Food shot. What I needed to do differently on this one.

This is an image of a really lovely dish. It's a pork shank served with spaetzle. It's hard to make big hunks of meat look fabulous no matter how delicious which is why (with the exception of racks of ribs) most meat gets photographed as individual servings already plated.  Another exception is fowl which can look good when photographed in its entirety. Our client serves up this dish as one that's shared at the table. More a bar food than a restaurant entreĆ©. My job was to make it fit into the series of images we would make for use in their advertising.

The image looks good in a web size and my client was pleased with the way it looks on the website for the business but in retrospect I think we could have made just a few changes to improve the overall image.

First, I think the dish might have been better presented if it had already been sliced to show the interior of the meat instead of just its delicious, golden exterior. Providing the privileged view of the insides for the package delivers more selling message per image.

Next, I could have used more olive oil on the exterior to create more shine and pop on the skin. When the dish was first presented it glistened more and we needed to apply some oil and some steam right before shooting in order to maintain that fresh from the broiler look.

In retrospect I wish that we had used some sort of garnish for the spaetzle since it looks to monochrome along with all the other warm colors in the image. A sprig of rosemary, some marinated purple onion or some other concise, fresh addition would have been a nice counterpoint to the softness and uniformity of the dish. My only concern would be potentially introducing a second point of focus which would draw the eye away from the cooked green onion garnish of the pork.

Finally, I wish I had used a stronger backlight on the dish. Just enough more raw light to add a crusty delineation to the top of the bone in the pork shank and to better define the edges of the meat.

I find it very useful to come back to an image after a few weeks and really study it. We learn more from our mistakes than we ever do from hitting it out of the ballpark every time. I'll ad this to my notebook on food photographs and take a look at it next time I head out to shoot food.

The above brings up a topic that I feel strongly about (which ones don't I...?). I've had the habit of keeping a "job journal" for many years now. I sit down after a job and write notes about things that worked and things that could have worked better. Some of the journal entries are extensive and detailed while others are little more than recordings of feelings or moods. Along the lines of, "How did that portrait interaction feel? And why? What should I have done to move it into more positive territory? Could I have changed the Gestalt?"

Usually the journals are much more technical than emotional. For instance, I did an assignment last week for a company that tests chemicals, creates reference compounds, and analyzes complex substances. It's the kind of quiet company filled with employees who have doctorates in chemistry and other esoteric fields. This was a job that is part of a recurring advertising campaign and one in which they would like continuity of the visual components.  For me, that means getting the lighting and point of view to match up.

I was doing portraits against a white background with individual people dressed in lab coats. I looked back at last year's journal entry of the same, basic job. I was able to quickly find that the distance of the background lights (three total) was 12.5 from the white seamless background. The background, measured with an incident light meter read f8.2.

The distance from the background to the subject was 23 feet. The distance from the 60 inch softlighter diffused umbrella that I used as a main light to the subject position was approximately 50 inches. I used a Westcott one stop net between the main light and the subjects right shoulder so that the ultra-white lab coat would not burn out. I was able to see that last year I used a passive fill reflector as a fill light to the opposite side of the subject. It was a 40 inch round white reflector.

Having all this information at hand meant that this year I was able to set up more quickly and surely, spend a bit less time testing and come away with images (portraits) that will match, year-to-year.  It was a time saver. There were also notes about how I post processed the images as well as how and to whom I delivered them.

The cameras changed from last year to this year but after a conversion to black and white for the campaign the biggest issue will always be the uniformity of lighting.

My notes for the food shoot done in late August are more...voluminous. And when I studied the notes yesterday I went back and referenced a food shoot I'd done several years ago with LED lights. While I dealt with a few technical issues on that shoot it presented an interesting counterpoint to the recent shoot. I think the lighting was much more nuanced in the previous shoot. I'll study a bit more and see what I can combine from both the food shoots to make the next one a little better.

Younger photographers may scoff at the idea of keeping a job journal since they can remember most of the shoots they've done so far, but jobs pile on jobs and details get muddled. At this point in my short career I can look back at my ledger and find that I've done over 10,000 assignments. Most are not memorable but some are mileposts and point of view shifters.  Having a clear, post action assessment helps me to intellectual internalize what led to success and what details led to less success.  

I still remember, with much clarity, a note I wrote myself after a personal trip where I took along everything but the darkroom sink. I told myself that I felt I had carried a boat anchor through Paris. I suggested that a small, fast camera body and a zoom lens that covered 24-85mms was all a vacationer/street photographer/documentarian would/should ever need. That and his wits. I hedge my bets when I travel and also take a fast, short telephoto; like an 85mm. But when I sit down to pack I'm always like a kid in a candy store. Bags get crammed full of stuff even though I know in some part of my brain that picking up a bag and carrying it across the studio is nothing like carrying the same stout bag on and off trains and over my shoulder for ten or twelve hours a day.  Then I read my note about travel cameras and I open the bag and start dumping stuff back into the drawers. I always thank myself later.  And you know what? I never miss the gear I didn't bring.

I think a journal is even more critical for an amateur/enthusiast. Since you don't shoot as often you tend to get rusty. A good journal is always there to remind you of what ultimately makes you happy each time you go out to shoot. And it reminds you of what you didn't use, hated carrying and wish you'd left at home. Sometimes we all need a reminder.

Go out and shoot and have a great day!


  1. Before getting my smartphone, I was a heavy post-it note user. I've got notes floating around all over the place, there are development times in the drawers with my tanks, spice recipes in the pantry, lock combinations in the junk drawer, etc. I know I need to consolidate and organize all this info but I never make the time to do it.

    I do keep a small notebook with me, in theory I would write down important things there, but I never remember to do it. I've always had this problem though. Even through college, I would buy one 5-subject notebook where I would put all the notes I took in all of my classes. I rarely used more than half of a section for each class all semester. I think my problem is that I'm such a poor note taker that even when I do its almost impossible to go back later and find what I'm looking for. Its just a jumble of words with no real organization.


    1. Adam, start small. One niche of your life at a time. And start with the niche that will return you the most happiness for anything better done...

    2. Thanks for sharing the insight about notebooks Kirk - I never thought of that. Well, I make notes beforehand, but not afterwards. And learning from what didn't go as well as it might is just as useful as making sure you have the right kit, the address, the time of the shoot...

  2. Oh wow - a shot notebook would be a great idea... I should also bring a measuring tape with me so I can measure these things.

  3. Maybe that's why the iPad was invented... :-)
    I use it exactly as your notebook (I used to have very simple school sort notebooks), I use a stylus and do manuscript writing with basic drawings, and sometimes a picture from the iPad.
    Big advantage is that all gets back to the computer (yes I know, sitting again) and I know how to find it back when needed... :-)

  4. Nice food shot, and a touch subject.

    I actually like the subtle back light. It keeps the visual focus on the food. Instead I would consider experimenting with the horizon line of the table - a bit lower where it recedes below the spaetzle dish on the left and it would be less distracting as a non-value add geometric element.

    Regarding food garnish, that's an interesting question. Generally I'm not a big fan of dressing up a dish just for the photo. As someone who enjoys cooking and eating as much as photography, I hat images that promise a certain dish, and then you go eat at the place, and it's a let down. Outside of the iron chef class, plating is sometimes a lost art form. If the dish doesn't appeal the way the restaurant serves it, and if you have a good client relationship, it may be worth talking to the chef about improving his plating not just for the photo but in general.

    I like the idea of the job notebook. I'll have to think about that, and see of a good way of integrating that into my workflow.


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