Much of my day to day work involves photographing people. I photograph executives. I photograph workers on production lines. I photograph people doing the things they do in every day life. And I photograph people to see how they look when they’ve been photographed. But sometimes I photograph things other than people. My next favorite subject is food. I’ve been photographing food every since I was thrown into a fabulous cookbook project by an editor at Texas Monthly Press back in 1982. The book was a comprehensive look at the best Mexican food in Texas, created in such lofty venues as The Mansion on Turtle Creek (Where the valets kindly asked me to park my disintegrating and ancient Volkswagen bug around the back in the employees’ parking lot), El Mirador in San Antonio, and, of course, Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas.
Back then I knew the rudiments of lighting with strobes and I was okay at mixing daylight with strobe but I’d never shot a plate of french fries, much less a beautifully presented bowl of Tortilla Soup. A week before I left for the job I read every book I could find on the subject. There were very few and they were mostly written in the 1950’s and 1960’s with much emphasis on eight by ten inch view cameras and thousands of watts of tungsten light. What I gleaned in my research was how important it was to keep everything in sharp focus. As Grandpa Simpson (The Simpsons/Fox TV) would say, “That was all the fashion in my day.” The other two things I learned that have worked over the years are: 1. Food looks better if the main light is big and relatively soft. 2. Food looks better is the light comes from at least a 90 degree angle from the camera and preferably from slightly behind and above the food.
Hudson's on the Bend. Mixed Grill.
Over the next two decades, on the strength of that bestselling cookbook that eventually went into five editions, including a paperback, I have been called on repeatedly to shoot food. There have been some massive changes in the equipment we use now and even more profound changes in the style and look of food photography. The look has evolved from an ethic that kept everything on the table in sharp focus to a look were only a sliver of the featured dish need be in focus at all. Gone are any visible lighting artifacts such as sharply defined shadows or bright specular highlights. Now food is lit to emulate the effect of gentle, north light cascading through a large, conveniently placed window.
My four by five inch view camera is long gone. My camera of choice for food is my old Kodak SLR/n, one of the few 35mm style digital cameras that did not employ an anti-aliasing filter. No reason to worry about moire when shooting food.……. But lately, for expediency’s sake, I’ve been using a D300 and have general been pleased with the results. Plus it plays well with dedicated flash.
And speaking of flash, my collection of Profoto Strobes and their attendant accessories have been relegated to semi-retirement in my equipment closet. When I go on location to shoot food for editorial clients my lighting kit looks light this: One SB-800 flash, three SB-600 flashes, one SU-800 wireless controller, one forty-eight inch white, pop up diffuser. One piece of four by four foot white foamcore and plenty of batteries.
(photo: Four Seasons Dessert.)
The camera/lens combinations I’ve used for the images showcased here is mostly the Nikon D300 with a 70-300 VR lens, or the 16-85mm VR lens. I also pack the new Nikon 60 AFS macro lens for extreme close-ups or situations when I need very narrow depth of field with very high sharpness. That’s really it. All this stuff fits into on Think Tank Airport Security case. Of course there is a stand bag with a motley collection of stands, stand adapters, an arm to hold my diffuser and a small Velbon carbon fiber tripod.
So, on to the shooting. Editorial food shooters really do most of their work from 2pm till about 5:30pm. Most restaurant people aren’t up early enough to do anything coherent in the morning and evenings are when they make the bulk of their income. We tend to slide in after lunch and slide back out a bit before the first seating at 6pm.
The first thing on my agenda is to get with the chef and explain just what the magazine and I are interested in. I really try to resist heavy handed art direction because I think it is important that the food be a realistic representation of what our readers can expect when they go out for a meal. Once the chef and I are on the same wavelength we establish a time line for the shoot. The last thing I want is a manic chef bringing out a ton of food at once. A shoot can only go so fast and I never want to shoot a plate that’s not hot and fresh. Ten minutes out from the kitchen and the food just seems to die on the plate. Once we’ve established our timing I start my process by looking for a good background, because when I’m shooting tight on the food the only things that will show are the food, a small bit of the table top or shooting surface and whatever background I’ve chosen. (photo: Driskill Hotel. Dessert)
With the background selected I drag an appropriate shooting surface into position and stick a plate that will match the “hero” plate into place. I’ve done these kinds of tight, one plate, “hero” shots often enough that I’ve developed a routine for the lighting set up. I start by placing my large, white pop up diffuser on a arm, attach it to a short light stand and place it as close to the plate as possible 90 degrees to the side of the camera position. It’s important not to tilt the diffuser over the food because you will inevitably get broad, bright reflections on the plate. In most set ups the plane of my diffuser is inches away from the side of the plate.
Hudson's on the Bend. Crab Cake.
I place an SB-800 six feet away from the diffuser and use the zoom feature on the flash to tighten the beam so that it efficiently lights the surface of the diffuser with very little spill. That’s all there is to the main light. I may tweak it after I see how it works with the food but it’s usually just right. I hate using a second lighting instrument for fill so I rely on a white foamcore board or an additional pop up reflector place on the opposite side of the plate to bounce back some of the main light to open up the shadows. I’m a sucker for a nice dark, dramatic shadow so many times I’ll back the bounce fill away four or five feet from the set.
When the main light and the fill are set I turn my attention to the background light. This light fulfills three requirements: 1. Lighting the background adds depth to the shot. 2. Lighting the background provides valuable separation between the hero and the rest of the image. 3. Used correctly the light will fall off from side to side and from top to bottom and provide a nice vignette for the main subject. The background light is usually a Nikon SB-600 used on the little plastic foot that comes packed with the flash. If I need it a bit higher I’ll use a stand or just place the flash on a convenient chair. Then I go back to the camera position, pop a frame and evaluate the effect. The background light generally requires the most finesse and careful attention needs to be paid to the spread of the light so that the beam opens up the space around the hero but still drops off sufficiently around the edges of the frame. Once the background light is set you are 90% done with your lighting and any additions at this point are just accent lights.
With delicate entrees that have some height to them I always like to bring in a third light that acts as a backlight. This light should be much weaker than the other two and should just showcase the translucency in delicate greens and other food stuff. It can also provide a nice (hopefully subtle) edge lighting to the entrée to increase the snap or overall contrast of a shot. Beware of lens flare from this one. When I use a lens with a complex amount of air/glass interfaces like the 16-85 mm Nikon zoom I have to carefully shield the front element of the lens from any backlight or it will flare and reduce the overall contrast of my scene. A snoot made of black aluminum foil or a grid attachment on the front of the flash is an effective way to focus the backlight and limit spill light.
When the last light is in place you test until you are certain you’ve got what you want and then you have the chef bring out the first plate. If you have a good collaboration the chef will make you two plates. The first is the the “stand-in” and you’ll use it to fine tune your lighting and composition. You’ll also be able to evaluate the direction the plate should be turned in relation to the camera to best show off the food. Now is the time to tweak composition by raising or lowering the camera to best look into the bowl or plate. When everything is ready you’ll signal the chef to “plate” the hero and bring it on to the set. Have a clean towel and some toothpicks standing by. The towel is to wipe off any errant spills or fingerprints while the toothpick is there to gently pull at small parts of the presentation that might need to be moved a bit or “fluffed”.
Now shoot like crazy and bracket a bit while the food is hot, fresh and juicy. After you have the keeper you pre-visiualized try changing camera angles and camera heights. Also try to zoom in and get close on a detail that may act like “shorthand” to describe the entire dish without having to show the entire dish. If you and the chef have both done your jobs well the actual shooting should take five minutes or less.
Camera settings: We always shoot raw when doing food. I know that we’ll only be shooting ten or fifteen frames so buffer and card space is never an issue. I can use the D300 at ISO 400 and get really nice results. I can’t really see a difference between the two when the image are printed so I always choose ISO 400 in order to use less power in each of the flash units. Since I’m rarely trying to shoot stopped down beyond f5.6, and usually more like f4, I can use my main light at 1/2th to 1/4th power, my background light at 1/4th to 1/8th and my backlight at 1/16th power. With settings like these I don’t even worry about external battery packs. Internal flash batteries will last for several shoots before needing to be changed out.
While I’m shooting raw I want to get as close as possible to an accurate representation as I can so I don’t have to chain myself to the computer and monkey around with an image that needs gobs of post production help. I know from experience that the color temperature of the strobes is around 5600K so I go ahead and set that manually. If I’m using one of the new Nikon cameras I try to always take advantage of the Active D-Light control to create greater dynamic range in the image. (Everything helps when you will eventually be converting your images to CMYK and seeing them printed on cheap, matte paper.…….)
I try to set a shutter speed that’s slow enough to allow some of the ambient light to seep into the shot but not at the expense of the color control provided by the speedlights. I never really mind when daylight shade is added to an image but I try to stay away from mixing strobe and tungsten light sources. Food should be rendered with as little aberrant color shift as possible in order for it to be visually engaging.
Many are the urban legends about the process of food styling for a shoot and no doubt many of them were true at one time or another. You hear stories about stylists or photographers painting roasted turkeys with shoe polish, concocting scoops of lard and powdered sugar mixed up to make ice cream and applications of motor oil to steaks to get just the right glisten. If the food is the hero it’s not only unethical but it is illegal to alter its general appearance if the shot is destined for advertising.
Hudson's on the Bend. Berry Shortcake.
We use just a few things to help food along: 1. a clothes steamer place under a plate cover will revive a dying entrée for a few more moments (but will wreak havoc with raw vegetables and garnishes). 2. Olive oil or canola oil, delicately applied with a brush, can spark up meats and grilled vegetables. I think anything else should be done in the cooking itself. If a plate is not up to snuff figure out a kind way to redirect the chef and try again. Remember, if you are working for a magazine you are providing the restaurant with an incredibly valuable bit of free advertising and the cost of another steak or chicken leg is downright negligible in comparison. Most chefs will be happy to accommodate you when they understand the long term benefits of a good relationship with the media.
There is one truth to the rumors surrounding food photography. You generally do get to eat the props when you are finished! I must tell you that the hashimi at Uchi and the crab cakes at Hudson’s on the Bend were both absolutely first rate.
Food is not complicated and it’s photographic presentation has changed from the days of big film and big lights. The approach I’ve outlined here is best used for editorial clients where you are working without an assistant or stylist on the set. For advertising shoots with their layers of approval and their “stop and go” nature you should probably default to traditional lighting if for no other reason than to provide your art direct with the luxury of modeling lights and the perception of more professional rigor. (photo: hashimi. Uchi.)
I hope that between the descriptions I’ve provided and your ability to “reverse engineer” lighting from the supplied images that you’ll be able to understand the way I used the lighting and cameras. I wanted to provide diagrams but scheduling reared its ugly head and I find myself writing this on the way to Pasadena California on a Southwest Airlines flight. No time for drawing! Until next month, Bon Appetit! and Light Well!