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On Assignment: Macaroni and Cheese

Most of the assignments I shoot are not what most of you would consider glamourous. To be honest, I rather prefer the day-to-day stuff. As much as possible, I try to approach each assignment with the idea that you should not let your attention slip just because you are shooting a less exciting subject.

You've heard all of the sports analogies: Hit for average. Block and tackle. Or as the boxers say, "work the body and the head will follow."

In other words, take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.

Shooting your day-to-day assignments with your small, portable lighting gear dovetails with this school of thought very nicely. You do not need big expensive lights - or a ton of shooting and prep time - to create photos that are lit appropriately and can hold some size if needed.

At The Sun, we do a lot of tabletop shots for the interior of the food section. These are not as designed/produced as the section front lede stuff, but tend to run pretty big on the inside pages. So you want them to look nice.

In the studio, we keep a set of sawhorses and a few boards which serve as small shot platforms. This is better than an actual table, as you can easily stick a piece of plexi across the sawhorses instead of the wood and light right through from beneath. But that's for a different day.

The above shot was to illustrate a "test kitchen" story on how box-mix macaroni has grown up. The stuff is much better than the old Kraft blue-box staple we lived on as kids. They use white cheddar, organics, better pasta, etc.

So we just wanted a little bit of a dressy mac 'n cheese photo.

This simple setup uses a cloth napkin atop the board as a textured surface. It's a very straightforward technique that could be easily replicated with one speedlight on any kitchen table.

I usually base my food-shot lighting on soft back/overhead light. It brings out the texture, which is the closest thing you have to "taste" in a photo. But given that, couple of things differently than in most of our "tabletop food quickies." Instead of using our usual - several reflectors to flesh out the soft backlight - we used no reflectors and one light-blocking gobo.

This subtractive method allows you to add shape to the light and seal the edges of the photo.

(A "gobo" is slang for a "go-between" and basically means anything that partially blocks the light. There is a flashback link to the Lighting 101 post on gobos in the resources section at the end of the post.)

Usually when we do these shots, we'll gang up three or four and do them all in about an hour. I work with the page designer, who doubles and designer (and cook, if need be.)

Oh, and at the same time, Sam (our intrepid takeout food guy) is grabbing "to-go" food from a local lunch spot to shoot/eat/review. So, contrary to what the biz books tell you, sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch.

We comp out what we want to do on the various pix, then I set up the lighting for the shots as she preps the food. Working together this way, we can usually bang off the three or four things in a hour or so.

The only question to be decided is how appealing the takeout food subject matter is, and who gets to nosh.

Back to the macaroni. As the food was being prepared, I decided to use a a crumpled piece of paper as a stand-in so I would have the light all set when the food arrived.

I knew the macaroni (shells, actually) and cheese (white cheddar) were gonna be darn close to white, and I was worried I would not hold texture and highlight detail. So I made it a point tho choose something lighter than the subject - a crumpled sheet of typing paper - for the stand-in.

I figured if I can hold the tone in the paper, I can certainly hold the pasta without blowing it out.

Here's the first look. It's easy and safe, but I did not like the light tones on the top of the frame. That part of the napkin is closer to the umbrella'd flash above and behind the food, so it is naturally gonna be light.

As a quick fix I propped a sheet of black foamcore up behind the table, which blocked the light on the back part of the table and sealed it nicely. This also made the back rim of the bowl pop from the background a little more, which added a nice line to the photo.

Normally, I would probably be using folded sheets of paper in front of the bowl to throw some reflected light back in there. But I liked the way the shadowed front (bottom) mimicked the gobo'd back.

Now, this ain't the cover of Gourmet magazine. This is more like assembly-line lighting to efficiently flesh out a food section under the same time/resource constraints everyone else has to deal with, too.

Here's the massively complicated setup, bearing in mind that I shot from the right side of this frame into the umbrella:
The photo does not call attention to itself so much as call attention to the macaroni. Which is the point, for a test-kitchen sort of thing.

This soft-backlit-food thing is a quick and easy technique that you can do for any restaurant-review-type photo. And if you are traveling with the starving student kit, you are totally ready to go.

Remember to keep a couple of sheets of typing paper in your bag (or just use your assignment) to fold up and use as small reflectors when you need them, too.

It's easy-greasy, but you won't be doing this with your TTL on-camera flash.

Next: Speedlighting a College Gym


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My current project: The Traveling Photograher's Manifesto