On assignment: Bistro food

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This set shot with a Nikon D700, AFS 60/2.8 G Micro and several SB900 flashes.

I’m seeing an increasing shift in my commercial work these days towards food – as a gourmet (or perhaps as a greedy person) I’m certainly not complaining. Interestingly, food photography actually shares a lot of techniques in common with watch photography – with the huge benefit of not having any reflective surfaces to worry about. But from a lighting point of view, it’s the same.

Last week, I shot what was probably my final job with the Nikon D700 – some highlights of which are presented here. The D800 studio update will probably be towards the end of next week due to job scheduling.

I wanted to use this opportunity to say a few things about both food photography, and draw some conclusions on the D700’s use as a studio camera.

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Food may not have any reflective surfaces, but it certainly presents some challenges of its own: firstly, temperature. Things don’t look optimally appetizing for that long (think ice cream) which means you’ve got to work quickly, and studio strobes are pretty much out of the question because the heat would make anything fresh wilt in less time than your fastest flash sync speed. The solution I’ve found to that is either use low-temperature LED panels or use flashes. For the most part, I use flashes because they’re more flexible in terms of light output deliverable, and have enough power to accommodate larger setups. LED panels don’t have as much throw or power, and go through batteries like crazy. And there are also color temperature issues – so far, very few panels can deliver a relatively even, neutral spectrum – and those that can are both hideously expensive and not all that bright.

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The next challenge is actually detail: most people don’t want to look too closely at what it is they’re eating. I mean, a steak looks great as a whole, but I don’t think you want to start looking at meat fibers and thinking about exactly what motor function that muscle did when it was still part of the cow; there’s a huge compositional tradeoff between detail, suggestion, and emotion.

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Bottom line: food images are about emotion: they must make you feel like you want to eat them. The ultimate litmus test for me is: would I want to order the dish if I saw this image in a menu? Lighting is your one control here: both softness and position of the light sources, and less intuitively, color temperature. (I’ll go into this more in a future article).

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I’m going to conclude with a few words about the D700 as a studio camera. It may not deliver the most resolution, but it does have a few advantages over say a D3x or medium format – providing you don’t have clients that must absolutely have that pixel count. Firstly, there’ the built in flash with commander function – that was the #1 reason why I went for a D700 instead of a D3s, and I don’t regret it one bit. Speed isn’t an issue, but putting an ENEL4a in the MB-D10 grip gives you both speed and an incredible amount of shooting time: I can easily shoot a full day assignment on one battery. This assignment (2,000 frames in total) was completed with 60% power left over on the ENEL4a, and the ENEL3e in the camera still full. Finally, base ISO of 200 gives your speed lights a boost – and even if you don’t need the extra power, it reduces cycle time as well as extending your battery life.

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Curiously, the internal flash can’t handle more than about a dozen shots or so in reasonably rapid succession before it cuts out to take a breather – unclear whether this is due to the capacitor’s limitations, or an overheat protection system of some sort to prevent your prism catching fire (which would probably be a fatal disaster considering the camera is both touching your face and made of highly inflammable magnesium.)

I’m looking forward to the quality the D800 brings, though I can’t say I’m so enthused about the amount of retouching it will require – especially for watches and other similar product. But for food, bring it on! MT

I will be attending the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore at the end of April to conduct some sessions for Leica; details to come soon. MT

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  1. Ming, These pictues are amazing. I want to eat all of the food.

  2. It is lunch time and I should not see these photos. My tummy feels like empty again :-). Just of curiousity, why you choose AFS 60/2.8 G Micro and not Zeiss lenses? Wouldn’t the 3D effects from Zeiss will make the food more tantalising?

  3. Neat post Ming 🙂

    With your food assignments, what kind of light modifiers do you use (if any) with your flashes?

    • Thanks! I use umbrellas, diffuser panels and bounces (depending if the ambient color is something I can use or not). I’m also using more and more LED light panels as I find they’re more food-friendly with the lower temperature and everything…

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