On Assignment: Spring Desserts

With the Queen visiting in the US, I am enjoying a few days in London before the weekend seminars. It's not that I specifically wanted to get away from her. But there is the small matter of a restraining order dating back from my college days that requires that I stay at least 5,000 miles away from her at all times.

I'd tell you more, but I think my parents read the blog now.

What'd I miss while I was gone?

Lessee, apparently United States President George W. Bush screwed up during a speech in the presence of Her Majesty (and 7,000 other people) yesterday. Dubya then parlayed a small faux pax into an international incident by turning to Queen Elizabeth II, smiling at her, and then winking at her right on national TV.

As you might imagine, absolutely no one in the sleepy British media noticed. I mean, it's not like the follow royalty or anything.

Sheesh. Nice goin' there, slick. I'll be happy if we can just get Her Majesty safely out of the United States before the Leader of the Free World asks her to "pull his finger."

What were we talking about? Oh yeah. Cake.

A couple of weeks ago, I shot a trio of spring desserts for The Sun. We did them all on location at the designer's house using one or two speedlights. The one pictured above is my favorite of the three, a totally luscious coconut whipped cream cake.

(Mmmmm-hmmmmm... Totally Luscious Coconut Whipped Cream Cake...)

We like to get out of the studio as much as possible, so we can have access to a kitchen, different shooting environments and we can tell our managers that the 30-minute food shoot really took four hours. So, we met at Tracey's house and I started comping the shots as she styled the food in her kitchen.

I wanted to create a springy theme of blue and yellow for the shots. My subject colors were white (cake) white (mousse) and yellow (pie) so I thought this would work well. I stuck a CTO gel on my flash and set the light balance to tungsten. This would make anything lit by the flash the correct color, and anything ambient a bluish hue.

Now my window, and its reflection in the table, would set the tone for the photo that I wanted.

My first idea was to do a dual-light, hard/soft thing like the book club illustration. Not that I wanted to light paint, but I thought it might be nice to have soft, wrappy light on the background and crisp light on the cake.

To do this, I would need to shoot the background and the flash in two separate exposures. Expose for the background with some plastic wrap in front of the lens, then shoot the flashed foreground at a 250th with no plastic wrap on the second half of a multi-exposure.

Turns out I had forgotten my tripod (d'oh!) and besides, the test shot looked like someone had thrown up on a Degas painting. So that idea was out.

It is important to note that I do not regard this as a mistake. I am always trying different looks as I am comping a shot. I expect most of them will fail, but I still try to find an interesting, novel way to approach a photo.

Newbs, take heart: The path to better light usually involves first working through the interesting ideas that do not work well. Don't be discouraged.

That hard/soft technique is still in my pocket for a future food shot, and I will be dragging it back out soon. Just you watch.

Since the cake shot was going to be the main art, we decided to knock off the other two (lemon pie and white mint-chocolate mousse) first and save the cake for last. The idea is to save as much time as possible to work on the lead photo.

As Tracey worked on the other items, I continued with my cake stand-in. If the subject is perishable, always shoot with a stand-in until you get the shot close. Then fine-tune with the actual subject. In this case, I thought the tissue box approximated the size and the tone (tissues, at least) of the subject. It is what was there to play with, at least.

In this case, I was using a snooted speedlight to control the spill. This gave me plenty of control in setting the relative tones between the background and the (soon-to-be) white cake.

A few minutes later, the cake comes out and I hit it with the hard light I tested on the Kleenex.

Yuck. Too hard. Made the cake look like, I dunno... razor wire?

Well, since we were going for "fluffy," and not "mouth-slicing shards" I switched to a little bit of a softer light source. We try not to draw too much blood in the food section.

I threw the flash into an umbrella, and cranked up the output (to one-half power) to compensate for the light loss. I used a silver umbrella with a black backing to control light spill onto the ceiling.

There, that's better. But I am still trying to do something to put a funky edge on the cake.

I am constantly experimenting with different ways to increase three-dimensionality with lighting. Sometimes it helps, sometimes not.

So I played with a technique called "flash drag," where I jerked the camera (in an opposite direction of the flash) during the exposure. This put a little ambient shadow along the top and right edges as the cake crept up into the ambient-only lit portion of the frame after the flash had fired but before the shutter had closed.

Ehhh... Not so much. I liked the look, but wanted to save it for a subject that could benefit more from it. That's not the kind of thing you can do too many time in a year in the food section.

So, I stick with my straight shot and start to fine-tune my composition a little. I want to grab a couple of safe versions of just the solid cake before we cut into it, just in case we screw the thing up slicing it.

Better safe than sorry. But what I am really looking forward to is this shot with a piece removed. Because we are gonna be using inside of the cake itself as a light modifier.

For the final version, we cut a slice out of the smooth, rich, mois (sorry.. it was really good) cake to shoot it with a splash of yellow showing from the inside.

Now, back to the idea of the cake as a light modifier.

Using a garden trowel, I carefully dug a speedlight-sized hole out of the center of the cake and hooked up an SB-26 to a Pocket Wizard. With the flash safely inside a clear, zip-lock bag... kidding, kidding.

(Although Franz Lanting did stick a speedlight into a melon once, and I am always looking to jam a flash into something.)

Besides, that would have destroyed the cake. And you do not get a physique like mine by missing opportunities to eat cake. Maybe I'll try it on a zucchini or something.

No, what I mean by using the cake as a light mod is that we are going to use the color of the inside of the cake to reinforce the color of the inside of the cake. Hey, when your final product is printed on Charmin, you need all of the saturation help you can get.

The second and final light for this photo came from a gridspotted speedlight, at 1/16th power, also sporting a CTO filter for proper color balance when shooting on the tungsten camera setting. The gridspot tightly controls the beam of the light. It allows us to shoot a little light in from slightly behind a pure sidelight angle. This light bounces off of the front edge of the inside of the slice and lights the back edge of the inside of the slice.

So, the hard light actually turns into very close-in soft light (reflected off of the cake) that has a golden yellow color. This perfectly reinforces the color of the inside of the cake.

And since we can control the beam so well, no light hits the outside of the slice, which would have nuked the coconut badly.

Pretty cool, huh? I always like coming up with a sneaky way to light something, so I was happy with this one.

The last lighting effect, also visible in the final shot, is a fill light coming from the left side, to glow the cake a little and make it a little more three-dimensional.

Since we are using just two small speedlights for this shot, our fill light was a very complex, sophisticated combination of a paper bag standing open with some crumpled aluminum foil attached to the side.

One cheapo reflector, made to order. At Strobist International Headquarters, we spare no expense in our quest to better light desserts.

And in the setup shot which is exposed (and daylight balanced) for the ambient, you can see how simple this really is. The key is using the CTO/tungsten setting to establish the color key with the ambient/strobe combo.

Also, notice that the "cake-slice" light, which has the grid spot, is turned on its side. This further controls the shape of the beam to fit the hole of the slice without spilling onto the frosting.

Here's the same angle, balanced for tungsten, with the flashes firing and the ambient exposed to set the window light properly.

There's nothing really difficult about this at all. It is about deciding on a look and methodically developing it.

We published this story today, and Tracey was just nice enough to e-mail me a .pdf of the actual page. So here is how it ran.

Did she do a nice job with that page, or what? That's a full broadsheet, too.

Design like this is why, all things being equal, I'd rather shoot features fronts than metro fronts. Which is cool, because we have a lot of news hounds on the staff that would rather shoot the hard stuff.

But then, how many of their assignments end up with free cake?

The leftover cake evaporated overnight at our house.

NEXT: Group Shot: 2 Speedlights, 34 People


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Anonymous AJ said...

wow, you have the gift of the gab tonight/today ... great post, nice work, entertaining and ... boy am I hungry now!
really like to be able to see the set-up and ambient/flash light exposure: makes it so much easier to grasp what is going on

May 09, 2007 4:24 PM  
Anonymous archshrk said...

Ok, I just got to say - this is awesome. I love the cheapo reflector. Thanks for sharing this "technique".

May 09, 2007 4:25 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

This is a great post!



May 09, 2007 4:54 PM  
Blogger Daniel Berman said...

really really cool. i am saving for a second flash and another pocket wizard :)

May 09, 2007 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

I second the motion on seeing the light setup...invaluable to see spatial relationships of flashes, reflectors, subject...just great. Please continue to do that as often as feasible. I also appreciated the what didn't work so well story... Thanks again from a fellow UF grad (ChE '73)

May 09, 2007 6:04 PM  
Blogger Bach said...

The setup pic is invaluable to newb like me, thx alot :D

May 09, 2007 6:41 PM  
Anonymous JR said...

Wow! A golden moment for sure, where you have your cake and get to eat it too!

May 09, 2007 7:03 PM  
Blogger Felix said...

Thanks buddy, Really liked your writeup, keep on rockin'!

May 09, 2007 9:24 PM  
Blogger Kevin Yong said...

Thanks for the little tutorial. The effect you achieved is really great.

I like the soft umbrella light on the cake. I was surprised it didn't light up the table more...

May 09, 2007 10:17 PM  
Blogger Lee Hammond Photography said...

Nice, blue background shot...Mmmm.

While you're in the UK, you have to specify which Sun you mean. Your Baltimore Sun cool. There is a red-top cat-litter-tray-liner in England, also called the sun, that doesn't warrant the thought, bandwidth, ink, the capital S even...whatever.

May 09, 2007 11:14 PM  
Blogger dirtyone30 said...

I agree, to newbies like me this stuff is invaluable. By the way welcome to blighty. Coming north of the border?

May 10, 2007 4:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

thank's for posting this and adding the final designed page. I see you guys are using the CCI Layoutchamp to create the paper. Myself i'm a designer/layouter who uses the system as well for a belgian paper. Taking photo's is my side job. I really like the vibe you guys got going on there. It really pays of when you can work so closely as a designer and photographer.
In my case, my best experience was to take the picture with the design in the back of my head. But this is more of an exception. Most of the times we get c***p images (taken by journalists with a compact) and we do our best to make something out of it. There is almost no communication between photographer and layouter. Which is a pity.

This being said, I would really like to have a look in the company 'Photopool' and filter it with your name...

Greetings from belgium, keep up your fantastic work with the blog.

Kristof Pattyn

May 10, 2007 4:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dear David.
your writing is second only to your photography.

Only one suggestion.could you not have used a chair and superclamp as a makedo tripod?
the small ballheads are not the best thing in the world for heavy cameras,but they'll do in a pinch.

Enjoy London.Get out of the centre a bit as well.
greenwich,kew gardens.ect

I'd like you to consider a strobist workshop in warmer climes.
Barcelona would suit me fine..

ditto for The S/sun.
though..You could do a strobist page 3...

May 10, 2007 5:57 AM  
Blogger AE said...

Awesome idea with the inside of the cake lighting. I would have never thought of that.

Great job as usual


May 10, 2007 8:21 AM  
Blogger Rafa Barberá said...

Kevin, if you look carefully you can see tha tthe table is very glossy, so from this low angle David only get specular reflection... from the window!. Surely the recent reading of Light Science & Magic has some influence in this shoot ;). By the way, in the tright lower corner of the table, you can see some light provided by the umbrella. Here the specular reflection from the window is not posible, and you can see the low difuse reflection from the flash.

David, good job. I have laugthed very high this morning with the first half of the article. The second one, the strobist one was simple invaluable.

May 10, 2007 11:47 AM  
Blogger zedin said...

Thanks for this! I have never thought of intentionally setting the white balance off to give the ambient this type of glow... I always end up trying to overpower it with a gel but this trick will work perfectly! (if only it could do green =p)

May 10, 2007 2:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I posted a comment earlier but it doesnt seem to have shown up....
Anyway, was wondering if you could elaborate more on the "flash drag" technique you mentioned

May 10, 2007 5:58 PM  
Blogger Sandeha said...

"Using a garden trowel, I carefully dug a speedlight-sized hole out of the center of the cake and hooked up an SB-26 to a Pocket Wizard. With the flash safely inside a clear, zip-lock bag..."

Pure DH. Great.

May 11, 2007 7:51 AM  
Anonymous Jakyamuni said...

I've done something like that... putting an (unprotected) electric flash unit in the carcass of a (Thanksgiving) turkey. Pics when I find them.

Everyone thinks it's a photo of *candle wax*...

May 12, 2007 4:57 PM  
Blogger efrudd said...

It's a good thing when you can have your cake and light it too.


May 15, 2007 4:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am desperate for the recipe for the whipcream coconut cake you posted on your blog.

I clicked the link and it leads me nowhere, can you please help me find the recipe?

Thank you :)

February 13, 2008 9:04 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I had a proper laugh when I read the stylist's last name on the photo credit on the final layout PDF. I'm glad you helped her out with the eating duties!

March 25, 2008 12:06 AM  

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