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.


Winslow’s Home is a great little restaurant and general store that has a seasonal menu (breakfast, lunch and dinner) as well as prepared food, local produce, and all kinds of neat kitchenware, “home essentials” and gifts. The dining room is a really neat space with table seating throughout the store, tucked in right next to the merchandise. In other words, a really cool space to shoot it. Unfortunately, Winslow’s Home was being featured in another article in the same issue of Feast as I was shooting for, so the art director and editor asked me to make a portrait of Chef in his kitchen. So there I was, at lunchtime with the tiny kitchen in full swing.

Now, when I say tiny kitchen, I mean tiny. Add in four or five cooks preparing food, a dishwasher, and waitstaff running in and out, and you’ve got a chaotic situation. And the prospect of trying to set up lights in there was not something I relished. Adding a giant umbrella or softbox into that space was out of the question – there simply wasn’t enough room with all of the activity going on in there. Not to mention: where the hell was I going to put myself to get the shot?

The solution I came up with turned out to be technically simple in theory but a bit harder to execute. The first thing I did was figure out how to compose and frame my shot. I felt that a shot through the service window from the coffee station into the kitchen was my best bet. Compositionally I found it interesting, plus it allowed me to be out of that tiny kitchen and out of the way (here is one photographer who didn’t want to get hit in the face with a piping hot chicken pot pie while he’s trying to work).

I took a single speedlite on my tiny Manfrotto 5001B Light Stand and wedged it into a corner of the kitchen off to camera left in a little nook right behind the dishwasher. Without a modifier like an umbrella or softbox, the small speedlite makes very hard light. In order to diffuse that light, I fired the speedlite on an angle to a (luckily) white wall. This transformed the small hard light into a giant soft key for lighting the chef. Then I took a second speedlite, put on those little plastic feet that come with it and tucked it onto a shelf on the opposite side of the kitchen on a high shelf over Chef’s left shoulder. This time I wanted the light to be hard, so I focused the beam with a grid.

The position of my lights was not random. If you notice in the photograph, there is a large bright window on camera right (where I put the kicker) and set of glass doors letting in light on camera left. In reality, neither of these windows was bright enough to illuminate Chef’s face, however, I placed my lights in spots so that they are positioned relative to the existing light sources. This makes my artificial light read as though it could be coming from those windows and doors. When placing your lights, the goal should be for the viewer to think about the photograph, not about a speedlite bouncing off a wall or sitting on a shelf. Make sense?

Those lights covered the kitchen – everything was well illuminated for the shot. But 75 percent of my shot is outside of the kitchen. I considered putting another speedlight outside to bring up the tones in the areas outside the kitchen, but I didn’t think it would be possible to light it in a natural way – again, I don’t want my lighting system to distract from the subject matter. There was also the fact of all of the people running around in the kitchen. If they were crisp and clear it would be a distraction in the photo. So I opted for the technique called “dragging the shutter.” When you use a speedlite or strobe, the flash exposure is so quick that you can effectively freeze your subject, even with a long shutter speed. This means that you can expose for the ambient with a longer exposure time while keeping the areas lit by the strobe sharp. This also means that anything moving that isn’t illuminated by the strobe will blur, which can be a cool effect. A word of warning though: in order to avoid a halo effect, your subject (illuminated by the strobes) needs to stand very still. And you have to have steady hands or a tripod. I shot this image at 1/30th of a second, handheld, with the help of my image stabilized lens. That thing makes me feel like a zen master. As you can see, the woman walking through the frame appears blurred while Chef is nice and crisp. The movement of the other people in shot adds more visual interest to the shot.

Chef Cary McDowell in the kitchen at Winslow's Home in St. Louis. Photograph by Jonathan Gayman.
Chef Cary McDowell in the kitchen at Winslow’s Home in St. Louis. Photograph by Jonathan Gayman.

Photography Tips and Techniques

  • Lighting set up: Two Canon 580ExII speedlites
  • Key Light: Bare speedlite bounced off of a wall makes a small hard light into a large soft light
  • Fill Light: Ambient
  • Kicker or Rim Light: Small Gridded speedlite Light fired directly at the subject from behind adds separation from the background and visual interest
  • Light Position: The speedlites were positioned in relation to existing light sources to add realism
  • “Dragging the shutter”: Using a slow shutter speed with a fast strobe freezes the action where the strobe illuminates the subject, while allowing for ambient light to fill in and for motion blur.


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