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

Salt and Pepper Shakers

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.

For editorial assignments at a restaurant, I am usually shooting during regular business hours, and while I always try to schedule this sort of shoot during the slower hours of the day (either before lunch or more often in the hours before dinner) there is always a lot going on. Whenever possible I try to work directly with the chef, however, restaurant kitchens are chaotic and busy places, and the chefs and staff that work in them are mainly concerned with keeping their shop running smoothly and making amazing food. So while it would be great if they could stop everything to help me with my shoot, they often don’t have the time.

As a result, I usually hand off a shot list to the manager or owner, who takes it back into the kitchen and the chef gets to work. When that food comes out, I have to start shooting immediately whether I’m ready or not because the half-life of food is very short. In general, you don’t have a whole lot of time to set up and very rarely do you get a fully plated stand-in dish to use to get your setup tweaked. If you don’t learn to work fast and get set up for a great shot quickly, your steaks are gonna dry out, your salads are gonna wilt and your souffles will deflate.*

When I arrive at the restaurant for shoot, I immediately start looking for a spot with visual interest, a nice surface and good light. This usually ends up being somewhere in the dining room. If there is natural light, I use it whenever possible or I set up lights. In either case, I want to have a pretty good idea of what my lighting scheme will look like before the actual food comes out. Experience plays a big part in how I prepare for the hero dishes – I usually have a general idea of the look I want and I can key in my lighting pretty quickly. But it is always easier when you can test your setup before the actual food comes out.

I used to ask for empty plates to use as stand-ins while I got set up, but found that they don’t always work very well. Plates are often a single color (white), so you don’t get a good idea of your highlights and shadows, and they are flat, which doesn’t give you any help with modeling the food (which will be three dimensional). These days, when I need a stand-in I reach for the salt and pepper shakers almost every time.

Salt and pepper shakers have a wide variety of characteristics that you may encounter in a plated dish including:

  • Nearly all restaurants have salt and pepper shakers on the table, so it’s an easy go-to stand in that doesn’t require you to bug the wait staff too much.
  • The pepper is dark and the salt is light. A perfect way to check shadows and highlights.
  • Shakers usually are usually made of glass or metal, a perfect way to check for specular highlights.

If you use the salt and pepper shakers as stand-ins, when the chef’s carefully prepared beautiful dishes come flying out of the kitchen you will be ready to shoot, and hopefully you’ll be good to go.

*Ok, lets be honest, your souffles are going to deflate no matter what you do. Probably the most frustrating dish I’ve ever had to photograph; you literally have about 30 seconds.

Feast Magazine: April 2012
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  1. What a great tip! I would have never thought of that. Thanks for sharing. Do you shoot tethered at a restaurant, or do you just refer to your camera’s display to check the shot?

  2. No, I don’t shoot tethered when shooting at a restaurant – there usually isn’t enough time or space to set it up. The LCD on the back of the camera is all I use. 🙂

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