Each month I am luckily enough to shoot a column for Feast Magazine called What We’re Buying. The column focuses on a variety of products from a variety of different manufacturers that tie-in together as a theme. In the April issue, the focus was on spring and gardening, so the art director and I set about creating a quaint country potting shed … in my downtown urban studio.
Let’s be honest, sometimes corporate head shots can be pretty dry. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in many cases a corporate portrait is a way to show professionalism and success. This usually means a portrait of the subject in a suit looking, well, professional and successful. The trick with corporate head shots is keep an open mind and look for opportunities to make a dramatic portrait when your client gives you a little more flexibility.
This is exactly what happened while working for Clayco, a construction management and design company based here in St. Louis. Unlike the standard cubicles and offices you find in most corporate headquarters, the Clayco building is a showcase of their architecture and design capabilities, and as such has a lot of really cool glass walls, industrial materials, open spaces and in general is a really fun place to shoot.
The first thing that I do when I’m setting up a portrait is to scout out the area where I’m going to shoot to find something cool and unique. When shooting corporate portraits this can be a bit tough. Beige cubicles are the norm in office construction and let me just tell you that they are no fun to shoot in. As a way to get around this I generally take a walk around the office and try to find something that will give my photo a little more interest – with a little luck I can usually find a lobby or a hallway that will do the trick.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…