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Brooks Short - Tampa, Florida , Oct 31, 2004; 10:01 p.m.

In the past there have been several questions in this Lighting Forum about photographing food. I did a food shoot last week and thought it might be a good idea to use that shoot as this week's theme to talk about the lighting as well as share some of the techniques that the food stylist used. The food stylist plays an important, some would say the most important, role in creating a good food shot.

This particular shot was an ad for an advertising agency that specializes in food and beverage advertising and marketing. The agency was the client and the ad was to promote their marketing services. The concept of the ad was that there's an art to creating effective food advertising.

In this case the shot was an illustration of a hamburger on a bun with the ketchup being painted on the burger by an artist's brush. And they did want fries with that so there are french fries in the background.

Often when working with an advertising agency the concept of the ad is well thought out in advance with the visual, headline, copy and layout already having been approved. To gain a consensus on these elements, the agency will often produce what is known as a Comp. Sometimes the visual on a comp is an actual illustration. Other times it is a photograph or several photographs which have been altered or combined in some way.

Here's the agency's comp. Notice how large the stripped in french fries are.....

Ad Agency's Comp


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Brooks Short - Tampa, Florida , Oct 31, 2004; 10:14 p.m.

For this theme I'm showing the final images with all the lighting and styling already completed, but the shoot starts with the client choosing a plate or surface and the stylist preparing sample or stand-in food which will be used for deciding perspective, lens choice and lighting. Once these decisions have been made the final "Hero" food is prepared and photographed.

When doing the lighting, I always start with the Key light. The Key light is the main light and it's placement determines where the highlights and shadows fall. Careful placement of the highlights and shadows creates a three dimensional quality to the items being photographed.

Almost always, in food photography, especially with "food on a plate" shots, a form of short lighting is used. Short lighting is placing the Key light to one side or overhead or a combination of the two, and slightly behind the subject so that the shadows are directed towards the lens.

In this shot the Key light, which is a small 2'x3' softbox, is on the right side of the scene and slightly behind the subject about 2 ft. away. You can see the strong highlight and shadow modeling on the burger and the back lighting on the french fries that this light position provides. Imagine how much flatter the lighting would be if this Key light was moved around to the front of the set.

Key Light

Brooks Short - Tampa, Florida , Oct 31, 2004; 10:19 p.m.

Those shadows are pretty dark. A 3'x4' medium soft box overhead and also slightly to the rear, at 1.5 stops less exposure than the Key light, not only provides some much needed fill light but also lays a clean diffused specular highlight on the top of the burger, ketchup and artist's brush.

Here's the light from the overhead softbox only.....Not very bright....

Medium soft box overhead for fill

Brooks Short - Tampa, Florida , Oct 31, 2004; 10:22 p.m.

But when you combine the Key light with the fill from the overhead softbox things are looking better.......

Key light and overhead fill light combined

Brooks Short - Tampa, Florida , Oct 31, 2004; 10:31 p.m.

Finally a white card is placed on the left and front of the burger to fill the areas where the overhead soft box can't reach. It's a subtle fill but you can see it in the left side of the burger and in the front edges of the plop of ketchup.

It's a simple "two lights and a fill card" setup. The camera was a Kodak SLRN full-frame 14mp chip with a 105mm Macro lens. Exposure was strobe, ISO 160 at f-32.

Here's the final setup with both lights and the fill card. The photography and lighting was relatively easy so let's check out the food styling.....

White fill card added on the left/front of the set

Brooks Short - Tampa, Florida , Oct 31, 2004; 10:53 p.m.

None of these shots show any final retouching that might be done. For example, there are some cracks in the bun, ketchup on the edge of the brush, bad edges on some of the fries and the grill marks on the burger are a bit too dark. All of that stuff will be retouched digitally. Today that kind of retouching is easily done in PhotoShop. Years ago it required dye-transfer prints from a transparency and retouching on the print using the same dyes used in the dye-transfer print. Progress is good !

Here are some of the techniques used by the food styles in this shoot.

The first step is buying the best food items you can find in large qualtities and as much variety as possible. On this shoot, the stylist brought 10 lbs of ground beef, 2 dozen baked hamburger buns from the local bakery which had never been bagged for retail sale, 2 kinds of lettuce, 2 types of frozen french fries, 6 tomatoes, and 3 varieties of onions. The shopping alone is a lot of work.

During the shoot the stylist made four different burgers before the size and color was what the client wanted. She then created the grill markes with an electric charcoil starter.

The ketchup was poured onto paper towels and allowed to drain for an hour so it would be thicker and stay in place on the burger.

The lettuce was cut in individual pieces, trimmed with scissors to fit the shape of the round bun, and placed in position with tweezers.

Additional sesame seeds were placed on the bun to cover bald spots.

The ketchup was put on the burger using a baker's icing bag and tip. She swirled the ketchup in circles from the outside inward, building to a peak in the center of the burger.

The bun top was propped on the burger with styrofoam under it's left edge and held in place with toothpicks.

The fries were cooked in three batches to get just the right color.

The edge of the tomato and onion were sprayed with just a tiny bit of glycerin for freshness.

And the brush was suspended with a clamp and a Matthews articulated arm from the right side of the set.

I was exhausted just watching the stylist work !

So...the next time you buy a burger and fries at the drive-through and the burger looks like someone sat on it...and the fries look sadder than a very sad thing...at least you didn't have to wait four hours before they were ready ! #8^)

There's your burger with fries...Go play with your food and take some photos. It's fun!

Food styling details

Kelvin Lau , Nov 01, 2004; 12:47 a.m.

Hello Brooks, thanks for your great free lesson. keep up the good work. I find the lighting breakdown very informative. Could you perhaps tell us your preferred key/fill light ratios, especially for this image, including the approximate ratio of the light reflected off the bounce card to the front & left?

Wayne Melia , Nov 01, 2004; 12:48 a.m.

Thank you for another excellent tutorial. I'm not a studio or food photographer, but these tutorials are still very interesting for the analytical understanding of light provided; and the work involved in production. Efforts appreciated.

Garry Edwards , Nov 01, 2004; 07:05 a.m.

When Brooks told me that he was thinking of posting this theme last week I thought it would be good, and I'm certainly not disappointed! IMO it demonstrates that:
1. Food photography is as much about good ingredients and good preparation as anything else. we sometimes get asked about the 'tricks' used in food photography, no tricks were used or needed here, and now that just about everyone uses flash instead of hot tungsten lighting, using substitute materials is necessary far less often.
2. Simple lighting is simply the best in most situtations
3. As with all studio photography, success follows from a good idea, good preparation, good composition, good products, good lighting, good choice of camera position and care.

These 'rules' apply to all studio photography, not just to food, and not just to still life

Frank Thomas , Nov 01, 2004; 07:45 a.m.

Thanks for this one Brooks, I've not done much in the way of food photography so this will be a bit of an incentive. I should be able to knock something up in my somewhat limited space.

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