On Assignment: Gas Station Tacos

I did a quick "RestRev" (as they were affectionately known back at The Sun) today at the R&R Deli, a Mexican joint located inside of a gas station in Jessup, MD.

Just small flashes, and working fast. After all, I certainly did not want those delicious Tacos de Carnitas to get cold before it was time to eat…

I wanted to shoot it as is, which meant one immediate problem to solve: The styrofoam container is bright white and the insides of the tacos are both dark, and in deep shadow.

So in addition to the usual soft back light for texture, I used an Orbis ring flash adapter on a 3rd SB-800 (not seen above) to reach deep into the tacos.

First step is to dial down the ambient exposure until no available light is coming through. This will enable more control when adding the light from the flashes next.

If you start with the ring light, you can adjust the exposure until you can just see into the depths of the meaty carnitas goodness. Then add the soft backlight (that's the SB on the right, bouncing off of the white wall) to get your main illumination. Finally, add the gridded SB from the left to increase the texture up top.

For what it's worth, I almost always use a large-ish source from the back as a main light for food. (That's the basis of the lunch box contraption I blogged about last year.)

And the two weirdly shaped things holding the flashes are Justin clamps, which are perhaps the most versatile little speedlight holders on the planet.

Normally when you shoot food, presentation matters a lot. The food is staged, with an eye towards minimalism and sophistication.

In this case, I wanted to shoot it exactly as delivered, as an homage to the fact that absolutely awesome food is being served out of a tiny kitchen that shares a roof with a Shell station. So the only "styling" involved was to remove the lid from the red sauce.

Suburban Howard County (where I live) might not be world famous as a culinary destination -- yet. But we are starting to get some pretty darn good food from all over. and FWIW, I'm not the only one praising the gas station tacos, either.

Next: Tenor Nathan Carlisle


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Blogger TheHolyFatman said...

Those look nice & tasty. I didn't know Jessup had a taco stand! Ever try the tacos at Torillaria on Eastern Ave? Now those are some AWESOME tacos.

April 28, 2010 4:54 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

The lighting is fine, but they really don't look all that appetizing to me...

April 28, 2010 5:11 PM  
Blogger David said...

FWIW, most people in US equate tacos with Taco Bell. These are the real deal, and are absolutely delicious.

April 28, 2010 5:12 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Maryland is a prime place to find quality tacos. Deli's are a good place to start, but the Pro's eat out of a Taco Truck. Over in Montgomery County, I recommend Veirs Mill Rd and Randolph Rd- behind the Unique Thrift Store and Bazaar. Just don't try and think about where the meat gets marinated.

April 28, 2010 5:14 PM  
Blogger TheHolyFatman said...

Next time I'm near Jessup, I'll have to try these. I live in fells Point/Patterson park/Canton area so I have authentic tacos at my doorstep. (literally, across the street) I'm always trying tacos and Pollo ala Brasa from stands, little shops, and restaurants around here. Roasted chicken rec?
Pollo Real on Lombard. Yum. May have to take some shots of those.

I'm Hungry.

April 28, 2010 5:18 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

The photograph looks great, but what is more important they look great to eat. I am out the door to go find my own non-taco bell tacos.

April 28, 2010 5:20 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

If you should ever find yourself on the eastern side of Yosemite National Park, the Mobile Station has easily one of the best gas station deli's ever. It's called the Whoa Nelli Deli. Joe Bob says "check it out twice" :)

April 28, 2010 5:23 PM  
Blogger photoshopabuser said...

I equate no taco with Taco Hell David! Those do look tasty I must say. Ironically, I'm heading out for an Enchilada dinner tonight! You obviously have a love for photography. I am digging in as soon as the waitress turns away usually.

April 28, 2010 5:30 PM  
Blogger Brian Lance said...

"FWIW, most people in US equate tacos with Taco Bell."

Maybe most people outside of a state that borders Mexico. :) I bet these are tasty, but are nothing compared to what you can get from a taquería here in So Cal.

April 28, 2010 5:37 PM  
Blogger Angles and Edges Photography said...

Look at all that yummy cilantro! Mmmmmmm. Okay, where's mine!!

April 28, 2010 5:45 PM  
Blogger caroline said...

I do a lot of food photography, so I like to see setups like this! And the next time someone thinks I'm crazy for taking pictures of my food I can refer them to this post. I don't think the tacos look appetizing, but only because I don't eat meat. You've done a fine job of making them look attractive to other omnivores!

April 28, 2010 5:58 PM  
Blogger salvadorparada said...

I just had some Tacos de Carnitas myself here in MX : )

April 28, 2010 6:11 PM  
Blogger Andy M said...

you had me at the justin clamps on the table, baby...

interesting use of the orbis ring flash as fill for the tacos. that's a great idea to use in similar situations with product photog.

you just made me hungry, which proves you're a good food photog.

good taste, effective presentation.

April 28, 2010 6:11 PM  
Blogger TV said...

Great photo. Oh it makes me miss tacos soooo much. Here in Australia a taco is $10 and isn't very good. It seems that the small places that only locals know about have the best tacos and burritos.

April 28, 2010 6:31 PM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

I'm not as much impressed by your best pictures than by your ability to turn crappy locations & boring subjects into interesting photos.

This week-end, I'll ask a friend to choose the most uninteresting place/subject and go shoot the hell out of it!

Thanks for the inspiration. :)

April 28, 2010 6:57 PM  
Blogger s.e. miller said...

I second Ian's comment about the Who Nelli Deli as I ate there back in 2005 and was amazed! Gourmet food in a gas station - no joke.

However, if you really want good tacos David, only California and Texas will do... sorry :)

April 28, 2010 8:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...


I love these little short tidbits where you share your thought process along the lighting strategy. Please do more of these. Awesome stuff to get inside your head.

The "usual soft back light for texture" was something I had been thinking about lately but had no idea it was "usual" at all. Great stuff and I always learn a lot.


April 28, 2010 8:25 PM  
Blogger -SM said...

Three speedlights up close for a small subject...I would have blown it away. What were the power settings, senor Hobby?

April 28, 2010 9:22 PM  
Blogger David said...


Very low power -- I think the grid on the left was all the way down, at 1/128th. Almost certainly, nothing was above 1/16th. If anything, it was the backlight off of the wall.

Takes very little light to do this kind of stuff. Which is why it is very difficult with big lights, unless you have a stack of ND gels at the ready.

I even run into too-much-power problems in close-up portrait situations with the big lights, FWIW.

Viva la speedlights!

April 28, 2010 10:16 PM  
Blogger Andrew Hyslop said...

I am so hungry I could eat Mexican food from a gas station. Actually I have been using my Orbis off camera as a soft light source for a while. Works great on food. Just last night I used it for a small product shot. Results are here:


I would choose these tacos over the mainstream schwag anyday. Nice shot.

April 28, 2010 11:52 PM  
Blogger michalgarcia.com said...

I love how you lit the carnitas! My first assignment that came out in a cool magazine was about tacos:

One of the few upscale Mexican restaurants I know, and some of my friends that play salsa music say it's the best Mexican food in Dallas. mmmmmmmm

April 29, 2010 1:37 AM  
Blogger Matthias said...

Yummy... every time I see you writing about (and even more taking photos of) Latin American food I get a bit envious, because it is so hard to find here (impossible I wanted to say) in these small northern German towns... I'm lucky though to have a Venezuelan wife who loves cooking :D

April 29, 2010 3:24 AM  
Blogger lordneville said...

Nice work. For the backlight my imagination ran ahead of my reading and I was half expecting to see you fire through a half closed white styrofoam lid as a mini softbox... would that even have worked? I must have been reading about the hmoe made strobist kit again recently! It would be a smaller apparent light source so not as good anyway I suppose, just a thought.

April 29, 2010 5:00 AM  
Blogger Pirx The Pilot said...

You're not the only one praising the food, but certainly you take much much better shots of the goods. Can't compare it with the picture in the article you linked to.

April 29, 2010 6:55 AM  
Blogger Robert said...

The majority of food photographers go for a low key light with a grid/snoot coming for the rear (30-45 degrees) when wanting to show the texture of the food.

April 29, 2010 11:00 AM  
Blogger Hipporage said...

MMM... al pastor.

April 29, 2010 3:19 PM  
Blogger Michael Quack - Visual Pursuit said...

It was fun to see you discover ring flash for it's most powerful application - contrast control. And it is even more fun to see how thorough it changes your work and the sequence of your light setups. You might like the Sigma EM-DG 140 or the Metz 15MS1 as dedicated ring flashes with full manual capabilities. Better efficiency than the Orbis, and they pack much smaller. Unfortunately, the Metz only fits filters up to 72mm, while the Sigma goes to 77mm.

April 29, 2010 4:30 PM  
Blogger RA.Sullivan = Sully said...

sounds like a great assignment, photograph your goto guilty pleasure food! Come on you gotta do it. me it is pizza all the way!!!!

April 29, 2010 8:11 PM  
Blogger Anton said...

Love it! Food photography is always a popular part of my motorcycle travel blogs. In Mexico the tacos and other food change significantly each time you cross a state line. The best was either the lime soup in the Yucatan, or the mole in Baja. Guatemala has some great food too, completely different than Mexico.

I've been using primes and natural light so as not to freak-out the restauranteurs, but I'll have to bring my SB-800s and home-made ring light along for the next ride!

May 03, 2010 11:27 AM  
Blogger Matthias said...

I gave the backlighting-thing for food photos a try and wrote about it on my blog. As it happenes, I also used in on something typically Latin American: Guasacaca Venezolana, a variation of the famous Guacamole, made by my aforementioned wife. Yummy.

May 21, 2010 4:09 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

when visiting from Canada on a Business trip, I was pretty darned happy to see a Baja Fresh just off Snowden River parkway. Alwyas impressed with their food, for a chain of that size. Wow....I just realized that trip was pre-strobist.com, or I might have been looking for you to show me a good place for a micro. As it was, I wasted most of the week eating alone, drinking megaswill in dives before finding a brewpub at Arundel Mills Mall.

November 26, 2010 8:27 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

when visiting from Canada on a Business trip, I was pretty darned happy to see a Baja Fresh just off Snowden River parkway. Alwyas impressed with their food, for a chain of that size. Wow....I just realized that trip was pre-strobist.com, or I might have been looking for you to show me a good place for a micro. As it was, I wasted most of the week eating alone, drinking megaswill in dives before finding a brewpub at Arundel Mills Mall.

November 26, 2010 8:29 PM  

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