I've been eating great food at Jeffrey's Restaurant for over 30 years. When Austin was a smaller town Jeffrey's was pretty much the only dining establishment within fifty miles that didn't had chicken fried steak or hamburgers on the menu. Like every temple of food they've made a few tiny missteps (nouvelle cuisine compounded by raspberry vinaigrette salad dressing) along the way but it's pretty easy to say that they've been the high end dining destination for two generations of food savvy Austinites. With very good reason.
I still remember some of the dishes that Raymond Tatum prepared for Belinda and me on any of our many visits during the "two-income-no-child" years which were so good that they actually constitute the "happy place" in my mind that I go to in times of stress..... I proposed to Belinda there 26 years ago and we've celebrated many anniversaries and birthdays there as well.
So when the arctic winds whipped across Austin this past week and I got a bit of "cabin fever" I called the manager, Kate, and asked if I could come by and shoot some of their food for a new book I'm working on about lighting. She was very gracious and offered up Thurs. afternoon, without hesitation.
While I'd eaten his incredible food I had not yet met the new chef, Deegan McClung. He is an alum of Commander's Palace in New Orleans and honed his chops at Wink, Herbsaint and Uchi before accepting the kitchen helm at Jeffrey's. I told him what I was looking for and he headed to the kitchen while I wrestled with some bags full of lights and stands.
Above is my basic lighting set up. I'm using a Canon 7D on my favorite wooden tripod. The 7D sports a 60mm EFS macro lens (which is wonderul, by the way). The lighting is vintage me. A big diffuser positioned as close to the subject as possible without being in the shot. Two big, 500 bulb LED fixtures blowing light thru that diffuser. A handy white "pop-up" reflector to the opposite side. And a wee little battery powered 160 bulb LED light used with its diffuser way in the back. I love using a diffuser panel because I can skim light on it in so many ways and subtly change the feel of the light. I can also angle it around its vertical axis to provide more or less tip light. Very flexible lighting tool.
The little building Jeffrey's occupies is probably 50 years old but I had no fear of tripping any breakers because, together, the two A/C powered fixtures draw only 80 watts of power from the wall outlets. Quite different from the days of thousand watt movie lights or 2400 watt second strobe packs and 4x5 view cameras.
Here's what the scene looks like from almost directly behind the camera:
This image is a little tighter and gives you a good idea of how soft and distinct the light is:
I always start with a "stand in plate" so I can get a sense for the real estate I'll be dealing with when the "hero" dish hits the table. I wanted to be really tight on all of the dishes because I really like to see the ingredients in a way that's different from real life. Here's my stand in plate:
The passive reflector on the opposite side of the camera from the diffuser and the light source is what controls the quality of the shadows. Need more fill? Bring the diffuser closer. Need more drama? Move the diffuser away. There is no "correct" ratio or distance. We make this up to taste as we go along. Just like good chefs. After half and hour of fussing with lights and comp I'm ready for the first dish and Deegan brings it out right on time.
It's a fabulous, spicy, rich quail appetizer! And it looks so good on the plate. The chef tells me which side of the dish is the "presentation focal point" and then leaves me in the darkened dining room to explore the dish however I want to. So I do. I move it and the camera again and again. I'm looking for interesting angles and combinations of colors......
When I've thoroughly explored the dish (20 variations? Maybe 23) I put it on an adjacent table and start playing with the next plate size. Did I nibble on that quail? Would you nibble on a great, freshly prepared quail appetizer from a world class chef as you're setting up your next shot? If you said, "No." you've missed out on one of the prime perks of photography.
As an aside I would say that the 60mm macro on the smaller sensored Canon is wonderful. When you are this close to the food you need more, not less depth of field at your fingertips. And this lens is very well behaved. When I apply the lens profile to a file in Lightroom there's very little discernable change in the on screen image....it's that well corrected.
Next up is an incredible salad sourced mainly from locally grown produce.
I start wide and then I move in. I have this salad from so many angles but I keep coming back to the photograph below because in a small encapsulation it describes the entire salad so well. The lush, sharp goat cheese, nuts and vegetables. There's always a temptation to crank up the saturation on shots like this but it never really conveys into CMYK print so I tend to aim for a more faithful rendition.....
We follow the salad shot with a shot of a Pate de Foie Gras. I found the presentation wonderful, in person, but challenging to photograph. Finding just the right angle and just the right elevation took a lot of trial and error. I'll confess that I'm a bit out of practice and the chef is used to cooking and plating food that satisfies in the eating. But I did the best I could and then I ate the evidence.
The final shot, though untraditional, is my favorite. It shows the ingredients well and it's monolithically intriguing. I racked the tripod all the way up and stood on a chair to get the image. On every shot I set the camera's two second self timer. I tried to squeeze the shutter release with a minimum of movement. Most of our shutter speeds were in the "danger zone" between 1/8th and 1/25th of a second at ISO 200.
The final dish was a duck confit that was absolutely wonderful.
Two almost identical angles but a slight difference in elevation. I wish the photos could transmit the aroma of this wonderful, crispy duck. It was superb.
As soon as I finished shooting the duck I started breaking down the lights and the cameras and packing up. It was five o'clock and the dining room needed to be set and ready for service by six. My friend, Keith dropped by and helped pack up the duck.......
Shooting food for a top flight restaurant is pretty exciting if you are really into food. I was able to step into the kitchen and watch the chef's technique and his fluid handling of his chef's knife. I'll share the images with the restaurant, giving them a full set of totally retouched images. I get to use the images in my upcoming book. And you get a front row seat of the way I shoot food. I learned a lot over the years from a NY food photographer named Lou Manna. You might want to look at his books.
All the "behind the scenes" images were shot, handheld, with a Canon 5dmk2 and a 24-105mm lens. ISO 3200. Wide open.