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Emily Knudsen's Baby Veggies

©Emily Knudsen

By David Poller -- As a Boston-based commercial food photographer, Emily Knudsen likes to make sure the groceries are the star of the show. But for a class assignment while still a student at the Hallmark Institute of Photography, bright and silvery metal was on the menu. Her task was to shoot a shiny metal subject so the light would flatter and define, not distract and overwhelm. 

"No reflections," she was told. And while technically photography depends on light reflecting off something, the point was to shoot a highly reflective metal subject without having the light source show up on the subject as harsh highlights. In essence, the assignment was about controlling specular highlights.

Knudsen went shopping for props and came across an oversized serving spoon and fork. That's when the idea struck her to exaggerate the utensils' size by pairing them with baby corn, a baby carrot, a cherry tomato and some peas. She had a whimsical idea for her subject, but she was still facing the tough technical question - how to shoot something shiny and reflective without making it look too shiny and reflective.

So how do you light something made of flat shiny metal without also reflecting that favorite new light modifier you're just dying to try out? It's like being asked to light a mirror - it can be done, but how? Knudsen's answer was to take the opposite approach of choosing her tiny veggies, and she went big with her light. Bigger than the subject, at least. 

Which is easy to do when the subject is silverware and baby veggies. Knudsen arranged her subjects on a white plate with a little bit of turquoise placemat showing to add some color. The white plate is key, as it matches the reflections she would get from her light, and that helps the dark lines that define the silverware's edges to stand out. And the white would bounce some light back up to keep the contrast down - that helps when you want a high key photo.  

For her light, she put a Profoto Acute2 1200 on a stand, above and on the far side of the subject. Then she attached a large white fabric scrim to a boom and put that in front of the light, to create a large soft light source. She adjusted it so one edge was on the table and the scrim angled up, as if she was creating half a light tent. Relative to the size of the subject, her light source would be overwhelmingly big.

With the light source so large and soft, and her subject relatively small, a smooth high key light could allow the shapes and colors to pop, while making sure no bright reflections ruined the look she wanted. [Ed. note: You can learn more about specular highlight control here.]

Knudsen describes the setup as foolproof, though it took a little trial and error to move the light or the subject until she got the look she wanted. And to find the roundest peas and cherry tomato, and the perfect baby carrot and corn.

"The photo is about lines and shapes, and a little bit about illusion with the contrast of large utensils and small food," Knudsen said. "It’s also very much about the metal, and making sure it was lit in a very clean way, with reflections eliminated. That’s the main difference between this shot and the food photography I have on my site. This shot’s main purpose was to light the metal properly, while my other work is all about lighting the food properly and creating very natural looking light, which I think makes the food look most appetizing."

"I’m all for simplicity," she said.

To view more of Knudsen's food photography, check out her web site or her blog. Fair warning: either will make you hungry.

Photographer David Poller is Strobist's North America correspondent. Check out his work at


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