Last year for the December issue of Harbor Style magazine, the theme was “Holiday Recipes”. The focus of the article was on local chefs who were going to make a special dish for the holidays. My job was to photograph the chefs and their creations that they would be offering. Sounds easy enough, right? Here was the challenge, to photograph all of the chefs in different lighting conditions so that they all had their own style and character.

Instead of making this post really long, I will include one of the shoots that I did for that story. Tapas One recently moved their restaurant to the downtown Punta Gorda, Florida area. This shoot was going to be a two for one for them, since Harbor Style had already done a dining review on them. This was going to be another way to help them get their name out there and showcase their quality food and atmosphere.

Some people think that being a photographer that you have the luxury of having a big studio and perfect light to work in. Well, I have to say that most of these restaurants shoots are quite the opposite. Restaurants are built for atmosphere and to get you to enjoy your experience. This usually entails small working conditions, usually between tables in a corner and low light levels. As a photographer, you have to be armed with solutions to deal with these types of challenges. This is where the “portable, on location studio” comes in. For most of my food/restaurant shoots, I use a light stand, 43” shoot through umbrella, a white piece of foam core and a tripod. In these situations, you have to CREATE your own light. I have talked with different photographers who tell me that they just use natural window light. I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box, but what if you have to photograph the food at night or there isn’t a window close to a table? The equipment that I described above is light, affordable and will get the job done. At the end of the day, you will look like a hero to the restaurant owner and your client. After you do a couple of these, it’s pretty easy. It takes me about 10 minutes to set up the equipment and get the exposure nailed down. Here’s a little trick, since you want everything perfect when the food comes, I will preset my exposure and my flash settings. On most tables, you will find a salt and pepper shaker. I reach for the salt shaker. Why? Because the salt shaker is white. This will allow me to set my exposure for the highlights without blowing them out. I also shoot in manual mode on the camera and manual mode on the flash. I have been screwed to many times by “aperture priority” and “TTL” flash. Once it’s all set in manual, no matter what I put in front of the lens, I know that I’m going to get consistent results.

I arrived at the restaurant, and since I had already photographed at this location I knew the lay of the land. I always like to ask who ever is in charge where they would like me to set up so I’m not in the customers way. In this particular shoot, we did it before they opened so we had plenty of time and space to work. This was a luxury shoot compared to the norm. I talked with the head chef and he had prepared his dish in advance. All he had to do was dress it at the table.

The Chef’s Portrait

How It Was Done

Since I had to also photograph the chef as well, I set this up first so that he could continue on with his prep until I needed the dish. The chef looked quite professional in his chef whites and I wanted to show off not only his professionalism, but also the tremendous wine collection that they have. I looked around the restaurant and on the walls there are racks of wine. I wanted to use this as a background. I took one of the tables and move all of the chairs out of the way except one for the chef. I wanted to get some nice directional lighting on him so I used a shoot through umbrella for the main light. Since this was a male chef, I wanted to go a little more “edgy” with him. I placed a rim light to back camera right. This put a harsh light on the opposite side of his face but, it also separated him from the background. I got a “twofor” out of this set up. If things only worked out like this all the time, life would be much easier. I took a couple of frames and made a stupid joke and he cracked a smile. Within a few minutes, I got the chefs portrait that the magazine needed. Now it was time for the food shoot.

The Yummy Part

I was lucky enough to be working with a chef that had done this before. In one hand, he had the dish. In the other, he had a can of whipped cream and the accent pieces for the dish. I positioned the dish to the camera angle and checked my exposure. Since, I work with REAL food and don’t have time on my side, this is where it can get a little tricky. Real whipped cream is not your friend. The minute it comes out of the can, it starts to warm up and get soft. This is why everything has to be in place before hand. When my exposures looked good, he placed the whipped cream on the dish and placed the cinnamon and mint leaves in the cream. As you can see from the photo, there is detail in the whites of the whipped cream because I used the salt shaker as a stand in earlier. I got in a few shots before the cinnamon and mint leaves started to take a nose dive. I’m glad that I was prepared.

Working with these types of professionals is a fast pace environment. They need to get their prep done before service and need to make sure that everything is going to go smoothly for the night. As long as you are prepared, and know your equipment, all should go well. Cick on the thumbnails to see larger versions of the photos.

Until next time…


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