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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Cajun Creole Garden Party

Dodging a Rainy Bullet

St. Louis weather always keeps me guessing. Blistering heat one day, then cold and dreary the next. Toss in the odd tornado and/or momentous thunderstorm and you’ve got your average spring week here in Missouri. Such was the case in late April when I photographed a Cajun/Creole garden party for Feast magazine. The brief was fairly straight forward: several local chefs with New Orleans backgrounds would all be attending a backyard party, along with their families. Each chef would being a cajun/creole dish (potluck style) and I would photograph them eating and talking and generally having a good time. And oh yeah, it would be outside, rain or shine.

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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.


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.


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.



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!

Returning to Normality

Airport, by Jonathan Gayman.

As you can probably tell from my previous posts and also from the silence around the blog that I’ve been hella-busy for the last month. A number of large projects all hit at roughly the same time and I have been on the road more than I’ve been home. I have been to 17 cities since mid-August, and some of those cities I’ve been to multiple times. I am very excited about all of the work, but I am not going to lie, it has been a tough schedule to keep up with.

You never really think about how this much travel can affect you, but one thing I’ve found is that with this much business travel you start to stop thinking of the days of the week as Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. Instead, you find yourself thinking of the city you’re supposed to be in that day … LA-day, Boston-day, Montreal-day … And don’t get me started on time zones. We are creatures of habits, and your body knows that something is wrong, even if your phone always has the correct time. I saved my clients a ton of money on meals since I rarely ate while I was on the road, mainly because my body couldn’t figure out what time it was.

I was going to put a list of travel-related complaints but then decided that this comic does a much better job than I ever could. Check it out.

I still have a few trips on deck, but the majority of the travel is over for now. I’m working my way back into my normal work routine, which these days is filled with accounting, receipts, invoices and other non-photography related fun. With any luck I’ll find a break in the paperwork to do some real work, behind the lens.*

*Yesterday I went out for a couple hours to explore the city with my Holga. I took a couple of rolls of film which now needs to be developed. I forgot the excitement/frustration of not having instant gratification with your images when working with film.

On Being Prepared

There is no such thing as being prepared enough. As evidenced by shoot yesterday, nothing I did in advance could help me when the assignment went off the reservation. On one shoot, no amount of prep prepared me for the fact that the subject showed up with her own backdrop and props. I had not been prepped thoroughly in advance and probably looked like a stammering idiot when she rolled out the backdrop).

But no matter what happens, you’ve got to think on your feet with this job. Even if the client shows up with their own set, you’ve got to stay calm, take things in stride and get the shot. The more times you get blind sided the better prepared you are for being not prepared.

Fist Model Test

JG-Lighttest01One of my shoots last week was for the current and previous three chairmen of the client company. It was a tough shoot, due to the fact that I was working alone as I frequent am, and the fact that these were very busy and important guys. I was able to get into the space and hour or so before the shoot and spent the entire time, right up until the point where the clients walked into the room setting up as many different shots as possible. This was fairly difficult to do alone, and I was sweating the last set up, to be sure. When I’m working alone, I frequently use my hand to see how my light is falling (fist versus flat hand to be a little closer to a round head) and then usually I try to step in front of the camera myself. However, I don’t like to use a tripod, so it’s often just quicky hand held shot. It’s not ideal, but working alone without an assistant, I’d rather have a goofy shot of myself as a general guide then walking in blind when the client arrives.

I’ll post the final shots from the session once they are published.


It’s been a busy week, and today was the first day back in the office. My last assignment before the long weekend was in Minneapolis, and after some trials and a frightening run in with a corrupt flash card, I’m back. Overall I feel pretty good about the shoots thus far and now I’m getting keyed up for a grueling few weeks of almost non-stop shoots. It’s going to be intense, but I’m liking the work. I’m evening getting some variety in there, so more to come.

In the meantime, here is a shot from the nearly lost corrupt flash card of Minneapolis in the morning…kinda has a sci-fi feel, no?



I am in Chicago for a shoot, then off to Minneapolis this afternoon for another shoot. It’s hectic and I’m tired of traveling alone – the excitement of traveling for photography has worn off. I miss Dr. Girlfriend and I’m ready to come home. The work itself is still exciting. I even got up early this morning to get some exterior shots of the Willis Tower (formally the Sears tower) as part of the project. I really like this one…

Willis Tower, Morning

Corporate Event Photography

One of the aspects of my job is to shoot events. It’s one of the things that I am least good at, and although when I look at my work over the years it’s clear that I’m improving, at the end I feel unsatisfied. I am never 100% happy with the work I produce at these things, and I always feel like I should be doing better. Which is to say that I think more seasoned event photographers would do better than me.

Now, a note on that last statement. I am not talking about wedding photography when I say events. I’m talking about corporate event photography. And while I risk starting a flame war here, I would be willing to say that there are far more competent wedding photographers than there are competent corporate event photographers. When I try to locate examples and tips and advice about event photography, it is almost always about weddings, which is an entirely different animal to your basic corporate event.

Let me break this down a bit. At a wedding, people expect, if not beg, to have their photo taken. There is an understanding that having your photo taken at a wedding is part of the gift you are giving the bride and groom to remember their day, and that to avoid the camera would be depriving them of their happy memories. The photog usually is able to use flash, have an assistant, and have a dedicated period of time for photography (for at least the wedding party). And for the guests there is usually tons of booze making it easy to forget about the photographer.

At a corporate event things are very different. First, there isn’t any booze, at least during the day sessions. And if there is booze at the cocktail hours and dinners, they don’t want anyone having their picture taken while they’re drinking, so you have to get creative to crop out wine glasses etc. But most of all, people don’t really want to have their photos taken at corporate events. They are there to work, and not to have fun. Sometimes they fake having fun if they need to for their jobs, but they don’t want photographic evidence of it.

So here’s the problem that I face. I walk into the room usually with a slightly hostile crowd who doesn’t want their photo taken in the first place. Furthermore, they are generally sitting listening to a lecture, or taking notes, or sleeping. Hard to get exciting shots under those circumstances. There isn’t time for me to build up a rapport, or to be there passively for so long that they get used to me. I have a short period of time to build a library of images for the client, so I can’t mess around. And then there is the problem of how to get the types of shots that I want from a technical standpoint.

What kind of shots do I want? I want candid expressions, people interacting. I want shots of people who have forgotten that they are on camera and are reacting to the event in a natural way. These events usually take place in large hotel ball rooms which generally don’t have windows, and do have very high ceilings. For me, this makes lighting a particularly tough challenge.

Option one is to use on-camera flash. This is particularly difficult for a number of reasons. First, your standard speedlight, although powerful, is very small in comparison to the size of the room. In order for me to get the quality of light I am looking for, I have to be very close to my subjects. However, this usually isn’t possible because hotels generally pack tables so close together for these events that it is very difficult to navigate more than the edges of the room, and there would be large portions of the room that my flash won’t reach. Not to mention the fact that I’d really be getting into people’s faces, which wouldn’t get me the shots that I want. And the constant flashes would be a distraction to the people at the conference.

Off camera flash? The only way I could think of doing this would be to set up a series of fill strobes to raise the ambient light in the whole room, while at the same time being hidden enough so that I can shoot from any angle. But then I’m faced with the same problem of the lights causing a distraction.

Last week I photographed a tax event for college students that my company sponsored. 100+ students listening to lectures and doing team-building activities. After a few stuttering tries to capture the event using my on-camera strobe, I put it away for the rest of the event and decided to shoot the whole event using available light, long exposures, and high ISOs. I shot most of the event using my new 70-200 with image stablization and I couldn’t be happier with the that! Having been used to the non-stablilzed 70-200 I felt like a zen master, snapping crystal clear shots at 200mm at 50/second, handheld. This may not be that exciting for some people, but for someone without super-steady hands this was a real breakthrough for me.

Discover Tax Conference

As you can see, even though I’m using the high ISO, I was able to get some great detail (click on the image to see the full sized sample on Flickr).  For the pixel peepers, sure, when blown up these images are a bit grainy. You won’t be seeing them on giant billboards or even large posters any time soon but the quality is more than enough for my client and what they were looking for. I shot all of these images with available light on a Canon 5D on or around 800-1000 ISO.

So what happens if the client does need better quality? What if they needed to use these images larger? That’s when I’d start to sweat, and would probably tell the client that it wasn’t something I could do.  One part of me is like, anything more than I was delivered is asking too much and I shouldn’t worry about it. But the other part of me wants to be able to solve the problem. I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else has any ideas I could try when photographing these kinds of events. Again, the challenges to be over-come are:

  • Large, windowless hotel ballrooms with overall low ambient light
  • Inabilitiy to get close to the subjects due to layout of the room and/or semi-hostile attitude towards the photog
  • Flash photography could distract from the event