Everything you need to know
Flatlay, food and creative still life
There can be hundreds of options when choosing a background for a still life.
Let`s take a closer look at what we can find the most versatile, simple, and cheapest.
Dina Belenko
Photographer and magician
Wood, plywood, hardboard
The most affordable variant is cardboard or a thin plywood sheet, which can be painted in any color with acrylic paint. If you want more wood fiber texture, use a mordant or any paint on wood available.

You can find plywood and cardboard in any hardware store. It doesn't cost much and gets no harm from water. I`m not processing mine with paints, and none of them got damaged by shooting splashes.

I suggest this particular approach to beginners. After some time, you will figure out what you like most and will be able to fit your already-bought hardboard sheets to your new demands.
To do it with already processed backgrounds will be hard work.

The plywood background, backstage of the shooting with water on it, and an example of a photo taken on this background.
Hardboards are also easy to store and fix, more than paper or other backgrounds which can be rolled. You can paint them as many times as you want. You can burn objects on them, and nothing bad will happen. A vinyl or paper background will not work like this.

Hardboard sheets painted with mordant
Stones and tiles
The most disappointing thing about stone backgrounds is their weight. Stone backgrounds look amazing in the shots and do not require your accuracy in action (you can pour and burn everything on them).

However, if you are not aware of the basic rules of carrying heavy weights (e.g., work with your knees, not lower back), or you don`t have a strong assistant, it`s better not to exploit stones.

To imitate a stone background on shots you can also use:

  • ceramic granite or other large matte tiles. There are lots of beautiful bathroom and floor tiles in any hardware store. Pick ones with a matte surface and feel free to create with them! Besides, if you picked the ornamented one, its fragments can work as nice props,
  • flat slate bars as an imitation of concrete,
  • small tiles are laid to canvas. This kind of background will be rather visible and draw one`s attention, especially if the tiles are ornamented. It can be hard for beginners to arrange it right. But this activity can also be used for creative reasons.

Vinyl backgrounds are a broad term. It seems that everyone reads this term in their way because all vinyl is different. In my practice I`ve met vinyl backgrounds of three types:

  • Hard ones, rolled onto foam board,
  • Thick ones, which resembled thin plastic,
  • Soft ones, such as a buckram tablecloth.

It seems to me that the most convenient vinyl backgrounds are ones with a hard base. They are easy to store and fix, don't need additional support, like soft ones, and can be held by two simple clips or just leaned to the wall. They don`t, as a rule, have a visible texture. They look clean and tidy in photos. Just color, nothing else.

But they can be naughty. They shouldn`t be heated in any way, including heating with a glue gun. You can`t put hot objects, such as a kettle, on them. All these actions can cause trouble.

Furthermore, vinyl backgrounds can be easily damaged by heavy objects and clippers. One of my backgrounds of this type got jammed after I put on it a stone the size of my palm. These are fragile guys, that ask for being careful.

Vinyl backgrounds, which you can roll up tightly like thin plastic, work well when you need a seamless background in shooting sideways. You can take one flexible background instead of two divided horizontal and vertical parts. When shooting from above, this advantage doesn't count.

Yet, such backgrounds resist any dampness and can be quickly wiped clean from any substance, e.g., jam or coffee. But, once again, be careful with hot objects nearby. Better to keep them away.

Using soft buckram-like vinyl backgrounds seems hell to me. It is always hard to stretch them without wrinkles visible. The texture of the material contradicts the texture of the pattern. Generally, the work of lighting it up hiding its unnatural look seems too demanding. I would recommend taking either a hard-based background or fabrics, which can be simply draped. It will be more efficient.
Rough pastel paper in large sheets can be purchased in the specialized hobby and art stores. You will find it great to use it when nothing wet or greasy is involved. The paper is good with its wide color range and rather a low price. If you`ll be careful enough, your paper background will survive several dozen shootings.

If you`ll take care to put a piece of parchment or foil under greasy objects, such as donuts, you can shoot food without any stains left. This will preserve your background and make it last longer.

Paper background is generally an affordable and easy-to-use option, especially if you`re still on your way to finding your unique style and don`t want to buy excessively.

Besides that, it`s okay to use wallpaper too. Especially when you are interested in experimenting with patterns or collages.

Fabrics lying down with smooth folds could be a great background for shooting a flatlay! Take a plaid, white sheet or a tablecloth. Be brave and take fabric with a bold print.

One small, but important reminder for you here – never be afraid to stain a fabric background! Stains of berries, coffee, or watercolor waves made on purpose can turn into a photo`s punchline.
Don't try to get an ideal clean shot, try to make it expressive!

Matte or transparent, glass is an amazing backdrop for product photography. Especially paired with flowers or water drops!

Elevate it from the floor and light up your scene from below!

Furniture consoles
And binder clips
This is a good way to keep backgrounds and reflectors where you need them: take two brackets from a hardware store, fasten them, and you'll get a vertically standing background!

Here you can see how the black flags on the left and right of the scene are attached using this method.

And the last one: the note of color and textures
Typical advice for newbies is to avoid prints, rich colors, strong textures, and all the other active elements in the picture. The bald background is indeed hard to match with the other objects. It is also true that patterns are grabbing lots of attention. One more fact is it`s easier to work with neutral tints like beige or grey. The stronger texture you have, the harder it is to insert it into the shot.

All these wise things don`t mean you should never use anything complicated or bright or lurid or highly textured! You should always try to!

Get yourself prepared to have unexpected results at first. It can be even more unexpected than you wanted. But this is the way to learn it with more fun in the process!

Thanks for reading ^_^

In case you stumbled upon this article by accident, here's my Instagram.
Come to see more magical still life photos with backstages!
Dina Belenko
Photographer and magician
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