The Language of Food Photography Part 3 | Prop Styling with Paula Walters

paula walters prop stylist

Silverware by Jennifer Marx, Pie pan with spoon by Justin B. Paris, Dough in bowl by Stephen Hamilton

With more than 20 years experience styling for many of Chicago’s most successful food and product photographers, she has a wonderful eye for detail and a unique talent for combining tones, textures and shapes to create some truly unforgettable images. Today she shares with us her basic approach to choosing props for an image.

paula walters prop stylist

Watermelon on plate and Containers with lids by Paula Walters, Fruit in cup by Stephen Hamilton

Hello everyone, I am so honored that Sylvie has asked me to guest blog on Gourmande in the Kitchen!  I have been an avid follower here for close to a year now, and very excited that not only do I get to share my passion for prop styling with you, but voice it on one of my favorite blogs.

Based out of Chicago, my work is primarily shooting alongside commercial food photographers on projects ranging from national ads to recipe books to corporate websites, wherever a food client needs to promote their product. You can see more of my styling at

I also write a blog, Still*Life~Style,  focusing on my love of vintage prop finds that I incorporate into my assignments, my portfolio shots, my home life.  I hope you’ll visit, and come away with some new ideas and inspirations that speak to your own sense of style.

Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Tate Hunt  for Studioside

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Tate Hunt for Studioside

Sylvie and I both received questions from readers regarding effective use of props in food photos. For many new to food photography, getting a starting direction is a challenge.

Before you start selecting props you should truly know the food you are shooting.  You need to understand the texture, color, volume, consistency before you can build an effective set. If you have not made the recipe prior to your shoot day, draw on your skills to visualize what it will look like.

You may find it helpful to make a list of keywords that come to mind when you select your recipe. Jot these down in the planning stages of your post, and use them to gather props for your shoot. If your thought process takes a different turn along the way, go with it. Allowing a natural progression will translate into your image and keep it from looking forced.

Next you need to zero in on something that will inspire your set, or at least get you started in a direction. Your inspiration can be a tangible prop item, or center around a story.

Prop centered:

Inspiration can be a propping element, like a plate you wish to use, a fantastic background texture, a fabric. This shot was driven by the surface color & texture.

Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Stephen Hamilton

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Stephen Hamilton

Look for different ways to present your food, alternatives to traditional plating. Keep your mind open to using everyday items, like papers and jars.

Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Stephen Hamilton

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Stephen Hamilton


Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Stephen Hamilton

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Stephen Hamilton

You can also explore ideas for propping as part of a thought process with more of a story behind it:


Time of Day:

Is your recipe a breakfast,lunch,dinner? The props work with both the food and morning light here-

Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Stephen Hamilton

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Stephen Hamilton

Season or Holiday:

Establishing season can help guide the color and tones of your props.  Crisp white works for summer seafood, the smokey blues and grays allude to cooler temperatures when a hot grilled cheese and tomato basil soup can make the perfect lunch.

Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Jennifer Marx

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Jennifer Marx


Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Laurie Proffitt

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Laurie Proffitt


Echoing the ethnic roots of the recipe in a subtle way gives it a sense of place and tradition.

In both of these shots I worked with stronger, earthier textures.  The food cues of red wine and herb infused oil with the crostini, and the fresh squeezed lime in the guacamole work as food props that reflect the origin of the recipes.

Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Stephen Hamilton

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Stephen Hamilton


Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Michael Maes

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Michael Maes


Think about who your recipe would appeal to.  Food photos often have a feminine or masculine slant. Again, color palettes and lighting need to be considered.

Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Stephen Hamilton

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Stephen Hamilton


Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Laurie Proffitt

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Laurie Profitt


Is there a wonderful or unexpected ingredient that you would like to call out, like the avocados in the pizza shot, or the tangerines used in this pork stir fry?

Paula Walters photo styling for photographer Michael Maes

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Michael Maes


Paula Walters propping for photographer Stephen Hamilton

Prop Styling by Paula Walters, Photography by Stephen Hamilton

In my opinion, the quality of your photography is primary, effective food styling/presentation next, and propping third. The magic happens when all three work together seamlessly.

When you are just beginning to use props, try to tell your story with as few elements as possible.  Don’t over-complicate until you are comfortable using more props, instead try to choose props with the subtle details that enhance and support your recipe & story. Once you become successful at that, you will be able to expand with more involved sets if you like.  Mood shots and ingredient based shots will be easy to incorporate into your posts because you will have a better vision of what your final recipe image will look like, and a clearer path of how to get there.

Be patient with yourself.  Prop styling is an art as complex as photography and food styling. In time you will learn to trust your eye, and develop a creative style that will guide you through your prop selections. I hope you find these tips useful, I have posted some additional thoughts on Still*Life~Style this week.

Thank you Sylvie, for inviting me to be a part of your Language of Food Photography series!

(Writing and photography submitted for this post are owned by Paula Walters or the originating photographer, and protected by copyright.   All Rights Reserved 2011.)

Thank you Paula for an amazing look into the art of prop styling!  I hope you will head over to Still*Life~Style where Paula continues to discuss the thought process behind the elements and principles of design when selecting props, including: adding lines, form, color and texture to an image with props.

Read Part 1 of The Language of Food Photography | Learning the Visual Elements of Design.

Read Part 2 of the Language of Food Photography | The Principles of Design.

Read Part 4 of the Language of Food Photography | Food Styling Q&A with Tami Hardeman

What are some of your favorite props to use?


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    • says

      Dear Sylvie,

      after reading silently the previous parts, am finally speaking out loud to congratulate you for all these wonderful series!

      I especially like today’s post cause props is my favorite part, matching my design oriented nature.

      Wonderful photos + useful tips, simply stated + greatly illustrated.

      Wishing you a lovely day ahead & of course happy August!

      Kind regards,

  1. says

    Wow! Sylvie, your images are stunning, thank you so much for having this great series and for having Paula here today. There is so much more than just point and shoot, there is just so much to learn, and thank you for helping with the lessons. I am going back to read the rest of the series and will be sharing the link with my readers today!

    • says

      Thank you Dennis, I’m glad you found it helpful, Paula did such an amazing job didn’t she? Just one note, the images in the post are actually from various photographers with which Paula has worked with throughout the years, not mine.

  2. says

    What an amazing post!

    As I sit here in Boulder, CO at Food & Light with White on Rice Couple and others, learning from great teachers, I come across your lovely post and another great photography blog.

    Thanks for the inspiration, ladies!

  3. says

    Sylvie and Paula: What a fantastic post! Thanks so much for sharing your insights, experience and expertise. Food styling, photography and prop styling is such an art. I just love it and want to get better.

    Thanks for an inspiring read. I’m going to review the other two posts in this series again and head over to Paula’s for her follow-up post.

  4. says

    i’m no longer to be silent anymore 🙂
    one of my favorite post!
    sylvie, appreciate your time and thank you of having Paula as an awesome guest writer, whom giving such enormous knowledge to be inspired.

  5. says

    Again, I think many bloggers focus so much on simply creating a beautiful picture they don’t think of telling a story or creating a certain food-related mood (place, culture) and Paula explains it brilliantly! She has inspired me! I love her point about finding normally banal, everyday items as props. Great post!

  6. says

    Firstly, thank you, Sylvie, for the introduction to Paula Walters. This was an excellent addition to the series, one I know I struggle sometimes. I often dream of having a cupboard of props, but really, I know there is more to it than just that. I also love her point of knowing who you are shooting for – the juxtaposition of the female vs male food shots really makes a point.

  7. says

    Paula- a great post and I’m such a fan of your blog. I always wish I lived in the US so I can visit those wonderful flea markets and haul a bag full of props for under $10.

    Sylvie- now I know why you were so excited about this post!

  8. says

    I sat and read each of these and they were SO helpful!! I just got my first DSLR camera 2 months ago and am trying to learn so much 🙂 Your blog is SO inspiring, thank you!

  9. says

    This is a great post! I just came across Paula’s blog recently and sat down and read every single post. It’s such a great companion to food photography – I can take the photos but styling and propping are my biggest challenge. Not to mention, Paula’s a pretty good photographer in her own right. Thanks Sylvie and Paula!

  10. says

    Great post and wonderful series … really brings to the surface the important elements in this kind of photography and shows me where I need to head in my pursuit. Thanks so much for the series of posts!


  11. says

    What a fantastically informative post, with so many beautiful and inspiring photos. I love the tip about thinking about the person you are shooting for, I never thought of that before. Thanks Sylvie and Paula for sharing so many wonderful tips.

  12. says

    Thank you ladies for yet another wonderful post in this series. Paula, you are very talented and filled with info. I will check out your blog now to learn more 🙂

  13. says

    Stunning post… and well written! Love the series Sylvie & it’s an honour to meet Paula on your blog. Props, vintage styling … aaaah, the stuff dreams are made of!!

  14. says

    This is a great series, Sylvie. I went back to read Part 2. I do wish I had a better eye, but the more I read and the more I look, the more I learn.

  15. says

    What a beautiful post. Bookmarked and Thank you Paula and Sylvie. I have yet read the other two parts, and I am heading there right now!

  16. says

    Thanks to all of you for your great comments, and of course to Sylvie for connecting us! I am a far better stylist than writer, and so happy to see how many of you are pondering new approaches to telling your story through photography. Best wishes to everyone!

  17. says

    Great post and a helpful one !
    I love collecting food props, lots of them. But it’s not important on how much our props are. The most important is on how we use the right props on the right food and theme. I’m enjoying these series very much, Sylvie 🙂

  18. says

    This is a very informative and the best photography series ever Sylvie..Thank you so so much!
    Paula comes across as aficionado of food styling & prop selection- loved the process and points she shared here. Hopping over to her blog for more reading now.
    Thanks again for such lovely posts which I cant miss even when I m on a holiday 🙂
    Have a fab weekend my friend!

  19. says

    Great post and I’m definitely going to check out Paula’s website. I especially liked her advice not to forget about using “everyday” items as props. Thanks Sylvie and Paula!

  20. says

    Sylvie – I have thoroughly enjoyed this series and found lots of wonderful “nuggets” that I can’t wait to try!!

    Paula – I’ve been reading your blog for about 6 months and always enjoy your posts – they are always filled with wonderful information!!

  21. says

    Sylvie,Wonderful post! So beautifully illustrated…as always 🙂 It was very interesting to read this prop styling tips and tricks.Thank you for introducing us Paula’s amazing work here today.

    Great inspirational post!



  22. says

    Great tip from Paula to think about your audience. I so often forget to do that, because I’m so wrapped up with the composition and finding the right exposure for the photo.

  23. says

    Such great tips – Paula is so talented! She is also the owner of spectacularly fab props, some of which she lent us for the Plate to Page workshop in May this year. I struggle with telling a story in my photos – always in too much of a hurry to get the food served to a hungry husband, LOL!