What should I choose?
First off, a surface is what you put your dish or product on and the background is what’s leaning against your wall or clipped onto your background stand. There is no limit to the type of materials that you can use for your backgrounds and surfaces as they range from vinyl, PVC, paper, wood, metal, acrylic, fabric, sand, stones, flowers, leaves, mirrors, etc. It is really up to you and the story you are creating as the background and surface can help to enhance and add to the image. They also come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures so choose according to your needs.
My personal favorites are vinyl or PVC backgrounds as they are lightweight, waterproof, look amazingly realistic, and take up very little space whether you are using it at home or bringing it on location. A huge plus point is that vinyl has two different designs printed on each side and can easily be rolled up! If you prefer a firmer surface, you can fix it with sticky tack on a plastic board and keep them in a portfolio bag for easy transportation to on-location shoots. Another option is to make your backgrounds and surfaces by buying some MDF boards and paint and let your creativity fly! The upside is that you get to customize it whether it’s color or texture and once you get bored, you can always paint it over with new colors. For fabrics, I like to either buy them from a fabric store or just look in my wardrobe and see what’s available and suitable for the shot. Sometimes you do not need a very large piece of fabric as you are using it as a closeup or macro or as part of your layered shot. Wood is a popular option as its visible grain and texture add much visual interest to the story. For products, acrylic works great as a surface especially if you want to capture the product’s reflection. Another option is to shoot it on a plain background and then add on your surface and background in post-production. This works well if you have a single product in the shot but gets complicated quickly if you have many elements in the image.
Where do I shop?
Vinyl, PVCs, and Wooden Boards are offered in many online prop stores. Simply search background paper online and I am sure you can find an online store that ships to you. Some stores which I shop from are Ezbuy, Shopee, Lazada, Daiso, and Taobao. For MDFs, your local art store or shops selling wooden boards may have them. For wooden boards or driftwood, I prefer to purchase it in a physical store as I’m particular about the color, texture, and grain of the wood. Check out your local sign makers for acrylics as you need them in a pretty large size for product shots. I find art stores to be a perfect place to shop for paper and other uncommon surfaces and backgrounds which you can either make or put together for a shoot. Another great place to shop is your local vintage or second-hand store for interesting odds and ends that can be used as your surface or background.
Cataloging my variety of vinyl, PVC and wooden boards in Canva has been a lifesaver as my collection grows over time so I do not end up buying the same design twice! I use a photo collage template and differentiate them by colors or types. You could add additional information about sizes, texture, etc for each option in each slide so it gives you a good gauge as to whether it is large enough for certain creative setups that you may have in mind. An added benefit is I get to see what is missing in my collection, so maybe I have mainly whites but a few darks so I need to make a mental note to buy some so that clients who love dark and moody imagery have more options. As part of my workflow, I send it to my clients and they get to choose what they like for their shoot so I score points by looking organized and professional. Plus it saves me time from digging them out, taking snapshots, editing them, and then into a collage before sending it over. Physically, I like to store my wooden boards together whereas my vinyl and PVCs get either rolled up in a portfolio bag.
You might be wondering how many backgrounds and surfaces you need at the beginning. I would say if you are buying vinyl, you would need some solid colors especially white and black if you are doing menu shots. The same goes for white and black acrylics which you would need for e-commerce product shots. You may want to consider neutrals like marble, wooden, and darks as your priority as they can be used in a variety of shots before purchasing more colored or colorful designs. As for making your wooden boards, this could be a fun, personal project or for a specific client’s project. For other materials, I would say it would be project-specific so definitely look into those and buy them when you need them. I hope this was useful and feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions! I will love to connect on Instagram and add you to my email list!