Saturday, July 17, 2010

The evolution of a food photo

sausages_8452 Photographing food is definitely it's own art form. I spend a lot of time studying the work of other photographers, food stylists and blog stalking those I feel do one or the other or BOTH well.

I've had a camera in my hand for more than 30 years now shooting everything from fashion to portraits, products to events and food is definitely one of the trickier disciplines to master. About the time that I started this blog, my quest to experiment and develop my food styling/cooking skills became a more serious pursuit.

When I start to visualize the shot I want – the look of the food, the composition, mood and atmosphere I want to convey – I liken the exercise to preliminary sketches for a painting. It feels very much the same: The table top becomes my canvas, the food my paint, the camera my brush.

Recently I did a photo shoot (final cover shot pictured at left) for the newspaper to accompany a story on sausages and their accompanying condiments as an alternative to traditional hamburgers for our yearly 4th of July grilling story. The writer supplied me with some fresh and pre-cooked sausages and a random assortment of ingredients she thought could pass for the condiments. Ultimately, I didn't care for the assortment and opted to take the recipes home and create the condiments from scratch for the shoot.

Since the story was going to be for the 4th of July, my color palate was chosen for me. I don't have the luxury of a test kitchen at work so I often try to squeeze in prop shopping, cook and shoot times at the start or end of my shift (and sometimes my schedule is such that the shoot winds up taking up my personal time over my weekend).

This shoot took two days as the first attempt was at the end of my weekend. The day started with my not feeling well so I dilly-dallied going shopping for the ingredients I needed for the condiments. By the time I finished with the shopping and condiment preparing, it was very nearly 6pm. Though summer days are long, I was losing my natural light quickly. I fired up the grill, cooked the sausages to the specifications in the story, propped my patio table and started shooting as soon as the sausages came off the grill.

It still wasn't fast enough. I wound up having to set up lights but by now, my energy was zapped and I just wanted to lie down. On top of that,  cooking the sausages according to the recipe time made for less than plump links. Not mouth-wateringly attractive at all! So much for my Sunday.

This called for a reshoot because no way was I going to submit this photo (to myself since I'm also the Food section's photo editor and designer!).

Following are outtakes from the two shoots:

The first shoot:
  1. Oh my goodness! Where do I start? So many things wrong with these photos. In this first photo, there is no mistaking the poor shriveled sausages both on the plate and in the background. And that background! My attempt at making this look like a casual back yard gathering just resulted in visual noise which the shallow DOP couldn't even help muffle. And the two light set-up (one at the back of set high on camera left and the other at the front of the set low at camera right) wrecked havoc on my white plates: so many blinding hotspots.
  2. The second photo cut down some of the visual noise but I still couldn't get past the hotspots and harsh lighting. 
  3. Better as far as composition is concerned but my attempt at making this scene look like an afternoon outdoor party created the worst harsh lighting, white hotspots and blaring highlights on the food. Not very appetizing.
So, no usable shot but plenty lessons learned to take into the reshoot.

First lesson learned: Undercook the sausages so they are still plump! The sausages were still slightly pink upon slicing so I used a food stylist trick by using Kitchen Bouquet (a gravy starter): brand new paintbrush in hand, I gently painted away pinkness and added a soft wash of the bouquet to the sausage to help make it look a little more browned. The grill marks were also made about 25% darker with the help of the bouquet. I also cut down on the visual noise. This was shot inside my studio near a north facing window with a couple of soft white reflectors, one at the back of the set and one below camera level at the front. I taped tissue paper to the window to cut down on glare and therefore controlled the amount of blowout in the highlights and white dish ware. This shot was used inside.

A version of the cover shot:

This was shot with an east facing window directly behind the set to suggest that this scene is shot on a covered patio. Yes, I blew out the background highlights on this one but I did it on purpose and in a controlled manner to leave room for me to place a deck (newspaper speak for a secondary headline) there. The shallow DOP works nicely here to pull the eye directly to the plump golden sausages and create a soft background that suggests a filled party table.

If you're interested in reading this story on sausages, you can read it here.

Until next time … Buen Provecho!



Lynne @ CookandBeMerry said...

I, too, grapple with lighting issues. It is the hardest part of my blog experience. And I only have east-west windows..with shade trees.
So I sympathize.

afotogirl said...

Ah... Light... the magic ingredient!

I'd love to attend one of those workshops you've written about. What an awesome experience that must be!

Mika said...

What a great blog post!! I love to read how a pro solves his lighting problems...not a tutorial but something very similar...very usuful, thanks...