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.
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.
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.
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!
Since I was doing this photo as part of a workshop demonstration I wanted to show the new setup that I’ve been experimenting with. It involves using a clear plexiglass cove suspended in front of the background. I’ve been using it to photograph products on a clean white and I wanted to see what kind of flexibility it affords me with other backgrounds. Here are a couple of shots to show you what I’m talking about.
As you can see, the Plexiglas is suspended in front of the background which I can light completely separately so I can control exactly how dark or bright it is. In this case my final shot was cropped in quite tight to the plate so I really wasn’t taking advantage of this setup, however it was interesting to play with and for my students to see. The main light for the food is a beauty dish with a diffuser. I’ve grown to quite like this light for food shots as I find it gives me a nice balance between contrast to bring out detail and soft shadows that don’t require too much fill light. All I needed to add was too small gold reflectors to bounce a little bit of warm light into the shadows and lighten them up.
This was Linsey’s first time teaching a workshop, so she was a bit nervous at first performing in front of an audience. She soon warmed to the task and quite enjoyed the experience. There were lots of questions about tricks of the trade and how food stylists work to make the food look so delicious on camera.
Here she shows a nice technique of cracking the eggs into a small cup and then pouring them into the phyllo moulds without breaking the yolks.
Here are the other elements of the brunch plate:
A careful placement of the Phyllo Egg, and some finishing touches, and the final shot comes together!
Everyone enjoyed the workshop, so Linsey and I are planning a more in depth food photography workshop… I’ll post details here as we firm them up.
Photography by Rob Davidson
Food Styling by Linsey Bell
Assistant Nadia Cheema
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Assistant and BTS photos: Adriana Garcia Cruz
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.
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.
This series of shots shows the progression from the first test shot to the final image.
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.
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!