A glimpse into the studio

Posts tagged “lighting

A Chocolate Fondue Cinemagraph

Part 1: The Shoot (fun with chocolate)

I decided to just have some fun with this shot, so I created this background with purple LED christmas lights layered behind red tulle fabric.  To add more “sparkles” I placed a silver reflective board behind the lights and aimed toward the camera.  Some additional tulle fabric wrapped around the bowl served to unite the foreground and background.


Note the long distance between the bowl and the fabric background, which allows me to throw the background out of focus, as well as prevent the main light from spilling on the background.

Since we are shooting both still images and video for the cinemagraph, I lit the shot with tungsten (continuous) light so I wouldn’t have to change the lighting for the video.  I used a 1000 watt tungsten bulb in a strip light softbox, positioned above and right of the bowl, which gave me a nice hilight along the side of the strawberry.  A gold reflector board on the left side filled in the shadows and leant a nice warm glow to both the strawberry and the chocolate.  You can see both the light and the reflector in the corners of the shot above.

Since, as you can see, the main light is shining towards my lens (causing flare), I attached a French Flag to the camera stand and positioned it to block the light from hitting the lens.
I also made use of Canon’s live view software (EOS utility) to give me a live preview on the computer so I could tweak the position of the strawberry.  I used a Manfrotto Articulated Arm and Super Clamp to securely hold the bamboo skewer and strawberry.


Meanwhile, Linsey was busy melting chocolate, and sampling liberally, which accounts for her smile.  She used a large syringe to drizzle the warm chocolate over the strawberry so we could catch just the right flowing drip.


Once we had the final still shot, we switched the camera (Canon 5D MKII) to video and captured a series of drips and drizzles, while being careful not to disturb any of the elements.  Using continuous light made it easy to switch back and forth between video and still captures, and ensure that we had just the right elements to combine in the final Cinemagraph.

Part 2: Cinemagraph lessons

A Cinemagraph is an image that combines a still photo with video to show small areas of motion… such as the chocolate drip.  It’s made by layering a still image over a video in Photoshop Extended, then masking areas of the still image to allow the video to show through.  The results are saved as a .gif file, which can be posted on a web site.  I have another example here, and a fuller explanation of the method here.  If you want to give this a try, I recommend you have a look at this video tutorial, which walks you through the process step by step.

I did run into some interesting challenges with this image however.  The background, which is made up of colored LED Christmas lights shining through colored fabric, has very intense hues and is almost blown out in the hilights.  I didn’t realize it as I was shooting, but the video capture rendered the tones quite differently than the still capture.  I’m guessing that it has to do with the compression that is applied to the video, which skewed the background tones quite severely towards the red/purple hues.  When I masked the still image, the difference in tones made a nasty halo around the drip.  I had to apply a few adjustment layers (Hue/Saturation and Color Balance) to get the video layer to blend with the still layer.

The same areas gave me some problems when it came time to save the final .gif file.  The .gif format is limited to 256 colors instead of the thousands or millions of colors in a jpeg or tiff file.  When I tried to render the intense colors of the background I saw a lot of posterization (hard color breaks rather than smooth gradations) around the sparkling lights, which I felt were distracting.  I ended up solving the problem by reducing the saturation of the reds and purples with a Hue/Saturation adjustment.  Basically, I sacrificed some color intensity to get smoother gradations.  Here’s a side-by-side comparison:

  You can see that the colors are a bit less intense, but the overall rendering is much smoother.  I also played with the settings in the “Save for Web & Devices” window, trying different combinations of color rendering intents and dithering patterns until I got a the best possible results, in this case Selective Color and Noise Dithering.  You’ll have to experiment on your own, as I find the results vary depending on the particular image.

So… a few lessons learned about shooting for Cinemagraphs!  When designing your shot, you have to bear in mind the tonal compression of the video format, as well as the limited color range of the .gif file format.  This means that you have to shoot a smaller color palette…. less saturated tones and softer colors.  This will make combining the video and still images much easier, as well as making for easier rendering into a final .gif file.

I hope this will help you when you give this fun technique a try.

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

A brunch photo workshop

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.

Photo Credits:
Photography by Rob Davidson
Food Styling by Linsey Bell
Assistant Nadia Cheema 

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

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

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

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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