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On Assignment: Cafeteria Lunches

One of my favorite things about being a photographer is that if you pay attention, stories are everywhere. But the trick is paying attention—even if that story is presenting itself after you have had a drink or two at a New Year's Eve party.

That's where I met Judith Schardt-Shure, a cafeteria manager at a local public middle school. We asked each other the typical "So, what do you do?" party questions, and the 30-minute discussion about cafeteria food that followed left me wanting to know more—and wanting to make sure other local parents knew, too.

Which is exactly why I have developed HoCo360 over the last three years. It has now turned into what I had for 20 years as a newspaper photographer: a license to be curious.


When I left The Baltimore Sun in 2007 I was still just as curious as I had ever been, but no longer had the weight of the paper as license to act on it. So one of the many reasons I started HoCo360 in 2010 was to fill that void. These days, you don't need printing presses any more. And the quality of information doesn't really correlate to the platform, either.

HoCo360 is a visual journal, with content defined solely by the boundaries of Howard County, Maryland. Beyond that, there are no limits and there is no structure. It is a SoJo (solo journalist) experiment that long-time readers know has paid off in many ways.

Like any publication, it is an amplifier. It's something that can take a party conversation and, ultimately, broadcast it to other people in Howard County and beyond.

How far does it go? In 2013, the answer to that question is that it's Darwinian. If the content is quality and reputable and interesting—or better yet some mix of the above—it will spread. If it's not, it won't. Simple as that.

And for the party conversation to lead to access that will in turn lead to an article, the existing content on the site needs to be of sufficient quality to persuade people to give you the time and attention you need to make it happen. It's a little bit chicken and egg. But you start off with things you can do without anyone's help, and then expand your reach as you create a little critical mass.

The conversation ultimately led me to Mary Klatko, who is in charge of the Howard County Public Schools' lunch program (think 3,000,000 lunches served a year) and she was able to make the story happen.

My goal for this piece was simple: to condense the 30-minute conversation I had with Judith into something quick and visual and easy to digest (sorry!) for other parents. So I wanted to photograph the food just as it was. No rock-n-roll lighting, and no context other than as it is served to students.

Reason was, I wanted the food to speak for itself. Similarly, I wanted the lighting to be very natural but with texture and detail everywhere—something straddling super-realistic and industrial.

For detail, I used my medium format camera, which give incredible depth and resolution. (Here's that top picture at 100%, albeit compressed from a 16-bit .TIF to an 8-bit .jpeg.)

To reveal detail way down into the shadows of the very three-dimensional food, I pushed a 47" Octa (on an Einstein e640) right on-axis as fill. It's maybe 1.5 stops down, and ensures there will be nothing you can't see. Normally I use umbrellas of softlighters for soft sources. But I needed a clean highlight here in case the trays were highly specular. I didn't want any umbrella ribs to show in the reflections. I was ready for polished chrome if that is what they threw at me.

The shape of the food is courtesy two slaved SB-800 speedlights on the 90-degree lines as shown, each with a LumiQuest LTp soft box. They are key-lighting at a hard angle, so the texture will be there. But they are also crosslighting, so there will be legibility everywhere.

This is a situation where I do not want the light to call attention to itself at all. The light is all white, and designed to disappear. I just want the food to look hyper-realistic and three-dimensional.

And the fact that the food was served on white trays was a nice surprise. (But for the record, I was ready for chrome just in case.) Because of that and the white paper backdrop, the only color in the frame is carried by the food. It was lucky, but I'll take it.

In addition to the info-graphic above, done for the post, we did several other food shots. They are here on HoCo360, if you are interested. And for those of you who find yourself wondering what, exactly, you are going to spend your life photographing, might I recommend just starting a web publicatiion in your area of interest and seeing where it goes?

You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Including a license to be curious.

Next: Stink Bugs for Dinner


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