The Pleasures And Discomforts Of Control
Food Photography. The next chapter in photo assignments made me smile. I enjoy cooking and baking. I just haven’t had a chance to do much of either lately. And no, I didn’t launch into an early Christmas bakery spectacle. There will be a little sweet reward if you make it to the end of the post, though. No, I wanted to keep it simple and use some healthy treats to explore my kitchen photographically.
What I’ve learned is that food photography comes with control, and a lot of it. But control brings both pleasures and discomforts.
It all began with brainstorming. With a list of ideas of images and scenes to capture. Not everything went according to plan; of course. It would be quite dull if it did. So no need to go in the shame corner. But let’s get on with it.
Grapes — A Messy Set-Up
I wanted to play with shapes, light, and depth here. The set-up was messier than a Thanksgiving kitchen after an extended family feast. My kitchen — and very quickly my entire apartment — looked like a battlefield… but chaos inspires creativity, if I’ve got that right…
I didn’t feel like buying little decorative doodads to help the scene. The contents of my kitchen cabinets had to do. So I searched for props to present my subjects — the grapes.
I opted for a backing dish — a small one, small enough to fit into my mini oven, but just big enough to hold my 2-pound clump of grapes. The blueish/teal color harmonized not too badly with the grapes.
But it’s a bulky set-up. My quest for a more minimal surface ended with the top of my cheese grater. The shiny metal surface had the potential for some nice reflections. And the danger of shining a spot light on any residual water drops and smudges that might result from fiddling with the grapes in an effort to find the right composition. Choices.
I had my subject all prepped. But the kitchen counter was no good as far as a backdrop is concerned. How handy that I just have to make one step back to enter my high-tech home studio, aka my desk. I emptied it and worked on shielding the messy kitchen in the background. A piece of black cardboard came in handy. So did three storage boxes that I used to fix the cardboard in position (there’s a behind the scenes image in the next gallery).
Two speed lights, one to the left, one to the right, created the light. I had a foldable soft-box/beauty dish on one and a super high-tech diffusor, made of plain white paper, on the other. Sounds simple, but still takes time to set up and dial in the settings for a proper exposure. But I love that sort of thing. Lighting is a fascinating element of photography — I could lose myself in it. And before I do, I say let’s move on to the next subject.
Peppers — Shaping The Light
The biggest issue with the set-up so far was the light output. Balanced, not too harsh. But also not as defined as I wanted it to be. That’s the light modifier I used. The light spilled too much for what I had in mind. And I couldn’t introduce the shadows I had pre-visualized.
So, for the peppers I went back to the drawing board, slashed the soft box off the speed light, and replaced it with another homemade, custom-fit, paper model. Simple really: take a piece of white paper (black ideally, but I didn’t have that and, well, it still worked…), roll it up, stick it on your speed light, and keep it there with some gaffer tape. Congratulations, you’ve got yourself a snoot!
I also eliminated the second speed light so that I would have more dramatic light, a stronger contrast between light and shadow. From there, it was experimenting with different set ups.
Raw peppers, meaning the full-sized vegetables, as group and individual portraits. And I brought a gutted pepper back into the studio and used the two halves to hold one another. A first, careful attempt at personifying food. Like a couple holding one another. Maybe a bit of a stretch. But a first step. For a grown-up realization of that concept, check Edward Weston’s images of peppers.
Nevertheless, I like the compositions. And I love the light. The snoot allowed me to direct the light to a specific point with little spill. I am absolutely satisfied with the results.
Carrots — Not Making The Cut
Ah, yes. Carrots. Love them. Yummy and healthy. Photographically speaking, though, I didn’t feel the love. I struggled finding a composition I was satisfied with. Long and thin, they’re tricky to light. But I’ve tried. In various states, always thinking about turning this into a carrot sequence. But even that didn’t quite satisfy me too much.
I could have made better use of the SOOB-carrots (that’s straight out of bag… pardon the photography pun…1). But they’re all peeled and cut, partly gobbled up already. So we’re stuck with what I got. Judge for yourself.
Nuts — Good For The Heart
I still had half a bag of peanuts in the cabinet. A snack that’s good for the heart. Peeling them isn’t fun. But I don’t care. Mix ‘em with some raisins and you’ve got yourself a cheap and healthy snack.
I haven’t had a chance to bake yet, but photo assignments apparently means my baking dishes get some use anyway. Besides the shape, the color made sense to me, a perfect match for the nuts and the overall idea I had in mind for this session.
Once again, I transformed my kitchen into a studio. Cardboard, tape, you know the routine. I used a single speed light and my homemade snoot. The more you practice, the easier it gets. I like the results.
Tea — A Hasty Exercise In Relaxation
After so much work, how about a good cuppa? Go ahead. Pause. I’ll wait, won’t judge; promised. Personally, I enjoy a couple, or three, or four. Earl Grey preferred. So soothing. So vitalizing. Helps me get through long research, writing, and editing sessions. Every single time.
The set-up was rushed. My home chores had taken a detour that day. To an overcrowded supermarket more than 2 miles away; both ways on foot, loaded up with six 1.5 L water bottles and a 2-pound loaf of bread plus smaller gadgets for the next week in the kitchen — cause that is how I roll. But I’m digressing…
I erected another make-shift studio in the corner of my kitchen counter, holding the black cardboard in place with tape and the back of a chair.
The composition is rushed. I still hope the calmness that tea represents to me comes through a tiny bit at least. The 35mm lens was too wide for the small space/background. I would have needed much more cardboard or turn the table upside-down again. I didn’t have the former and wasn’t in the mood for the latter. So I opted for the 105mm and squashed myself against the fridge to get everything in frame.
I noticed the reflections on the cooktop and varied my angle to play with them. I also wanted to look into the cup, but that took the reflections out. The gallery above shows a few variations, all with ambient light, no flash.
Dessert — A Crumbly Delight
Final course: dessert. Cherry crumble to be precise. It was the first time I did some baking here in Prague. The kitchen was a mess, how could it be any other way? But I think it was worth it.
The set-up for the images was similar to the other shoots. Some of the images are a bit moodier, though. I opted for a lovely wooden cutting board as presentation surface. I find it makes for a nice setting. Here are the results.
Conclusion — Comfortable To Be Uncomfortable
Food Photography. A blessing and a curse. It’s fun to be in control. The setting, the subject, the light. But it’s also frustrating to have that much control. It’s time-consuming. Turning a room into a studio, setting up lights, fiddling with light modifiers, setting each individual scene. I’ve got images I’m satisfied with. And I’ve got images I’m not satisfied with. Just as it should be. Spending time with food photography this week has been all about learning through experimenting and accepting to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.