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Thursday, 16 May 2013

Food for thought

Mmmmm...This looks a bit different! I mean different from my usual fare of outdoor sports subjects. I accept that it's pretty normal fare for food photography.
Anyway, this month's post is about tackling a subject that is a bit outside of your comfort zone and the main theme here is that photographers are generally well served by having a broad range of skills and experience even (especially?) when they are pretty niche like me.

I trained as a high street studio tea boy/assistant in a general practice, which meant pack-shots, passports and portraits in the week and weddings at the weekend. Not a particularly exciting start to my career and yet, at the time, I counted myself very lucky just to be using a camera each day to pay the rent and learn new skills. On the other hand I also got a chance to do aerial photography surveys and shoot the Isle of Man TT races each year - so not all bad.

And in fact, as it turns out, all of this was good training. Because although I knew from my very first wedding photography experience that I was not going to be making a glittering career in the wedding game, I did realise that I was learning useful skills. Like how to manage a large group of reluctant, mostly drunk wedding guests in group photo; how to balance flash and unsuitably bright daylight on wedding dress/black suit combo and stay calm and carry on when I discovered I'd miss-loaded the film in the back of Hasselblad. Ah, happy days. Another skill I learned back in the day was how to light a studio still life and that has stood me in good stead ever since.

As a jobbing freelance photographer who happens to specialise in outdoor stuff,  I take what comes, which in this case turned out to be 14 plates of hotel food. Without that early training in the studio I might well have been out of my depth on something like this but happily I'm OK with stuff like this. Makes a nice little challenge actually - I get to stay warm and dry.

Normally, food photography (done professionally) involves a chef and food stylist, in a studio kitchen, along with a host of props, lighting aids and background accessories (and a photographer of course!). Food is photographed the moment it emerges from the oven; Chemicals and gases are employed to emphasize texture, colour, steam or frost. On this shoot, this would not be happening. I was introduced to the chef who explained in a friendly and helpful way that he'd been in earlier and that all the food was ready and waiting (?) and I could get on in my own time  when I was ready. It sounded like the food would be cold...and so it turned out to be.

Photographers are by necessity problem solvers. The problem here would be to produce appetizing, contemporary, eye-catching images of cold plates of food. My solution was to construct a setting using white table cloths and linen, next to a large window for ambient light and use some simple off-camera flash from speed-lights, and crucially, a wide aperture/small depth-of-field approach to highlight only the most visually interesting or colourful bits of the plate. If you look at a lot of modern, contemporary food photography, you can't help noticing the vogue for short DOF images, sometimes shot so close they're practically macro!

My set-up was pretty simple. I measured the ambient light level from the window light and set my flash power to an appropriately low level so as not to over-power it; somewhere around 1/8th power mostly. I wanted to compliment the ambient light not exclude it. I used an SB800 through an umbrella on a stand at about two meters away to fill in the shadow side and an SB600 with a grid, on a stand in the background to add a bit of directional sparkle or highlight, depending on the type of dish. It's hard to be too specific because I moved things around quite a bit and experimented with each dish but essentially that was the  plan. I shot everything at f5.6 on a Nikkor 28-300 VRll/Nikon D700 combo. This seemed to do the trick although I did consider pulling out the 50mm f1.4 and just shooting the whole thing with ambient only.
With the cold "hot" food out of the way, the dessert menu provided a bit more colour and it's here that the little SB600 gridded flash really worked out. See that bit sparkle on the wine glass stem? That's the SB600, that is.
I think the whole 'white' theme works pretty well with this lot although I've seen some really nice food photography done with deep, rich colours too. There's quite a nice blog on contemporary food photography with hints and tips at which I enjoyed reading.

Overall, I enjoyed my adventure with food and for a photographer like me (in other words - well out of normal operating territory) I'm pretty happy with my results - the client certainly was, which helps. The secret weapon for me, when ever I get thrown one of these left-field jobs, is having the tools in the bag to tackle whatever comes up and by "tools' I don't mean camera, lens and flash; I mean time-served experience and the ability to handle it because you've tried it before. I tell all my students in workshops and at college that all photography is good for you; doesn't matter what kind it is, give it a go, it'll teach you something new. Oh, and I also remind them that experience is the thing you get just after you really needed it!

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