Saturday, June 30, 2012
The Patio Studio: Part 3
- LiteDisc Holder
- LiteDisc 32 inch White/Silver
- LitePanel Accessory - Crossbar 39”
- LitePanel Fabric Translucent 39 x 72 inch
- LitePanel Fabric White/Silver 39 x 72 inch
- LitePanel 39 x 72 inch Aluminum Frame
- LiteStand: large
If you're interested in photographing food, this lesson is a terrific place to get started.
John Beckett is a seasoned commercial photography veteran. His work appears in numerous high profile advertising campaigns and celebrity portrait spreads. The key to his success is simplicity, and he shares that approach with you in this lesson.
John uses the sun and some classic lighting control techniques to get a modern "selective focus" food shot. There are no extra elements or rogue colors in his setup to derail the goal of simple elegance. His explanations are laid out in a logical and easy-to-understand step-by-step progression.
(Click on any thumbnail image below for an enlarged view.)
- Planning an Outdoor Shooting Space
- Modifying Sunlight
- Enhancing the Product
- Using a Light Meter in the Digital Age
- Refining the Composition
- Camera: Nikon D-300
- Lens- Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF
In two of my previous lessons (The Kitchen Table Studio: Part 1 and The Kitchen Table Studio: Part 2), I demonstrated how to photograph objects on a tabletop set using off-camera flash units. For this lesson, I went outside to use natural light in conjunction with LitePanels and a LiteDisc®.
The majority of our days in Arizona are sunny, which can be both good and bad for photography. The daylight here is very harsh, not to mention very hot for many months of the year, but any form of natural light is hard to beat if you know how to use it properly. [figure 1]
Planning an Outdoor Shooting Space
If you choose to use natural light for tabletop work, there are certain things to take into consideration. The primary challenge is that Mother Nature can be unpredictable, which can make scheduling difficult. Also, the sun doesn't care how many shots you need to complete in a day. It just keeps on moving.
You need to think about the location that will give the most consistent light for the longest period of time. Before artificial light was available, fine art painters and photographers sought studios with windows that faced north, where the light is even and indirect. By contrast, our patio has a southern exposure. We get many hours of available light, but the light is direct, and therefore very hard.
Another challenge in shooting outside has to do with wind. Here, we have to deal with winds that blow in off the surrounding mountains and can blow over light stands anchored with the heaviest sand bags.
I selected a spot and began building a set. I started off using two saw horses and a slab of marble that would serve as a work surface and an attractive looking background to compliment the rest of the shot. [figures 2, 3 & 4]
It would have been possible to shoot in the shadow areas of the patio, but that would have meant using reflectors or artificial lighting, and would not have given the look I wanted for the shot. The best area was at the edge of the patio where I could use the patio roof beams to help anchor the LitePanel attached to auto poles. [figure 5]
I attached the translucent fabric to the LitePanel frame to diffuse the harsh sunlight. [figures 6 & 7]
I then set up a second LitePanel frame on the other side of the marble surface and attached the white reflective fabric (silver on the other side) to bounce indirect light back into the set. [figure 8]
Enhancing the Product
For this shoot, I wanted to emulate a specific look-and-feel often used in food photography and tableware product catalogs. This "selective focus" technique is achieved by shooting with a very shallow depth of field (wide aperture/small f-stop number) that knocks the foreground and background objects out of focus.
I set up the shot with a primary color (blue) and a secondary color (orange) to create a more dynamic and vibrant image. If this were a job for a client, the main "product" would be the glassware with the matching bowl as a secondary "soft sell" item. [figure 9]
For tabletop photography, and especially with food, a great deal of care is used to avoid disturbing elements on the set. Here, the oranges were propped up from below, water droplets were carefully dribbled on the cutting board and knife to simulate juice from the fresh cut orange. Glycerine is the usual choice for food styling to create the look of drops because it beads nicely and will not evaporate quickly.
Next, I attached a silver LiteDisc® (white on the other side) to a LiteDisc® Holder and LiteStand and placed it in full sunlight off the patio to kick a subtle highlight onto the back of the oranges and glassware. [figures 10 & 11]
Using a Light Meter in the Digital Age
Digital photography has almost eliminated the need for light meters, but I still prefer to use them now and then to establish a starting point with respect to exposure for a shot. Here, the tonal values of the glasses, oranges and bowl would have thrown off a reading taken using the in-camera meter.
If you're going to call yourself a "photographer", it's important to understand f/stops, shutter speeds and depth of field. Learning how to use a light meter is not as difficult as you might think, and it can be of great help in the process. If you can get your hands on one, especially an old one with rotating dials, you can see the relationship between various combinations of shutter speed and aperture settings in ways that will be helpful to your creative process.
When metering, I usually take my primary reading with the dome of the meter pointed back towards the camera position. I then factor in the depth of shadows or brightness of highlights that I'm looking to get and then dial in an exposure setting based on that. [figure 12]
Many photographers use carefully calculated ratios of light in setting up shots. That isn't my approach. For me, there's a "feeling" to each shot's lighting that formulas can't account for. I took a few test frames to determine the best exposure settings. After adding some more "juice" and studying the images, I made minor adjustments to the composition. [figures 13, 14 & 15]
There were key points of composition that need to be changed. At first, I had the focus of the shot more on the oranges in the bowl (circle #1) and the knife (circle #3). All these elements take the eye away from the key features of the glassware.
In tabletop photography it is important to be aware of the intersection of elements within a composition. On set, we refer to them as "tangents". That may not fit the exact definition of the word, but it's understood on a shoot to mean that the lines of one object are touching another in an uncomfortable manner. In this case, it was the edge of the glasses touching as indicated by circle #2. [figures 16 & 17]
I shifted the front glass to camera left to give a slight overlap, which eliminated the tangent/tension. I then shifted the point of focus to the rim of the rear glass. [figure 18]
A strong composition is free of "static" areas. In the same way way artists do with their paintings, the photographer composes a frame wherein the viewer can move through the photograph from one element to another in a smooth and relaxed manner. A static-free image provides a "release point" or avenue to follow back into the image until everything has been taken in and the viewer is ready to move on. This viewing process should happen so effortlessly that the viewer isn't even aware it's happening. [figure 19]
Finished shots like this one use soft light, color, props and composition to "soft sell" the customer. Good tabletop images show potential customers how the products in a catalog will fit into their lifestyle, or the lifestyle of their dreams. [figure 20]
Below, you can see a side-by-side comparison of the shot with and without lighting modification. Notice how that almost ethereal quality is missing in the one without lighting modification? It's true what they say: lighting makes all the difference. [figure 21]
Shooting tabletop outdoors can be challenging due to all the elements of nature, but the results have such a pleasing quality of light that it's really worth the care and planning for the right client or subject.
Photographed and written by John Beckett, contributing instructor for PhotoflexLightingSchool®.
Edited by Ben Clay