Saturday, January 30, 2010

Food Photography: Fondant covered cupcakes

Fondant covered cupcakes

My wife made these for our nephew's Christening party. I had exactly five minutes to get these shots and then we were out the door on the way to the church. Always in a rush!

Fondant covered cupcakes

Since I didn't have any time to play around here, just shot at high ISO and opened up the aperture to get enough light on the sensor. Any picture is better than no picture! By the way, the "N" is for Nicholas.

Fondant covered cupcakes

In the above shot, the effect of shooting at f/2.8 is dramatic (maybe a little too much so...I think the only thing in focus is that little silver ball on the cupcake!) Mmmmmm, chocolate cupcakes with butter-cream icing, fondant, and little silver sugar thingies on top...I think I ate six of them that weekend!

It would seem like I have been concentrating on shooting only baked goods for the last few weeks. Well, this is mostly because there has been a lot of baking going on in my apartment as of lately, and it's nice to have a subject that you can experiment with for an hour that will look the same at the beginning and the end. Much harder to do with a hot cooked meal, but I will eventually get there!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cure Thrift: Part 2

CURE
[Oh no, they made a part 2?!]

More from Cure Thrift Shop. Last time, I wrote only about using hot lights...specifically, that one old tungsten light that we found at the thrift shop and stuck in a softbox (in case you missed it, here is the link to that post.) I really liked shooting with just one continuous light source that you could see the effect of before you took the shot. I am not used to that since when I need more light, I usually break out some flashes to provide the extra photons. And of course, light from a flash can only be seen for a split second, so you have to imagine what you want the picture to look like and set up the flashes accordingly.

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[Bianca rocks the red]

So when the hot light was not enough, I worked some flash in there where I could. I did this sparingly since in most cases the hot light looked great as is and I didn't want to overcomplicate things. In my experience, it is far too easy to overcomplicate a lighting situation and spend too much time messing with technical stuff until it looks perfect: the result is some good lighting on a bored looking model because you just made her wait 20 minutes while you fiddled with the flashes! So let's not do that here!

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[Mallory enjoying some tea, or was it coffee? Jeez, I can't remember...]

All of the shots above were done with similar lighting setups. The softbox with the tungsten light was on one side of the model and a strobe with a shoot through white umbrella was on the other side. I put some orange gels on the strobe so that the color temperature of the light from the strobe matched the light from the softbox. Color temperature is a measure of how "cold" or "warm" the light looks. Regular old tungsten light sources give off very warm (orange) light. Camera flashes are balanced to give off daylight balanced (white) light. When you take a picture with your camera's flash in a primarily tungsten environment (inside a bar for example) the people in the picture that are lit by the flash look "colder"(color temperature-wise) than the warm orange background lights. This gives a white or even blue look to the subjects. The way around this is to balance the flash with the tungsten light sources using gels.

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For these shots in the black dress, I used a less-powerful orange gel on the flash to give some contrast in the colors. This way, the light from the flash will be only a little bit "cooler" that the light from the softbox. You can probably guess that the softbox is actually lighting her back, and the cooler flash is lighting her right side and front.

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It's a really subtle effect...actually it's so subtle that I didn't even plan it that way! Gelling flashes is kind of a loose science. You just add some color, take a shot and look, and then adjust from there. The gels come in increments like 1/4, 1/2, full, double strength, etc. Full is supposed to be balanced to regular tungsten light and is usually pretty close. However, most continuous light sources have different color temperatures: a 100W bulb from brand X and a 60W bulb from brand Y will burn at different colors. I was trying to balance all the different ambient sources in the store with a 30 year old tungsten hot light, and gel some flashes to match all those! So you kind of just experiment and see what looks good!

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[You finally did it...you balanced the overhead lights with the hot lights with the light here on the piano with your strobe! I am so surprised!

Next, I got a little crazier with the gels. Stay tuned for the last post from this shoot...in the meantime, go check out CURE Thrift Shop and support a great cause!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Food Photography: Chocolate chip banana muffins

chocolate chip banana muffins

Some more window-light food shots, this time delicious chocolate chip banana muffins straight from the oven! There is even some whole wheat flour in them so they're not only a serving of fruit, but also some fiber too! Practically health food if you ask me...

Threw these on my coffee table with the windows behind, and in front of the muffins put two white shirt boxes to act as reflectors. Same as before, camera was on aperture priority, ISO 100, plus 1 1/3 stops exposure compensation. No meters or anything, you can all do this at home. Just need a tripod, since at f/8 the camera gave me 1/2 second shutter speed. This was the first shot:

chocolate chip banana muffins

Looked good to me, but the glare in the plates in the upper left corner was kind of distracting, so I used a reflector to block the direct sunlight from that part of the image. No reflector? Anything would work, you can use your shoe provided it's big enough!

setup

Above is the setup shot, with the chef holding the reflector. The other white box in the upper right corner is there for the same reason. It is there to block (the photography term is "flag") the unwanted light from producing glare on the shiny table.

Here is another shot with a different angle:

chocolate chip banana muffins

Same settings as before, just moved the aperture to f/11. This time I had to flag sunlight from hitting the plate that the muffin is sitting on to block all the glare:

setup

The setup shot above shows all the glare that I didn't want. Add the trusty reflector from above like this:

setup

and the glare is gone! Just remember to have your camera focus and meter the exposure after you add the flag since you're cutting the amount of light by adding the flag. What else could I have done to get rid of the glare? I guess moving the whole setup back a few feet would help, or shooting at a different time of day when the sun isn't shining right down through the window. But who has time for those things when you have so much blogging to do?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Making Music

Romy

I’ve been wanting to do something different recently, so I put an ad on craigslist for musicians in need of portraiture. As is typical for craigslist, I got some serious inquiries and some ridiculous ones (you’d be surprised how many people out there are “the next big thing” up-and-coming rappers). All I required was a sample of the music before considering them for the shoot; given that I am doing this for free and all, I had to at least like the music! I wanted to shoot stuff they could use for album art and on the web for their self-promotion.

Romy

Romy was one of the first serious responses that I got. She is a singer/songwriter who has been playing the piano since early childhood, where she grew up in the Netherlands. After a ridiculous amount of world traveling (man I am jealous of the Europeans!), Romy finally settled here in NYC a few years ago, where she is working full time on her music. Her style is deep and soulful, and her music touches on themes like love, longing, and isolation. I have to say, it’s damn good stuff!

Romy

This was a new challenge for me. So far, I have mostly been shooting friends and models who are pretty comfortable in front of the camera. I am the first one to say that being a model is not easy (seriously). Keeping focus and energy for hours and knowing what your body looks like in all different poses is something that most people can’t do. In my opinion, that’s half of the equation in getting a good photo! So I deliberately wanted to put myself in a position of shooting non-models, to see how I would work with a total stranger who is not used to having a big lens aimed at their head for like two hours!

I have to say, while Romy was very comfortable in front of the camera and did great, it was definitely still a good challenge for me for a few reasons. I still think one of the hardest things about shooting with people is connecting with them and bringing out some real emotion in the pictures. I mean, we’re shooting portraits here, not mug shots or snapshots. I find that it is really hard to get someone to just be themselves in front of the camera, and not just stand there stiff or smile like they’re at Disney World! Now, don’t think I am complaining…I am the worst offender myself. When someone points a camera at me I probably have three default ways of behaving: 1)making stupid faces, possibly involving tongue; 2)stone-faced; 3)goofy smile. So I really do identify with the fact that it is very difficult to be at ease and express yourself in front of the camera!

Romy

It was another good opportunity for me to practice directing the subject too, which is something else I find difficult. How do you tell someone to do what you can only see in your head, but can barely verbalize? Something like “OK, now look at me, but look away a little too, and give me your best playful-coy-aloof-deepinthought-confident-awesome face!” Directing people is a skill, and I will continue to improve with time!

Here is another reason this was a difficult shoot:

the ambient left something to be desired...

This is the ambient light in the room we were working in! Lightwise, there's not much going on here! So I used strobes for about half of the shoot and then the sun peeked out behind some clouds so I cranked up the ISO to 800, and shot at 1/30, f/2.8 for a lot of the shoot using just natural window light. Scary to say the least, since my camera is not too good at ISO 400, let alone 800, and at that f-stop my DOF is razor thin and if I blink the shot will get blurred since I am shooting at 1/30. I was actually really impressed at how many shots came out sharp, it's almost a miracle!

Truthfully, I like the natural light ones more. They just look, well, more natural! This shot made me want to get a new camera body with better high ISO performance. Imagine being able to crank up the ISO to 1600 or 3200 and get usable shots!

After our time in the studio was up, we went for a quick walk outside to get some different shots. It was freezing out, but we managed to get some good ones!

Romy

Romy

Romy

Anyway, Romy is currently recording her first album, which I will eventually link to when it comes out! Also, I did a very different shoot with a very different musician later that same week, more to come!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Food Photography-Part One: Angle and Aperture

I wasn’t kidding when I wrote about getting better at food photography. So where to start? I find it’s best to pick a goal and then figure out a way to work towards it. My goal: to take a great picture of one of Mrs. GWC’s kick-ass cakes. The timeline: three months. The plan: learn one or two basic skills every other week. Post my successes and failures here for others to read. Maybe beginners will learn something and hopefully more experienced people will give me some pointers and critique!

I will try to do this with as little equipment as possible. Want to make it accessible for people without lighting gear and meters and all that stuff. I am planning to do most of the shooting with natural window light, but will also see if I can replicate the look with artificial light, because let’s face it: sometimes the sun isn’t shining through the window and I still want to take a picture! Oh, one last preliminary thing: I will be shooting all real, edible food! None of this prop fake food nonsense…what’s the point if the food isn’t real? I’m not trying to sell the stuff; I’m trying to show how delicious it looks (and besides, I can’t eat fake food afterwards!) So here it goes!

Angle and aperture are the most basic elements to learn. The camera angle is probably the most important compositional decision to make in food photography. It decides the entire look of the picture. The aperture (aka the f-stop) dictates the depth-of-field of the photo. Together, angle and aperture set the framework for everything else: any additional props, settings, food styling, etc only “make sense” after the photographer chooses the angle and aperture.

Again, where to start? Ah-ha! Food magazines! We have tons of those around the place, so I started looking through them and finding certain looks used again and again. The most popular angle seems to be at about 30 or 45 degrees looking down, sort of like the way food looks to someone sitting at a table about to eat (well that makes sense!) So I grabbed the last piece of homemade coffee cake that was left in my kitchen and put it on a plate and got started. These pics below are at about a 45 degree angle:

f/2.8
f/2.8

f/5.6
f/5.6

f/11
f/11

All of these were taken with the same settings: aperture priority mode (I set the aperture and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed), camera on a tripod, ISO 100, and +1 1/3 exposure compensation. How did I pick +1 1/3 exposure compensation? Basically just took a shot, looked at the back of the camera and adjusted as I saw fit. Looked at the histogram to make sure the whites were not blown out. No light meters or strobes used anywhere. Focal length of the lens was about 35-50 mm and varied for different setups. I used a 17-50 mm f/2.8 zoom lens for all of these.

setup

setup
[hey, who moved the fork?]

Above are the setup shots to show the sophisticated lighting scheme I was using! Those white reflector things are just shirt boxes standing on edge, placed where they reflected a little light to illuminate the cut sides of the coffee cake. Remember that lighting and staging and all of that stuff is not the point of this exercise. Could I have picked a better model than a two day old piece of coffee cake? Probably, but that would involve leaving the apartment to buy something else at the food store and I was feeling lazy! Plus, it gave me incentive to finish the pictures quickly so I could eat it! Here are the pictures taken with the above setup, at about a 30 degree angle from the table:

f/2.8
f/2.8

f/5.6
f/5.6

f/11
f/11

So let’s talk about aperture. Aperture is the size of the hole in the lens that the light passes through when you press the shutter. It is measured in terms of f-stop, and each full-stop increase in the aperture size (which is a decrease in the f-stop number) lets in twice the amount of light. For example, going from f/11 to f/8 is a decrease in the f-stop number, but doubles the amount of light that enters the camera. If we then went to f/5.6, this would let in twice as much light as f/8, and four times as much light as f/11! That’s just the way it works! Want to be even more confused? Digital cameras don’t just give you full f-stops, they also let you choose 1/3 stops. This means instead of going from f/2.8 to f/4 (one full stop), you go from f/2.8 to f/3.2 to f/3.5 to f/4…whew! The best thing to do is to just memorize the full-stop numbers (f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22, f/32, see a pattern?) and call it a day! Alright, this is starting to sound more like “guy with calculator” than “guy with camera” so let’s move on!

f/2.8
f/2.8

f/5.6
f/5.6

f/11
f/11

These shots above are probably at the most extreme angle, pretty much head-on. This angle really shows what a big or a small aperture does to depth-of-field in the picture. Depth of what? Depth-of-field (DOF) refers to how much other stuff besides what the camera is focused on remains in focus. Shallow DOF means amost everything else is blurred, wide (or deep) DOF means that a significant amount of the stuff in the image in front of and behind the focal point remains in focus. Larger apertures (f/2, f/2.8, f/4) have a very shallow DOF. Smaller apertures (f/8, f/11, f/16) have a wide DOF and lots more is in focus in the picture. Other things like the focal length and how close you are to the subject also affect DOF, but that’s a topic for another time. Notice how in all of the above pictures, the shots at f/11 and f/2.8 have very different depths-of-field? Look at the fork in the background. Which aperture gives the most pleasing results?

f/2.8
f/2.8

f/5.6
f/5.6

f/11
f/11

This is what I am calling a bird’s eye view, and is another popular angle to use. As you can see from the setup shot below, it’s not really bird’s eye, but more like 85 degrees or so. This is a nice angle to get table setups and multiple plates in the shot.

setup

So that’s it for part one. What did I learn?

I was really surprised at the fact that I had to use such high apertures (f/11) to get the effect I wanted. No wonder why most of my prior food photography looked weird, I was using a way too shallow DOF! This is very different than shooting people, where I find myself shooting at f/2.8 and f/4 commonly. So f/11 will be my go-to aperture and I will adjust up or down from there. When you’re shooting so close to the object, f/11 still gives you good DOF for the main subject (the food) while allowing stuff in the background to have just a little pleasant blur, but still remain identifiable (like the fork above).

As for the angles, they are all useful for specific purposes. I think the 45 degree angle will be the most useful for all different types of food. The bird’s eye will showcase a table scene really well, and can be used in more formal settings. For cakes, I think the lower angles are the best, but we’ll see soon!

As always, comments are much appreciated. I also have a new facebook page here, so sign up if you want to get notified when I update the blog or if you want to hear about other photography-related things that I find interesting!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Hot and Thrifty

CURE
[The crew: Sarah, Ali, Bianca]

That’s how I would describe the lighting setup I used for this shoot…hot and thrifty. The shoot was at Cure Thrift Shop in the East Village of NYC. While the founder probably likes the 1980’s English rock band with almost the same name, the “CURE” that I am talking about has to do with type 1 diabetes. Cure Thrift Shop’s founder was diagnosed with it as a child, and instead of just living with the condition, she made it her mission to help find the cure, using her own money to open up the shop in 2008. All of the proceeds from the store go to the Diabetes Research Institute and are used to support research aimed at finding the cure!

I have never really used hot lights before. I have never even thought of them as a viable lighting source until the day before this shoot, when I went to the store to scope it out and prepare. They said they had some old lights that were donated to the store: minutes later I am opening up a dusty case and inside are three 600-watt Smith Victor tungsten heads that looked like they were from the 1970’s, but were still in great condition! I found out why they are called “hot” lights when I turned one on...wow!

setup

So I brought this big softbox to the shoot, put the one of the heads on a lightstand and pointed it backwards so the light was shining on the silver reflective surface inside the box (above). [Just FYI, I don’t think these softboxes are supposed to be used with hot lights like this...something about spontaneous combustion and all that. I didn’t put down the front diffuser on the softbox so that the head could cool better, and I turned the head off about every 5-10 minutes to let it cool a bit…still, keep a fire extinguisher nearby.]

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[Extinguisher? Mallory needed two hydrants, that’s how hot the light was!]

By putting the light inside the softbox like that, it changed from a small source (the front of the bare light was about 4” by 3” or 12 square inches) to a big source (28” square softbox is 784 square inches!) This made really nice soft light since I was using it about 6-8 feet away from the models. But what do you mean “soft” light, the front diffuser wasn’t down?! Well, the softness of a light source really just depends on one thing. Some say the “distance” or the “size” of the light determines its softness, but that’s only partially true. The one thing that really makes a light “soft” or “hard” in quality is the relative size of the light source to the subject. Diffusion materials help to even out hot spots, and give the light its specular character, but don’t really effect softness. So there!

OK, enough about that. Here are some of the pictures we made using only that old thrift store hot light!

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[Ali is the store manager. She is also very strong…this frame is way heavy.]

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[Bianca is the PR Director for Cure. She is framed by some old glass window panes, reflections and all!]

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[Ooo! A dresser!]

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[Selective desaturation is apparently a no-no if you want to be a hip photographer nowadays, but I just couldn’t resist!]

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Big thanks to the awesome employees and friends of Cure Thrift Shop for putting this together, being the models, and even supplying the lights! Go check out the store, it’s two stories of the coolest stuff around, and all for a great cause! Want more? “Cure: Part 2 and Part 3” to follow, mixing in some strobes and gels with these hot lights!
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