10 Napkin Styling Ideas in Food Photography

10 Napkin Styling Ideas in Food Photography

Where it all begins

Ah napkins, my one true love whereby I have so many of them in various fabrics, sizes, colours and shapes and I bring them along to all my shoots. I may not utilise them for every shoot but when I feel like a little something is missing from the frame, sometimes adding a napkin transforms the scene and saves the day! Over the years I’ve experimented with tons of napkins and have come up with 10 napkin styling ideas that would make a difference to your frame.

Out goes the unruly linen napkin

I have personally struggled with linen napkins especially when on restaurant shoots where I can’t bring along my iron and happily iron away while the client is looking! That option is perfectly fine if you are working in a studio or at home where a warm and perfectly ironed linen napkin would behave like a goody two shoes. But I have discovered the magic of simply spraying my linen napkins twice with water in a fine mister sprayer bottle. Check that it’s damp and not wet, then magically all of a sudden the creases or wrinkles or folded lines are less defined and it is way way way way easier to style and it sits much better when you try to manipulate it rather than have it springing back up like a diving board. Try this tip and you will enjoy styling your set with linen napkins from now on rather than feel like pulling your hair out!

Selecting your napkins

Definitely having options and variety are great but if you would like to keep it to a minimal, I would suggest buying them in a large square, neutral colours and linen would be the most versatile and I like to buy my linen napkins from Crate and Barrel. However if you are a whizz with a sewing machine or know someone who is, a great alternative would be to purchase fabric from Spotlight, cut them up and finish the ends. This gives you the flexibility to choose the size and shape and costs wise would be much cheaper as well. But before you run out and buy them all or make them, have a look below at the other factors that you should consider.


While there are many different types of fabrics in the world, not all of them are made equal and there are some that are less desirable than the rest and not my first pick!

Linen - my top choice for ease of use (see pro tip above), widely available and often used in real life.

Gauze - super versatile as you can easily DIY using fabric dye and love that you can make it sheer with a single layer or double it up!

Cotton - not my top choice as it wrinkles easily but smaller sizes works well for certain napkin techniques.

Jute - nice rustic/natural touch that works well with certain scenes.

Paper - love using these as pops of colours/patterns/festive prints for a table/lifestyle scene.


Larger napkins provide more versatility as you can fold them in half or roll them up and use it with a napkin ring for example but smaller ones have their part to play such as standard size paper napkins that we often get with takeouts. Consider the scene that you are styling to determine what size of napkin would work best for you.


Square is the most common shape but I have some in rectangular and circular forms as well. Square is the most versatile as you can use it for all ten napkin styling ideas. Rectangular works well for certain napkin techniques such as scrunch and curve whereas I use circular fabrics rather than napkins underneath a plate or board.


Start with neutrals without any patterns first before proceeding to add them in stripes, dots, flowers etc as it is easier to work in a plain neutral napkin into the scene without stealing the spotlight from the hero. Colour theory is helpful when deciding what colour the napkin should be, for example pinks and browns go well together therefore if you are shooting brown food, consider adding a pink napkin into the scene.

10 Napkin Styling Ideas

1. Fold


Simplest and easiest way to add layers to your hero just by sliding a folded napkin under a plate or bowl or board etc. Works great with patterns/brightly coloured napkins. Alternative placement would be on top of plates or below cutlery.

2. Flow


Not to be mistaken with the curve as when using the flow, the napkin is usually placed near the hero to add to its visual weight.

3. Scrunch


High in believability as that’s how our dish towels or napkins would look like in real life on our table. Works like a charm when the scene is a little bare. Not as elegant as the flow for a touch of realism.

4. Peek


Works well when you wish to add some colour or texture to the image without overpowering the hero. Choose your napkin based on colour theory so the overall image looks harmonious.

5. Curve


Brilliant at connecting various elements in frame together as our eyes follow the curve. Especially useful when connecting elements that are of equal importance/repeating patterns.

6. Straight


Use patterns and leading lines with this technique to add layers to your hero as well as guide your eye to the other elements in the frame.

7. Diagonal


Useful when mixing it with colour theory and dynamic symmetry. The texture from the napkin helps to add visual interest to the frame.

8. Triangles


Directional lines created act as arrows pointing to our hero. When placed near our hero, it also helps to increase its visual weight thereby drawing our eye to the hero.

9. Napkin Ring


Great when showcasing a table scene or a larger lifestyle flatlay with hands in frame. Easily add some festivity by changing up the napkin rings to suit the occasion!

10. Knot Tie


Adds an additional layer to the hero as this is usually tied on the pan where our hero was cooked/baked in.

Live Demo

For a live demo of the 10 napkin styling ideas and my pro tip for linen napkins, watch part I and part II whereby I showcased the techniques using napkins of various fabrics, colours, sizes and shapes. Now let’s all go forth and work our napkins into our next shot with ease and confidence!

I created a short video on how I edited the Knot Tie image using Snapseed exclusively available for those on my IG CF list. If you want in, follow me @joyceleongstudio and DM me with an emoji! You would see a green halo circle on my profile whenever I share exclusive content with those on my CF list.

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