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On Assignment: Trattoria / 360

Having eaten at this restaurant often enough to put these guys' kids through college, I recently photographed brothers Gianni (left) and Carlo Morra at one of their three local Italian trattorias.

It is a simple picture, but there is much more here than meets the eye.

So keeping with last Thursday's talk of photo ecosystems, let's go a little more 360 on this one than just the typical lighting BTS.

First, a little background on the shoot. I am doing a series on indie international restaurants in Howard County for my local blog, HoCo360. This being the first entry in the series, it made sense to start off nice and safe in everyone's comfort zone.

Later we can boil the frog a bit and move into some of the more exotic choices. (Boil the frog… note to self… maybe the French bistro next?)

Each of these shoots will work as independent entries, but the real synergy comes from what you can do with the complete series. But more on that later.


I wanted to photograph Gianni and Carlo having lunch in their own place, which they do more often than not. The light at midday is not great for photos. It's a mix of window light and overhead incandescents. And not a photographically pretty mix, either.

But that would be easy enough to fix.

The first step for this photo would be to nuke the ambient. So I went to f/8 at ISO 200. Even at 1/125th of a sec., that ambient is gone. And if I need to kill another stop I can always go to 1/250th. Main thing is, everything in the frame would be lit solely by flash.

The idea was for the lighting to mimic that of a restaurant, if just a tad more focused and shaped than in real life. (One day, I'd love for them to revamp their lighting and raise the ambiance up to equal the food. But that won't come up until after I convince them to light up some wi-fi.)

So let's light it closer to (and motivated by) a better ambient lighting scheme. Just as with ambient fixtures, you could drop a nice, soft fixture right over the table. So that's what we'll do, right out of frame.

My "fixture" here is the same $7.00 silk lantern we used to key the soprano in the woods. (It's a very useful mod.) It's wrapped around a pair of SU-4'd SB-800s with domes.

And in this case, we are further shaping the light by adding a (DIY, natch) black felt skirt over the top of the sphere. Think half-way between a lantern and a soft box. This is merely to control the tone on the wall, and keep the illumination on Gianni and Carlo. Cheap, light, adjustable and works great. What more do you want?

Well, now that you ask, some fill light would be nice. We are going to get absolutely nothing from that key light under that table as is, unless oak has grown a lot more translucent while I wasn't looking.

Funny thing, when I dropped this photo into Flickr after shooting it, someone immediately noticed the detail under the table and called it as PhaseOne. Nope, it was 35mm.

That shadow detail (impossible, with one light, frankly) is courtesy an SB-800 in a shoot-thru umbrella on each side of the camera. Think of them both functioning as one giant 3x6' ring light.

Here is the setup, shot at the same exposure as the final image. Essentially, we have two light sources — key and fill. But the key includes two SBs (for power and speed) and the fill is split into two sources with the camera right between them.

Color-wise, how would you gel this? I went with 1/2CTOs on the key, to photographically mimic the warmth of my idealized incandescent overhead. To contrast that, I went with a 1/2CTB on the fill lights. It creates a color contrast under the table in addition to a levels contrast. Totally subjective choice, of course. You might go with something else.

Here are the SB-800s, ganged for the silk lantern. I just strapped them together with a couple of elasticized LumiQuest UltraStraps. The one Frio shoe bears the weight of both easily.

One other thing. With that sphere hanging just out of the frame, I want to control flare. With a gobo/shade clamped to a stand (sort of a quickie version of the shoot-thru shade) I can control that perfectly.

Here's an enlargement from the BTS scene that shows that area more clearly:


Cliff's Notes Version

Ratio-wise (no worries, not getting into any math here) the important things are:

1. Kill the ambient.
2. Adjust your key to match your working f/Stop.
3. Fill under the table to taste.
4. Add a little color contrast with warming/cooling gels.


So, my favorite type of image to shoot is one where value flows into lots of different areas — with a little pin action / domino effect to boot. So let's look at the ecosystem involved for this photo. There are two areas to consider here: value of the individual image and value of the series as a whole.

My family has been patronizing these guys' restaurants for, well, decades. It's a great joint with great food and locally owned. They grew up in Italy — sons of a baker — and know their stuff. It is exactly the kind of place I want to promote to other people. Which is another reason it was first in the series.

As a photographer, that ability (and choice) has value. Think of it as capital, that you can spend in the way you want.

This was shot as an entry for HoCo360, my local website. In addition to being exactly the kind of content I am looking to produce, this is also strong content for the restaurant itself. It helps both of us.

And on my next print run, I will output high-res prints of the blog post and drop them by the restaurant. There's a good chance they will end up on the wall — perhaps at all three places.

If they do end up on a wall that's a real-world, viral vector for the site. Literally, hundreds of people a day would be exposed to HoCo360 from that one-time, inexpensive act. But think of the value of that multiplied over many similar instances.

My goal with HoCo360 is to build a site that explores the community in a cool way while showcasing my abilities as a photographer for hire. I am showing exactly the kind of stuff I want to be hired to shoot, in a way that I believe is far more powerful than shopping a portfolio around to (who? where?) people in my area.

Thing is, I want to shoot local. It is my first love. What better way to market myself than by having a showcase vehicle that many local people find organically, every day?

Thus, the value of growing traffic to that site. The traffic has grown to the point where I can now rationalize local advertising, too. We even have a local web ad network, but I would probably go indie as with Strobist.

I don't know if I am gonna flip that ad switch, because there is value in keeping HoCo360 a pure editorial showcase. But the value is there, should I decide to extract it.

Obviously, as a Strobist reader you are a part of this ecosystem, too. You are reading about it on a technical/how-to/community site. On Strobist, the photos are multi-purposed in an entirely different way than on HoCo360, or on the wall of the restaurant. Strobist doesn't exactly drive what I shoot (trust me, you would not want that) but it is part of the ecosystem. It all works together.

So individually, this shot supports the local restaurant, HoCo360, my marketing efforts, Strobist, my longer-term goal to introduce people to quality indie restaurants and, finally, it is some return karma for all of meals my family has enjoyed there.

But let's take it further and look at the value of the series as it develops. Say you had, oh, thirty or so of these assignments in the can. In addition to threading all of the links together (thus, many more cross-discovery funnels on HoCo360) you now have a local, food-themed body of work. That's a potential exhibition, waiting to happen.

And not just a room full of 20x30 prints, either. Why not include recipes for many of the dishes? Interviews of local chefs? Why not use it as a vehicle to raise money and awareness of the local food bank? At the very least you are now the go-to person for local restaurants looking for photography for their businesses. It would be almost impossible for a local restaurateur not to know about you.

Themed projects also do something very valuable for me. They handle the "envision" part (at which I suck) very nicely. They are serendipitous. They point you right to your next shoot. Which is why the local restaurant series is one of five projects bouncing around in the dusty recesses of my mind right now.

And as a person whose stated weakness is idea generation, it feels great to have more photo ideas bouncing around in my head than I know what to do with.

Next: Reed Quintet


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