Lighting in Food Photography
I think we talked a little bit about the overall kind of image and the motivations and the kind of things that we do, but looking at light, in general, is what photography's all about. That's my setup in my studio, three feet by two feet and I make the world happen there and I think that's the whole idea is to kind of bring all of the things that you can make, it can be Moroccan. It could be Morocco, it could be Bolivia, it could be Thailand, it could be anywhere you want it to be because you can create your set. See, we built this set here in this giant space, but when you're a food photographer, that set gets condensed down to three feet by two feet. At least it does in my studio. It doesn't have to be bigger than that and a lot of times, it's smaller than that. A lot of times it's the size of a cutting board. So what you put, the elements that you put into that small space are the things that are gonna affect the way you do it. This is also about light and you can see the rest of th...
e room here. That's the ambient light in the rest of the room, but because I have southwestern exposure, and you need to understand the differences in where your home or your studio is oriented or the space that you're in is oriented. You have to understand the way the sun comes over and the way the light is different. You know what the magic hour is? You know the magic hour? The end of the day, that summer light that's coming straight across town. You know, understanding that, because that's the one everybody is most familiar with. But you also understand that the high sun is different than the side sun and the morning sun is different than the afternoon sun and how you can play with those different lighting and that's where natural light photography, what that's all about. It's all about understanding where you are and what the light can do at that particular time of day. Okay. Penetrating liquids with light gives you that kind of opportunity to really highlight things like this, like bubbles, like something really, really detailed and using black backgrounds in that setting. So this is actually a recreation of my daylight setting. This was an experiment that I did to try to do what I do with daylight with a hot light. So this was a really odd kind of thing. I switched it around, then I had the light source coming from the opposite side of my room, bouncing back, blackening out the background just like I do with daylight and I was happy with the result. But what the message here is you need to experiment with light. You need to find a style that you really like and then try to recreate it as many different was as you can. Now I can make that picture with like five different types of light sources because I practiced it and it's all about practice. If you don't have the... You don't have to have all the equipment. You don't have to have all the best orientation of light. You have to find a style that you can recreate over and over again and then find different ways to do that. Backlighting, as you know if you're shooting food, is an essential skill to kind of master because it's not always as easy as it looks. The light source coming from behind your subject and filling in the front part of it to give it just enough light to give it detail. Camera settings go out the window, and being that digital is something that we're all familiar with now, having the ability to do this, I think and do it well, do it quickly, is a product of digital photography because we can experiment on the fly. We don't have to take Polaroids. We don't have to develop film. We can see what it's gonna look like immediately and make adjustments. That backlit kind of feel is something that is a go-to for me. It's something I really enjoy doing and I like the fact that it gives dimension. If you flip around to the other side of the table, it's flat. Absolutely flat and you have no dimension. You have no shimmer, no shine, and it makes an enormous difference and you should take pictures like that just to teach yourself the method. Go to one side of the table, find that. Stalk that light and find it. Then walk around to the other side of the table and take the same shot and notice the difference. It's like the difference between when you take your flash off your camera at a restaurant and then put it back on. It's so dramatically different, that it's flat image and then there's something that has dimension. Also, the things around your... The things around your set, not just your fill cards and your black cards for shadows and whatever, also the... Sometimes you use like a sweep. That's basically, they call it a cyclorama when you're in a big studio, but you can create the same seamless kind of environment with a piece of cardboard or paper or whatever. What I did with this one, you can't see it obviously because this is a finished image, but I took the top part of that, instead of letting it go like this, straight up, I took and I wrapped it around it and created a shadow at the top of the image so that it went to that kind of gradual dark to light. So understanding how to bend and manipulate light is really essential to finding the images that you like because if it's always the same light and it's always the same approach, you're not gonna find a lot of opportunities to do different things. So again, experimentation with light. Find ways to bend it and shape it in the ways that you like.
Andrew can I ask a question?
We haven't really talked about the percentage of natural versus studio lighting that you do, so Whiskers had asked if you prefer ambient versus studio light for your work and Ekarib had asked what dictates what type of light you use on a particular dish. I know we talked, are we getting into that?
Yeah. Yeah, we can talk about that and I can go into it again later on, but it's an easy question to answer. For food photography, I'm a 90-10 guy for the most part. Ninety percent natural and then 10% artificial. It took me a very long time to master a technique with strobe lights and a set-up that would mimic the way I shoot in daylight and I can fall to it when I need to, but the reality is that there's no substitute for natural light on a food shoot, unless of course you have really expensive studio lighting, like movie lighting and you're talking tens of thousands of dollars in lighting that will run up your electric bill and heat up your entire house, or your studio for that matter. Most food photographers prefer daylight and then have a setup probably similar to the one I use with strobes, which is a lot more complicated than probably something we'll talk about at a later date. But 90-10.
I just wanted to get that out there because people were wondering. Perfect, thank you.
Also shooting drinks with daylight, finding that glisten and that shimmer on the top is a kind of delicate balance because you can move a fraction of an inch, particularly with a macro lens, and you lose it. It's gone, so finding surfaces too, like non-reflective surfaces because this is a non-reflective surface. It doesn't mean that light doesn't react with it, that it's completely flat, but what it does, the light that hits the surface doesn't overpower what's in the glass or whatever you have up there. So you're also getting a little bit of that penetrating light in the rind and that shimmer and shine that comes off the glass that gives definition to the ice and things. So, the idea of using light to photograph drinks is to allow that to penetrate into the liquid, and if it's really, really dark, and we've had these problems, you know, when we're shooting things that are really dark. Then the glassware starts to become a problem and again, using the light to your advantage. When you shoot glassware, one of the tricks that we do is kind of surround the glass with something you could look at, black, because the glass is like your eye, right. It's looking for stuff to see and it's gonna reflect it. But the reason we have that nice sharp black edge around the outside of the glass is because that's exactly what it's looking at. So, the camera is here and we've got black cards on either side that are deadening out the light a little bit and giving the glass something to look at and then we let the rest go to backlit. The light penetrating through the segments is what makes this. I mean, it's fairly dark in the front, but again, light and shadow. It's the balance that you wanna find. It's the thing that makes photography interesting and it just so happens to be of food. It's light and shadow and the balance that you're gonna find between those things and again, this is like a kind of three quarter backlit. The light source is like here and then this is angled that way and then I'm kind of over here. So it's sort of like a three, if you think of it in terms of a clock, it's sort of like three quarter. And again, it's like I'm moving in gradually and I'm taking shots from every angle to find the right light that I like and then the balance of the light and the shadow here and that one little glint and the light coming right through the cut. That's where we were, that's the goal. This is very similar to that. This is the same approach with the daylight as that bubbly rosé shot, Lambrusco I guess they call it. (giggling) It's that, except this is daylight with a fill card here bouncing back to highlight that. Selective focus on the green so that everything else falls away. Black background. So again, the black is the thing that's really gonna help the light pop because if that was just going off to another lighted surface, it wouldn't have the same drama and that sense of drama is one of the things that I like to do with food photography. I said in the Google Plus chat, we talked a little bit about what are the trends, the changing trends in food photography and I said that things feel a little bit more masculine to me because there's a lot more darker and moodier and this kind of idea that it's not fru fru and pastels all day, you know, and the fact that it's becoming more about mood and feel than it is about being literal, because does it matter what this is? To me it doesn't. This is about an object that's beautiful. This is a hand carved bone bowl that's literally this big and that's something else we're gonna talk about. It's not in my lights section, but it's in something else is about how size and macro change the way you might think about what a picture, how to build a picture, since that's so small. Salmon is also, and there's another one, I think the next one, too. Yeah. The next one I can go back and forth. Salmon is something that can be illuminated really easily. It's, you know, like a citrus fruit, anything fleshy like that that light can penetrate and it allows you to do really beautiful things with light because the way light plays on the subjects. Now the difference between taking a picture of salmon or citrus fruits or a drink that you can penetrate light into and then doing something like spinach or broccoli or even a chocolate brownie, the difference in the way light reacts with those particular items is really dramatically different. So it's important to understand when you're photographing, where this approach or that approach works. So if I'm shooting a brownie, I can't shoot it like this. The whole front of it's gonna go black so now I need to move around and change my light source and reflect light differently to give light to the parts of that that are gonna get soaked up. Think of it like a light sponge. So, similar using that bounce off the background, and that's something that I would normally filter out, but I thought that because of the shapes and the colors and all the stuff that we had here, everything was the same color. So allowing that light to peek through and kind of give me that streak was something I allowed at that point. Sometimes, again you gotta go outside your comfort zone and you know, having filtered light is something that is easy to manage and balance, but sometimes when you get something like that, similar to what happened with the curly chicken picture. The curly chicken picture. (giggling) I never thought I'd say that. You kind of just have to be able to be flexible with the light that's available to you or maybe a happy accident and that's what that was. Same thing. The mood and feel of this is again, you can tell where the light source is and you can tell where I was shooting. It gives a similar reaction to the full backlit, but allowing us to trail off and get a little darker on this side. That has no fill at all. That's just window light. There's nothing else there to fill that or play with it. I threw those out on the table. This was for the cover and all of the shots were already taken. They were done, in the can. The art director was happy, but I wanted to play with these a little bit more and that's the shot. But again, that kind of contrast of that really, really harsh bright, bright highlight and then that kind of softer shadowing that happens when you allow it to happen, you know, come from that particular angle. I think this might be our last slide. This is sort of that signature style I work on when it comes to still life. I mean, this is the thing that has been a motivational kind of inspiration for me and I would sit there and look at those kind of Dutch masterworks of bowls and painterly,
Painterly. yeah, and that's been described to me before, that idea that my work becomes painterly and it's accurate in that that's what has inspired me. The way light is playing off the glass here, the cut glass, the way it's hitting the spoon. The way it's just gently kind of touching the top of that pudding. Do I even care what's in that bowl? I don't because the idea is that it could be anything, which goes to the question that came from the internet earlier is do you have to like everything you shoot? I don't even have to like the way everything I shoot looks because this was hard. When I took it out of the oven or wherever it came from, I looked down like what am I gonna do with this? You know, and that is an emotion that happens a lot when you're working with food and you're on a deadline and you're under pressure to actually make something look good that can't or you think can't, and that's where all of the other skills that we're gonna talk about over the next few days are gonna help you. It's gonna help you understand that not, just because it comes out of the oven and it looks like, you know, God knows what, you can still make a beautiful picture because again, composition within a composition. Sometimes the food is the star and sometimes the setting is the star. Sometimes the light is the star and in this particular picture, it's about the composition, the propping, and the light and the last thing you're thinking about is what's in the bowl. So it's also about adjusting your expectations to what you wanna achieve with that given image. So I think we've got a couple minutes. Maybe we can take a couple more questions.
Lo He from Toronto, Canada would like you to explain your most basic setup for your home studio and I'm wondering if you would mind going back to that slide and kind of explaining
Yeah, I can do that. how you set that up.
Wow this works fast when you really want it to. Oh, there it is. Okay. So the slide here is basically, that thing on the left is my camera stand, so that's the thing I kind of get those really clean, sharp overhead shots with. I attach my camera to it and it extends to eight feet above my table. The window is my light source and there are two foam core boards on either side and a white marble surface. So that becomes a light box. That is, so if I were gonna shoot an overhead shot of that or a backlit shot of that, that's the setup I would use. It's not the only setup I would use, obviously, but it is a standard setup where I'm building a light box, and I think this is a really good place to start. If you're building a light box, it gives you an understanding of clean light all the way around and how to use that where it doesn't look flat, and then from there you start to take things away and add them back. I take away one, I add some black, I add a gray card, I add some kind of shadow. So that's the starting point where you get that. Okay, how's that? Okay next question.
Cutie asks how do you photograph foods that do not necessarily play well, such as stew or chili or something with unappealing colors, like brown chocolate cookies that I'll bring tomorrow? (chuckling)
Great, well when you have things like chili, chili and like saucy, brown, mushy stuff, I mean the thing that you really wanna do is if its got any liquid in it is concentrate on getting that glisten that comes off the liquid. That really helps. Also, your garnish is a key to these things because when you're garnishing chili, what are you putting on it? You're putting some chilis and you're putting some cheese or you're putting some lime or something where you can use that in the image to kind of bring it through. The other thing that's always a key that you can do with this is a process shot. You don't have to always shoot the finished dish. Sometimes it's the empty bowl. You have one last spoonful or sometimes it's about showing all the ingredients that are component parts, and that's always, when you know that something's gonna look awful when it comes out, at least get those shots so that if you do take your shots you're like, "Oh there's no way" "I want to show that to anybody," you have something else to go to.
Tommy Calamarino says Hi there. When I shoot food, I look at it as having a personality much like a human subject. Do you feel the same?
Yes because I will, when I'm on a set and I'm working, I kind of talk to the food sometimes. (laughing) Did I just tell the whole world I talk to food?
Like in a baby voice or...? (laughing)
No, no I put on my stern teacher voice. You will not look that way. Put something else on. Yeah, I think food does have a personality and it has a story to tell and it's up to you how to interpret that, so for sure, absolutely. That's not a crazy thing to do. No crazier than talking to the food. (chuckling)
Okay, so Cowgirl Jessie asks how do you balance making the food look good versus making an artistic shot? Do they go hand-in-hand?
Yes, I think they do. I think food looking good is the first thing. If the food doesn't look good, then you've already failed 50% of your composition. So if you don't make the food look good, no matter what you do it, it's gonna still be half an image in a way. So yeah, they absolutely have to go hand-in-hand.
Okay so maybe we will take one more question. Amy Fair Photography said do you feel like there are rules to photography and do you feel like you break them? I feel like I possess a similar style and I get reprimanded for not having my food presented in a so-so way, and Amy is from Kentucky.
Hmm, I think that there are expectations that every publication or every entity or blog or whatever, wherever, you have to adjust your particular style to fit. I wouldn't compromise my style, ever. If you're hiring me, you're hiring what I do. But, you definitely have to bend to the will of the client to fit. If they come to you, they like what you do. That's the first part. The second part is you gotta make sure they don't want you to change what you do. So, I would say stick with what you do, don't change, but understand how much you can bend without breaking when it comes to how you're working with a client. I've had this experience with magazine clients who hired me, then I do what I do and they're like, "Oh, maybe that's too dark and moody" and I'm like that's kind of what I do. So let's find a happy medium, you know, and we did. We absolutely found a happy medium and that's where you have to go, but don't compromise your style. Bend but don't break.