Saturday, June 16, 2012

Food and Flashes

Doing homework for Strobist instead of homework for school... Taking pictures while making food and trying for once to give my shots a real 'studio' quality. I must say this was a lot of fun...

Conceptions change. If you had asked me what my opinion was about photshopping images when I was just starting with my first digital camera I would be very much against it. "The photograph has to represent reality as it is" and all those opinions I still hear. Since then I have moved on to use Lightroom regularly and even when I was traveling I did some RAW format editing post-capture inside the D90. Today I have no doubt that making these adjustments to a photo is just another step in the process. Which brings me to another conception I had about photography: natural light, unposed subjects and pretty much no planning of pictures at all, for the "natural picture".

This works out pretty well when traveling, especially if you can't afford to stay in one place for three days just to catch the perfect light on the mountain top - which is what I should be doing if I want to "pose" the landscape for the picture. You take the mountains, villagers and wildlife as it comes along, which was just fine for everything I did in Nepal last year (examples:

However, things changed when I finally bought my first strobe. The SB700 is a small, easy to use and optically wireless flash (fully compatible with my D90). This and reading along Strobist lighting 101 and now 102, got me doing a lot of new stuff.

The real change is, as always, in how we think. This time I wanted not just to take a picture of dinner (so that mom knows I eat more than just grilled cheese sandwiches) but to really make the pictures interesting. That and I wanted to actually do some of the homework given in lighting 102, not just passively read the whole thing.

The first thing I did was clean the working area, move around all the utensils and appliances in the background. Already setting up the shot, not just taking it as it is, I actually gave a few minutes to think how it will be set up. Quite a difference from my usual routine of just taking whatever I can get.

I had only one flash, and a few reflectors lying around, and I decided that I would take a picture of each ingredient before, during, and after it is sliced and cooked. The full album is here.

Now red peppers almost invariably make good subjects, and knives as well... but how do you make chicken fingers look, well, interesting?

 Well, I was going for dramatic, but I guess this is a bit of a reach. For this one I did use much more direct light, tuned the ambient all the way down and shot it undiffused. Not very dramatic but the wooden cutting board benefits from the hard light, at least.

Also, for being a cheapskate I only ever baught one tripod (and even then it was the cheapest one). So the flash and the camera had to alternate on it for different shots. Most of the time the flash had a good position (I didn't have a problem shooting almost the whole thing handheld), using my bracket-monopods-tripod setup:

In the background are the six ingredients going into this stir fry in teriyaki sauce: Red and yellow peppers, chicken fingers, carrots, noodles and obviously, teriyaki!

The one that really surprised me was the uncooked noodles, that come in little squares inside the package which have really nice properties under dramatic light:

This also concludes my homework assignment for lighting 102, using one flash as several light sources (finally one assignment that doesn't need all that expensive equipment!)

I am cheating, actually. For this I put the camera on the tripod and used multiple exposure (what used to involve taking several pictures on one frame of film) so the real trickery was done in-camera (still cheating though) and in each frame I held the flash to either side or on top of the noodle stack. One flash, three apparent light sources. No mirrors required. The flash was held really a couple of cm from the noodles, hence the 1:1 ratio of this picture. This next one was taken with the flash going right through one square of the pasta.

I did give a little fill with the built in flash, but the effect is quite negligible. The fun part about this is that it isn't at all obvious what is in the picture. Also it was taken with my 105mm macro lens, that has a tendency to make anything interesting.

The part where I fried and simultaneously took pictures required both tripod for the camera and a gorillapod for the flash, and also a cable release (these are the little things that are really worth the money).

Manual focus, short exposure (1/200sec) and bit of practice, with only a little bit of grease dripped on my front filter. There were quite a few of these for all the ingredients but you can find them in the full album.

Ok, to summarize, this was a lot of fun, especially because it made me stop and think about the pictures. It took me twice as long to make dinner but it was worth it, if only to get me to start thinking about 'studio' shots more seriously.

Also, it was pretty tasty. Peanuts on top are optional.

I would love to hear what you think. Any ideas you have for me to improve my next 'studio shot' dinner are very welcome!


  1. Nice work, I prefer the low angle cutting board shots (pasta) to the higher ones (chicken fingers).
    The "set table" shot is also a favorite.
    Lovely light on the sprinkled peanuts, though you have a distracting specular highlight on the plate.

    Lastly - I'd try a different lighting setup for the frying pan shot. A lot of the veggie strips are unflattering shaded (in the pan and on the left). The out of focus hand is distracting, and I'm no fan of the shadow on the left.

    In this case a simple ceiling bounce might have yielded better results.