The majority of commercial work I do usually centers on studio work – I wish it was photojournalism, but sadly this isn’t the case. By this, I mean anything where the composition is delicately adjusted to be perfect, lit with controlled lighting – usually flash – and then retouched to perfection. Depending on what you’re shooting, the latter stage can be extremely time consuming (think watches, for instance).
Today’s On Assignment was a photoshoot I did last week for a new diner. I originally thought the majority of the food would be shot with the Nikon D700, 60/2.8 G macro and a handful of speedlights. I brought two umbrellas, and four flashes in case I needed specular fill, or one of them failed. Landed using just two. However, the client wanted a slightly different perspective; something more dynamic. The 24/1.4 was useful for a shot or two, but simply didn’t focus close enough for most things. Luckily I’d also packed as backup the Olympus Pen Mini, a couple of LED lighting panels and a full lens set; the 12/2 saved my bacon; it focuses slightly closer than 20cm – to the sensor plane.
Food is a tricky beast to shoot. If the lighting is too perfect and diffuse, the food looks flat; if it’s too point-sourced, you get reflections off the little bits of oil and uneven surfaces that is, by its very nature, food. The trick is you need to use a mix of both; or use an imperfect diffuser (I consider an umbrella to be an imperfect diffuser).
I don’t know how many people know this, but the vast majority of food you see in photographs is not edible. What does that mean? Well, I know some menus in Japan are shot using plastic food as props; I’m not talking about that. To get food to look the way it does, there are often some cosmetic tricks – healthy applications of water and olive oil, for instance; or using colored mashed potatoes for ice cream to prevent them from melting; sauces aren’t necessarily accurate, just made of something from the right consistency and color to stop them from migrating where you don’t want them to go when repositioning the plate, for instance. There are other tricks, but I’d have to kill you if I told you. This used to be the preserve of the food stylist, which has become a dying profession – there are precious few left, and to be honest, I prefer not to use one. I do dabble in cookery occasionally, which helps me to understand the objectives/ focus of a dish; this in turn helps me to ensure I capture the right elements to present it. I’m happy to rearrange things as required, but usually what I prefer to do is work with the chef to ensure he or she is happy with the presentation: after all, it’s their food; if it doesn’t look right to them, then chances are the end viewer won’t be getting the right impression, either.
I did discover something on this shoot though: the LED panels, which I thought would be useful for macro work (and are only good for model lighting) are actually great for food; they run cold, which keeps things fresh and not wilted; they’re adjustable in continuous steps, and you can instantly see what the effect of the light looks like – the only catch is that to get a large diffuse source, you need to either put them close or use lots of them, and that gets expensive. But I could see myself picking up another couple for future jobs. MT