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On location food photography setup

Sometimes we don’t get to work with our lovely little setup in our home or studio for food photography. Sometimes we walk in to a job not knowing what to expect, and hoping that the gear you have crammed in to your car is going to be what is needed to do it right.

I figured it might be rather interesting to do a post on food photography from a slightly different perspective – that is on location shooting.

The interest here is working with the unknown. Adapting your regularly successful food photography setup to work in a new location with different lighting and space requirements. This is a useful exercise even if you never plan to shoot anywhere else but your home/studio.

Here is a list of  food photography equipment I generally like to take with me:

  1. Camera, with power charger
  2. Tripod – I tend to like to do 50% shot from a tripod, and another 50% more dynamic and hand held.
  3. Lenses – generally a 100mm macro I use for most food shots, a 50mm F1.4 and a 20mm F1.4. I like fixed lenses (no zoom) because honestly for the bucks the quality is fantastic. You also tend get a much lower F Stop, which is good for shooting in low-light hand-held.
  4. Laptop and USB cable. Mainly for tethered shooting and a review of photos before leaving the joint. More on tethered shooting for food photography in a bit. Before leaving I like to download all photos on to a laptop, just to double back things up.
  5. A roll of artists vellum. We can use the technical trendy photographer term “scrim” here if you want. The vellum works really well at diffusing strong light – making the light softer, and making the shadows much less harsh. Soft light makes objects look more voluminous, and food less greasy. More on that later too.
  6. A sheet of white foam board to act as a light bounce. See it in the shot above, resting against my laptop?
  7. A roll of painters tape.
  8. Misc dishes, flatware, napkins and so on.

The pictures in this post were from a recent shoot I did at a fantastic new restaurant in Seattle called Nettletown. Now, I could wax lyrical about their lovely food all day, but I won’t. Just go there and try it yourself. OK?

The restaurant has one major source of natural light – and that is the doorway. Along the same wall as the door are some high up thin windows that help illuminate the other side of the restaurant a bit. But all in all, the main light is by the door. As you get further back in to the restaurant, and in to the kitchen area you are so far away from the natural light, you start having to shoot in the artificial light provided by light fixtures.

LIGHTING:

Photography is really all about lighting. The best photographers in the world could honestly photograph a white cube on a white piece of paper and make it look interesting – all because of lighting.

Seek out the spot with the most natural light. For this one it was by the door. Shooting outside is an option too, however here the lighting was really flat and dull. There was more directionality to it inside, and it was possible to get enough light to shoot with by using the bounce card.

What is a bounce card, and why do I need it?: Simply it is a piece of white (generally) card/foamboard/styrofoam that you position to help “bounce” light back in to the scene. Consider this to be a soft “fill light”. The bounce won’t really cast any kind of shadow, rather it will fill in dark areas in your shot that have been shadowed heavily from the stronger main or “key” light.

In the situation above, the “key light” is the daylight coming through the front door. I have positioned the bounce card on the other side of the food, and forward just a touch. The light coming in through the doorway bounces off this white card and back on to the “dark side” of the object or food you are shooting.

To get all artistic and techie for a sec – it really helps add a lot of detail to shadows, and also helps make a photograph look less harsh – a little softer and more inviting.

What is a scrim (vellum in this case), and why do I need it?: A scrim is a translucent material used to soften strong light. Strong light can cast strong shadows, and leave really strong hot-spots on food. You position the scrim between your light source and your food you are shooting. This softens the light down, making the shadows far less harsh – and helps make shots much more evenly lit.

Often when using a scrim at home I will tape up vellum over a window I am shooting by, in the light coming in from it is really strong. I also made a frame that I stapled vellum on to, that I can move around my studio space as needed.

In the case above, I would have taped some vellum over the door that you see the light coming through on the left (that is why a roll of painters tape is dead handy to take with you). In this particular case the vellum wasn’t needed for two reasons: 1) the light coming in was actually pretty soft 2) the scrim would have made this space really dark, and hard to get a well lit shot from.

CAMERAS, LENSES & SHOOTING TETHERED:

In my mind the camera isn’t as important as the lens, and good lighting. If you have a cropped frame dSLR (most digital SLRs), a 50mm prime (fixed, no zoom) is a good place to start. Canon have some amazing 50mm lenses at very cheap prices – I am sure Nikon do too. If you have a full frame digital SLR (there are more around now then a couple of years ago) then my top pick is a 100mm macro lens. I love the foreshortening this lens gives, and the depth of field.

Pick your lens based on your situation and the amount of space you have. In the photos above I am using a 100mm macro lens. You can see how far away from the subject the camera has to be, in order to get it all in shot. It isn’t often that you can afford this amount of space for such a large tabletop shot. If you don’t have room, look at using a wider angle lens, like a 50mm.

What is shooting tethered, and how useful is it?: Shooting tethered is where you have a USB cable connecting your camera to your laptop. As soon as you take your photo on your camera, you get to see it on the nice big screen on your laptop. Further more, some cameras have “Live View” which allows you to see on your computer screen, in realtime, what is going on through the lens.

I am not going to bullshit you. It is dead handy. Really helpful for some tricky shots. It is good for fine tuning lighting, and really great for tweeking shot composition. There are problems with it however. I honestly believe it makes you a lazy photographer. You start relying on it too much to get a great shot. I also think it completely robs you of any spontaneity because it takes a while to setup, and take a picture.

I tend to shoot about 50% tethered, and 50% freestyle. What pictures come out better? Well, it varies. On this particular shot, My favorite pictures of the day were taken hand-held. No tripod, and certainly no tethered shooting. Other times, it is the opposite.

The main rule of thumb – take lots of photos, experiment, try different techniques. If you have a dSLR and a laptop, give tethered shooting a go – you might like it, just don’t rely on it.


SURFACES AND PROPS:

There are more options than just the table to take a picture on. I know a lot of food photographers that eagerly hunt out new surfaces to take shots on. I am one of them. Recently I saved a bunch of wood from a deck remodel, nailed them to a board, and use those for some shots (OK, being honest I totally overuse them). It is all about getting creative.

Lets look at this scenario again (see the top photo in this post). On first look you can see we have a large table, and some smaller tables. Out of shot there is a really dark chalkboard like serving counter too. This counter is far away from the door, but might just get enough light on it to get some interesting shots.

Looking beyond tables however we have a few options. They had three different styles of chairs in the room, all of which had a lot of character to them. The seat of any of these would make a fantastic surface to shoot on. You see that chair right by the front door? That chair yielded my favorite shot of the day, thankyouverymuch.

And hold on.. check out the floor. Stained concrete, that has a patina that only a well trodden floor can have. That would make a lovely contrast to a crisp white plate. Lets keep that in mind.

Whilst I was in the bathroom, I noticed a fantastic, really rustic cabinet in the corner of the bathroom, holding paper towel. It wasn’t heavy. In a crunch, I could easily move that to good light, and get another really unique surface to shoot on.

As for props – I like to take a few things along with me, just in case. Having been to this restaurant before I knew they had some pretty darn delicious dishes, so I wasn’t too concerned about having a collection to pick from.

What I didn’t expect was all of the rather amazing dishes she had. Old rustic wooden boards. Clean white plates, patterned fantastic Asian dishes. Turns out she loves dishes and surfaces. A guy could get used to a job like this.

PHOTOS:

These couple of photos below are some of my favorite from the shoot. Interestingly enough neither were shot on a tripod. Nether were shot tethered, and neither were shot on a table. They were both shot close to that bright front door, using a bounce card to project a bit more light in to the scene.

and one last favorite on mine, this time on a table, shot tethered and on a tripod:

FINAL TIPS FOR FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY SETUP:

  1. Look at different surfaces. Look high, low, and in bathrooms if you must!
  2. Always think about lighting – using scrims and bounce cards.
  3. Vary up dishes. Pair rustic food with clean plates. Not much visual interest in the food? Use a fancy plate.
  4. Be adaptive – take the camera off the tripod, shoot tethered, try high and low shots.
  5. Vary camera angles – shoot some top down, other shots almost flat-on low.
  6. Try different shots – some of plated food, others of ingredients. Even combine the two!
  7. Take a lot of photos. Go crazy!
  8. Natural light, not flash.


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29 Responses to “On location food photography setup”

  1. Chris says:

    Interesting behind-the-scenes look at your work Matt; I really appreciate all the info and tips. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. nina says:

    Thank for all the useful advise!!!

  3. Sarka says:

    Fantastic post! Very informative and helpful. Thank you for sharing those tips and advice with us! My fav is the shot taken on the floor! :)

  4. When cooking at my boyfriend’s house, I often have to resort to shooting things on the hardwood floor right by the front door because by the time we’re about to eat, that’s the only spot that has light! I rather like it as a surface though. Love that first shot of the food on the concrete.

  5. Tara says:

    Very, very helpful information! Just what I needed today – thank you!

  6. Amy says:

    Great post – I have got to figure out tethering! It looks quite handy. Thanks for your insight!

  7. Great piece and nice shots, Matt! By the way, for those of you who use Lightroom, Lightroom 3 which just came out has tethered shooting support built in. (Yes, I work for Adobe when I’m not shooting pictures of food).

  8. Love the shots. What aperture and focal length did you use on the first shot?

  9. mattwright says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Michael – does it do LiveView too, or just instant tether? I thought that LR2 had tethered built in as well – is 3 different?

    Adam – which shot, the one of the salad? That was shot with a 100mm lens on a full frame body, F4.5

  10. Laura says:

    this is a really fantastic article, thanks so much! I’ve been looking around for a big piece of styorofoam to use as a bounce, still no luck…. it seems like you actually positioned it pretty far from the scene, is that right?

  11. mattwright says:

    Laura – You can find foam core board, which is what I use, at art supply stores. Big pieces aren’t that much cash. When shooting at home I have one very large one, and a smaller one.

    Where you position it really depends on the light coming in. The further away you position it, the less light you bounce back in to the scene. Just something you have to play with on a case by case basis

  12. Lynne says:

    A very appropriate post for me as I am vacationing this week at a beach resort with none of my usual props, etc. Thanks for all your tips.

  13. tea_austen says:

    Great post, Matt. And since I just got back from lunch at Nettletown (isn’t it wonderful?). you’ve made me hungry for my meal all over again.

    Love the floor shots and the chair. Gorgeous.

  14. Thanks so much for this post! I always thought that I couldn’t take food photography jobs in restaurants because I only work with natural light, but it’s great to see that it *is* possible!

  15. What a terrific tutorial on lighting and other photography tips.
    Thanks for the informative post.

  16. deeba says:

    Thank you for sharing this so wholeheartedly and beautifully. Your shots are gorgeous, truly inspiration for a beginner DSLR photographer like me.
    Cheers

  17. Charles says:

    Photography continues to be my edge in need of honing. You nailed with “The best photographers in the world could honestly photograph a white cube on a white piece of paper and make it look interesting – all because of lighting.

    Thanks for your generosity in sharing what you have learned.

  18. brozy says:

    Very helpful. Thanks so much!

  19. Ash says:

    Such a great post!!
    Thanks for sharing!!

  20. wow, i;ve never considered a fixed lens, maybe when my bidget allows i’ll do some more research. thanks for planting that seed ;)

  21. dario says:

    Hi Matt , I enjoyed your post and all the pics look great; fantastic work, Dario!

  22. Katie says:

    Thanks for the great post, super helpful! I’m a local Seattle-ite myself and love to find other local blogs. I’m dying to try out Nettletown now which looks like it’s by one of my favorite spots, Sitka and Spruce. I have a lot of respect for talented people such as yourself who choose to share their knowledge with others instead of hoarding it to themselves, so thank you for that!

  23. Nikki Stoyko says:

    This is a GREAT post! And very helpful! I just love hearing about natural light, there is truly nothing better than a bright window and a cheap piece of white foam board! Thanks for sharing all the great tips!

  24. Nikki Stoyko says:

    Oh, and I LOVE the chair shot, extremely interesting surface!

  25. Dave says:

    good food always looks delicious even with point and shoot but thanks for some tips, seems that decent natural light works the best

  26. Firoze says:

    inspiring and loved it as i have a long way to go

  27. clairetweet says:

    Fantastic. Really honest useful information as always.

  28. Sasha says:

    what a wonderful post! i’ve noticed that it’s really hard to find food photog/bloggers to write about their tips and tricks.

    so, thank you for this very informative post!

    one question: do you recommend 50mm 1.4 over the 50.. or 60mm macro?

  29. Gunna says:

    Hey Matt,
    I’ve found your tips on food photograpy more helpful than any of the other stuff I’ve read online and in books. Thank you very much!
    Gotta go… I’ve more stuff to read… on your blog!
    G.