Full of Beans in the Middle of Nowhere

It started out as a plan to produce a fun shot for the Sinclair-King collaborative food portfolio.  The concept Cynthia had was to find a spot in the wilds where we could stage a campfire scene with beans in a pan, but in scene with the incongruity of a proper table setting with fine china and crystal.

I loved it because it reminded me of my old friend, Jim Carnal, last of the real mountain men/barbarians who, while helping me with a campng workshop, once prepared a Beef Wellington in a Dutch Oven and we had dinner with linen tablecloth and napkins, candelabra, fine china and were dressed in our finest buckskins and beads while the students dined on their beany-weenies burned over a campfire more designed to signal for help from the international space station than to serve as a cooking fire.  It is a wonder no one set themselves ablaze…

So, with that fond memory in mind, off we went to one of my favorite out of the way sites along one of the abandoned sections of old Hiway 80 east of San Diego.  It is sort of like a mini Alabama Hills with great rock forms right next to the old road so we would not have to carry things too far.  The plan was for it to be a shot of contrasts, a lady and a cowboy, so while one table setting had fine china and family silver, the other would have a Bowie Knife and large serving fork as utensils.

I also took a hat, saddle, spurs, an 1830s pattern Bowie knife, a cartridge belt with holster and six-gun for props, and put on an old timey bib front shirt; Cynthia brought candlesticks, a bottle of very fine Cabernet, crystal wine glasses (for red wine of course; the properly mannered cowboy would not drink Cabernet out of a glass for white wine), a crystal decanter, a cast iron skillet and several cans of beans, onions, etc. to round out the props and thusly prepared we arrived at what would hopefully be our shooting location.

We surveyed several possible sites and finally settled on one with a nice flat rock for a “table” plus a sitting rock behind it.  We faked a small fire pit, and roughed in a couple of battery powered monolights to accent and complement the sun.  I planned on using a Superclamp™ to hold the skillet of beans on a boom arm but the cast iron skillet was so heavy none of the tightening screws would keep it from twisting the boom sections in a direction that would have dumped its contents on the ground.  I didn’t think such “trail seasoning” would add to the appeal of the food so we settled for simply setting the skillet on the wood in our fire pit and smoothly segued on to plan B.

Or at least we WOULD have if in fact we actually HAD a plan B…

The problem was that with the skillet on the boom it could be held up to become the main item, appropriate for a food shoot.  But if we had to set it down on the “fire pit” then it would no longer be the main item visually.  Oh well, I did not bring other rigging pieces that would have saved the plan, so we simply had to wing it.

It was about 2:30 in the afternoon when we got everything more or less in place and ready to try other options.  First we did a lighting and exposure test shown below.  This test shot will give you an idea of the actual location and environment.

A lighting and exposure test to check on light placement, power settings, etc for our Plan A version of the shot.

A lighting and exposure test to check on light placement, power settings, etc for our Plan A version of the shot.  In it you can see some of the props we brought that unfortunately did not make it into the final version.

Still, we clearly had a problem.  If we had used a wide tilt shift lens with the skillet on the boom we could have incorporated all of our wonderful props you see in that test shot.  But with the skillet on the ground BELOW our table, a low level shot would really look bizarre.  So we gave it the 30-second stare (a technique I learned from the aforementioned Mr. Carnal) and decided to work in closer and make the preparation of the dish the core issue.

I played “Mr. Home-On-The-Range” back at the typical campfire for any suave, debonair cowboy roughing it with fine china and candles, etc. while Cynthia moved around and shot various poses and angles.

We finished and though the sun was nearly to the mountain tops it was still light enough so we amused ourselves doing some outrageous portraits of each other using our props that would have sent shivers down the spines of Bonnie and Clyde and chilled the blood of Jack the Ripper.  Then, since we had opened a good bottle of Cabernet for the shot — also of course part of the evening repast for a cowboy after a hard day of fence mending and cow punching (and no, for you city folks, we did not actually punch the cows, it was a figure of speech…) the only proper thing left to do was to finish it off…

In a later post I may post some of those frightening shots we did.  They actually might make some fascinating shots for Christmas cards.

Meanwhile, back in San Diego, we decided the shot below was a good one to work on.  This is a copy made from the original RAW file and is completely unedited.

An original unedited version of the final shot.  In order to try to make it even marginally a food shot, we moved in closer and in doing so cropped out many of the props we had brought.

An original unedited version of the final shot. In order to try to make it even marginally a food shot, we moved in closer and in doing so cropped out many of the props we had brought.

But, of course it now has another problem.  It is typical that when trying to solve one issue (here, the positioning of the skillet of beans) other remain or worse, are sometimes created as unintended and unforeseen problems.   The remaining problem now is that it is supposed to be a campfire scene.  But in the afternoon when it was shot it was still too light to see the candles or a campfire and besides we are on high fire alert out here (those rocks are, apparently, incredibly flammable) and did not want to risk having the Mounties descend on us in force with loaded fire extinguishers.

So I studied on it a bit.  I’ve been at lots of campfires in my time and have a pretty good notion of what it looks like if, say the moon was full, and you allowed for the idea that the candles and campfire were large enough to provide some localized light.  I mean, hey, they do it in the movies all the time…

In actuality we had used two monolights, one from roughly the direction of the sun (which was providing a back light for me) but lower and aimed at the skillet primarily in order to back light the food which was actually in the shadow of a rock and provide texture in the ingredients.  This combined light source would be my moon light.

Then we had another monolight as a fill light coming from the opposite side and skimming across the table.  Because the sun was harsh in the desert we used the monolights without diffusion to match the quality of the natural light and hard shadows.  This light, originally planned as a fill, became the light for the flames of the candles and campfire.

As you can see in the original above, that worked… but… it was not yet a campfire scene.  So it was time to get creative in post production.  I closed my eyes leaned back and remembered some great camps in the Colorado mountains.  I held and studied that memory and the colors displayed in it and when I thought I had it pretty well nailed down, I went to work trying to recreate it.  The result is the shot below…

Here is the final "evening" campfire version.  The photograph was taken by and is Copyrighted by Cynthia Sinclair, my contribution is the editing... well and of course the masterful rendition of a trail worn old cowboy.

Here is the final “evening” campfire version. The photograph was taken by and is Copyrighted by Cynthia Sinclair, my contribution is the editing… well and of course the masterful rendition of a trail worn old cowboy.

Unfortunately, not many of our carefully thought out props actually appear in the shot, but just by having them there it helped set the tone and mood for the effort.  So, I think we have a keeper anyway…  And besides, they may yet appear in some of the fun “portrait” shots we took.

Sometimes when things do not go as planned it can be a serious failure, but other times, and this is one of them, the failure of plan A led to something we had not anticipated but definitely gave me a chance to push my own editing envelope.  This was all done in Photoshop CC with no plugins or filters being used.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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