bowl of summer strawberries photographed from above

The 4 Piece Photo Challenge

Text and Images by Chuck Place

It’s raining outside, you can’t go out and play and you’re developing cabin fever. What to do? Assign yourself the 4 Piece Photo Challenge! Sounds silly, I admit, but it’s a great tool for building up your photographic creativity.

The Photo Challenge works like this.

Pick out 4 objects or sets of objects in your home and use these to create interesting still life images. This is an exercise that I find often results in portfolio-quality photographs.

Let’s walk through the steps of an actual shoot–the strawberries at the top of this post. Item 1 was a basket of fresh strawberries. Item 2 was a bowl of complimentary color from my kitchen. Item 3 is an antique fork, also from my kitchen, and item 4 is a napkin. You can probably guess where I found that. The surface is a piece of slate I found at a stone yard. It was cheap but it weighs a ton. I think the guy discounted the price just to see if I could pick it up.

Photographs from directly above

Photographs from directly above produces a more graphic image

Food photography is one of my main specialties, so I tend to create food still lives with a slightly modern feel. Anything will work for this Challenge however—cut flowers, old glassware, your baseball trading card collection, Pez dispensers—anything. A few support items, in this case a bowl, fork and napkin, and any surface that works with your main subject and you’re in business.

Essentially you are creating a photo set.

For lighting, I like window light. It’s soft, directional and I can manipulate it quite a bit. Pick a window with indirect light flowing through it. There should be no direct sunlight passing through the window. This should give you soft edged shadows and large highlights.

Photographing strawberries at a low angle

Photographing strawberries at a low angle produces an intimate viewpoint

If you want darker shadows, move your set farther from the window or place a black sheet of matt board or foam core board on the room side of your set to block any ambient fill from the room. If you want lighter shadows, move your set closer to the window or add a white board to the room side of the set to provide fill light.

The shooting angle will also have a big impact on the success of your final image.

Placing your camera directly above a set creates a rather graphic look to the image while shooting from a lower angle, say 45 degrees, produces more intimate visual. In either case, make sure you are getting good highlights on reflective surfaces.

Change some props and the surface

Change some props and the surface to create a new set of photographs

If you want to push yourself a little, change a couple props and create a new set of images.

In any case, drop a sheet of white paper in the very first exposure and then remove it for the rest of the shoot.  This gives you a target so you can neutralize the usually cool light from the window in post-production.

These are basically composition exercises, but I always try to imbed a storyline into each still life. The top image has the feel of a warm spring day eating the first strawberries of the season. It’s challenging but also lots of fun. And no matter how my images turn out, I get to eat some of the props. I’ll have to start shooting desserts.


Pizzas with hand for prop

Delicious Food Photography: The Basics Of Cooking Up Mouth Watering Images

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

My introduction to food photography was basically an accident.

I was shooting an article on Monterey, California, known for Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and great seafood. Dungeness crab is at the top of the areas epicurean list and I had already photographed a display of crabs on ice out on the pier. Although the shot was interesting, there was nothing appetizing about it. I was going to have to bite the bullet and go into a restaurant and photograph a crab dish properly.

Dungeness crab, Monterey, California

Dungeness crab photographed using window light.

Getting permission to shoot in a restaurant turned out to be easier than I thought. All I had to do was show up after the lunch crowd had thinned out, explain why I was shooting my lunch and confirm that I expected to pay for my meal. To seal the deal, I offered to send the restaurant a JPEG of the finished image for use on their web site or social media.

As I was deciding which table to use, a plate bearing an entire Dungeness crab was being set in front of a diner. The crab’s shell had been broken into many pieces, looking as if it had been run over by a truck. I was pretty certain a shot of roadkill on a plate wasn’t going to work, so I had my crab served whole without cracking. This was Food Lesson #1. Sometimes the presentation has to be modified so that the food looks good in a photographic image.

Crispy pork belly with simple staging

Crispy pork belly with simple staging

Rain had been falling the entire day and the restaurant was rather dark, so I picked a table close to a large window. As soon as food began to arrive, I quickly realized this was Food Lesson #2. Placing my subject near a large window, with no direct sunlight passing through it, gave me beautiful diffused light and large highlights on my food, making everything look quite luscious. If you want food to look tasty, make sure it has large highlights.

Now for the hard part!

Seafood fettuccine with food props

Seafood fettuccine with food props

An unadorned Dungeness crab sitting lonely on a plate wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to think of this as a still life and pick out props for my set. This is called food styling, one of the most difficult parts of food photography. In a restaurant there are few props with which to work—silverware and napkins, maybe a salt and pepper shaker, possibly a flower in a small vase. Props, I learned from Food Lesson #3, are often side dishes and drinks. Ideally, the side dishes should make sense within the context of the main dish and work with it visibly as well. In this case, the shape of the bowl of bread dipping oil and the roast tomato soup mimicked the circular shape of the crab and its plate. A glass of chardonnay, appropriate for seafood, rounded out the set.

Food Lesson #4 came later in my office while processing these images. Diffused window light is always a bit blue. Using the White Balance Selector tool in Lightroom, I clicked on the white plate to neutralize it and then added a little warmth with the Temperature Slider. Most food looks more appetizing if balanced slightly warm.

Dessert platter with flower styling

Dessert platter with flower styling

These days I photograph quite a range of dishes, chefs and restaurants. Often, when I finish, I am asked if I would like to try any of the dishes I have photographed. I always start with dessert—Food Lesson #5.

As evidenced by all the meals people post on-line, photographing food has become quite popular. There seems to be no downside to sharing photos of something you can then eat. Just be sure to work quickly before your food gets cold. And, of course, don’t forget Food Lesson #5!

 

Also Take A Look at “Create Stunning Aerial Photographs Of A Delicious Lunch


Farmers Market produce

An Exciting Photo Shoot At The Lively Farmers Market

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

My favorite location to try out new photography equipment is not California’s ragged coastline or soaring mountain peaks. Forget the rolling sand dunes of Death Valley National Park or the giant redwoods of Redwood National Park. Give me a good old Farmers Market to run a new lens or camera body through its paces. Whaaaat?

Customers wander a Farmers Market

Customers wander a Farmers Market

That’s right, a Farmers Market. It has everything necessary to test any equipment—or photographer, for that matter. Shooting strong images at a busy farmers market is a test of concentration. A photographer is forced to create order out of chaos, still lifes out of produce and portraits of people who are too busy for a portrait shoot. It’s a tough photography environment!

gold and purple beets

Still life of golden and purple beets at the Farmers Market

Often I take my students to a local Farmers Market, not because I like to see them suffer–not too much, anyway. All photographers that shoot on location need to learn how to take a large, bustling, crowded event and break it down into manageable visual pieces. If a photographer views a market as just a big, chaotic location, their work will reflect just that surface appearance. Let’s break it down.

Eggs and iris for sale

Everything from eggs to iris are for sale at the Farmers Market.

First I like to get some establishing shots as I make a quick survey through the various areas of a market. Different vendors have different products and some create more interesting displays than others. I also pick out the vendors I think will make good portraits. Their looks, their clothing, the lighting at their booth, how they view customers walking by—this all impacts whether I think they will make strong subjects.

cherry tomatoes at the Farmers Market

Diagonals are created from baskets of cherry tomatoes

Farmers Market sign

Farmers Market sign selling strawberries.

My first task is usually to capture the market’s range of products while they are still available. The first tomatoes or berries of the season often sell quickly, so I try to capture those subjects first. Signs are always fun, flowers are always colorful and street musicians always make interesting subjects. I always ask permission from vendors and musicians and drop a dollar or two in the musician’s open instrument case so that I can create a range of portraits without getting the “glare”.

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

Photographic portrait of street musicians.

Later in the morning, after the crowds thin and sales slow down, I’ll work with individual vendors to create environmental portraits. By this point, they are getting a little bored and often welcome something to break up their morning. Because most produce is hauled in by trucks, the vehicles are lined up behind each of the stalls and make rather ugly backgrounds. I prefer to shoot down a row of stalls, filling the background with more produce. A shallow depth of field is necessary to separate my subject from the busy background and I prefer photographing under one of the white awnings. It produces a beautiful soft light with large highlights and great skin tones.

Strawberry_Vendor

Photographic portrait of a vendor selling strawberries.

By the time I’m finished with portraits, I’m a little worn out, my subjects are tired and I have to return to that stall where I bought those great blanched almonds with rosemary and sea salt. Although I tend to shoot all this with a single camera body and a 24-70mm zoom lens, my camera bag is usually full of treats to bring home.

Where else could I find a single location with such a range of photographic subjects and still shop for dinner supplies at the same time. Give it a try and don’t forget the almonds.


cheese fondue lit with window light

Window Light, An Amazingly Elegant Photography Light Source

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

Have you ever wished you could invent the perfect lighting system, one that generally gave you diffused light but could be adjusted to be more specular? A lighting system that provided directional, horizontal lighting that avoided the raccoon eyes of overcast days. A continuous source so you can see the results before you shoot and powerful enough to light an entire room and its contents. Oh, and let’s throw in cheap to buy and very light to carry. Perfect, right?

Alebrije in window light

A gold reflector bounces window light into the near side of a carved Mexican alebrije to control contrast and create a warm highlight.

We all have that lighting system available, of course. I use window lighting for a wide range of photographic subjects, but I have noticed in my classes that many students seem to ignore it. It’s a seemingly easy light source to use, but as in so many things in photography, mastering window light is quite another matter.

Cafe lit with window light

If windows are part of your composition, break them up as much as possible and don’t allow your camera to underexpose the interior, even though the light source is in the frame.

First, let’s define exactly what we are talking about here. Window light is any source of daylight that is horizontally directional and mostly diffused. This diffused daylight is often cool in temperature and does not have to pass through a real window. It would certainly be awkward carrying a window around all day. A large overhang of some sort outdoors will produce the same quality and direction of light as long as there is no direct sunlight intruding into our scene.

Window light also requires that we actually see how the light is impacting our subject, not how we expect it to look. This is one of the big hurdles in learning to be a photographer—actually seeing what is right in front of us.

pizza lit with window light

Pizza was photographed twenty feet from the window light source to emphasize the pizza texture with edgier light and balance the food exposure with the interior exposure.

This will lead to the realization that window light will change depending on where in a lit room we place our subject. Is there more than one window? Are there also artificial lights involved or will the paint color on the walls bias our color balance through bounce light. Do we want flat, even lighting or side lighting that creates dimension and brings up texture. Close to a window, the light is very soft and diffused. It becomes harsher, or more specular, as we move our subject farther from the light source. Do we have reflectors to modify contrast and shape the light? It’s getting a bit more complicated, isn’t it?

restaurant interior photographed with window light

A restaurant interior was photographed at a point where window light and the warm, incandescent light over the table and painting balanced perfectly.

When I first enter a window-lit room or an outdoor arcade with arches open to the ambient light, I sit for a few minutes and study people as they walk through the space. There is always a “sweet spot”, a location within the environment that gives me the perfect direction, the right amount of softness and perfect balance of light on my subject and my background.

Try it, but keep your eyes open. This is a subtle light source but a very powerful one as well. And you have got to love a light source that you don’t have to carry! I know I do.


Aerial Photo of Chinese food

Capture Stunning Aerial Photos Of Your Lunch

Have you ever looked at high-angle, or aerial views, of food and thought that would be a fun way to photograph meals during your next vacation? Or a holiday is coming up and you have always wanted to immortalize the amazing spread of delicious dishes before it all becomes leftovers and dirty dishes?

With a window and at least one chair, you can replicate the style of those beautiful, high viewpoint images that you sometimes see on Facebook and Instagram feeds or Pinterest boards.

They aren’t as hard as they look, but on the other hand, they aren’t as easy either. The first step is to pick a table near a window with diffused sunlight coming in. If there is direct sunlight streaming through the window, the lighting will be too harsh for anything to look good. The diffused light of indirect sunlight creates large highlights that make food look much more appetizing and lowers the contrast of the scene.

Aerial camera setup to photograph food

Aerial camera setup prepared to photograph Chinese food

The next step is to find a chair sturdy enough to stand on. A bench seat is even better, if there is one next to your table, and a small stepladder from the kitchen is best of all, if you have the nerve to ask for one. One way or another, your camera needs to be directly above the table.

I usually use a tripod for support, placing the legs on the table and adjacent chairs. It’s more trouble than hand holding your camera, but I don’t have to raise my camera’s ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to steady both my camera and myself while balancing on a chair.

The fun step is arranging the various dishes on the table that you want to include in your photograph. Roughly center the largest dish, the main dish or the most exotic dish and then add the peripheral dishes to fill the frame. Don’t forget to add a drink or two, sauces, tableware—anything that supports the ethnicity of the cuisine and indicates that a group of friends are sitting down to a great meal.

Aerial photo of cheese fondue

Aerial photograph of friends sharing a cheese fondue

Although not always necessary, I usually bounce light back into my still life with a reflector opposite the window. It controls contrast and produces more highlights, making the food look more tasty. Have someone hold a white menu for this if you don’t have a reflector handy. And don’t hesitate to have a friend reach in to try one of the dishes. A hand gives scale to the photo and makes it a little less sterile.

If your friends haven’t already started grazing on your still life, shoot quickly before everything cools down. Holding back fellow diners is often the hardest part of the job. If you are successful in controlling the mob, or maybe just your spouse, frame the image rather loosely and do your final cropping in post-production without the pressure of hungry friends or relatives.

These aerial photographs of food have an unexpected viewpoint that is very graphic and can be used to illustrate a range of dishes from a particular culture all in one image. Give it a try on your next trip and try not to fall off the chair. It makes a real mess of the food. Just saying.