On Assignment: Munchies

We do an annual survey at The Sun on how people snack - what they eat, how much, how often, etc. I thought it would be fun to play around with the items a little by shooting them very close and lighting them for detail and texture.

Mind you, this is basically a porn shoot for me. I love junk food. Luuuv it.

So much so that I am constantly practicing one form of girth control or another. I could kill a large bag of Cheetos before halftime if the game is good enough. Fortunately, I have recently come across the junk food equivalent of methadone in Ruffles Baked Potato Crisps.

They are great, with only three grams of fat, none saturated. No kidding, they'll make you forget the real thing. I actually prefer them to the original model at this point. Unfortunately, the whole bag still has 30 grams of fat. So I still have to be reasonable about it.

But for this assignment, we were shooting the high-test stuff. Oreos, Cheetos, chocolate - you know, the stuff that makes life worth living. I mean, we had some token healthy snacks, if you don't count the salt. But we knew what folks were really eating.

If the lighting and color scheme looks familiar, it may be because I decided to give these a bit if a Jill Greenberg treatment. I didn't go all the way, as the texture precluded getting that wrap-light sheen. But I did model the light in similar, but more subtle ways.

I do the homage thing a lot when looking for a starting point in the studio. But always out of genre. Kind of like, "How would Timothy Greenfield-Sanders shoot a tomato?"

So, I used hard light everywhere. One speedlight was directly behind the subject, pointed at the background. The front light came in from high, and slightly to one side. Different foods were front-lit from different directions.

The front light also had a very tight snoot, made out of Cinefoil, a matte-black aluminum foil. The exit hole for the light was the diameter of my finger, which allowed for some light control at the macro level.

My separation lights came in from the back and low, on each side. They also had (normal) snoots on them, mostly to control the flare that would come from their being aimed almost back at the camera.

It was an odd scene, really, with a Cheeto, for instance, impaled on a toothpick and surrounded by four speedlights. I found myself wondering if a Cheeto had ever had four speedlights around it before.

But that idle thought was quickly put to rest by an unforseen problem: How to shoot the Cheeto in such a pose so it did not look blatantly phallic.

(Sheesh, the things we have to quietly take into consideration...)

Once I got my lighting scheme nailed down, the shoot went pretty quickly. We'd sort our way through all of the ugly specimens and find a good poster child example to shoot.

It was a fun exercise, and I was surprised to find out (a) how much texture there really is in those little snacks when you get up close, and (b) how many ugly ones you have to eat look through to get to a good one.

I used a D2XS to get a big file size, and extreme detail. I was shooting through a 55/2.8 macro, with an extension tube to get even closer. Everything was shot at f/22 or f/32.

Dang, just writing this makes me want a Reese's peanut butter cup.

Alas, it was all for naught as the designer ended up using the boring examples they had me shoot on blow-away white. She even cut out the potato chip.


In the end I thought it looked very pedestrian, and that we missed a chance to do a snazzy looking page. I mean, this stuff would have looked cool really big, IMO.

Ten years ago, I probably would have walked into features and uncorked a few choice words and blown the very working relationship I have been trying to nurture. But now, I just see it as part of the job. And I instead focus on the fact that I really enjoyed both the shooting process and the result.

One of the most important things I have learned in the last ten years is not to use the paper's final product as your validation point. You have to shoot for you.

To stew over something that is in someone else's control would just be damaging to the working relationship and maybe even to my output on the next shoot. And nobody needs that.

Besides, I can always comfort myself with a bag of baked Ruffles.

Click on a pic, and then click "all sizes" to see them really big. If you want me, I'll be in the kitchen.

NEXT: Hero Fan


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Anonymous MG Adams said...

Thank you...I needed a good project for the weekend and you have come through as usual...may i should also go for the dave hill look also ;-)

April 13, 2007 12:32 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Great shots, all, David. The potato chip and Cheeto take the, um, cake. I guess.h

April 13, 2007 12:39 AM  
Anonymous Duncan Babbage said...

Well, perhaps you can console yourself that you were able to post them on a website with a readership that rivals The Sun anyway! :)

April 13, 2007 2:10 AM  
Anonymous Luis Cruz said...

Damn you... now I'm hungry. Good thing I've got a munchie stash right here.

April 13, 2007 3:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great images here Dave....I shoot for a local paper her in Balto. and I'll never figure out why the designer chooses the images they do........it's never the one I like........keep up this great web site.....I'm learning a lot....THANKS

April 13, 2007 8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are your pics online at baltimoresun.com anywhere? I was reading the "Tracking the snack" story but only saw pics by Jed Kirschbaum with the story - people eating snacks.

April 13, 2007 8:52 AM  
Blogger David said...


These photos were shot for the story that introduced the survey, and that story ran a couple of months ago. The ones you saw were for the results story. I held these photos in case they were going to use them for the results.


April 13, 2007 10:08 AM  
Blogger Geoff said...

Any setup shots of these? I'm wondering how you get that color on the background, is it a particular color of seamless or are you gelling the strobe (or both)? Thanks -- great subject and seeing.

April 13, 2007 10:39 AM  
Blogger ncd112 said...

Ok, I usually look at your pics, but don't often blow them up. This set though I am going to blow each of them up, and study them very closely. This is totally food porn and I thank you very much.

April 13, 2007 10:40 AM  
Anonymous Kurt Sowers said...

"How to shoot the Cheeto in such a pose so it did not look blatantly phallic." - Well that explains why I felt so dirty after looking at that Cheeto.

Great work on the series. Great lighting really makes a ho-hum subject into somthing special. And thanks for helping me "see the light".

April 13, 2007 11:22 AM  
Anonymous Brock N Meeks said...

Here's what I love, in addition to all the photos and inspiration, is that peek into your complete thought process.

Specifically, how you handled the "rejection" of the designer; that you didn't get all self-righteous, that you, indeed, held your tongue and in the process, the relationship you've built up. That lesson (and I know, it comes from losing those battles) is an invaluable one.

Another evolution I'm enjoying: you're steadily becoming a better writer as well. That little riff on the dilemma of shooting a Cheeto is just wonderful.

April 13, 2007 11:52 AM  
Blogger Bruko said...

well... who cares about the pictures THEY pick when you have a gazillion readers around the globe to show the ones you really like? ;))

you did a great job and I think I might die if I don't need a bag of potato chips *right now*


April 13, 2007 12:26 PM  
Blogger Gordon said...

As usual, you have provided much food for thought! :)

You could always use thei mage to illustrate a new site:
Snackist ;)

Seriously though, great images.

April 13, 2007 1:02 PM  
Blogger TJ Asher Photography said...

The composition and lighting are stellar.

On a technical note, I notice there is quite a bit of noise in the images. Did you use ISO 500 because the reproduction on newsprint tends to mask the noise?

April 13, 2007 2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a timely piece. I just did a shoot for a magazine our newspaper is trying to do. It involved a skyline restaurant and I shot it and the skyline at night. Goregous night, sunset, reflecting off the Cleveland, OH, skyline. So the art director uses the skyline photos 1 by 1 inch and does a stupid tilted thing with them, and blows up the picture of the restaurant canopy across two pages.

Like you say, got to shoot for yourself.

April 13, 2007 6:02 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

FYI: Speaking of Jill Greenberg, she did the cover photos of Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia) for the April issue of FastCompany. They're lit just like your potato chip.

April 13, 2007 11:11 PM  
Anonymous Mary said...

That last one of the cheddar peanut butter cracker sandwich is making me hungry. At first I thought it would make a great wallpaper for my new big computer screen at work, but then I realized that would be too much temptation. Gorgeous photos.

April 22, 2007 9:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not only have you posted some great images, but you have written the new "Serenity Prayer." This should be laminated onto a plaque and posted in all photo departments everywhere...

"God grant me the wisdom to know that stewing over something that is in someone else's control would just be damaging to the working relationship and maybe even to my output on the next shoot. And nobody needs that."

April 23, 2007 1:54 PM  
Blogger Gitto said...

Hi there, great photos! I used one of them as I linked to you from a swedish food blog, is that ok with you? You can see the site here:

May 04, 2007 8:22 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Thanks for posting this. I am always looking for good tips on how to photograph food. It's nice to know you do not need much gear for great food photography!



April 14, 2008 6:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo David! To paraphrase what another poster said: strobist is about learning how to light, learn, and live by coming to each assignment with the right attitude.


May 03, 2008 6:17 PM  
Anonymous Kathy Marciante said...

OHHHH! The peanut butter cup does it for me!! Great shots! ...but then again...you could make a paper bag look good!

May 14, 2009 10:09 AM  

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