A glimpse into the studio

Behind the Scenes

Making Food Move

Okay, so you’re wondering how I made this still photograph move. This is a new twist on the old .gif  animation format that was responsible for all those little goofy animations in the early days of e-mail. Basically it involves creating a layered Photoshop file that contains a still image on the top layer and a video layer underneath it. By masking out the top layer you allow the video layer to show through in certain areas, and so you get this fun combination of still image and moving areas. The resulting file  is saved as a .gif format file which can be posted on the web. Here’s a screenshot that shows my layered Photoshop file and the animation timeline window that allows you to play back the video.  (The animation timeline window is only available in Photoshop CS5 Extended, so you need to have this version to do these).

These combination still and motion images are called Cinemagraphs, and they’ve become quite popular among fashion photographers. For this shot I used the Canon 5D Mark II to capture both the still image and the video clip so I could be sure that the images would match exactly when I layered them together. This is a really fun technique to play with. If you’d like to experiment on your own, here’s a great video tutorial from Russell Brown that walks you through the complete process.

Our set up for the shot was quite simple, with a small soft box overhead and slightly behind the bowl to bring out all the shapes and textures of the seafood.

The background is a canvas painted to look like wood planks, which we also used in the still life of the ingredients.

One interesting styling issue arose as we prepared the Bouillabaisse.  When we filled the bowl with seafood it became too dark and opaque… lifeless.  So we solved the problem by using clear plastic “ice cubes” to fill in the bowl and allow us to artfully arrange the seafood.




The ingredients shot was fairly straightforward, with a large octobox as the light source to create a very soft, even lighting.  Since the camera had to be quite high, I decided to use the Canon EOS Utility to control the camera.  This allowed us to use live view on the computer to see exactly what was in the frame as we were arranging the elements… much easier than trying to peer down through the viewfinder.


All in all, a very fun shoot!  I’ll be experimenting more with Cinemagraphs, so keep an eye out!

Thanks, as always, to Linsey and Nadia!

Whipping up a workshop!

Linsey and I had a great time demonstrating this recipe and photo for a summer workshop in my studio.

The lighting and set-up is similar to the one for the Brunch Phylo.  But in this shot I used a lace fabric hanging in the background and gently blown by a fan.


You can see that my “floating” plexiglass table allows me to light and play with the background totally separately from the main subject.  I’ve lit the seamless paper with two umbrellas, and the lace fabric is hung in front of the seamless, but behind the plexiglass, so it’s a soft silhouette.  The fan creates gentle ripples in the fabric and lends a sense of movement to the shot.
The dessert in a lace patterned wine glass is very simply lit with a strip softbox to camera left, and a small sliver reflector on the right to throw some light into the shadows.

Test shot with "Stunt Food"

The rest of the shot is really up to Linsey!  She has to perfectly whip up the Sabayon, artfully arrange the berries, and finally torch the top for that Brulee Look….. all under the watchful eyes of the students!


The final results certainly justify the effort!

Thanks to Iden Ford and Nadia Cheema for the Behind-The-Scenes shots!

A Splashy Cocktail Photo

Ok, to answer your first question…. no this is not one humongous splash!  This shot actually consists of 19 separate photos, and 27 layers in Photoshop.  We shot over 250 photos to get the necessary bits and pieces for this assembly.

To start at the beginning, Linsey and I brainstormed and taste tested to come up with the final recipe for this drink (Yeah, tough work!), and we’re very pleased with the result… it’s delicious, refreshing and a little different!  We decided to shoot the cocktail itself first, since it would set the tone for the overall shot.  Since I knew I would be combining many elements, backlit white was a natural choice, and it gives all the elements a bright fresh feeling.

Linsey prepped all the ingredients in the kitchen, but assembled the final drink on set:

Here’s the set-up for the shot:

Note the black cards laid down beside and behind the glass.  They create a dark edge in the rim of the glass, so it is defined against the white background.  The shoot-through umbrella under the Plexiglass table gives a nice even illumination, and avoids hot spots in the background.  The silver reflector is bouncing some light into the lemon and basil garnish.  As with any backlit shot, the real trick is getting the exposure just bright enough to blow out the background to pure white, while retaining the details in the subject and avoiding flare. (the black cards help avoid flare as well).  Trial and tweaking  (while shooting tethered to Lightroom) is the only way to achieve this.

A few finishing touches, and we had the cocktail shot in the bag:

Then we moved on to the fun stuff!  Using a big (4 x 5 ft) softbox as background, we got ready to make a mess.  I decided to add a gridded spot light from the right side to add some sparkle and contrast to the shots.  Then we draped the lights in a big plastic drop sheet to protect them, as studio flashes and flying liquids don’t mix well.  Fortunately my studio has concrete floors and a floor drain, so we didn’t have to worry (too much) about the clean-up.

Then Linsey started tossing the drink ingredients, and I snapped away madly:

After we’d captured enough shots of the lemons, limes, basil leaves, sugar sticks and shaker lid, we went for the big messy splashes.  To get enough “action” in the shots, I had Nadia pouring liquid into the cocktail shaker from above, while Linsey swirled and tossed:

By the way, we hot glued the shaker to a big dowel to give Linsey a good handle (which I retouched out later).  This is where Linsey got a lemon shower!

With a big variety of ingredient and splash shots to choose from, I was able to select and combine the perfect elements into one big crazy splash.  I made rough selections of the individual elements with the lasso tool, and dragged them onto separate layers in one big photoshop file… 1.5 gig for the final file!
I used a combination of layer masks and layer blending modes to get the elements to match up and combine as I wished.  It took a few days of tweaking and rearranging to get the final shot looking how I had envisioned it.  Here’s how all the elements finally came together:

Lots of fun was had by all!

Slicer & Tosser: Linsey Bell
Pours and BTS shots: Nadia Cheema & Urszula Kozak

Deceptive taste, but simple light.

My goal in lighting this shot is to retain all the texture and detail of the mascarpone and fig mixture, and also hilight the delicate colours and shapes of the Belgian Endive.  I decided that a very large softbox positioned low and from the side would give the soft shadows and retain delicate hilights.

As a background to the woven platter I selected decorative dark red twigs (you can buy these in bundles from interior design shops), as they gave create a linear pattern that contrasts nicely with the random arrangement of the endives.

Here are the ingredients being prepared, and arranged on set.

And the final set-up showing the camera position, the large softbox, and a soft gold reflector (behind the stepladder) to bounce a bit of warm light into the shadows.

Here’s the unedited capture of the final shot, and the finished photo, after cropping and darkening the background to to enhance the contrast and make the subject pop.

Photography: Rob Davidson
Food Styling: Linsey Bell
Assistant & BTS photos: Nadia Cheema

Miso Soup… it’s all in the details

My goal for this shot was to highlight the delicate beauty of all the ingredients in this bowl of soup. I opted to do this by using a clear glass bowl and lighting it from underneath. Here’s a shot of my set up showing a sheet of translucent plexiglass lit from underneath with a single Alien Bee head and a shoot through umbrella. This setup creates a nice even light under the bowl so I can have a uniform white background.














Note that I have my compendium lens hood on to block off all the extra light from outside the frame (See this post for a full explanation).  When you’re shooting for a clean white background, it’s important to precisely control your exposure. I use the highlight warning flashers on my preview image (or, since I’m shooting tethered, I can also turn on the highlight warnings in Lightroom). I dial up power of the flash slowly until the background just starts to flash as a solid highlight, but no more. This insures that my background is a clear white, but that I don’t have so much light pouring in that it will cause flare.

This gives a beautiful backlight to the bowl of soup which shows the translucent quality of the miso and the broth. However I do need some light on the front of the ingredients so that they are not left in silhouette. I used a gold reflector to bounce some of the light back onto the top of the bowl which illuminates the ingredients and gives them a warm glow. You can see the gold reflector on the left side of this shot.















With the lighting in place it’s now just a question of arranging everything in the bowl. We used a big pile of noodles as a support for all the other ingredients. The noodles provide a nice flexible base on which to support slices of pork tenderloin and the mushrooms.














Here’s a nice animation that shows the tweaking and arranging we did along the way to the final shot:

The Perfect Arrangement!

Photography:  Rob Davidson
Food Styling:  Linsey Bell
Assistant & BTS shots: Nadia Cheema

Sometimes Food is all about Texture

This shot is all about texture… from the crusted top of the pie filling to the red stones of the background.  In order to convey all these rich textures, I chose a gridded spot placed behind the plate, and aimed so it just lit the pie and plate.  A medium softbox from overhead, and dialed down to very low power, provides some fill on the pie, and just a bit of light on the background stones.



I like how this set up gives me very precise control over the amount of light on the subject vs. the background. I can make sure that the pie is just a bit brighter than the background so it pops forward rather than blending into the background.  I also added a slight warm gel (1/4 CTO) to the spot to warm up the tones of the pie and crust. This lighting also ensured that I could hold on to the detail of the white texture in the whipped cream behind the pie…. always a challenge!

Here’s Linsey carefully placing the “hero” pie on the plate, and we consult on the “look” for the whipped cream.  The final results:

Photo Credits:  Photography by Rob Davidson
Food Styling by Linsey Bell

Assistant and BTS shots: Adriana Garcia Cruz


Flare and the (lens)Hood

For this shot I was able to go back and re-use the set up that didn’t work for my Pork Tenderloin shot (see the post below), but this time it succeeds!  I really love the white-on-white look for this shot, with the blown out background.  However, this raises a critical issue about flare!

Rant Alert!

OK. I’ll say this right up front… I’ve developed a pet peeve.  Through my teaching and workshops I’ve noticed that photographers have forgotten (or never knew) how to use lens hoods.  I constantly see photographers shooting, both in the studio and outside, with their lens hood securely mounted backwards on their lens.  I notice that Scott Kelby has observed the same thing as well (see his article here).  That lens hood is critical in preventing image destroying flare (stray light that bounces around in your lens and lowers contrast and sharpness).

In the studio, this is particularly critical, as we often position our lights so they are shining towards the lens, thus guaranteed to produce flare.  One simple test:  with your camera mounted in shooting position, put your head near your subject and look at your lens.  If you see your lights reflected in the lens, you have flare!  You must use something (a lens shade or a gobo) to block the light from the lens.

In this shoot, I have a huge soft box pointed directly at the lens…. here’s my set-up:

Note the camera on left is pointed directly at the big softbox behind the subject.  Therefore, it’s critical that I block off all light outside of the actual frame of the shot.  The best tool for doing this is a bellows style lens hood:

These adjustable lens hoods adapt to a wide range of lenses and focal lengths.  Note that I’ve actually put a custom made mask in the front slot that exactly masks off the frame of my 90mm lens.  Although these very handy tools are not as common as they once were, Lee Filters makes a very nice version.  Here are examples of the exact same shot, same exposure, both with and without the lens hood:


Without Lens Shade

With Lens Shade


Note the reduced contrast and saturation when the lens shade is not attached.  That’s the effect of flare!

Now you know…. Rant over!

Here’s Linsey with her oh-s0-tasty homemade marshmallows:

Here I demonstrate the back-of-the-spoon method of pouring the hot chocolate without disturbing the liqueur, and Linsey applies a touch of the torch:

Add a few marshmallows as props, and here’s the final shot:

Photography:  Rob Davidson
Food Styling:  Linsey Bell
Assistant & BTS shots: Nadia Cheema

Sometime things don’t turn out like you planned!

When Lindsey and I originally discussed this shot in our preproduction meeting, we envisioned creating a sort of dinner party set up showing multiple plates ready for our guests. We plan on presenting the food as an artfully created stack of small potato rösti, oven roasted vegetables and the slices of pork tenderloin. (We were obviously being influenced by some of the beautiful plate presentations on Top Chef Masters!)

While Lindsay was preparing pork tenderloin, I created this beautiful set up of white on white plates fading off into the distance. I used wadded up newspaper to represent the elegant stacks of food that we were planning on presenting. Here are some shots of the initial set up:

The difficulties arose when it came time to actually start stacking up the food. Somehow the elements were just not coming together into the beautiful artful stack that we had envisioned. The slices of tenderloin looked terrible from the side and the potato rösti were not faring much better. I was so enamored with the overall look of the shot that I was loath to simply abandon it, so we struggled with various arrangements trying to make something that would work.

However we eventually realized that it just wasn’t coming together and that we had to take a completely different approach to this recipe. We decided to raise the camera can focus in on just one beautiful plate, highlighting the textural and color contrasts of the various ingredients. Once we relented and started to explore this new approach things fell into place immediately. Even our first test shot looks much better than what we’d been struggling with.

In a moment of inspiration, we decided to add in slices of glazed apple, since this would not only look great but also taste wonderful! All we had to do from this point was fill in the plate, arrange the elements beautifully and tweak the lighting a bit to bring out the textures. And voilá, we had the final shot!

This experience serves to highlight how important it is to remain flexible when you’re shooting and not get locked into one particular approach, even though it looks beautiful. At some point you have to step back from your personal attachment and go with what works for the particular recipe. Fortunately I was able to go back to the original setup for our second shot, which will appear in a posting soon.

Photography:  Rob Davidson
Food Styling:  Linsey Bell
Assistant & BTS shots: Nadia Cheema

The How-To of this Vegan (Raw) “Spaghetti & Meatballs”

Spiral slicer.... and the results!

Odds are you’ve never heard of or seen a spiral slicer, but here’s a great example of what it is and what it makes. Basically it rotates any firm vegetable against a set of slicing blades that produce spaghetti like strands or thin curly cue slices. Really fun to play with and I’m sure you can come up with lots of creative uses.

This dish is made by spiral slicing green and yellow zucchini into long spaghetti’s, then slightly warming them in a steamer. The “meatballs” are created by shredding mushrooms in a food processor, forming them into balls and slightly drying them in a just warm oven. The sauce is a combination of cashew butter, tamari (a wheat free soy sauce), a dash of cayenne pepper and some warm water. Crushed cashews sprinkled on top lend a nice crunch.  This odd sounding combination of flavors blend into a rich, complex and satisfying dish that will mystify your guests.

The Spiral Slicer at work

Mixing the sauce

Linsey forming mushroom "Meatballs"

We decided to present this dish in a hollowed out pumpkin for nice seasonal look. A background of tumbled marble tiles adds a nice rich warm texture to the photograph. Lindsey had lots of fun with her electric carving knife to neatly slice open the pumpkin.

The right tool for the right job

Makes a tricky job easy!

Once again the soft daylight streaming through my studio garage door proved too seductive to ignore. Just a bit of fill light to open up the shadows was all that was needed to complete this shot.

Photo Credits:

Photography: Rob Davidson
Food Styling: Linsey Bell
Assistant, and BTS photos: Adriana Garcia Cruz

The recipe is here!

Linsey applies the sauce with an eyedropper

Simple food gets simple light!

Beautiful Niagara Region Pancetta

Aaaah, pancetta! No, it’s not Italian bacon, though it’s made from the same cut of the pig. The difference is it’s cured rather than smoked, which gives it a delicate flavor that can be enjoyed either raw or cooked. I like it in this recipe especially because it doesn’t overwhelm the delicate porcini mushrooms. This particular pancetta is made locally in the Niagara region, and is rubbed with herbs to enhance the flavor.

Now I’d like to talk a little bit about the process of creating a food shot. For the initial setup I always use what I call stunt food, a quick representation of what the final food will look like (sort of). Here’s a typical example of stunt food.

Stunt Food

I use this while I’m arranging the props, background and lightning. This allows me to play around with all the details without having the pressure of worrying about how the final food is holding up. Here Linsey and I look at the shot on the monitor and make decisions about how we want to arrange the props.

Deciding on arrangements

You can also see here how a studio stand  (the big black thing holding up the camera) functions to get the camera to whatever position I need to execute the shot, even if it’s directly overhead. This particular model weighs about 100 pounds, has retractable wheels, and provides rock steady support. These studio stands are not cheap (they start around $1000 and go up!), so a more viable alternative is to get a tripod that allows you to angle the center column to get over your subject. The Benro Flexpods handle this nicely.  Another useful accessory for this type of shooting is a right angle viewer, which allows me to see through the camera without having to be above it. I picked this one up from Gadget Infinity for around $60, and it really comes in handy.


And making adjustments


Looking through my Right-Angle Finder

When both Linsey and I are happy with the arrangement of everything, she then prepares the final food. She does most of the prep in the kitchen, but usually leaves the final touches to be completed on set. I use old film canisters filled with lead fishing weights to exactly mark the location of the plate so we can remove the stunt food and replace it with the final dish. Then it’s just a few final touches and the dish gets shot  quickly before things have a chance to wilt or look soggy.


Placing the final food

For this particular shot I opted to use daylight since it was a beautiful day outside, just slightly overcast, and the light streaming in through the garage door was just too beautiful to pass up. Often when I shoot using daylight I almost feel like I’m cheating… it’s so simple and so beautiful. All I needed here was one reflector to lighten shadows a bit and I was good to go.

It's nice to have a big window

The background is an off white burlap which I wrinkled up by bunching it up in my hands and squeezing. I really love the subtle texture and the monochromatic feel of this shot!

Photo Credits:  Photography by Rob Davidson
Food Styling by Linsey Bell

Assistant and BTS photos: Adriana Garcia Cruz