Photography & Props

Photo Fridays: Light vs Dark

by Shawnda on June 1, 2012

in Photography & Props

Fresh Cherries

Which one do you prefer?

The very first choice I have to make when I set up a shot – well, right after “do I eat first or shoot first” – is: light or dark?

I usually have an idea in my head of how I want the final shot to look. But before I pick a dish out of the prop closet, before I dig into the container of discount fabric scraps, I have to decide: bright & happy or dark & dramatic.

After that decision is made, the rest falls into place.

The same shot can look completely different, evoke completely different reactions. I adore the bright whites and blown-out highlights in a slightly over-exposed photo. There’s very little to distract from the subject, your eye is drawn to color, and there isn’t a shadow in sight. The reds of the cherries and contrasting aqua colander really pop against the white. It’s reminiscent of spring, summer. It’s bright & shiny. Total happiness.

Fresh Cherries

And at one time, I would have never considered trying anything else. I had my all-white dishes, my almost white placemat and napkin, and an enviable amount of light coming through gigantic windows (I miss those windows!). But my photography heroes don’t always shoot bright & happy so I’ve been working on pushing myself out of my bright & overexposed box.

There’s such beauty in darker shots, one I’m learning to really appreciate. Colors don’t pop in the same way they do against a white background but the richness and saturation are so much more dramatic.

Burgers and Ice Cream

My “dark” backgrounds are either one of my darker wooden table tops or a black or dark brown poster board clamped to one of those propped-up tabletops. I guess I’ll show you how I do that – set up a shot – in the next installment of Photo Fridays.



DIY Milk Bottle Photography Prop

Raise your hand if you, too, could easily go broke buying pretty things to use for food styling or as photography props for your blog?

Don’t be shy.

It’s an expense that can easily get out of control… and probably land me in divorce court pretty quickly. We mostly take the second-hand route, but when you have a specific item that you’re looking for, you might get stuck looking for a long time. You’ve got a couple of choices: shell out the cash, make your own [fill-in-the-blank], or keep waiting.

Take these cute little milk bottles, for instance.

I’ve been hoping to get lucky and just stumble on a couple at my favorite Goodwill (my teenage self just died) but no one seems to have, or be parting with, cute little milk bottles. I know I could purchase them online, but shipping costs for just a couple of bottles or having to buy them in large volume has kept them planted them firmly in the “I’ll just wait” category.

I got tired of waiting.

DIY Milk Bottle Photography Prop

A while back, I pinned a cute idea from a baby shower to convert Frappuccino bottles into milk bottles.

And for quite a bit less than the cost of a single bottle purchased online, I made 4 milk bottles. Besides the frap bottles, I already had everything else on-hand. The total cost of my project?

Less than $6!

DIY Milk Bottle Photography Prop

Materials Needed
Empty 9.5 oz Starbuck’s Frappuccino bottle, rinsed and dried (I picked up a 4 pack)
Cotton balls
Goo-Gone (or your favorite sticky gunk remover)
Paper Towel

DIY Milk Bottle Photography Prop

I used the alcohol and cotton balls to remove the screen printed date/lot number from the bottles. You’ll need to put some pressure behind it and scrub pretty hard for ~10-15 seconds or so.

DIY Milk Bottle Photography Prop

And then maybe 5 seconds more.

DIY Milk Bottle Photography Prop

Remove the labels and spray Goo Gone onto the sticky gunk left behind (or dab it on with a paper towel if your bottle isn’t the spray bottle variety… we, um, go through a lot of Goo Gone). Scrub the adhesive off and wash the bottles with soap and warm water to remove the Goo Gone.

DIY Milk Bottle Photography Prop

Fill with milk and a cute paper straw (Amazon!) and then shoot!



Before & After: Refinished Cutting Board

If you’ve ever emailed/chatted to ask me where I got a specific prop, there’s a really good chance that I responded with either “Goodwill” or “garage sale.”

Those are by far my top two sources for photography props and food styling accessories. They’re extremely budget-friendly and most of the pieces are well-worn and pretty unique when compared to, say, the small stack of 2-yr old napkins and placemats that I have from Target.

Before & After: Refinished Cutting Board

A few weeks ago, I picked up a second-hand wooden cutting board at Goodwill. I loved that it was worn and that the surface has definitely seen it’s share of serrated knives, chopped tomatoes, and sliced onions. And I loved that it had been used as a “holy crap, this thing is hot!!” trivet. And I super loved that it was priced at 99 cents. Seriously. 99 cents!

What I didn’t love? That golden, honey-yellow finish. What I wanted was a darker surface with that patina/aged wood look.

But I’m married to a hobbyist woodworker so I know that golden, honey-yellow finish is easily banished and that patina/aged wood look is just minutes away.

We stumbled across a pretty neat technique to quickly age wood when researching finishing methods for a house project: a mixture of tea and iron solutions can turn wood from bright “I’m brand new” yellow to “someone left me on the patio for 2 years” grey to even a “yeah, you just try to get this deep a color with regular wood stain” dark brown.

The science is simple. Okay, simple-ish. The iron solution is made from steel wool and vinegar. When brushed on wood, it reacts with tannins in the wood to mimic the aged patina that time and weather impart. And when extra tannins are applied to the wood in the form of a very strongly brewed tea, that stain gets even darker.

Before & After: Refinished Cutting Board

Top to bottom, that’s walnut, aspen (the wood that we used for our tabletop props), and pine using a 24-hour old iron solution. Left to right, that’s the wood in its natural state, painted with the iron solution, and then painted with tea and iron solutions. Oh, and I painted the walnut scrap backwards. Doh!

We used the new staining technique on the cutting board and ended up with a richly-stained, aged piece of wood that almost looks nothing like the original. And with the exception of the steel wool, we actually had everything else on hand. Total cost of the project was under $10. Not. Too. Shabby :)

And the solution gets stronger as it sits. After 72 hours, we were able to turn the surface of pine nearly black. It’s a beautiful finish for an otherwise budget cut of wood and definitely not one that’s easily achievable with ordinary wood stain.

Materials Needed
1 pad of 0000 steel wool – 0000 (it will state as such on the package) is the finest grade of steel wool and will disintegrate faster. Using a more coarse grade of steel wool will likely be okay, but you might not get as strong a reaction as quickly. Note that this is not the scrubby SOS pad you’ll find at the supermarket. You’ll want to go to a hardware store or a home improvement store to find it.
3 cups vinegar, I used cider
3 family-sized standard-brew tea bags
1 1/2 cup water
Medium-to-fine sand paper – it really depends on the condition of your wooden subject.
A wooden subject – any real wood will do, different woods will exhibit different staining characteristics.
2 paint brushes
Finishing wax or other food-safe wax/oil to polish the finished piece, if desired.

I lathered the steel wool with a few drops of dish soap to remove any oil. After rinsing it very well and shaking off excess water, I stretched apart the steel wool so it wasn’t so compacted, and then placed it in a large glass container.

I made the iron solution by heating the vinegar just until bubbles formed in the pan and then slowly poured that over the steel wool. (I poured about 1/4 of it in, swirled it to warm the rest of the glass, and then slowly poured the rest in.)

I set the lid very loosely ajar and placed it on the patio overnight to allow the chemical reaction to get going. See the bubbles? Chemical reaction.

Before & After: Refinished Cutting Board

We’re all adults here, probably, but just in case we’re not… I am not an official source for material safety data, but there are some extremely important common sense-type things to note here:
– Chemical reaction = safety equipment recommended. Take precautions as you see fit. You know, gloves, goggles, work outside so there’s plenty of ventilation.
– Chemical reaction = fumes produced. Do not store this inside your house, do not hang out over the top of the jar while inhaling deeply.
– Chemical reaction = gas produced. Do not secure the lid without providing for ventilation first. When your project is over and you decide to secure a top to your jar, either drill a hole in the screw lid or use something like a rubber-banded cloth/plastic wrap/cheesecloth lid so gas can escape.
– Chemical reaction = not water supply friendly. From a fellow municipal water consumer, please do not pour this down the drain. The “recipe” above might be too big for you if you only plan to stain 1 small piece of wood. Consider cutting it down by as much as needed if you do not wish to store the extras on your “wood stain” shelf in the garage like us :)

The next day, I brewed up the tea. I boiled 3 tea bags with 1 1/2 cups water until the liquid was reduced to ~1/2 cup. I let it cool, squeeze out the used bags, and transferred the tea to a small, clean jar.

I lightly sanded all sides of the board just enough to get rid of the shiny finish so that the raw wood could take in the stain. I wanted to keep as many of the knife marks as possible.

I brushed tea onto the top and sides with a paint brush. After that soaked in, I brushed on a second layer.

Before & After: Refinished Cutting Board

After the second coat of tea has soaked in, brush on your steel wool-vinegar solution using a second (clean) paintbrush to apply it evenly.

Nothing out of the ordinary appears to happen at first, but by the time the vinegar soaks in and dries, the magic will have happened. You might want to brush on a second coat – I did.

I also only did the top at first to have the back as a reference for contrast.

Before & After: Refinished Cutting Board

And after I took that picture, I sanded the black streaks away and stained it using a red wine (tannins!) reduction in place of the tea. The resulting stain was a bit lighter.

Before & After: Refinished Cutting Board

After the wood completely dries, wipe it down with a dry paper towel, and apply a finishing wax or other food-safe oil. My board had a very flat, chalky/ashy appearance to it that went away after using the finishing wax. I was left with a barely-there sheen and a richly stained cutting board.

Before & After: Refinished Cutting Board



DIY Wooden Serving Board

I had a chance to hang out at White on Rice Couple’s beautiful studio last month for a KitchenAid event. There’s a dreamy prop room. And an entire wall in their kitchen dedicated to hanging cutting boards; some old, some new, all beautiful pieces that add height, texture, and mood to a photo.

And I wanted 5 of them. No, 10!

Okay, okay. I’d settle for 7.

When I got home, I presented my husband with a small list of projects. Near the top of the list, right under “organize prop closet,” was “5! no, 10! okay, 7 homemade cutting boards.” (Actually, that’s the short version. The long version involves me window-shopping online for cutting boards and then nearly fainting when I saw the $200 price tag on a beautiful, dark vintage serving board.)

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll show you some of our latest DIY food styling & photography prop projects. We get to save money, I get new props, and my husband gets to do one of his favorite things ever: buy stuff from the lumber yard.

I’ve mentioned it before, but woodworking is one of my husband’s favorite hobbies. He gets to work with power tools. Alone in the garage. And make stuff. I get it. I really do :) You can imagine, then, that getting him to help me make some new wooden prop pieces was not like pulling teeth.

As a matter of fact, he pretty much took over.

We took a stroll through a nearby lumber yard and found ourselves staring at a pretty 1×8 plank of solid walnut. The first board that we made was an ode to that $200 online beauty: dark, long, and straight with crisp angles.

DIY Wooden Serving Board

We marked out the measurements and traced the shape of the board directly onto the wood.

DIY Wooden Serving Board

We cut the board out – a power saw to remove the working end from the plank and to quickly saw down one length of the board and then a hand saw to cut around the handle. You can avoid the use of a power saw by just using a hand saw and either making a 8-inch wide board (I cut mine down to 6 inches) or just buying a 1×6 instead :)

We sanded the cut edges smooth: a pass with medium-grit sandpaper and then a pass with finer-grit to finish.

DIY Wooden Serving Board

I used a small hammer to soften the crisp edges around the board to give it a slightly more worn look.

DIY Wooden Serving Board

DIY Wooden Serving Board

I used a drill with a medium-sized round bit to drill a hole in the handle so I could loop some twine through it and have the option for hanging storage.

DIY Wooden Serving Board

I rubbed the board with tung oil to bring out the grain and then finished it with a layer of finishing wax.

DIY Wooden Serving Board

Done and done!