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 DavidPollerPhoto.com.


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Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

Excellent! Thank you!

October 17, 2011 12:15 PM  
Blogger Perretti Photography said...

This was great. Cool concept. I use a lot of flatware in my food photography. This helps :)

October 17, 2011 2:52 PM  
Blogger Stu said...

Its going to take a bit of getting used to other people writing for Strobist. Good Article.

October 18, 2011 7:11 AM  
Blogger Andrei Popovici said...

Props for featuring another Hallmark grad! There's a lot of very talented people who finish that program, and not enough of them get the recognition they deserve.

October 18, 2011 8:35 AM  
Blogger mel said...

Love the shot! I haven't yet attempted shots of metal objects, and I'm surprised to learn how little equipment it took. (always a nice surprise)

October 18, 2011 9:40 AM  
OpenID patrickwenz said...

Love the shot and the idea so please don't get me wrong when say this, but from the point of the assignement it's a 100% fail isn't it? It's cool that the result is non distracting to the eye, but by increasing the light source relative to the subject(s) the whole family of angles on the metal that causes direct reflection was filled, or did I missunderstand something?

October 18, 2011 11:03 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

Patrick, my interpretation of the assignment was to avoid harsh reflections as shown on this page:


I think she succeeded. The size of Emily's light source did cover the whole family of angles on the fork, so there's not a lot of contrast on its surfaces--but I think that's fine, because she was going for a high key image. There's plenty of edge definition on both pieces of silverware, so it works for me.

October 18, 2011 1:23 PM  
Blogger diehappy said...

I think that metal only has direct reflection (that is why a polarizer would not work with metal surfaces) and the only possibilty to remove distracting reflections from light sources (which was the task) is to fill the whole family of angles with a big light source and cause one giant reflection.

October 18, 2011 1:31 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Patrick- Not to beat a dead horse but the goal of the assignment, put simply, is to avoid specular reflections. If there was no light reflected then the utensils would be DMax black.

October 19, 2011 5:55 AM  
Blogger pepper said...

putting even simpler the assignment was to make the metal look nice and pleasingly represented in the picture, in my opinion is a little flat and lacking in contrast (ie a stronger gradient on the metal) but I understand that to be done in order to keep the veggies the main subject, it's a food shot, not a product one.
What annoys me in the picture is the way the teeth of the fork align exactly with the edge of the plate. Maybe old school but I alwais prefer to either break edges or stay clear...
In general the lighting set up is quite the "bread and butter for classic food photos large and soft backlight, usually in conjunction with a bounce or fill light under camera..

October 19, 2011 7:25 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wonderful well written article about how a beautiful photograph was conceived and executed. I can take the information provided and use it in my own photography in the future. Thanks David for the "food for thought."

October 19, 2011 8:05 AM  
Blogger Trucktographer said...

I have to say the image looks great. Well lit and creative!
Upon exploring her website and blog, I found her food images to be blown out. I understand that this was the current rage. Is it still? Really, blown out photos??? I can see where this would be useful if the food wasn't appealing or stylized well, and you wanted to distract the viewer...
I too have a degree in photography, but it's been awhile since I earned it. If we had turned in blown out photos we would have been given an F.

October 19, 2011 11:19 AM  
Blogger DGV said...

I like the food photos on the site > http://www.vazhayila.com/ Good composition and arrangement is the single most important factor when getting successful with food photography. Loved the pic on this article.

October 20, 2011 4:05 PM  
Blogger Leo said...

I like Emily's style and thinking, both in the example posted here and on her website. The images show the food in an attractive and imaginative way.

I think many of the criticisms here are inappropriate... for example from those who can't distinguish high key from "blown out". Be nice guys!

October 20, 2011 11:15 PM  
Blogger CJ said...

I think this is a gorgeous image! Good article.

October 21, 2011 9:49 PM  

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