Sunday, August 18, 2013

food photography :: tortilla soup

I'm sure you've notice an abundance of food photography as of late. The short and sweet as to why; an increase in demand for the culinary creativeness.

So, without further ado, if you'd like to join me in another culinary adventure, please, sit back, grab a cup of coffee, or two fingers of a single malt, or whatever the case may be and prepare to: 1. photograph a dish like this and 2. rock this tortilla soup like Axl Rose on a coke bender in Los Angeles.

Before I tantalize you with what goes into this wonderful Mexican dish (one of my favorite soups), I want to first delve into the photographic process which made this possible. That is the reason we are here of course, right? Damn, sometimes I get so caught up in the deliciousness of the meals that I'm shooting that I sometimes get lost into a fantasy world where I'm, well, eh, probably best I didn't share what exactly it was I was fantasizing about.

The Canvas

Often, the difference between a mediocre and an outstanding food photographer not only has to do with lighting and presentation but also the canvas on which they build their flavors.

Composition of the meal is also mission critical.

Sure, lighting and food presentation are ginormous players in the final product but together, with the working canvas and composition, they team now works together synergistically. A wonderful opera of sense stimulation.

So what in the hell is the canvas? I don't know. Call it whatever the hell you want but for the sake of today's discussion, I have chosen the word canvas so that the article could flow uniformly throughout.

In all seriousness, the canvas or set, on which you build your scene can make or break the photograph, or you as a photographer. No sweat.

So, how do you find the perfect canvas? Well, this is where the synergistic formula begins to play. We will use the tortilla soup photograph (duh) for today's tutorial. First of all, notice how the shot has been framed. Straight down. On the 90s for sure. Many photographers, chefs and critics frown upon this type of food composition. I say fuck that! Sure, maybe traditional education in this photographic niche may push on shooting from a natural, at a dining room chair, at the table, point of view. Ok, that will work sometimes but not all of the time. Once you know and understand the rules, it is then time to break them.

"Failure is always an option."
-Adam Savage :: Mythbusters 

For this particular photograph, which was shot on location, on my kitchen floor. While I prepped the scene, my wife, business manager and phenomenal chef, Stefanie Murphy was busy cooking the tortilla soup. I swear you'll feel mind fucked after eating a bowl of this.

I needed a background. Knowing I'd be shooting straight down on the soup, this would make for a somewhat easier decision. Often, when shooting on a similar plane to the food, you will likely need to choose a couple of backgrounds; one that the food sits upon and another behind the meal.

I found an old, wooden, serving tray that is pretty much beat to shit from overuse. Painted or adhered to the tray were bottles of wine and/or champagne. Today, those are barely recognizable (you can identify a bottle in the empty bowl image above). I decided that this torn and tattered serving tray would add perfect color and texture to the beautiful bowl of soup. Stefanie, on the other hand, didn't think so. I ensured her that it would work, that it would totally rock, that the barely visible bottles would not be visible at all. When looking for a background for a photograph, you MUST look deeper into certain objects. Don't always take them for what they seem to be. If I didn't tell you that the bowl was on a beat up old serving tray, you would have no idea what the hell it was, I promise. That's what you need to be searching for at all times when it comes to laying out a food scene.

Next, after careful background consideration, I had to choose a bowl. In my home, where this was created, I had a few bowl options. First, was an option from our daily dinnerware. It's an entire, Italian made, hand molded (if not really, it definitely seems that way) set from Crate & Barrel. None of the set is perfectly circular and in fact our bowls are actually cylindrical, having flat bottoms. I decided against this and went for a more traditional round bowl with a bit of artwork on the outer and insides.

After that I decided to go simple and add only the flatware to the setup. Again, the flatware was from a Crate & Barrel line. Hey, we dig that store, what can I say? Added only would be the soup spoon. Any more additional props would be that of the edible type. Often times I will add towels, napkins, beverages, or other props but for this I thought the textured background, bold tortilla soup and fresh tortilla would pack more than enough punch.

You may notice the prep, empty bowl image, to be a bit warm. I believe I was shooting that around 6150K but once I began to dial in, took it back to 5500K. More on that in a bit.

Gear Matters

Now that I had the scene built as I wanted it, it was time to build the photograph.

Typically, when shooting food and this is another one of my rebellions, I'm working handheld. Hand held? Yes, sans a tripod. Most food photographers stress the importance of using a good set of sticks when working with culinary design.

I, on the other hand, prefer to zoom with my feet, to work around the food, to find the sweet spot. Often, when using a tripod, myself and many others are known to get the old set it and forget it mentality, getting somewhat lazy in the placing and replacing of the rig.

Shooting handheld liberates me and allows for full creativeness.

BUT, and that's correct, a big BUT, all caps. BUT there are also times when I absolutely, positively, undoubtedly count on a solid set of sticks.

Shooting the tortilla soup was one of those shoots. Why? When you try shooting straight down on a subject, having to keep the camera on a 90 degree angle, perpendicular to the floor, it is a gigantic pain in the ass. Don't believe me? Go give it a shot. Hell, even try with your iPhone. get that bastard perfectly perpendicular.

Are you back? Tough as hell isn't it? Oh, and I've tried. Besides the fact that you will start to lean way to far over the subject, snot will soon introduce itself. Awesome.

Rather than let my bodily fluids add any unnecessary sodium to the soup, I pulled out my (pictured here) Feisol carbon fiber professional tripod system. If you haven't heard of Feisol, I promise you will. They've been around but are more known to be a boutique of sorts. High end tripods, not the mainstream. Hmm. How to compare. Ok. Think of Gitzo or Manfrotto as being a Mercedes Benz, top quality but produced for the masses. On the other hand, Feisol is your Bugatti, just as bad ass as a high end Benz but limited production for those in the know. A good set of sticks should or could last a lifetime, longer than any camera you will ever own. Go for the Bugatti. Cost of my Feisol system? +/- $1000.00 USD, I can't remember off the top of my head at this very moment.

With the Feisol, I was able to position the Nikon D4 directly over the meal. Now, here's where things get tricky. I never opted for the bubble level in the Feisol (oh yeah, totally customizable, kick ass!) since having the built in Virtual Horizon. Works beautifully, at least when shooting on the x-axis, or parallel to the ground. If you need to shoot in the y-axis, or perpendicular to the ground, you, my friend are S.O.L.

Ah, but fear not! Rather than kick the dirt in frustration, I decided to simply grab an actual level and lie atop the flat viewfinder of the D4. Ok, so it wasn't an actual level, it was in fact, and billions of you have these in your pockets, the level app on the iPhone. I'm pretty sure this has been a standard utility app since the first 3G iPhone. I was never so happy to have realized how useful that app really is.

Time To Talk Tech 

Here's the setup. Before I get to the nitty gritty, let me explain what it is in fact that your are actually looking at.

The pimpin' guy with the sunglasses, that would represent me. Please, save your laughter for the end.

Now, the setup, due to some limitations in the lighting diagram generator, may not look exactly how they did upon shooting.

With that being said, we can move to the left of yours truly... my baby, my love, my Betsy, my Nikon D4 strapped with the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED. For the actual shoot, she was perched atop the Feisol system and aimed directly down over the food. For this particular shoot, I had her working at her sync speed of 1/250. Wanting a decent amount of DOF, I closed down her aperture to an f/11.0 on the 24-70. Finally, I worked an ISO of 100, for clean, noiseless files. I don't mind noise but for lit, studio styled food photography, I feel it makes better sense to have super clean files. Matter of taste I suppose. I could've dropped to ISO 50 on the D4 but didn't want to ask too much of the strobe, especially since I was cranking the watt seconds at f/11.0.

Atop the hotshoe of the D4 is a Pockewizard Plus ii transceiver, working flawlessly to trigger the strobe head.

Moving upwards from the camera we see what looks like a vinyl record covering a light reflector of some sort. You are correct in that assumption but in reality, these represent the tortilla soup setup.

Going forward, or upwards for that matter, we get to the lighting and modifier. Let me back up by stating that this shoot was a bit run and gun. I didn't want to spend tons of time getting lots of gear out. Simple was the theme of this shoot. Well, if it wasn't, it sure is now.

The strobe of choice was the ugly, beastly, ungodly, Vivtar 285HV. To go with some more similes, the Vivitar 285HV is like Rocky Dennis, from the movie Mask (1985) with Eric Stoltz, Cher and Sam Elliot. Rocky sure wasn't much to look at, hell, even repulsive to some but deep down, he was effing awesome. Same goes for the 285HV, she sure ain't pretty but damn it to hell, she gets the job done.

If I'm not mistaken, I had the Vivitar cranking at 1/4 power, receiving its signals by another Pocketwizard Plus ii transceiver. This flash was aimed upwards and away from the meal. Huh?

Yes, up and away. To modify and soften that light, I used a 3x3 piece of white poster board to bounce the light back, in a big gorgeous way, at a 45 degree angle, onto the subject, the tortilla soup setup. This angle of light and camera position would insure I didn't get blasted with blown out specular highlights. That broth can reflect light in ways you wouldn't want. Your angles play a huge role in controlling this.

Damn, I think that's it, Setup speaking anyway. I totally feel as if I'm forgetting some nerdified details.

Post production? I simply opened the RAW files in my ACR editor, tweaked a few exposure settings to taste, pumped the Sharpening slider to about 50 or 60 (less is more), enabled lens profile correction adjustments, exported to PS where I added about a 5% opacity Tonal Contrast adjustment, saved as .jpg and called it quits. Oh, I pumped the Vibrance in ACR to about 15, I think.

Segue :: As Smooth As Sandpaper And Dedicated To Arnold Krivoruk

For those not in the know, Arnold is a good friend and one bad ass IT consultant in the Philadelphia region. As friends do, we often disagree with certain topics. One of Arnold's peeves is how I can, without warning, transition from one topic to another, as smoothly as hitting a brick wall and then going in reverse. No subtlety. Hey Arnold! Here is yet another segue with zero smoothness. My homage to you. By the way, do I agree with him? Most likely but I'm not sure I could ever admit it to him. Shhh. don't spill my secret. 

Here we go! The big 180! Photography to Food. You wanted the recipe, you got it! This is in fact my wife's variation on the popular tortilla soup:  

  • bring a large pot water to boil with one large onion
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 bunch of cilantro
  • dried chili peppers
  • dried chipotle peppers
  • cumin
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1 whole chicken.
  • Simmer until chicken is cooked (about 3 hours). 
  • Strain the stock and preserve all liquid.
  • Bring the stock back to a simmer and add a can of crushed tomatoes.
  • Pull the white and dark meat from the chicken.
  • Add the chicken, corn and black beans.
  • Simmer for another 15 minute. 
  • Cut corn or flour tortilla into 5 strips.
  • Fry the tortilla in oil until crisp and golden brown.
  • Serve the soup with diced jalapeño, sliced avocado, freshly chopped cilantro.

Those were the words of one amazing chef, my wife but I have to add something to this recipe. Stefanie mentions freshly chopped cilantro. My variation is this ::


Yep, I'm a fan of cilantro, can you tell?

Until next time...