Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I suck at food photography

There, I said it. Which is a shame, because my wife is into making really awesome cakes. She makes a lot of other great things too, but making ridiculous cakes seem to be her favorite pastime as of lately. Well, I guess it’s not just lately: She really started about five years ago with a “first birthday” cake for our niece. That cake was just a giant sheet cake with some cool icing work, which seems so simple when compared to the cakes she makes now. And as she gets better at working with icing and fondant and gum paste and piping bags and food dye, I have made pretty much no progress in the art of food photography.

[Above, some small gift-box cakes she made for a friend’s engagement this week. Since it was night time, I used a big softbox and a reflector. The cakes were great, but the pictures were not.]

I don’t really understand how to light food. I have trouble finding a good camera angle. I can’t make a realistic looking background or table scene to save myself. All the colors look weird. Sure, I can document food with my camera, something like “Look, this food was there and I saw it and now have proof with this picture.” Kind of the equivalent of those disposable camera snapshots at a wedding. But I lack the skill to make food look artistic or interesting, let alone appetizing. I think this is the main goal of good food photography: to make the food look irresistible and to make the viewer hungry. Good food photography says “I don’t care if you’re watching your calories, you wouldn’t be able to resist eating me!”

[What kind of lighting setup did I use for the above picture? Not one that you should copy, unless you want mediocre results!]

So what am I going to do about this? Well, this is a team approach I guess. My job in the upcoming months is to read about food photography with as much interest as I read about people photography. I want to gain a basic understanding of the use of lighting and staging and what apertures and angles look best for certain shots. Since I believe that the best way to become better at something is through practice, my wife’s job is to keep making awesome stuff for me to photograph. Seems like a win-win situation for us both (well maybe for me a little more, since I will be the one eating all the “extra” food!) Furthermore, this is a great time to learn food photography since it’s going to be cold outside for the next three months or so. In the dead of winter, there is no better place I can think of than inside my warm apartment with my lovely wife, some good food, and my camera!

[Maybe I will learn from this guy!]

Anyway, I will be posting my results along with some how-to information (as soon as I get better at the “how-to” part!) I think I’ll try to do this in some type of organized fashion, maybe I will try to learn one technique per week or so and go from there…

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Some simple lighting techniques for better headshots

Headshots, portraits, whatever you want to call them, are everywhere. Every actor, model, singer, executive, realtor, and even the guy that cuts what little hair I have left seems to have a headshot. There is even a new market for professional-looking headshots for use on social networking sites like facebook (btw: GWC has a new facebook page, so join up here! OK, now that my shameless self-promotion is out of the way, let's look at some really simple techniques for producing better headshots with lighting.

Headshot 2

This was taken in direct harsh ugly mid-day sunlight, the kind of lighting that photographers avoid when at all possible. The sun is overhead behind me, and there is not a cloud in the sky. This is the recipe for harsh contrasty light that highlights skin flaws, produces dark shadows in the eyes, as well as causes the subject to squint. But if we can't avoid it, how can we improve the direct overhead sunlight? By holding a translucent panel (found inside most 5-in-1 reflectors), or even a big white thin sheet of fabric up in between the sun and your subject, you immediately soften the light. This gets rid of the harsh shadows, and reduces the intensity of the sunlight, allowing the subject to be more comfortable and squint less.

Headshot 1

This shot was taken in the exact same place, all I did was tell Valerie to turn around, so now the sun is overhead and behind her. This immediately reduces the contrast and harshness of the light since the direct rays of the sunlight are not shining on her face at all. In fact, all of the highlights on her hair over her left shoulder are from that direct sunlight. So now her face is being lit by the softer light that comes from the open sky, and the sum of all the light reflected off the sidewalk and whatever else is in the environment. Left alone, her face would be lit alright, but would look flat and uninteresting, and her eyes wouldn't have any pop, since there are no catchlights reflected from a close light source. So I used a large white reflector held under the right side of her face to reflect some of the direct sunlight that is behind her (no reflector? you could just as well use a white board or any white material). This adds some light and contrast to the right side of her face, fills in shadows that were made by the light from the overhead sky, and adds catchlights to bring the eyes alive. The unwanted side effect is a bit of squinting from the bright reflector, but the overall look is worth it!

Headshot 3

Now what if there is no direct sun because you're on the shadow side of the street and the sun is blocked by buildings? Well, by bouncing a single flash into a reflector (or a wall), we can add some nice soft light and contrast to the image. Simple as that!

Check out a behind-the-scenes video of this shoot here on YouTube!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Card 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! This year we decided to make our own Christmas cards instead of just buying a box at the store. About two months before Christmas, the crazy ideas were running rampant. We started out thinking of shooting outside in NYC, then thought about classic Christmas movies and recreating scenes from them. One idea was more ridiculous than the next, and by December first we had rented several reindeer and an animal handler, had put a deposit on an ice-sculpture and snow machine, and we booked an obese alcoholic circus clown that I found on Model Mayhem who agreed to dress up as Santa for the shoot (TFP of course). Well, it turns out that our apartment building has some silly rule about not allowing livestock in the elevators, and to top it off, Santa-clown puked all over the doorman’s shoes while he was signing into the building. So we had to settle for something a bit more low key instead (hey, there is always next year!) We went with the theme of Santa getting caught delivering presents on Christmas Eve, with the surprised little girl being played by the talented and beautiful Mrs. GWC. I played Santa; this required buying a Santa suit (which comes complete with a beard that was so long that I looked more like Moses than Santa, so I took the scissors to it!)

We went out for a late night search for a tree, scrounged up some old school big bulb lights and an old candle holder from the in-laws stash, and started moving furniture and setting up. Mrs. GWC wrapped all the presents that we already had for people and put them under the tree while I worked on the lighting.

ambient light

As you can see from above, with all the lamps in my apartment off the ambient lighting provided from just the tree is pretty low (this is ½ second, f/5.6, everything at ISO 100 to get the best image quality on my camera). Camera is on a tripod and the first thing to do is figure out where we would stand. Since at f/5.6 we still have a pretty narrow depth of field, we would both have to be standing about the same distance from the camera lens so we would both be in the plane of focus. So out comes the measuring tape and some scotch tape markings on the floor for each of us to stand on. That was easy.

Then I brought out some lighting: a softbox with 2 strobes in it to camera right, pointing at “Santa” and angled towards the tree a little (look at the shadows.) Another strobe with an umbrella aimed at where Mrs. GWC would be. And yet another strobe, this one with a double CTO gel on it and a grid, aimed right at Mrs. GWC’s face to look like orange candle light. And you all said I didn’t need to own all of this lighting gear!

A few things here: since I wanted to get a lot of that warm colorful ambient light from the Christmas tree lights into the image, I chose to shoot at a slow shutter speed (½ second). And since I want to make the scene look like all the light is from natural sources, the color temperature is important to maintaining that illusion. If I let the flashes just run as they are, they would put out light that looks cold and blue since they’re balanced for daylight use. I want everything to have an incandescent color balance. Enter gels: the tiny translucent pieces of colored plastic that go over the flash and change the color of the light that comes out. All the flashes were gelled full-CTO (this stands for “color temperature orange” and is supposed to balance the flash with incandescent light.) Since I wanted the candle to look like it was lighting her portion of the scene, I used a double-CTO in that flash. The grid acts to direct the light in a spotlight pattern with surgical precision, otherwise it just goes all over the room. Took a test shot:

testing lights

Next up is lighting ratios. I already defined the exposure of the scene above (½ second and f/5.6). So whatever I light to that level will be properly exposed. If I add less light the area will be dark, more light and it will be bright. Lighting myself was easy, just cranked up the power on the big softbox until it metered f/5.6, and done! Mrs. GWC was a bit more complicated. Since I wanted her to look like she was coming into the scene from the darkness, I lit her with the umbrella to f/4 (which is one stop darker relative to the exposure of the scene of f/5.6). Then I aimed the spotlight that was gelled to be double orange at her face and metered it to read exactly f/5.6 when fired with the fill light of the umbrella. So the final effect is that her body is underexposed by one stop, but her face (which is closest to the candle) is exposed properly and has the candle-light color to it. Popped a final test shot to check the lighting, focus, etc before strapping on the full glory of the pillow-stuffed Santa suit, beard, and hat!

testing focus and drinking a beer

OK, finally all that technical stuff is over, now to the fun part: trying out a whole bunch of ridiculous poses! The best is that we actually couldn’t see each other while taking the picture since the tree was in the exact same plane as we are. So I’d call out “ready?” and she’d say “OK” and it was “GO!” In at least half of the pics we’re just laughing hysterically! Took a bunch of shots and that was it…now we had to move back all the furniture in the apartment!

Edited it all in lightroom (I still don’t own a copy of photoshop, what the hell is wrong with me?) Played with the vibrance and saturation and did some split-toning to give it a bit of an older feel. But that’s it. There are no selective adjustments here. Mrs. GWC laughed at me since we shot this on Saturday, ordered the cards from MPIX on Sunday, got them Tuesday, and they were mailed out on Wednesday morning. She said that’s the fastest she’s ever seen me do anything. This is probably true!

Merry Christmas!

GWC and Mrs. GWC wish everyone a happy holiday season and a hope you all have a great New Year!!! Stay tuned here in 2010 for even more awesomeness!

Sunday, December 20, 2009



My cousin James is a painter. An artist is probably a more accurate term, since he doesn’t just paint! He needed some pictures of his most recent paintings to use for his website, among other things. I think the proper term for this type of photography is “copy work” or “reproduction work.” There is no artistic vision of the photographer here: the goal is to make an exact duplicate of the painting!

So I gave it a crack, after warning him that I had never tried this before. He told me that the going rate to hire someone to do this would cost him $75 per painting, and that he had like twelve paintings to shoot, so go ahead and try!


This was probably the most scientific shoot I had ever done. I used a tripod, two flashes, a measuring tape, a white balance card, and a flash meter…and felt more like a carpenter than a photographer. I am sure that people who do this type of work routinely have it down to a simple system that takes like five minutes to set up, but hey—it was my first time!

The basic technique that I used was as follows: Camera on tripod and lens lined up with center of painting that was hanging on wall. Two flashes, each at about 30-45 degrees to the painting on either side. Used the highest shutter speed that will sync with the flashes to get rid of all the ambient incandescent light (1/200 sec) so the light will all be of the same color temperature (flash). Metered the light from the center of the painting, then from the corners if it was a large painting to make sure the edges got even light. Adjusted the flashes to give about f/8-f/11 for good depth of field. Snap a picture with a white balance card first for color calibration, look for glare, etc. Then take the final shot. Once this was all done once, we just switched out the paintings on the wall and finished all twelve in like ten minutes! Since the flash is all metered using incident metering, the lighting is the same regardless of the color of the painting.


There were some limitations of this setup. Glare was a problem with the larger paintings since I couldn’t move the lights out at a more acute angle to the paintings because of walls in the apartment. The solution would be to use a longer lens, but of course I left my longest lens at home thinking I wouldn’t need it! There is also a way of using polarizers on the lens and lights to remove glare. If I did this professionally I would probably also have a better tripod with a leveling system that was worth a damn, and would have leveled the painting on the wall both horizontally and by making sure it was truly flush with the wall. This way the sensor of the camera and the face of the painting would be on parallel planes and there would be no converging or diverging of the edges in the picture.


For my first attempt at this, I was happy with the results. The colors and exposures in the picture look to me exactly like the paintings themselves. All I did in Lightroom was to white balance and increase the blacks by 2 points, and then crop the edges. Again, if I was a pro I would have a color calibrated monitor, but I think these came out pretty good without one.


The artist is James Vanderberg, and he lives in Brooklyn, NY. More of his work can be found here on his website.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lighting: not just for people anymore!

I try to travel light when I shoot outside. I guess the absolute bare minimum is my camera and a lens…but I pretty much always bring along a small light stand and at least a flash. All this stuff fits in one bag and is pretty light, which helps when you’re walking all over the place looking for cool locations. Well, to be completely truthful, I didn’t have to look for the location for the shot above because it was suggested by the model! It’s somewhere that she passes by when she runs in Central Park, and she always thought it would make a good place to shoot. Which is a good habit to get into…always keeping your eyes peeled for places that would look cool through the lens.

Anyway, we shot this under one of those stone overpasses in Central Park in the Upper West Side. There was sunlight coming in through one of the open sides of the overpass, and this is what is lighting Justine. The light has a nice soft but directional quality to it because it’s all being corralled and shaped by the tunnel walls. Without adding any light to the picture she would look exactly the same because she is lit entirely by the natural sunlight, but the background would just be a big black void because there is no light falling that deep into the back wall of the tunnel. So I added a single flash on a light stand and aimed it at the cool stone wall behind her to expose it and make it a part of the image. None of this extra light is falling on Justine because the flash is behind her and out of the frame to the right. I think that extra lighting on the stone wall is what makes the image go from a random portrait to something unusual and interesting, which was the whole point!
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