How to Thrift for Food Photography Props: What to Look for (and Avoid)
I'm easily bored. It's one of the main reasons I'm always coming up with new recipes. I practically can't make the same recipe twice. I like to push myself to make things better and approach my work with a fresh eye. When it comes to food styling, I'm constantly looking for ways to tweak my images, give them a fresh look. But when you're on a budget (who isn't?) it can be a challenge. I may want new, gorgeous ceramic plates but at $30-$40 bucks a pop I can't really justify the purchase. One thing I hear almost constantly from bigger bloggers is that they either spend tons of money on hand made or new props OR they thrift and antique like a whiz and are always on the lookout for cool thrift shops. I've been thrifting all my life (thanks family for all of the thrift wizardry!). So I know how to scan aisles and get what I want out of the piles of blah and ew. But then I realized, you know, not everyone knows how to do that! So I've created this guide for all of you food bloggers and stylists and photographers out there looking for affordable solutions to your prop probs!
Rustic props include tarnished metal utensils, dark wood and white washed wood backgrounds/utensils/chargers, bone handled knives, tin pie plates, ceramic plates and chargers in off-white and light colors, brass and copper touches (tiny spoons, tea pots, little cups, pinch pots), natural textural fabrics (twisted cotton, twine, cream and white linen, soft striped blue hand towels), dark wood cutting boards in organic shapes, curious champagne coupes and whiskey tumblers, hand blown glass and cast iron everything, and old blue/white/green glass and the like. You might incorporate fresh greenery and flowers into the mix as well. Don't be afraid to add the occasionally oddity to the mix: antlers, shells, leather notebooks, old wooden trays, instant photographs. Look at Local Milk, Call Me Cupcake, and Adventures in Cooking for inspiration.
Minimalist props include white and off white enamel dishes (colored edges are great), enamel cookware (all colors are great), silver and gold matte utensils or hammered utensils, light colored wooden spoons and wood accents, glazed ceramic white or off white dishes, mini cast iron pieces, marble accents (pinch pots, cutting boards, backgrounds, cake plates, serving dishes), stemless glasses in clean shapes, flip-top bottles, stoneware plates and serving dishes, wood cutting boards in standard shapes (round, square, oval, rectangular), and fun accents like the occasionally jade cake plate, colorful felt banners, graphic tea towels, brightly colored mixing bowls and measuring spoons. With minimalism, it's less about the props and more about the food. Look at My Name is Yeh, iamafoodblog, and The Artful Desperado for inspiration.
Which aesthetic do you dig?
#2. Now that you know what you're looking for, make up a general list of everything you want -- metal pinch pots, enamel vases, leather pot holders, whatever. Keep it around, or in the back of your mind, as you go trekking out into the thrift world.
#3. Scope your local thrift stores for regularly refreshed, extensive home goods sections. Check back with these thrifts often, and forget about the rest. Usually thrift stores have a specific focus: clothing, furniture, or home goods. Occasionally you'll find a thrift with good turnover that blows it away in all three areas. But most of the time, you can count on a thrift to be particularly badass in one area. You don't want to waste your time (and gas money) going to 5 thrifts in one day when you could focus on one or two with more of what you're looking for.
#4. Scan for textures. When you go thrifting, scan the space generally for the particular texture's you're looking for. If you want metal items then get down and dirty with that weird, disorganized pile of utensils and see if you can find something great. If you're looking for fabric, you can scope a rack of hanging linens by sight and you'll know if you can find what you're looking for in about 10 seconds.
#5. Count on the common goods. You can almost always find: small linens / doilies / lace, utensils, china and stoneware, wooden bowls of various sizes, pitchers, grab bags of cookie cutters (pure. gold.), baskets (all sorts), mugs (only go for the REAL pretty or hilarious ones), drinking glasses, metal mixing bowls, mason jars, muffin tins, cake & loaf pans, oddities (like cocktail stirrers and oyster forks, those are fun), flower vases, pie plates, and pyrex dishes. It's nice to have a range of shapes and sizes when it comes to your prop inventory, so you can really go crazy with all of these items.
#5. Don't get distracted away from your aesthetic. That chunky ceramic turquoise terrine might be awesome but are your really ever going to use it? Nope. (Yes I bought one and no I haven't used it). Save the $15 and go scrounge 5 or 6 pinch pots with that cash.
#6. If you're unsure of it, leave it. If it's not a fuck yes, it's a fuck no.
#7. Get creative! A metal ring dish can become a small bowl, a tea tin can be a vase and the cap to that tin can be a pinch pot, wood trivets can become cheese platters, an old wooden crate becomes a tray for breakfast in bed. The possibilities are endless.
#8. Snatch up well crafted items, even if you don't see yourself using them in the next month. If you find wood or ceramic pieces that seem handmade, versatile, and are in good condition, grab 'em. They're usually worth a lot more than the thrift price tag. Even if they're marked up a little bit it's still worth it.
#9. Make a day trip to a bigger city. Because bigger cities have mixed income levels, you can sometimes find real gems amidst the meh. I've found brand-name china and silver-plate pie servers alongside rusty tin drinking cups and moth eaten bins of lace. Plus you'll have more thrifts to choose from, and more competitive pricing!
#10. Now this one's really important: Don't waste you're time on thrifting certain items. A lot of dream items are never going to enter a thrift store, or if they do you're the sad sap watching someone else with that PERFECT italian tart pan under their arm. Luck is not always on our side. Search Etsy and Ebay for particularly hard-to-thrift items. Etsy is a primo resource for wood & ceramic pieces. Ebay is pure gold for all things metal and enamel. Or, seriously, just buy some props new (I'm looking at you, ice cream scoop). You'll usually find cheaper solutions on the internet, although it still often takes plenty of perusing.
Hard to find items include: light-colored ceramic dinner plates, brass shears, popsicle molds, copper accents, hand-made wooden spoons and cutting boards, champagne glasses, marble pieces, and good quality cookware and knives. These items are hard to find as most people hold on to special pieces, especially handmade ones. But, good news, you can often find them by thinking outside of the box!
Curious and unusual places to find props:
Craft conventions! Larger conventions and craft shows offer all of us the opportunity to peruse amidst the crowd while getting up-close-and-personal with potential buys. The best part about these bigger events is getting to meet so many of the crafters and collectors in person!
University art studios (they often need to offload tons of ceramic pieces at the end of the semester and will sell for cheap!).
Estate sales. Their loss is our gain. Look up estate sales in your area!
Art fairs and festivals. You're less likely to find very specific things at fairs & fests, but sometimes you find really unique items at oddball events. I find glass, ceramic, wood, and antique pieces most often.
The sale section of Crate and Barrel! What? Yes! And they have a huge range of products. And pssst they cary marble slabs for an affordable price!
And maybe this isn't odd but World Market carries an awesome selection of kitchen goods that are soooo cheap at full price. I swear I've seen the same cake stands they carry for $20 at Anthropologie for $120. World Market is a great resource for the Minimalist aesthetic, particularly.
Happy treasure hunting, friends!
Have tips of your own you'd like to share? Leave a comment! I'd love to hear from your experience!