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How to create killer surfaces for branding and photography

The humble tabletop has been thrust into spotlight over the past few years. What used to be an overlooked part of restaurants, breweries and home chefs is now given considerable attention and thought. Why the shift in attention? Photography and branding.

With the rise of social media- particularly instagram- suddenly now everyone is a photographer. One of the favorite things to capture? Food. Heaping plates of pasta. Elaborate charcuterie boards. Whimsical desserts. In the background of these plates, lies the often understated table surface.

But this table top can make or break an insta moment. Imagine a mouth watering dish on a gorgeous, artisan wooden table top. Now imagine that same dish on a cheap plastic, factory-made table. Which photo will garner more likes? Which photo is more on brand?

In addition to instagram, food blogs have also exploded in popularity. The overhead table shot is the most prevalent way of displaying recipes and creations. It eliminates background clutter and props, and allows the food to take center stage.

custom restaurant furniture
An overhead table shot, focusing on the restaurant's food. Table built by Black Hound Design Company.

But it also throws a different dynamic into planning shoots; what surface material, color and texture best complements the food?

Interesting texture and character in a restaurant table. Built by Black Hound Design Company. Photo by Brent Taylor.

This question is nothing new to professional food photographers; surfaces have always been an integral part of their shoots. Brent Taylor, a prominent food photographer with OMS Photo, has shot national campaigns for the likes of Starbucks, Nabisco, Red Robin and many more. “It’s all about looking natural and real,” Taylor says. “When we’re shooting, we tend to gravitate towards surfaces that have been used...that have personality.”

One of Brent Taylor's photos for Red Robin, using an authentic textured surface to complement the food

“If we go to West Elm and buy a brand new cutting board for a shoot, it’ll look brand new,” Taylor continues. “Objects with a story will tell a visual story.”

Black Hound Design Company has created numerous custom surfaces for Taylor and his shoots. “We had a ton of fun making a series of different wooden boards for Brent’s campaigns,” says James Hixson, founder of BHDC. “It’s really cool to see our handmade surfaces in the background of a Starbucks ad.”

Taylor notes that this handcrafted approach is significant for his aesthetic. “That’s why Black Hound’s work is so strong- every piece has previous story,” he says. “We don’t want something produced by a factory or a machine. If you use crappy surfaces, it really shows in photography.”

This is true for small businesses too. Increasingly, local breweries and restaurants are upping their food and beverage photography game on social media. While these smaller enterprises don’t necessarily have dozens of different surfaces to choose from for pictures- they need but only look around their space to find instagrammable opportunities.

Odell Brewing Company opened a new taproom in Denver’s RiNo district last year. Their instagram and Facebook feeds are filled with beautiful photos of their drool-worthy craft beers….on handmade tables and concrete bar tops by Black Hound. These creative surfaces add interesting texture and authenticity to the photos- and the “in real life” eating experience.

custom brewery tables
Odell Brewing Co's promo shot, using table tops made by Black Hound Design Company

Some establishments are even now playing up this emphasis on surfaces and tables by making deliberate design decisions. Fiction Beer Company in Denver worked with Black Hound to create custom brewery tables with literary quotes branded onto the tops. These quotes- while perfectly on brand- also provide the perfect backdrop for all those insta pics.

Black Hound's custom brewery tables create instagrammable pics for patrons

Artisan, authentic surfaces and table tops play an important role in guest experiences and product photography….even if just as the understated, humble backdrop for the star of the show: the food and drink.

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