Easy Light for an Easy Recipe
The lighting and set up for this shot is the essence of simplicity. My food stylist, Linsey Bell, suggested that we break open a coconut to form the bowls for both the chocolate and the fruit, and to convey the idea of the coconut milk. She had also picked up the big tropical leaf at her local florist while she was shopping. All I really had to do was arrange these beautiful items and light them. I knew from experience that I wanted my light to be very soft in order to bring out the texture of the chocolate and not to create harsh shadows. So I set up a very large (4ft. x 5ft.) soft box and placed it behind my table. This combination of a very large light source and placement behind the subject creates a great sense of texture and richness without being too contrasty. I used a large gold reflector to bounce some warm light into the shadows and give the coconut that warm glow. I also added a small, shiny gold reflector to bounce more light into the coconut and prevent the chocolate from going too dark.
When I looked at the test shot I like the sense of texture but I felt that it was too even over all, I needed a bit of shadowing in areas. I stacked a couple of bricks just out of frame behind the leaf to cast some shadows around the corners of the shot, and that seemed to give a nice sense of depth to the background. You can see in these two shots the difference that just that little shadow makes.
I know that it’s easy to add in those kinds of shadows later in Photoshop, but the purist (and long-time film shooter) in me still prefers to get the light and atmosphere right in the moment of capture rather than adding it later.
I did however decide to do a bit of Photoshop enhancement, using what I call a richness layer. The technique is fairly simple. I duplicate the background layer, then apply a threshold adjustment, which creates a high contrast black-and-white version of the image. I tweak the level of the threshold to give a good balance of white and black. Then I change the blend mode for that layer to overlay or soft light, depending on how strong I want the final effect to be. Then I apply a Gaussian blur to the layer, adjusting the amount to taste. I play with the opacity of the layer to get just the level of richness that the shot needs. Finally, I add a layer mask and block out the effect wherever I feel it’s too strong, in this case on the strawberries and some of the chocolate.
What this technique does is add some contrast and a bit of edge softening to create a bit of a “romantic richness” without altering the color of the shot. You can see the effect here in these before and after shots. It’s very subtle but I do like it.