The great thing about digital photography is that we are no longer bound 12, 24, or 36 frames at a time. And we don’t need to waste time during setup to snap a few polaroids. And yes, as a commercial photographer, it is in my best interest to be economical with my shots if for no other reason than the amount of time needed to edit 1000 shots is obviously much great than 100 shots. That said, however, I’m not afraid to keep shooting until I’m sure I’m got the shoot, and more importantly, until the client is sure as well.
Being creative and finding the perfect shot is the photographer’s job. Period. When you accept a job, you also accept the responsibility for taking ordinary situations and turning them into something amazing. This is why the client has hired you and this is why you charge the rates that you do – because not everyone can do this. Therefore, you, as photographer are the master of the universe and all creative decisions that you haven’t thought up yourself are crap.
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.
Back in July, I undertook a daunting project for Feast magazine: documenting Mexican tiendas (grocery stores) and the taquerias that reside there. Why was it daunting? Well, these tiendas were located all over the metro area, and I discovered that while everyone was incredible to work with, there was significant language barrier to deal with. I found that it was tough to schedule appointments over the phone, so I had to do at least one, and in some cases several in-person visits to set up the photo shoots. It should be noted though, the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of English being spoken at these joints is a plus rather than a negative: rather, it speaks to the authenticity of the food that is prepared and served at these tiendas. In this day of Chi Chis, Taco Hell and all of the other chain restaurants, real Mexican food is savory, refreshing and simply amazing.
Another of the fun assignments I got to shoot last month was a quick portrait of Rob Uyemura for Sauce Magazine. Rob is the executive chef at Yia Yia’s Eurobistro in Chesterfield. Rob reviewed several cookbooks about fresh-from-the-soil produce and the creative brief was for a portait of him cooking out of one of the cookbooks. According to Rob his kitchen wasn’t photo-ready, so I ended up shooting him in his backyard grilling up some lovely ribs and some really delicious looking produce that he’d just picked from his garden.
I love living downtown but I would kill for a garden. Growing up in PA, I always had access to fresh vegetables and fruits straight from my dad’s garden – nothing tastes quite like fresh picked corn, tomatoes and onions. Maybe I can talk my building into letting me put a garden on the roof deck that no one uses …
Recently I had the chance to meet local artisan Jermain Todd, who I photographed for Sauce magazine. Jermain owns Mwanzi, an eco-friendly design-build-supply firm. Among other things, Jermain makes really excellent furniture out of local wood, whether it’s reclaimed or trees he acquires from people around town who need to cut them down for whatever reason. You’ll be able to eat on some of his tables at the new Pi in the Mercantile Exchange downtown. I met up with Jermain at another small business, WunderWoods in St. Charles where he was going to pick up the wood for the Pi tables. Jermain is a cool guy, the type of guy you want making your furniture for you – the shoot was a lotta fun.
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.
I have a fascination with the food culture, which is one of the reasons I jumped at the chance to photograph some of the influential people in the St. Louis food scene for a feature in Feast Magazine. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the people that I photographed for this project was mayor of St. Louis, Francis G. Slay. I also photographed chefs, business owners, architects and sommeliers. I love doing studio portraiture, and this project ties right into my focus on the people who live, breathe, and eat the food industry.
Here are a few of the local food crew I photographed back in December.
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!
Even though it hasn’t been super cold in St. Louis so far this winter, there have been a few chilly days. If you’re looking for some comfort food, take a trip to the Central West End to Dressel’s Public House. It’s a cozy pub (with a fireplace) that has some delicious cold weather food. In the evening, check out the second floor bar which is our favorite place to hang out.
Below are some outtakes from an assignment I photographed at Dressel’s for Sauce magazine last month. They have this amazing deconstructed Shephard’s Pie that is served in a skillet which you’ve got to try. Delicious and beautiful.