The Kiwi cocktail at Urban in St. Louis.

Dramatic Cocktail, Dramatic Lighting Technique

At the end of June and the beginning of July, I worked on a large project for Feast magazine which involved about sixteen individual shoots all over St. Louis. It was a whirlwind of shoots in a very short period of time (about ten days including the July 4th holiday) and so each shoot had to be short and sweet. There wasn’t a whole lot of time to carefully plan out each shot and test lighting schemes. I had to arrive on location, get set up and get the shot. Fast.

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On Assignment: Lighting in Tight Spaces

If you can’t stand the heat … get out of the kitchen.

When I’m booking editorial photo shoots for restaurants, whether it’s food or portraits of the chef, I usually try to book the shoots for a time when the kitchen is slow so as not to upset service. After all, these establishments are taking time out of their busy schedules to accomodate this guy marching in and taking over their space for a while. Plus it generally makes this a whole lot easier without customers around and kitchen staff bustling around knocking over my lights and body checking me out of the way. When I exchanged emails with Cary McDowel, the chef at Winslow’s Home, about scheduling a portrait he told me to come on by at 11:30am. Which is pretty much when their lunch service starts winding up. Challenge? You betcha.

 

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Salt and Pepper Shakers

Food Photography Tips: Using Salt and Pepper Shakers as Stand-Ins

If you’re shooting food for a commercial client, before you get to the actual shot you have plenty of time to prepare. You start by building your set and lighting scheme, you get your camera set, and then, using a stand-in dish, you tweak every detail until everything is exactly the way you (and the client) want it to be. Then the stylist prepares the “hero” version of the dish and you shoot it while everything is hot, perfect and beautiful. When shooting an editorial assignment, however, you usually don’t have that luxury.

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On-Assignment: St. Louis Magazine’s 50 Best Dishes

There is a lot of really excellent food in St. Louis, but with my work schedule I don’t get to eat out as much as I would like. The great thing about being a food photographer though is that you get exposed to all sorts of great food that you might not otherwise simply by shooting assignments. This is the case when I got a call before the holidays in December from the art director at St. Louis Magazine, asking me to shoot several of the dishes in their 50 Best Dishes in St. Louis feature. I got to check out seven restaurants in the St. Louis area, and only one of them was a place I’d been before. I love exploring new places, and the project was a lot of fun.

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Food Photography Lighting Techniques

The brief for this project was simple: an overhead shot of each dish on a smooth, non-textured white surface with the goal of a studio-style shot on location at each individual restaurant. When you start to think about doing a series in this way, there are a number of factors that make this slightly more complicated than it sounds.

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The Surface

For starters, I was going to be photographing each dish in a different restaurant, so I couldn’t depend on having a smooth white surface handy to shoot on. This meant I had to bring the surface with me. So what surface would be best for something like this? Well, it needs to be inexpensive, durable and portable. In addition, since I like to get sloppy and spill some food on my surface while shooting it also has to be easy to clean. I ended up going with a piece of panel board from Home Depot at the bargain price of $12.97. This stuff is great. It is super durable, doesn’t stain or scuff, and is super cheap. I also use the same stuff for a slightly reflective floor surface when I do white seamless work.

Lighting and Equipment

The next challenge was lighting. Some of the restaurants had good windows and therefore good natural light,. But unfortunately it was December, and there isn’t much good light, and it was a dark and rainy week to boot. When possible I shot the dishes using natural light, but when natural light wasn’t available I substituted window light with a Canon 580Ex II speedlight and a large shoot through umbrella placed near the subject. For both natural light and artificial light I used both a large collapsable reflector along with a smaller white foamcore bounce card for fill.

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Strategy

Since I was only shooting seven of the fifty dishes, and since my shots would be paired with the work of other photographer who probably got the same brief as I did, I felt it was even more important for my shots to be consistent.

The first shoot in the series had great natural light. I used this one as a model for all of the other shots in the series. Based on that shot, I made sure that my key light came from the left in each shot, and from roughly the same angle. Since I was supplying my own surface and could shoot with either natural or artificial light, it didn’t really matter where in the restaurant I set up. By playing close attention to details, I was able to get that consistent studio-shot look at each location.

Curry Chicken at Bobo Noodle House in St. Louis for St. Louis Magazine

It was an awesome project to be part of. If you haven’t already, grab the latest copy of St. Louis Magazine for the lowdown on their choices for best dishes in St. Louis!

To Crop or Not to Crop

Cropping in photography is an important tool that can be used to change the meaning of a photograph, by drawing the viewer’s attention to a different part of the image than in the un-cropped version. Digital photography has made cropping easy as pie. Heck, these days, you can even crop your photos on your cell phone in seconds. The question is, should a professional photographer crop his photos or not?

Shortly after I first starting shooting professionally, I was invited to attend a critique session with a small group of fellow photographers in New York City. A friend of mine hosted the gathering his apartment – it was a casual affair with some beers and whiskey and laughter. I was feeling very cool to be hanging out with photographers – I’d only been shooting for money for a year or so and was feeling quite proud to consider myself a peer to all of these cool people. Photographers are inherently cool, right? Right?

These cool photographers were all either photo-journalists, art photographers or both. We viewed slide-shows of each of our work – the photographic styles ranged the gamut from truly artsy-fartsy photography and hard-hitting journalism on one end of the scale to my more commercial work on the other.

At one point one of the most successful photojournalists at the event declared that she never crops an image and that a true photographer captures an image in the frame or not at all. “Anyone who crops their photographs is a hack”, she said, “because they don’t really see what they are photographing.”

I remember getting very quiet at that point. Clearly I could not admit that I was cropping nearly 100% of all of my images. I was spending a lot of time on post-production in fact, cropping and tweaking my images until they were perfect. The idea of delivering a no-cropped photograph to a client seemed … well … crazy. Holy crap. What if all these cool people found out I cropped? Would they think I was a hack? Never mind that even to this day, the question of whether I’m a hack or not is an almost daily consideration. I now know that comes with the territory of being a photographer. But did I need to be so hard on myself? For the almighty sin of cropping?

Back then I relied on all of the advice I could get (and still do) from other photographers and hearing a statement like that from a fellow photographer threw me through a loop. It is always tough to be told that you’re doing something wrong, particularly by someone who you have just met and want to impress. The thing is, I wasn’t even sure if it was wrong, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I was too inexperienced to question the seasoned photographer’s opinion. I left that critique feeling like dirt, because despite my ability to produce good images, in my mind they were somehow tainted by my use of post-production.

These days I have become a lot more philosophical about the whole issue: the bottom line is that if I need to crop an image to sell it to an editor or client … I’m gonna crop that image. This is the essence of being a commercial photographer: deliver the image that the client has paid you to make, on-time and on-budget. End of story.

When I started thinking about cropping recently, I realized something interesting about my work. Without any real conscious thought about it, I almost never crop. When I do it is usually small tweaks to straighten out an the skyline in a portrait or to clip out an unsightly crumb or piece of flatware that has sneaked into the corner of a food shot. Don’t get me wrong though, the reason I don’t crop isn’t one of artistic purity of thought or some other such nonsense. The simple fact is that over time I have become better at seeing the shot that I want to make without having to go back and crop it later.

The ironic thing is that I think that I got to this point BECAUSE of all of the cropping that I did as a beginner. I taught myself how to see a better image by playing around with the photographs I made, and as time went on, I was able to get closer and closer to framing the image correctly in-camera. I would also go so far as to say that when I do find myself spending a lot of time cropping an image or a series of images it is because I wasn’t as successful capturing the subject as I would have liked to be, and am just trying to make a the proverbial silk purse out of a sow’s ear. When this happens I need to be aware of it and need to spend some time figuring out how to do better the next time around.

If you feel an image needs to be cropped, go ahead and crop it. There is no shame in trying to publish the best image possible. You will not get kicked out of the photography club for cropping (anyone who tells you that you are doing something “wrong” with photography is not thinking clearly). I personally find that if I can make the image I want to make in-camera it means less time at my computer working on post-production and more time behind the lens.

Just remember that if you are cropping every single image you’re shooting, then perhaps you are using it as a bit of a crutch to get through. Spend some time studying the images you’ve cropped and see if you can figure out how you might make the same photo without cropping the next time. At the very least it will save you some time in post.

The bottom line, however, is that the only thing that matters is that final image, and it doesn’t really matter how you get there.

Going Farther

There is nothing more satisfying than making a photograph that you are really excited about. When I make a shot that really inspires me, I usually make a hardcopy print, and keep going back to it over and over again to relive the excitement. Sometimes I even put the hardcopy on my bed side table so I can look at it again in the morning when I wake up. This excitement fades however, usually much quicker than I would like, and is followed by a kind of creative depression.

A couple of days ago I made some images for my food blog that I was very pleased with. I felt that I had made a big step forward in the food work that I have been shooting lately. I was proud of the care and attention to detail I’d taken, the new direction I was taking my photography. That feeling of pride lasted until I woke up the next morning and decided the images were terrible, uninspired and worthless. This, of course, is nonsense. I should still be proud of the photographs, because they are a big step forward in both my technical skill and in my processes. They are images I should be proud of. Yet the aftermath of creative success is usually followed by a low point where I think everything that I do sucks. Then I stare out the window and wonder how could I be so stupid to consider a career in photography at all. I’ve been shooting professionally for many years now, and this happens on a regular basis.

I had a conversation about this with a friend who is a fine artist, and he admitted that this often happens to him too: he loves his work as soon as it is done, and then later (in a day, in a week, in five minutes) when that high of creating something wonderful starts to wear off, he immediately start picking apart the work and finding the flaws. Essentially, he loves his work up until the point that it is finished, and then he starts to hate it, and to want to do better.

The only true way to combat this post-creative depression is to figure out how to go farther. Ira Glass from This American Life did a piece a while back on creativity and one quote in particular has been making the rounds on the interwebs for quite some time. He said:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just NOT THAT GOOD. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your TASTE, the thing that got you into the game is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is DO A LOT OF WORK. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one piece. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s NORMAL to take awhile. You just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass

It really is an insightful sentiment. I like to think that I will never truly be out of the phase that Ira is talking about, because I never want to stop improving. I feel like every single photograph that I make, or at least every single shoot that I get needs to be better than the last one. I need to go father and to keep building. This is why the photograph I made yesterday isn’t going to be as satisfying as the photograph I’m going to make tomorrow. Each shot that I make teaches me something, even if that “something” is nearly imperceptible – it will show up in my photographs. Does this mean I will never make bad photographs? Certainly not. There is no way around making bad photographs, because the process of making those bad photographs is the process you go through to make the good ones.

The photographs I made earlier in the week? They are pretty good. I have every right to be proud of them, and in time I will. The reality is though, that they are not as good as the photographs I’m going to make tomorrow, and they are certainly not as good as the photographs that I’m going to make next year, or the year after that. Learning how to do more, be better and to go farther is what this profession is all about.

Photography 101: Test Your Equipment

Today is the start of my second full week in Saint Louis. I had this little app on my iPhone that I was using to countdown the days until the move when I was still in New York and I realized that after it hit zero, it changed over from “days until” to “days since”. I was going to trash the app, but then I decided to just let it keep ticking away. The movers delivered all of our stuff, including the bulk of my photography gear on July first, and I’ve spent a lot of time packing and organizing, and not a lot of time shooting. It is now Day 13 in St. Louis today, and I felt it was high time to make sure that all of my photography gear is functional after the move. I also wanted to make sure that everything was in the correct place, nothing was missing, and that I would be able to do what I need to do on a shoot. There is nothing worse than getting to a shoot and realizing that a piece of equipment is either broken or missing.

In my experience, the best way to truly make sure that you have all of your photography gear in your bag and that everything is working is to stage an actual photo shoot, from start to finish. It is one thing to look at your bag and go through the inventory. It is another thing to take everything out, build a set and make some pictures. This is especially important when working with kits you haven’t used as much as others, or maybe kits you thought you knew but haven’t used in a while.

Case in point: last week Dr. Fiance asked me to make a quick headshot for her lab website. When I pulled out my speedlight kit and built the set, I realized I was missing a few crucial items. If this had been a client situation, I would have been in trouble. I went online and ordered what I needed – and when everything gets here I’ll run through another test shoot, just to be sure.

For today’s test shoot, I unpacked and tested my middle level light kit, which includes a couple of Alienbees. In the past I’ve used the Alienbee radio system to trigger my Alien Bee Strobes, but at some point the battery died and I never replaced it since I always use PocketWizards these days anyhow. After I’d set up the AB800 with a softbox and had it in place, I realized that the Alienbees take the small PC cords, while my other monolights take the large connector. Turns out I don’t have the correct cord to use with my PWs. Not a big deal, I have a standard sync cord and made it work, although working tethered with a sync cord is really annoying.

This test illustrates the importance of real world testing versus just checking things off an equipment list (which is important too). As a side note: you should always have a couple of sync cords handy when you go on location. You never know when you’re going to get interference from some outside source messin’ with your Pocket Wizards. Nothing beats a direct cable in a pinch.

So I unloaded all of my equipment out into my fantastic new studio space and got to work. If you’ve never worked in your own studio, there is nothing better than having room to move around when building a set without bumping into walls and ceilings. The fact that my studio is also my apartment makes it even better. I turned on some tunes, and spent the morning and afternoon testing equipment and playing with various lighting setups. Unfortunately I only had one really funny lookin’ model to work with today, but you work with what you have, right? You know what I love about photography? You can even make a big tub of goo like me look like he’s got muscles just by using light (and conveniently hide his belly in shadow while you’re doing it). Lemme tell you something, photos can, and do, lie.

Nothing like spending the day taking pictures of yourself to make you feel like a narcissist…

DIY Small Format Snoot – Silver Edition

As I’ve mentioned before, a large part of my job is to make portraits of executives at my firm. The new visual identity for the firm which was officially launched today calls for environmental-style portraits rather than studio shots. The more of these that I do, the more I realize how similar all the shots in our office is becoming. There are only so many straight portraits I can make in our building before they all start looking the same.

I had to make a portrait of a new executive last week, and since she was able to give me 45 minutes (as opposed to five or ten minutes) I took the opportunity to explore a few alternative options to the basic conference room table shot.

For one of the shots, I opted to experiment with my home-made snoot which I made a few weeks ago and haven’t had a chance to play with before. Rather than using and old cereal box (which has become the blog-favorite material) I chopped up a silver pocket folder from an old design job that I had laying around. I put the silver-side in, and then taped up the outside with gaffers tape to make it look pretty. Then I added an extra strip of tape to the top with a piece of velcro to hold it snugly onto my 580EXII. The added velcro turned out to be very usefl when I was moving the light around during the shoot -I never had to worry about the snoot sliding off even though it was angled down on the subject.

DIY-Silver-Snoot

Initially I thought that the silver would help intensify the light, which would in turn allow me to use a lower setting and increase my recycle time. This turned out to be true. However, I got an interesting added bonus to the silver interior: the light when absolutely bonkers inside the snoot and came bouncing out in a really cool pattern on the wall behind the subject. The main light targeted the subject’s face where I aimed it while the secondary light patterns coming from the reflected interior shown on the wall with less intensity around her.
DIY Snoot - Silver edition

I love the hard shadow behind her and then the softer light patterns all through the frame. You can see where the direct light is hitting on her face and shoulder and then the lighter reflections all around. All this from just one light on 1/4 power. Obviously, in a situation where it would be more critical to focus the light to a specific area, my silver snoot wouldn’t work as well, but in a case like this it added much more depth to the portrait.