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Fourth and Long? Drop Back and Punt with a Plant.

A couple of weeks ago I was shooting a restaurant review of a joint that specializes in cuisine from the Dominican Republic. It has, well, homey decor. Which suits the cuisine just fine, of course.

But I just could not make the room translate into a photo with enough impact to carry a food review. I was trying to say "tropical," but all I kept getting was "cafeteria."

The lighting was mixed. And not in a photographically cool way, either. Tungstens and fluorescents were everywhere. Throw in some daylight for good measure.

The back walls were dark. And the the one wall that could have carried a clean shooting angle was completely covered by a mural that was too loosely composed to work well as a background.

Welcome to my world.
Normally, I would have defaulted to shooting the building front and a (well-lit) food close-up. But they needed a couple of photos and the facade had me shooting right into telephone wires (and the sun) with no time to re-sked.

First thing I did was to use the fluorescent-neutralizing switch, which left me with a more useable combo of tungsten and daylight.

(What, your camera doesn't have a switch for that? Of course it doesn't. The fluorescent neutralizing switch is on the wall...)

Then I reached into my trusty bag of tricks.

Every photographer should have a bag of tricks. The point is to use each trick very infrequently, so they are fresh and ready to pull out when you need them. So, you'll want a big bag of tricks.

Otherwise it is more of a cliche. Or a crutch.

(Hey, I know this cool lighting website...)

One of my favorite tricks is using a plant as a "cookie" to add a layer of interest to a photo.

Cookie, in this case, is short for "kookaloris," which is genuine photo jargon. It is generally a piece of black cardboard with a pattern of holes in it that you shoot a light through to get a cool pattern on a background.

The problems with hole-patterned cardboard are (a) it looks a little hokey to me, and (b) I usually do not have one one me.

And I could generally live with "A," if "B" were not a problem.

But there's almost always a plant. And plants make great cookies.

In this case, the plant was a palm, which would work great to cast a shadow that could subtly add an appropriately tropical feel to a photo.

And I needed tropical.

I decided to strip the lead image to the bare essentials - table, chairs, a vase of flowers and the pattern created by the light through the plant.

And for you PJ types, I did not arrange the furniture for the shoot. It is found, with added light.

And speaking of the ethics of adding light: If the plant idea worries you, you are already a little bit ethically pregnant when you light something. It is a restaurant/food shoot. I can live with a cool shadow just as well as cool light.

The result is what you see at top. When I am aiming for elegance, simplicity with a twist is usually the easiest route for me.
Here is the wide, tell-all shot. See how ridiculously easy this is?

Yes, you do.

From this photo, you should also see where my fill is coming from - the ceiling. I could have reduced (or eliminated) the fill be snooting or gridding the flash.

Here are some tips for the next time you are in a visual bind and you need to bake a cookie to get you out of it.

1) Find a plant. (Duh.) Or you can use a window. Bonus for finding one with blinds. But plants rock for this.

2) Use a small light source. I am talking about the size of the actual flash head here, not the power of the light. You want to project with some sharpness. Speedlights are ideal.

3) Snoot your flash (or at least zoom it out) for light beam-width control.

4) Wanna know where the highlights will be? Eyeball your projection surface from the point of the flash. With apologies to Stephen Hawking, light usually travels in a straight line. If you can see it, it'll get direct light. You don't need no stinking modeling lights.

5) You gonna shoot a person in this light? Why, yes, that is a very good idea... Make sure they can see the flash. Then the highlights will be hitting their eyes.

6) Also, for a person, you might wanna use a Sto-Fen (or small tupperware equivalent) to bounce some of the light off of the ceiling at the same time with the one source. That'll be your fill. Of course, you can do it with a powered-down second light, too.

And who's to say that this is your main light? Get enough space to light on two different planes. Think soft main light very close to the subject, who is far away from the background. This can be the back end of a killer, two-light setup.

So, next time you are in trouble, stick a plant between your light and a boring picture.

It'll make a true be-leaf-er out of you.

(Editor's note: I can make an atrocious pun like that because I am running out the door to safety en route to a four-day weekend in the mountains of Western Maryland. By the time I get back next week, you'll have forgotten all about it.)

Next: Shade is Your Friend


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