food photography :: beached clam :: working that white balance :: and a surprise ending

Ever look at some distance between two points and think to yourself, "I can make it!"? Of course, most of the time you have overestimated your olympic long jumping abilities.

That's the dilemma I have faced this morning. You see, they are doing some construction in my building, feeding a new heating exhaust vent of sorts.

I knew the building was having this work done but was not aware of the annoyances that would arise. The drilling, hammering, screwing, ripping and other signature sounds that a work site would have, in a matter of minutes, driven me a bit loony. I'm not typically annoyed by these sounds but on this day, as I must write, I mean, drop this bomb of knowledge, here, today, for you, my friends.

Rather than sit home and try to concentrate with the torturous sounds just beyond my front door, I decided to pack up and head for a quiet coffee shop, namely, La Citadelle, at 16th and Pine; a unique and quiet java house with a colorful captain at the helm. A great place to get some work done.

As I packed the MacBook Pro, I opened the front door and wouldn't you know it? the top few steps have went amiss. Yes, the fucking steps are gone. The workers apparently had to remove a section to get to whatever the hell they had to get to, or around, or through for that matter.

Trapped, a prisoner in my own home.

Please, read on as I share today's thoughts from the confines of the Murphy State Penitentiary. . .

So, are you wondering about my olympic long jump skills? I sure was. My heart told me I could clear the dangerous hole that separates me from freedom. My brain told me otherwise. Had it just been me, my flannel, cargos and Chucks, hell yeah, I'd have attempted the leap. Unfortunately, I had my very precious and very expensive laptop along my side. Could I risk smashing the Apple? Um, no. More than the monetary value that lies within that beautiful casing, there is a wealth of information, data and images that I have no intentions of loosing anytime soon.

I decided, rather than risk my well being, rather than risk the loss of priceless data, rather than be pissed off at the work just beyond my front door, to chill at my home office, pump some Jack White and The White Stripes, drown out the horrific ambient and focus here for another glorious day of blogging.

On Demand

Due to popular demand, I had to do another culinary post. Requests had come from various people and places to show and educate about something that is universally loved. . . FOOD.

It can't be denied. Food is our gasoline. Without it we would, well, not exist. For many millennia, food was simply a survival tool. It wasn't until recently, in the world of civilized humanity, that food has been eaten not only for survival but for pleasure. Hard to believe isn't it? I mean could you imagine simply eating for fuel? No Steak Au Poivre? No cheeseburgers? No eggs benedict? No scrapple?!?! Scary.

Even more recently, following the whole eating for pleasure thing, came food presentation. It only made sense, if something looks pretty on a dish, it may, even if mentally, help to make that same food, had it been plated in a messy fashion, taste better.

Admit it or not, most of us have been guilty of this. We have fallen for the seductive allure of a beautiful dish. In my neck of the woods, my latest favorite chef is Jose Garces. Of his eateries in Philly, Tinto is probably one of my favorites. There, you can enjoy many great Spanish Tapas (small plates or appetizers). With the dark ambiance of the room and the beautiful plating, the cuisine is simply out of this world. I highly recommend this joint. By the way, Garces has won many culinary awards, one great award being the Iron Chef. He's no joke.

Ok, now take that awesomely awesome FOIE GRAS TORCHON, AGED MANCHEGO, BOQUERONES, ALBONDIGAS and GATXUXA that you just made love to at Tinto and eat the same tapas, cooked pretty similar, at your aunt Linda's musty old kitchen, with bad fluorescent lighting, crusty flatware, served on styrofoam plates. Guess what, I don't care what you say, that experience will not be the same and that food WILL NOT taste like it came out of a Jose Garces kitchen.

So is born the art of plating and the presentation of culinary masterpieces. Now, food can be adorned with more senses. Before any sense, that is unless the food is coming out sizzling, your eyes will be the first to capture the essence of what it is you are about to eat. Then in harmony, you smell, taste and touch the glorious meal until it all makes its way to its final resting place, your belly. Isn't it magnificent?

The Photography Role

As you are probably well aware, food photography is a booming business. Abundant, are culinary websites, books, newspaper sections, apps, magazines and most importantly and likely encapsulating the others, culinary advertising. The job of a food photographer is simple and paradoxically complex. Create a beautiful and appetizing image of a specific of multiple dishes or drinks.

Make the viewers' mouths salivate like Pavlov's dog. Period.

For those of you unfamiliar with advanced, professional photography, let me give you a crash course. Food photography ain't easy!

Now, let me state that I'm by no means trying to scare you away from this niche. Quite the contrary. Personally, I freaking love food photography and the challenges that arise with each and every crumb that crosses each and every plate. I think it has been the challenge, the problem solving, that has brought me into the realm of the food photography world.

You think working with people is difficult? I do agree, it is but think about it, you can direct your model. When it comes to photographing culinary designs, the food my friend, does not listen. If it did, that may be a sign your meal is just a tad undercooked.

As a food photographer you have to work with many elements and variables to create a brilliant culinary photo. As mentioned, that food isn't going anywhere. It is your job, once plated, to zoom and focus with your feet. If you plant your ass in one spot, hoping to nail the shot, as is, you are doomed for failure my friend. For this reason, I don't often use a tripod when shooting food. That is of course, I have moved around the food enough to locate the exact angles and then and only then will I unleash the Feisol.

Different dishes will require different angles. Some foods will look better shot from above, some from the side, some from down low. It all takes time and practice to familiarize yourself which food will take to each angle in certain ways. It's a delicate dance with little room for error. A bad angle will do nothing for a gorgeous plate. A simple example would be soup. It may not make perfect sense to shoot a bowl of soup from the side. That one's just a common sense example.

Exposure, lighting, color and if applicable, props are all unique to the photographer. Some prefer pure ambient while others gravitate towards strobes. Me? I'm versatile. I'll work with whatever is best in that particular environment, for that particular dish. These days I'm a minimalist. The less gear I have to lug around, the better.

Let's explore today's dish (or lack thereof), BEACHED CLAM, an original recipe by my other half, Stefanie.

Beached Clam

I'm sure your mouths have been watering already and are dying for this original recipe. I will get there. Promise.

Let's begin with the obvious, the unique plating of this original hors d'oeuvres. Prior to the Beached Clam presentation, Stefanie and I had toyed around with different ideas. She is a better chef than many of the pros that I know so I'm always open minded to her presentation suggestions. We were going to go on black paper but decided upon something very different, something that we hadn't used for such a purpose. The terrace.

The planks of pressure treated cedar would be perfect for this oceanic type of dish. The wood would emit a sense of being on the boardwalk. Or not. Hey, whatever it makes you feel, I think it's a pretty bad ass idea.

Resting upon the board would be a large heaping helping of sea salt. The colors already beginning to contrast beautifully.

Resting on the bed of sea salt would be the Beached Clam and the other, empty sided shell to compliment.

Next, the lighting. The sun was pretty harsh that early summer evening. Not a cloud in sight. Horrific hard shadows that were not doing any justice to the dish. I didn't want to trash the sun's power altogether, nope, instead, I had it work in my favor, with my personal manipulations. To tame the harshness, I threw between the sun and the dish, a 45 inch shoot thru brolly, diffusing the light evenly across the shellfish.

[Note :: For freshness purposes, I used a balled up towel instead of and prior to the actual food to lock in exposure.]

With only the umbrella diffuser, the light seemed, eh, boring. Many would have loved this even lighting but I'm a sucker for making light a bit more complex, a bit more interesting. A weakness if you will. 

I decided to kick back the exposure to about 1 1/2 stops down. With that slightly darkened ambient environment, I brought in a speedlight, bare, camera right. 

Here's what the final exposure looked like ::

Shutter :: 1/200 (was synced at 1/250. I must have accidentally bumped the wheel)
Aperture :: f/8.0 (wasn't looking for a shallow DOF or any bokeh)
ISO :: 64 (yes, 64, not 640)
Strobe :: 1/32 with the head zoomed to 105mm (for a nice narrow beam to direct towards the filled, meaty shell)

Getting Kooky and Crazy With White Balance

This is what takes any old, same, run of the mill, photograph and turns it to unique, brilliant, wow-ness, different and all that jazz. 

Even with the added pop by using the strobe in conjunction with the ambient, I still felt that there was some needed color that was missing. Color that post processing alone wouldn't remedy. 

Introduce, the White Balance. Believe it or not, your white balance could absolutely make or break a photograph. So many amateurs and enthusiasts simply leave their fancy DSLR cameras in Auto WB. Sure, there are times that will be just fine but for jobs that require fine tuning, shooting manual white balance is just as important as a manual exposure. 

Many advanced DSLRs will give you various WB environments to choose from such as, sunlight, flash, cloudy, shady, tungsten, etc. Higher end and just about all Professional DSLRs will give those options and the ability to manually choose your Kelvin temperature setting. I freaking love setting my Kelvin. You can really dial into an exact temperature that you are going for. It's liberating to say the least. 

I decided in this image to create a very cool ambient environment. Typically, in this type of bright sunlight, you would balance the WB at 5500K or somewhere in that vicinity. I went loco and dropped the Kelvin to 2900. This basically turned the ambient to a blueish color. 

Obviously, it would have looked a bit funny if I let the scene end in pure blue. Instead, to balance things out a bit and even bring a hint of warmth, I gelled the strobe. A Rosco full CTO (color temperature orange) would do the trick. This, aimed directly at the filled shell, brought some warm normalcy to the entire composition. 

Much more awesome than a boring old even diffuse sunlight, isn't it? 

In the end, I had decided to push the Kelvin, in the ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) editor to 3100K as, once opened on a big screen, it was just a bit too cool. At 3100K, it gave just barely a bump, making the entire image seem a bit more natural but still holding the blue. Such a tiny move that an untrained eye would probably not have noticed the shift.

Most of the other processing was pretty run-of-the-mill; a few curves tweaks, some shadow, fill and contrast pumps, you know, the basics. These days I don't spend a lot of time in the digital darkroom as I want my images to look pretty natural, not super edited as I used to do.

Now, without further ado, for those who have endured my nerdiness, your reward, your prize, your recipe.

At the time of writing, the wife and I are miles apart so I had her text me her process. With that, I will simply copy and paste her message, without any of my literary interferences. Possible I could screw something up if I try to reword her process. I'm no Garces, I'm sure there is rhyme and reason to why things are done in certain orders.

Ladies and gentlemen, Stefanie and her Beached Clam recipe :: 

"Add linguini to boiling water with salt and E.V.O.O. Cook al dente and set aside while preparing the sauce and clams. Sauté garlic in E.V.O.O. and butter. Cover the bottom of the pot with white wine and add the clams. Steam until most are open. Remove clams from the pot and set aside while preparing the sauce. Add a bit more butter and juice of 2 lemons. Slightly reduce the sauce and add linguine. Allow pasta to absorbs a bit of the sauce. Add Locatelli cheese, zest of 1 lemon and fresh oregano.  Gently wrap a bit of the linguini around a single clam and nest in a clam shell. Set the clam shell on a neat pile of course sea salt. Enjoy."

Damn, the combination of the photograph and the reading the recipe have made me hungry. Think I'm ready for dinner, or a late lunch at least. Now, the difficult part, what to have?

Any questions or comments, feel free to shoot me an email or pop on facebook, Twitter or Google +. For some odd reason, the blog comments are no longer visible. A tech problem that is being addressed as we speak.

email :: michael@michaelanthonymurphy.com

Until next time... 

This entry was posted on Saturday, July 13, 2013 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 . You can leave a response .

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