Sunday, April 13, 2014

food photography :: no gear? no problem

Hypothetical :: After many a sleepless night, worrying about your first professional food shoot for a locally renowned baker of all things sweet and yummy, the adrenaline fueled day has arrived.

First, you crank the coffee maker into overdrive. You ingest enough caffeine to launch a ten ton atomic rocket.

As your brain has dials in to full on focus mode, your hands begin to shake, rattle and roll.

A bit of balance comes after a nice, long, hot, refreshing shower.


Although it was only about 10 hours prior that you obsessively checked and rechecked all of your gear, it's time for one final push. . .

The Checklist

Camera? Yup, your pride and joy, wiped clear of any dust, on her body and inside, on her sensor. Camera's battery and backups fully charged.


Glass? To play it safe, you are sure to bring the entire lineup of lenses in your arsenal. God forbid you leave behind the one single lens that you just knew would knock the ball out of the park. Screw that noise right? Just pack 'em all.


Laptop and tethering tools? Although shooting tethered can sometimes be a ginormous pain in the ass, it is certainly perceived to be super awesome to the client when you have all the latest and greatest in their presence, to give them the best possible product.


Sticks (AKA tripod)? Well, even though you like to work around that food, focusing with your feet, as all refined and polished pros know, you may just have to shoot straight down on that food and we all know that getting the front element precisely perpendicular to the ground can be quite a challenge. Your awesome Feisol carbon fiber tripod system will allow you to shoot straight down, over the food, all day long, without breaking a sweat.


Strobes? Monoblocs, heads, speedlights, hammer heads, cold, hot, LED, whatever the case may be, you are sure to have every single one, locked and loaded.


Mods? All shapes and sizes because variety is the spice of life. You pack everything from an Sto-Fen to a big behemoth 60 inch Photek Softlighter. Those are all thrown in the backseat of your car.


Miscellaneous? Yupper. Your bag of cleaning products, props, paper, cords, adapters and backups are all secured.

Check and done!

At this point your confidence is pretty high. Why? Because you realize that it is your years of hard work and creativity that has brought you to this very moment. Shit, five years ago, you could hardly light a fart of fire let alone a magazine worthy culinary creation.

Last but not least, you grab one final cup of Joe to take with you for the ride to the restaurant where you will be shooting.

The Ride

Before pulling off it's time for some meditative music, something to help get you into the zone, pump you up, if you will.

Cruising down the interstate with the windows down and fresh spring air blowing through your locks, you find your way to the exit that your GPS is directing you to take.

Chilling out at the red light, only one block away from the site, you turn your head to the back seat to be sure your priceless equipment is sitting cozy when, HOLY SHIT! You are surrounded by a carjacking faction of street thugs! All you can see are the Tec-9s and Glock 9mms pointed at you from every window. The masked assailants unidentifiable. While one has shoved the barrel of the pistol into your mouth, the others steal everything but your cup of coffee from your new hybrid. In a matter of seconds, the violent criminals disappear off into the distance and you sit, in shock, trying to recall the events that just went down: the most surreal moment of your life.

Do you call it quits and pity yourself? Eff no!!!

About to scream, you head for the trunk, looking for a flare or something to help flag down traffic as those sons of bitches also stole your only means of communicating, your iPhone.

OMG! You totally forgot that you had a second, hiking bag, packed in the trunk. Bare minimums. A pro DSLR, a versatile but heavy 24-70 2.8, two PWs, one lonely Vivitar 285HV speedlight and a large regional map rolled up and packed in the side of the satchel.

A giant fork in the road has just been laid in front of you.

To the left? A road to getting help. A road that leads you as to not showing up to a very very important gig, one that is of time sensitivity. A road that will lead you to safety but at the cost of failure and shame.

To the right? A road to courage. A road where you grab that scantly filled satchel and with balls the size of Buicks, trek on to the shoot. This road is eerie and unknown as is always the road less traveled.

The Road Less Traveled

Ok, so maybe you weren't attacked by The Bloods one block from your gig. Extreme? Sure. But hey, it could happen.

Maybe your just a dude (or dudette) that got a call, due to the awesome work you have shown in your portfolio, and you are broke as a joke with a very very limited amount of gear.

Look, surely a well dressed set will light up the eyes of clients and onlookers but believe you me, it's not always required.

What's one of the most important traits as a pro photographer? IMPROVISATION.

So you were attacked by a team of terrorists, losing your bladder and 99% of your gear in the process. Suck it up and work with what you have my friend!

A couple triggers, one Vivitar and a DSLR. Perfect. Oh, that map, flip it over genius. Ah, a mammoth white reflector and/or background. Sweet.

You give me these minimal tools and shit, I will create an awesome photo for you. Oh, wait. That's what I did here for you today.

No Gear? No Problem

I'll be damned if that wasn't the longest intro ever. I'll keep the technical to the point.

Sometimes a true test of talent is to work with the minimal essentials. Having a shitload of tools in the toolbox is great and will sometimes make it easier to achieve that final goal but not necessary.

Take a scroll back up and check out the big beautiful blueberry scone (I'm hooked on alliteration lately).

That bodacious baked beauty was created under the crappiest of camera conditions (ok, now I just can't stop).

The ambient environment lit only by a few tungsten high hats in the ceiling. Sure, the scenery was soft and romantic but wasn't going to help me in any ways to create the big, bold and bright blueberry scone. I needed lots of light in this dark room. Sorry, let me correct myself, I needed lots of BIG and SOFT light. But with the 60 inch Photek in the back of the '64 Impala and on its way to the swap meet, what do I do?


There are a number of actions that can be taken here which will in turn yield a number of different results.

You could pop that 285HV on camera and throw the small apparent light source directly at the scones. EEWwww. Ugly. Unless your shooting for a W magazine ad and the subject is a paltry fed female, then I don't think using direct, on camera flash, will be the proper route for a commercial blueberry scone photograph.

You could scrap the Vivitar altogether and try and work the ambient. Without your sticks, this may prove to be a bit challenging. Finding proper stabilization, you could crank the ISO to the stratosphere and cross your fingers that those little bulbs will evenly illuminate that delicious dessert. We are talking ISO levels upwards of 10,000 at f/5.6 and a decent shutter speed. No sweat for higher end cameras but could prove difficult for older or consumer type cameras.

Ah, ye treasure map can aid in this quest for dangerous ISO territories. Flip that map and you can use the white side to bounce and soften the harsh tungstens.

Or, make due with a single 285HV and treasure map as I did herein.

Having only one strobe, I had to think fast of how to get lots of bang for my buck.

I decided to look up. What does my eye find? A humongous and soft modifier, the white ceiling. Ok. variable one, I would use the ceiling as my "key" light. In reality, I would be bouncing the light, throwing it upwards from the strobe, bouncing it from the ceiling which will make that small source a big soft lighting modifier. Pretty cool huh?

Further, I wanted to get really really clean and soft, not a ton of directional shadowing. To minimize this, I had the strobe placed on the countertop just outside of frame, aiming up, perpendicular to the base on which it was lying.

If you are questioning yourself as to why I didn't throw it on camera and simply bounce in that fashion? Again, I was trying to get the most out of the tools which were on hand. Directional on camera flash would have likely had my giant head in the way a bit introducing some shadow that I didn't want. Sure, shadows can be friendly but for this the goal was to be as clean as a whistle. Had there been a tripod I would have likely went that route but the terrorists snagged that as well.

Hmmm. how to use that map in more than one way. You see my friends, I could have thrown that out of frame and used as a fill reflector but I had a better idea. Throwing the treasure map under and behind the scones, as a cyclorama, I then create for myself the background and a reflector. Double whammy.

In essence, with one strobe, I'm able to get three light sources; the ceiling, the surface and background, all big, hence, all soft.

Take another look at the photograph. Notice the shadows beneath the plate? See how freaking soft they are!? You couldn't find a hard edge on those shadows if I gave you an X-ACTO knife and a loupe.

Just sayin'.

The Nitty Gritty

Working with the bare minimums, there were still certain variables that I didn't want to, well, vary. A constant if you will.

A-Lot-O-light, like I've mentioned today about 30 times, was a big goal.

Another constant that I was in need of was cleanliness. I didn't want to introduce any noise as with food, I try to avoid this unless absolutely necessary. I was aiming to work somewhere between ISO 50-100. Yup, as low as she goes (Betsy, that is).

Depth of Field was another constant I was targeting: not too shallow. Not too deep. Just right.

Shutter? Locked, at 1/250. There were no reasons to adjust as I wanted zero ambient leakage.

The only variable that would have variation (I can't help myself today) would be the Vivitar 285HV. How much power would she have to pump based on my other needs?

The Vivitar surely would have to hit overdrive as flash to subject distance has basically doubled had I been working in a more direct fashion. What does this mean? With my ISO, shutter and aperture just about drilled down, I knew at those levels, Viv would have to give me all she's got.

Here's the breakdown ::

Shutter :: 1/250

Aperture :: f/5.6

ISO :: 100

Strobe :: 1/1 or Full Power Ratio

As for some of the other decisions, post and such, enjoy the metadata here ::


You don't need a boatload of gear to shoot high quality commercial food photography. You just need a sharp, creative mind and be ready to improvise at any given moment. In the world of photography, I'm thrown curve balls, oh, let's think, 100% of the time? Yup. That sounds about right.

Fresh, hot out of the oven blueberry scones are pure awesomeness in my mouth.

Avoid terrorists who are carrying Tec-9s when you are on your way to photo shoots. They can really throw a wrench in your day.

Until next time...