food photography :: taco takeout served with a bowl of specular

If you frequent the blog, you may have noticed a bit more food photography than I've done in the past. I've worked with food before but at that time, had little affinity for the niche. Lately, though, for some reason, I've really been getting down and dirty with food shoots, digging the challenge of each and every plate that I work with. Fear not my fellow photogs, I still love working with and shooting people. That has been and always will be my first love with this form of art. As some photographers state that the only way to make it in this difficult vocation is to focus on a single and specific discipline; being a generalist will be the death of your photographic career. Ok, to some extent I do agree. My portfolio will not show an editorial styled portrait on the first page, a bowl of pasta (wife is making gravy today, got pasta on my mind) on the second and a dog on the third. That is career suicide. You can get out and shoot what ever the hell draws your attention. Shoot what makes you happy. Hell, do a search for photographer Michael Muller. He shoots everything from rock bands to sharks, talk about generalizing. By the way, he rocks. Check out his keynote at Photoshelter's Luminance 2012 [here].

As usual, I'm getting a bit off track. Shocking. Look, I may be shooting people and food these days and will blog about both but as I'm currently working on a new branding campaign, I am working to keep both niches away from each other, each in their own portfolio. Some shooters go as far as having as many as three different websites, each with their own branding and niche. Eh, a bit expensive for me. I'm just working on the single site with a couple different portfolios.

Let's Get Some Tacos

It was Saturday, the wife and I were out pretty late the evening before. Not quite sure where I was but it was a wedding in Godonlyknowswhattown, New Jersey, about two hours from home. So, on that Saturday, neither of us were up for much and we decided to make it lazy day altogether. It turned into a marathon of Mission Impossible movies. I've been super excited to catch part four, Ghost Protocol and it finally was available on Netflix. Instead of watching only the new movie, we decided to watch them all. The only downer was that the only available parts were one three and four, no part two. No big deal, we would make due.

Early on that mild January Saturday afternoon, we had already decided that on top of the lazy day, we would get some delivery for dinner. The clock was nearing 8:00 p.m., we were probably half way through part three and it was time to get some grub. The wife wanted Mexican. In the past we typically order from a truly authentic Mexican dive, La Lupe. Having worked with some illegal immigrants in the past, I was made aware that La Lupe is exactly where those fellas would find their comfort food. I've eaten their food many times and had mostly, I repeat, mostly wonderful experiences. The last two orders there, they seemed to have put some ingredients in that I specifically, and have always, asked them to do. I'm a finicky eater and if the dish is not exactly to my liking, I'm super pissed off. I vowed never to order from La Lupe again, that was until last night.

The wife really wanted La Lupe so to try to be an awesome husband, I obliged. I grabbed the menu and tried to find something that they absolutely could not screw up. The wife had made her decision long before I pulled out the menu. I, on the other hand, had much difficulty in making my culinary choice. I ended up deciding on my regular order, the enchiladas verdes, served with a side or rice and refried beans.

I was hesitant but grabbed the phone. They never answer in English as most of their clientele is of Hispanic decent. When they hear my gringo voice (I do speak fluent Spanish) they hand me over to someone that can speak English. As soon as the woman gets on the phone, she asks "You pick up?," I told her that I wanted delivery. She quickly replied, "Car broken." I immediately hung up the phone and that call had put the final nail in the coffin. I will never order La Lupe again. Ok, I'm probably lying but I promise not to call them for at least six months.

We went to plan B. Wife had her heart hell bent on Mexican. I suggested we go to the Dining In website, to find another Mexican place that we can get delivered. I couldn't believe I didn't think of it before, The Mexican Post. I've long loved the food from that place. It was the first restaurant that I had ever eaten tortilla soup. To this day, it is one of my favorite soups to eat. The heavy cilantro flavor is what grabs me. I freaking love cilantro. Dinner was decided.

I had a hard time deciding so I just went with some tacos with the toppings on the side. Don't go thinking of a Taco Bell taco when I mention tacos. That is garbage. I think I've eaten at a Taco Bell once, about fifteen years ago. As a child I knew that place was horse shit and couldn't imagine it being any better today. Not to get off on a fast food rant here but I do have to say, the wife and I are anti just about every fast food restaurant. Ok, the term "just about" was very loose. We despise and would rather starve than go to any large food franchise.

Even though The Mexican Post isn't truly authentic, they are pretty damn close. One of the signifiers that it is pretty damn close is that they use queso fresco. That is the Mexican go to cheese. I'm not sure how to describe its taste but I love it with just about every Mexican dish.

Showtime


The clock was nearing 9:00 p.m. (yes we are late diners) and the food had arrived. I already knew that I wanted to shoot the food so I prepped some gear in advance. Camera was ready, strapped with Pocketwizards and a full battery charge. Had three strobes ready to rock and roll. Most importantly, I had my new Photek 60 inch Softlighter just aching to get to work. I've been want to put the new mod to the test for a week now. It would be it's time to shine, no pun intended.

While pulling the containers out of the bag, I was trying to decide on which plate to use for the shoot. Which would compliment the meal the most? Once deciding on which dishes to use, I would then ask for the wife's assistance to plate the food. As I brought this up, and you can bet she doesn't love hearing about my projects, she shot the idea out to shoot the food as is, in its natural state, so to speak. I'm not sure if she just wanted to avoid helping me but the idea was brilliant.

Shooting the tacos in their natural state would prove to be a bit difficult as their container is pure specular. If you're new to the photo world, don't be afraid of the word specular, it simply means reflective. Had the tacos arrived in styrofoam, the task would be a little easier. With that in mind, I welcomed the challenge. The subject, highly textured meal served in a super specular container.

Time to bring out the big guns.

This is where angle and apparent light size will do the dirty work. Let's say you've just bought your first camera that is not a cell phone. You have decided that you like taking photos and from time to time you need extra light. To help the situation, you pop the on camera flash if the camera has one or you throw a speedlight on the hotshoe. You've had less that awesome results with this but acceptable nonetheless. Now, I throw this container of tacos in front of you in a dark room, what are you going to do? Let me tell you what will happen. You will, without thought, dial up that flash head to light the subject. As soon as you fire, the photo looks horrific. That silver is blowing out beyond comprehension. You try to work with the minimal light in the room. You grab a tripod. Still, the dish doesn't look super appetizing. W. T. F.! you say.

Problem solver number one is to get that flash OFF CAMERA. I promise you, the first time you work with off camera lighting, your world as a photographer will change. You don't need to spend a ton of money on triggers. Hell, the first time I worked with off camera light was with a 25 foot cable. By the way, I still keep those cables in my bag in case my triggers fail.

Problem solver number two is to work the angles. Think of the light coming from that strobe as an cue ball and the subject the 8-ball (not the cocaine type, the billiard type). The flash head is the pool cue and your lens is the pocket. I know I've given this metaphor before, as has many other photographers including the great David Hobby of Strobist. Basically, to avoid clipping (blowing out the highlights) you need to angle the camera and flash in a way that the light will not enter the pocket (lens). Seems pretty basic when you think of it like that but can get tricky when the entire subject is surrounded by such a highly specular surface. What to do?

Problem solver number three is big ginormous modifiers. Take a look at my lighting diagram for this shoot. I have the food placed on a black table. The key light is a Vivitar 285HV modified with the big 60 inch, firing on about a 45 degree angle. Imagine that 60 inch doesn't exist and all that is working here is a bare flash head. That light would end up being harsh, bouncing around all sides of that aluminum pan. Think of the apparent size of that light source, pretty small right.

Large apparent light sources are super duper soft and wrap around corners like a Nascar driver (I just came up with that, I swear, just this second). The bigger that source is the softer it gets.

60 inch vs. little old shiny container?

The shiny, specular, little container has forfeited to that gargantuan light. Tiny taco presentation is no match for the mighty modifier.

There is a catch. Don't think that this giant soft light source will be the easy answer in this given situation. Let's go back to problem solver number two, the angles. If you don't play that billiard table just right, no matter how big that light is, you will still get clippings in the highlights. Fact of the matter is, your clipped whites will be even bigger than if you shot with the bare head.

Basically it is a synergistic recipe. All of the ingredients need to work in harmony, like a beautiful symphony making extraordinary music. The violin player has to be on key with the flute player or the piece of music will be a piece of crap. Same goes with this lighting setup.

Oh, did I forget to mention to get moving? If you don't nail it on the first try, move things around. Angle the camera differently. Angle the light differently. Angle the food differently. Rome wasn't built in a day my friends. Jeez, have I overdone the metaphors to death today or what? Can somebody say NERD? Yep, here I am.

Ok, before I depart, let me give you the quick rundown of the technicals.

First, I threw the container and tacos on the table just as you see. I wanted to keep the dish looking as authentic as possible so I adjusted nothing. No pretty presentations here, bent foil edges, messy tortillas, whatever.

The light, well, I already discussed the light. The diagram speaks for itself. Small subject and large light source. I heart you Photek 60 inch Softlighter. It's a bit more cumbersome to work with than my other favorite, the 28 inch Westcott Apollo but what she lacks in agility, she makes up for in beauty.

The Vivitar living in that mod was set to 1/4 power. Working at f/5.6 gave me a wider DOF that I wanted to get from jump street. Had I shot at 2.8 or bigger, the center taco would have began to bokeh where I didn't want it to.

I set the shutter to 1/125, killing all the ambient in the room. At camera left was our obnoxiously large Christmas tree, lit in all its glory (yes our tree is still up). I needed to be sure none of those lights contaminated my meal. 1/125 helped me get that nice black canvas before having to add light.

Finally, ISO was set to 50, nice a low to keep that food free of any noise. I have no problems working with higher ISO levels these days as my newer system can handle it. Studio type shots as this call for minimal noise and most photographers won't venture above 200 for such a shot. I would have no problem working at 800 or even higher, with just as awesome results.

Post processing? Hardly. I took the RAW file into ACR, worked the white balance to a Kelvin of 5600 degrees, warming up the food a bit. After that I pumped the blacks a tad and did some tiny curves and levels adjustments. Nothing sexy, clean and simple.

I smell the gravy (or sauce as many call it) cooking. Should I shoot the pasta? It's possible, very possible.

Until next time...

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