A glimpse into the studio


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

Aglow from below

OK, so I’m sure you want to know what the background is for this shot.  It’s a random mesh of metal (nickel, I believe)  that I picked up off the floor of a metal scrap yard and have always meant to use in a shot.  It’s pretty dull and dark on its own, so I chose to back light (actually, bottom light) it to give it a glow.  To accomplish this, place a sheet of translucent plexiglass on a wooden frame atop a studio sawhorse.  An Alien Bee head with a beauty dish is on the floor underneath to provide the backlight.  I also added a warm yellow and red gel underneath the plexiglass (using another wooden frame, some clear acetate, and lighting gels).   This gives the backlight a warm glow, and compliments the color of the shrimps.

Note that I’ve surrounded the subject with black foamcore.  This is very important to prevent flare from all the white light coming up around the subject.

I selected a medium softbox for the top light to ensure that I could get enough light and detail in the black cast iron pan.  Balancing the two lights is simply a matter of adjusting the power of the bottom light until it gaves me a nice glow without totally blowing out the hilights and flaring.

Meanwhile, Linsey prepares the final food, using a dome mold to shape the rice.  Notice the cute trick she uses for the shrimps.  By placing them on short wooden skewers she prevents them from curling up on themselves as they cook.




















Here Linsey and I have a close look at the food arrangement.  One of the great new features of Lightroom 3 is the ability to easily shoot directly into the computer (tethered shooting).  This way every one involved in the shoot can see a nice large image in full detail.  I decide to add a gold reflector to warm up the shrimp, and Linsey reaches in to make some final adjustments.











Here’s the final shot as it appeared in Lightroom.  As well, after the final shot is in the bag, I grab some additional detail shots to round out the selection.












Post Production

As I was shooting this shot, I was very concerned that the tonal range from the black pan to the white rice might be too much to hold detail in both.  So, to be cautious I took a range of exposures (my old film habits… cover your butt!).  As I reviewed the shots the next day in Lightroom, it occurred to me that I could use the range of exposures to create an HDR (High Dynamic Range) shot.  This is a technique usually applied to landscape or architectural shots, but in a mood of experimentation I decided to give it a try.  I exported the files from Lightroom to Photoshop HDR, and with a little tweaking achieved a very interesting result!  Enhanced detail in both the shadows and hilights, as well as amazing texture in the shrimps and rice.  I did feel that the HDR alone looked a bit “manipulated”, so I added a layer of the original file and played with the opacity of the HDR to get a balance that felt good.


"Straight" image, before HDR



HDR version



Final, combined image



Photo Credits:  Photography by Rob Davidson
Food Styling by Linsey Bell
Assistant & BTS shots:  Adriana Garcia Cruz

Light the mood… dark and elegant.

The mood that I wanted to convey with this shot is one of simple elegance. I selected a large granite tile for the background, and the plate I actually made by chipping off the edges of a slate tile to create a shape that I wanted. I like the tone on tone textures that this created.

When I think about the lighting for a particular shot, I try to imagine what the ideal setting would be for serving and eating this dish. In this case having would definitely be dark and elegant with strong mood lighting. With this image in my head I opted to go for a single light source, small and directional. A single Alien Bee flash with a 20° grid spot seemed to do the trick best. I placed the light behind them to the right of my subject to cast strong shadows and maximize the texture of both the paper and the food.

Fish en Papillote initial lighting

Even with a grid spot in place I felt there was too much light in the shot so I used pieces of black foam core to block off light where I didn’t want it. It’s sort of a process of selective subtraction. I then added in one small gold reflector to bounce just a bit of warm light into the shadows.

Fish en Papillote final lighting

Fish en Papillote final lighting

This series of shots shows the progression from the first test shot to the final image.

Fish en Papillote first test

Fish en Papillote subtracting light

Fish en Papillote final light


Photo Credits:  Photography by Rob Davidson
Food Styling by Linsey Bell
Assistants:  Chris Hazard and Amber Scott

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.


Photo Credits:  Photography by Rob Davidson
Food Styling by Linsey Bell
Assistants:  Chris Hazard and Amber Scott

Click here for the recipe so you can try this for yourself.

A fun Salad… and how it gets shot!

Of course the first step in making this recipe is to brown the butter! Here’s a shot of the butter in the pan merrily bubbling and hissing as the excess water evaporates.

You want to cook this until all the bubbling and hissing stops and the butter just starts to turn a light brown color. Cook  over medium heat and stir frequently to prevent the butter solids from burning. (If you go too far in the butter starts to burn you’ve actually created another classic French sauce, appropriately named Black Butter Sauce!).

The bowl and plate for this shot are made of bamboo, one of my favorite materials for its color and texture, not to mention environmental friendliness. The little dishes are made from some sort of leaf simply folded up into a bowl shape. These were all sourced from Tap Phong (on Spadina Avenue, just S. Of College St.). The fabric is a naturally textured silk.

I wanted the lighting to be warm and textural to bring out all the details in the salad. I decided to go with an unusual choice of a beauty dish for this shot, and it worked well, striking a nice balance between softness and contrast.  For those not familiar with a beauty dish, it’s basically a large diameter reflector, in this case an Alien Bees 22 inch beauty dish. These are most often used for fashion and beauty shots, but I like the quality of light it gives this particular food shot.

When I had a look at the first test shot I felt that the light was a bit cold and uniform, so I decided to break it up with a mixed warming gel. I created this by mounting a piece of clear acetate in a foamcore frame then sticking small pieces of red, yellow and orange gels to the acetate. This gives the light a slightly dappled warmth without creating an overall color cast. You can see exactly what I’m talking about in this shot.

Because the beauty dish is still a relatively hard light source the shadows of the plates and bowls were way too dark so I added a gold reflector to bounce in some warm light and give a nice glow to the shadow areas.

This shot gives a nice overall view of the setup, and demonstrates why a studio stand is so useful for shooting food. (A studio stand is a massive, heavy beast with a vertical column and a sort of boom.  It allows you to easily position your camera in places no tripod would dare to tread… like directly overhead and 8 ft up in the air!)  Note the beauty dish with gels in front and the reflector bouncing light into the shadows. Also take careful note of the piece of foam core suspended between the camera and the light to block any light from hitting the camera lens and causing flare. This is a very important step to take on almost any studio shot where there is a risk of light hitting the lens, causing flare (loss of detail and contrast).

Now a little bit about the salad itself. When you create a salad for photography you don’t toss it….. you build it, piece by piece and leaf by leaf. You can see in this close-up of the bowl that we’ve created a sort of dam for the salad out of lead filled film canisters. (Remember when film came in this little plastic containers?) This allows Linsey to build up the salad so it won’t cave in on itself and create dark holes.

She also individually placed each piece of popcorn, corn pop and roasted corn. This is all done with no dressing on the salad. Once we’re happy with the look of the salad, she then applies small drops of dressing with an eye dropper. This prevents the salad from looking like a shiny oily mess.

Once the salad is dressed I have scant few minutes to get the final shot done before the lettuce starts to wilt and the dressing runs. This is the way with food photography, you can spend hours fussing and fidgeting with light, the food, the props….. and then it’s bang bang bang grab the shot in a couple of seconds before the food dies!

Photo Credits:  Photography by Rob Davidson
Food Styling by Linsey Bell
Assistants:  Chris Hazard and Amber Scott

Click here for the recipe so you can try this for yourself.

Behind The Scenes for a BBQ!

First, as always, thanks to everyone who contributed their time and talent:

Linsey Bell….. Food stylist
Chris Hazard….. Assistant and BTS shooter
Amber Scott….. Assistant

For this barbecue shot I wanted a very outdoorsy feel, but with a twist. So I used a slice of a tree stump as the background, and a fake grass mat as the food platter. These grass mats are used in store displays and I found them in Tap Phong (a great housewares store on Spadina Avenue just S. Of College St.). I also found a cute little bowl for the corn spice there as well. It’s one of my favorite places to shop for unique and unusual setting pieces.

Here’s a shot of our preliminary set up, stunt food in place. I wanted a very sunny outdoorsy feel for this shot, so I used a beauty dish placed behind the set to create “sunshine”. To fill in the shadows I’ve placed a medium-sized softbox above and in front of the set, and balanced the output to just fill the shadows from the beauty dish. This combination gave me lots of texture and contrast in the food while still being able to control the depth of the shadows.

In looking at the shot I felt that the lighting was a bit too even overall, and the back corners of the shot seemed to bleed out of the frame. I cut some fingers into a piece of foam core and placed it in front of the beauty dish to cast some random shadows into the back of the shot, giving it a bit of depth and reality. I find that I often do this type of shadowing to create the feel of real light rather than the very clean studio look of even light. In the real world outside the studio, light often comes to us through tree branches, windows or other obstructions, so by casting some shadows in front of my lights I create a little more sense of reality.

Meanwhile in the kitchen our food stylist, Linsey Bell was prepping final food. Here she heats a metal skewer to place grill marks on both the corn and the chicken. For the purpose of this shot she lightly browns the skin of the chicken using a combination of ‘kitchen bouquet” and a butane torch. Then the grill marks are applied with the hot skewer. This allows the chicken to retain its plump juicy look for the camera.

Once the final food hit the set, and I grabbed a quick test shot, I had to make two quick little adjustments. I felt the highlights from the chicken were a little bit hot so I quickly clamped a small piece of brown gel to a grip arm and positioned it so that it would just slightly shadow the chicken. I also added small gold reflector to bounce a bit of light into the fruit salad. Here’s a shot that shows all the little lighting refinements in place.

gold reflector, lower left and brown gel clipped to a grip arem

Food shooting is a very collaborative process which requires coordination between the food stylist, the photographer and the assistants. Here’s Lindsay grating a little bit of greens over the salad, and here we are both reaching in to make small final tweaks before taking the shot.

With the overall shot completed and in the bag, I grabbed the camera off the studio stand and quickly take a few close-up and detail shots to supplement the main shot. One of the joys of the digital era is knowing that you have the shot without having to wait for the film to come back from the lab, which means you have an opportunity to play around and grab some extra shots, which often end up being the shot!

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