come in a square format. To achieve the beautiful, shallow depth of fields I do with both foregrounds and backgrounds being out of focus, all of the objects in our setups have to be fairly far apart. That’s just not possible with shorter square surfaces. If/when they come out with surfaces that are portrait orientation, I’ll definitely order some.
Another brand of rigid boards that I’ve seen mentioned several times by fellow cocktail Instagrammers is Erickson Surfaces. Everyone who uses them swears by them, but at around $200 each, they’re a bit out of my price range. They are gorgeous though! And I should note that if you’d like to try them out before committing to buying one, they do offer rentals for photographers located in Southern California.
Pros: Cheap, Versatile, Colorful, Not Reflective, Can Be Used as a Tool with Other Surfaces, Lightweight, No Glare
Cons: Can Be Ruined Very Easily, Must Be Stored Flat
If you need a backdrop option that won’t break the bank and comes in a variety of solid colors, foam board is a great choice, especially if you’re just starting your collection. I bought ours from our local Michael’s, but you can find them at just about any other craft store. I use them as backdrops pretty often, for example, when I’m not super inspired by the cocktail’s history or want a simpler look for the next photo in our feed so it’s not too busy. And I do occasionally use them as surfaces but only when I know I’ll be using a coaster because the condensation from the glass ruins them.
Tip: Even most colored foam boards can serve a dual purpose—bouncing light! To do so, lean the white sides of your foam boards on the two edges of your backdrop so the setup is in the shape of a “U.” This will bounce any light projected from your main light source onto the sides of your cocktails, making them really pop.
Example: Mint Julep
Sources: Joann Fabric
Preferred Size: 1 yard
Cost: $4+ Per Yard
Pros: Affordable, Available in Yards, Offer a Beautiful Texture, Not Reflective, Come in a Wide Variety of Patterns, No Glare
Cons: Some Wrinkle Easily, Not as Flat & Easy to Store
One of the more uncommon materials that I use for photography backdrops is fabric. Although not quite as cheap as foam board, fabrics are still one of the cheapest options, especially considering how much of it you can get for the price. Other reasons I love using fabrics are because they don’t cause glare like vinyl surfaces and posters do, and they add a lovely texture to the backgrounds and surfaces in our photos.
One lesson I’ve learned the hard way is to choose fabrics that don’t wrinkle and aren’t reflective. I’ve found that velvet and flannel are my favorites because I don’t have to iron them even after they’ve been folded and stored away for a while. Canvas and some cotton fabrics are a different story; even after steaming them, it’s impossible to completely get the wrinkles out sometimes.
Tip: To use fabrics as backdrops, stretch them around a 20×30 foam board until it’s tight and no longer wrinkly, use clips to secure them (I use sturdy photography background clips and chip clips), and prop the board against something.
Example: Whiskey Sour
Pros: Affordable, Unique, Come in Endless Colors & Patterns, Result in Beautiful Bokeh
Cons: Cause Glare, Take Time to Find, Only Used Once, Must Be Stored Flat
My biggest secret to styling our cocktail photos is using 16×20 posters featuring licensed photos and patterns or custom-designed textures as backdrops. Although they’re a bit more expensive when you factor in the fact that (so far) I’ve only used each of them once, they add much more dimension to our photos when compared to the other options, and they’re much easier to set up than fabrics because you don’t have to wrap them.
Tip: If you decide to have custom posters printed to use as backdrops, I recommend always looking for promo codes before submitting your print order. I order ours from Walgreens, and they run nearly constant sales on their custom-printed posters. And if for some reason they’re not on sale, I usually wait until the next sale starts before placing an order.
Example: Unfortunately for me, no, I did not photograph our Mai Tai on a tropical beach in the Caribbean. This is a photo I licensed, had printed on a 16×20 photo from Walgreens, and paired with a white-washed herringbone wood vinyl surface from Ink & Elm Backdrops.
Other Creative Solutions
- Contact Paper: I haven’t tried this yet, but some photographers buy cheap, textured contact paper and adhere it to foam board to make their own surfaces.
- Wrapping Paper: I plan to buy some of this and wrap it around a foam board for a few of our upcoming holiday cocktails.
- Couch Cushions or Pillows: Before I had more backdrop options on hand, I used one of our couch cushions for the background in our Moscow Mule’s photo.
- Throw Blankets: I haven’t used these yet either, but I do own a dark teal chenille and a spotted yellow throw blanket, both of which are from West Elm, that I’ll definitely be wrapping around a foam board and using as a backdrop when the right cocktail comes along.
- Tablecloths: That’s what the background pattern in our Empress Corpse Reviver No. 2’s photo is—a Halloween-themed tablecloth from Target. It was huge, which I’ll admit made it very difficult to secure to a foam board, but it was worth it in the end.
- Wall Artwork: This is another I haven’t used, but I have some large, tropical artwork I’ve been eyeing for a background.
- Wood or Tiles: I don’t use these, but many photographers swear by using finished wood or tiles from home improvement stores.
- People: In our very first cocktail photo taken of the Vesper, I asked Alex to don his black suit and bow tie, had him sit at the back edge of the table on which I was shooting, and used his body as the background so it would feel as if it were photographed at the poker table seen in James Bond’s Casino Royale.