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.