When I completed Strobist as a project in 2021, I promised to check back in when I had something worth sharing. Today, I’m announcing my new book, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto, which seeks to do for traveling photographers what Strobist always tried to do for lighting photographers.

Thanks for giving it a look—and for your comments and feedback.

On Assignment: Spring Desserts

With the Queen visiting in the US, I am enjoying a few days in London before the weekend seminars. It's not that I specifically wanted to get away from her. But there is the small matter of a restraining order dating back from my college days that requires that I stay at least 5,000 miles away from her at all times.

I'd tell you more, but I think my parents read the blog now.

What'd I miss while I was gone?

Lessee, apparently United States President George W. Bush screwed up during a speech in the presence of Her Majesty (and 7,000 other people) yesterday. Dubya then parlayed a small faux pax into an international incident by turning to Queen Elizabeth II, smiling at her, and then winking at her right on national TV.

As you might imagine, absolutely no one in the sleepy British media noticed. I mean, it's not like the follow royalty or anything.

Sheesh. Nice goin' there, slick. I'll be happy if we can just get Her Majesty safely out of the United States before the Leader of the Free World asks her to "pull his finger."

What were we talking about? Oh yeah. Cake.

A couple of weeks ago, I shot a trio of spring desserts for The Sun. We did them all on location at the designer's house using one or two speedlights. The one pictured above is my favorite of the three, a totally luscious coconut whipped cream cake.

(Mmmmm-hmmmmm... Totally Luscious Coconut Whipped Cream Cake...)

We like to get out of the studio as much as possible, so we can have access to a kitchen, different shooting environments and we can tell our managers that the 30-minute food shoot really took four hours. So, we met at Tracey's house and I started comping the shots as she styled the food in her kitchen.

I wanted to create a springy theme of blue and yellow for the shots. My subject colors were white (cake) white (mousse) and yellow (pie) so I thought this would work well. I stuck a CTO gel on my flash and set the light balance to tungsten. This would make anything lit by the flash the correct color, and anything ambient a bluish hue.

Now my window, and its reflection in the table, would set the tone for the photo that I wanted.

My first idea was to do a dual-light, hard/soft thing like the book club illustration. Not that I wanted to light paint, but I thought it might be nice to have soft, wrappy light on the background and crisp light on the cake.

To do this, I would need to shoot the background and the flash in two separate exposures. Expose for the background with some plastic wrap in front of the lens, then shoot the flashed foreground at a 250th with no plastic wrap on the second half of a multi-exposure.

Turns out I had forgotten my tripod (d'oh!) and besides, the test shot looked like someone had thrown up on a Degas painting. So that idea was out.

It is important to note that I do not regard this as a mistake. I am always trying different looks as I am comping a shot. I expect most of them will fail, but I still try to find an interesting, novel way to approach a photo.

Newbs, take heart: The path to better light usually involves first working through the interesting ideas that do not work well. Don't be discouraged.

That hard/soft technique is still in my pocket for a future food shot, and I will be dragging it back out soon. Just you watch.

Since the cake shot was going to be the main art, we decided to knock off the other two (lemon pie and white mint-chocolate mousse) first and save the cake for last. The idea is to save as much time as possible to work on the lead photo.

As Tracey worked on the other items, I continued with my cake stand-in. If the subject is perishable, always shoot with a stand-in until you get the shot close. Then fine-tune with the actual subject. In this case, I thought the tissue box approximated the size and the tone (tissues, at least) of the subject. It is what was there to play with, at least.

In this case, I was using a snooted speedlight to control the spill. This gave me plenty of control in setting the relative tones between the background and the (soon-to-be) white cake.

A few minutes later, the cake comes out and I hit it with the hard light I tested on the Kleenex.

Yuck. Too hard. Made the cake look like, I dunno... razor wire?

Well, since we were going for "fluffy," and not "mouth-slicing shards" I switched to a little bit of a softer light source. We try not to draw too much blood in the food section.

I threw the flash into an umbrella, and cranked up the output (to one-half power) to compensate for the light loss. I used a silver umbrella with a black backing to control light spill onto the ceiling.

There, that's better. But I am still trying to do something to put a funky edge on the cake.

I am constantly experimenting with different ways to increase three-dimensionality with lighting. Sometimes it helps, sometimes not.

So I played with a technique called "flash drag," where I jerked the camera (in an opposite direction of the flash) during the exposure. This put a little ambient shadow along the top and right edges as the cake crept up into the ambient-only lit portion of the frame after the flash had fired but before the shutter had closed.

Ehhh... Not so much. I liked the look, but wanted to save it for a subject that could benefit more from it. That's not the kind of thing you can do too many time in a year in the food section.

So, I stick with my straight shot and start to fine-tune my composition a little. I want to grab a couple of safe versions of just the solid cake before we cut into it, just in case we screw the thing up slicing it.

Better safe than sorry. But what I am really looking forward to is this shot with a piece removed. Because we are gonna be using inside of the cake itself as a light modifier.

For the final version, we cut a slice out of the smooth, rich, mois (sorry.. it was really good) cake to shoot it with a splash of yellow showing from the inside.

Now, back to the idea of the cake as a light modifier.

Using a garden trowel, I carefully dug a speedlight-sized hole out of the center of the cake and hooked up an SB-26 to a Pocket Wizard. With the flash safely inside a clear, zip-lock bag... kidding, kidding.

(Although Franz Lanting did stick a speedlight into a melon once, and I am always looking to jam a flash into something.)

Besides, that would have destroyed the cake. And you do not get a physique like mine by missing opportunities to eat cake. Maybe I'll try it on a zucchini or something.

No, what I mean by using the cake as a light mod is that we are going to use the color of the inside of the cake to reinforce the color of the inside of the cake. Hey, when your final product is printed on Charmin, you need all of the saturation help you can get.

The second and final light for this photo came from a gridspotted speedlight, at 1/16th power, also sporting a CTO filter for proper color balance when shooting on the tungsten camera setting. The gridspot tightly controls the beam of the light. It allows us to shoot a little light in from slightly behind a pure sidelight angle. This light bounces off of the front edge of the inside of the slice and lights the back edge of the inside of the slice.

So, the hard light actually turns into very close-in soft light (reflected off of the cake) that has a golden yellow color. This perfectly reinforces the color of the inside of the cake.

And since we can control the beam so well, no light hits the outside of the slice, which would have nuked the coconut badly.

Pretty cool, huh? I always like coming up with a sneaky way to light something, so I was happy with this one.

The last lighting effect, also visible in the final shot, is a fill light coming from the left side, to glow the cake a little and make it a little more three-dimensional.

Since we are using just two small speedlights for this shot, our fill light was a very complex, sophisticated combination of a paper bag standing open with some crumpled aluminum foil attached to the side.

One cheapo reflector, made to order. At Strobist International Headquarters, we spare no expense in our quest to better light desserts.

And in the setup shot which is exposed (and daylight balanced) for the ambient, you can see how simple this really is. The key is using the CTO/tungsten setting to establish the color key with the ambient/strobe combo.

Also, notice that the "cake-slice" light, which has the grid spot, is turned on its side. This further controls the shape of the beam to fit the hole of the slice without spilling onto the frosting.

Here's the same angle, balanced for tungsten, with the flashes firing and the ambient exposed to set the window light properly.

There's nothing really difficult about this at all. It is about deciding on a look and methodically developing it.

We published this story today, and Tracey was just nice enough to e-mail me a .pdf of the actual page. So here is how it ran.

Did she do a nice job with that page, or what? That's a full broadsheet, too.

Design like this is why, all things being equal, I'd rather shoot features fronts than metro fronts. Which is cool, because we have a lot of news hounds on the staff that would rather shoot the hard stuff.

But then, how many of their assignments end up with free cake?

The leftover cake evaporated overnight at our house.

NEXT: Group Shot: 2 Speedlights, 34 People


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