Most of the photography I have been making recently has been for my Cooking.Stackexchange blog posts. I have run into some problems when choosing a surface to put the food on. Maybe somebody can suggest a better idea?
This is what I have used so far.
- Glass, frosted on the underside. This is what my dining table is made of. I am not too good at lighting, and the glass is practically unmanageable for me. While I have had some serendipituosly good pictures with great reflections, most of the time the results are bad. Looks weirdly green from some angles.
- an unrolled window blind, pale yellow. Sturdy thing, but if it gets a wrinkle once, it is hard to straighten it again. If liquid or powdered food is spilled on it, it is hard-to-impossible to clean during the shoot. Way too narrow for many compositions.
- Plain cheap off-white cotton fabric. Wrinkles a lot, can't be cleaned. Color not too great, a bit "dirtyish".
- MDF plate laminated with white melamin. This is what I currently use. Can't be folded/rolled for storage. The white melamin reflects colors from its surroundings - it creates no visible highlights in the picture, but when setting the white balance, I can either make the melamin white/grey (I don't have the equipment for even lighting) and give the food a slight off-color, or keep the food color and have a color cast in the background. The white surface is also a bit too even for my taste - it looks like I am trying to achieve a "no background" effect and failing. This is an example of what my pictures look like with it.
- a colored place set mat. It doesn't have the problems of the melamine plate, but when I shoot from an unusual angle (and I do that a lot for closeups), the geometrical pattern of the weave shows that the angle was weird. It is also moire-prone when resizing. The vivid color gets reflected in gleaming white porcelain plates. And the mat is way too small. An example, complete with bad angle:
A black silicone dough-rolling mat. Washing leaves droplet shapes on the matte surface, and they are hard to buff away from silicone. Dust is way too visible on it. Also, it looks like I am trying to achieve a "perfect black" background and failing. It is also too small. And many foods don't look good on a black background.
Arranging the food on a wooden cutting board. It looks natural for food, but the pattern is strong enough to be distracting (I ended up covering it with a napkin). Also, when the whole board is in the picture, I have to align the camera perfectly, else the sides of the board are not parallel to the sides of the photograph, and using the transformation tool only helps to a degree. This picture was made with the cutting board on the glass table, you can see the weird geometry and the greenish color of the glass.
Can you recommend a surface which doesn't have these disadvantages? It should be easy to stow away (I can't afford to keep a fully built-up setup all the time), reasonably cheap, and look good. I need it to be big (my melamin plate is about 100x80 cm and I hit its limits when I shoot from shallow angles). No strong colors, and it shouldn't reflect much. I would prefer some subtle irregular pattern, not a uniform color. A slight neutral color would be good - pale cream or yellow is OK, but I am considering a light neutral grey so I can measure white balance off it (when I shoot with natural light, it is too much work to make a greycard picture every time a cloud moves in front of the sun). And I must be able to easily clean it from spilled food during a shoot. Something pliable (so I can construct a makeshift seamless background) would be nice, but not necessary.
I guess the perfect surface doesn't exist, but if you can come up with ideas which match most of those criteria, I would be very happy.
Edit The "easy to clean" criterium is non-negotiable. I want to place a juicy berry directly on the surface, or a stack of cookies. When I move them around, I want to be able to wipe off the resulting juice stain resp. grease stain without much effort. This makes paper and fabric a bad choice for a "main" surface. (I am aware that I can temporarily use napkins under plated dishes, but I am more concerned about a "generic" surface right now). Also, I am pressed for space, so, I am looking for something which will look reasonably good in most situations, as opposed to a selection of surfaces which look great in a narrow range of situations.