The Process of Shooting a Cover Food Shot

San Diego —  Some of you older folks may remember a singer named Jim Croce.  I, of course, am much too young but remember my Grandmother loved him…  And if I can get you to believe THAT then we REALLY need to talk.  Anyway, about Jim Croce…

He was from here and when he died, his wife, Ingrid, opened a restaurant in his name that became a well known place in San Diego’s “Gas Lamp” district for live music and good food.   However times change and with some of those changes she decided to close the old place and open a new restaurant at a  5th Avenue location.

When it came time for the restaurant guide, for whom we sometimes shoot, to do a cover shot for the new “Croce’s,” Cynthia and I were the ones chosen.  It is really a privilege to be able to do some work for this local landmark and icon.  Alas as often happens with an important client or project, there were lots of hands wanting to steer the ship of design and layout, not the least of which was Ingrid herself.

The good news was that Ingrid has already done several cookbooks and had a good understanding of the photographic issues, vis-à-vis making an item of food look appetizing.  She knew, for example, to not have the chef prepare the food until we were ready for it.  But in that regard we hit the first snag though it was a small one.

The magazine publisher wanted to emphasize food over facilities, but for Ingrid this was a chance to show people her new restaurant with its much larger bar area and warm, friendly ambience. Debra, the publisher’s Account Exec was between a rock and a hard place and Cynthia had her hands full handling the desires of the owner, the needs of the magazine, and her own excellent eye for what will look good in a shot.

Having arrived early we had been able to scope out a spot we thought would be good to shoot and, by luck, it turned out it was also Ingrid’s choice.  We were off to a good start.  Ingrid even had some phone photo shots showing what she had in mind.  She also wanted a table with 4 dishes on it.   FOUR DISHES?!?!?  Hmmm… well the thing to do was just start and see what needed to be adjusted.

Using a menu and some gear piled on the table top as stand-ins, I started rigging the lights while Cynthia helped get things set up.  The plan was to use three lights as shown in the light plot below.:

  •  The main light  would come over from the back to skim light forward.  It was on a “C” stand with a boom to get it out over the booth and still remain out of the shot.  It would have a grid on it to control flare since it would be aimed back toward the camera;
  •  A side/accent light would deliver textural light from the opposite side and create some spectral highlights to make the food glisten.
  •  A frontal fill would be created with a third light.

Because the desired “feel” was warm and intimate, a more atmospheric lighting style was called for.  The Main Light was from a standard reflector but with a grid and the others were just 6” cone reflectors with no other light modifiers such as umbrellas or softboxes so we could create a pool of light on the table top.  Softboxes or umbellas would spill so much light everywhere we would then have needed to get serious with flags and there was no room for them anyway.  What would be easy in a studio sometimes is not possible on a real location.  Anyway, here is the basic arrangement.

A lite plot showing the positioning of lights and camera for the Croce Restaurant cover shoot.  The plot shows the position of the lights and also the placement positions of the camera

A lite plot showing the positioning of lights and camera for the Croce Restaurant cover shoot. The plot shows the position of the lights and also the placement positions of the camera as we procedded through the three versions shown below.

A big problem was that these booths are raised off the main floor and there was no way to put a light stand precisely where I wanted it.  (Note to self:  remember to add another boom to our traveling light kit). When the lights were roughed in and the food arrived, we composed and shot our first “draft” loosely following the phone shot Ingrid had provided. The table was high because of the raised floor for the booth, so the food dishes were tilted forward so we could better see the food.   Foam wedges and some Styrofoam pieces from our location kit were used.  Here is the first shot with the camera in position 1 on the light plot:

First version of the shot for Croce's restaurant.  Shot with Canon 5D MkIII and F1.2 50mm f1/2

First version of the shot for Croce’s restaurant. Shot with Canon 5D MkIII and F1.2 50mm f1/2

It was a workable idea but there were some issues with it.  When we set it up I  confess I thought it would work fine but Cynthia was unimpressed.  Turns out, as is more often the case than not, she was right.  The mirror reflections are too busy, and being able to see to the front windows also created distractions (or tail light streaks in some frames).  Plus the conception of using the wall mirrors to see the bar was a good plan on paper but was not all that wonderful when reduced to a 2-dimensional photo..  And, in any case, Ingrid wanted more restaurant and less food.

So we moved the camera counter clockwise and a little farther back, only tweaked the lights a little, re-staged/styled the food and created the 2nd version from camera position 2 on the light plot.

Here is the next version.  While the angle is visually better to see the bar it still shows way too much facilities and way to little food.

Here is the next version. While the angle is visually better to see the bar it still shows way too much facilities and way to little food.  It too is shot with a 5D MII and 50mm at f1.2

But now a new issue arose: this was being shot in late afternoon and the amount of natural light coming in through the front windows to light the room was dropping rapidly.  By the time we got off the first shot of the new angle, using the same exposure as before, the background went almost black.  So we had to seriously lengthen the time the shutter would be open to allow that ambient light to build to match the flash exposure.  By the time we were doing the final shot of that series the shutter speed was all the way to an eighth of a second.

Anyway, this view is better to be sure but still had some problems.  There is too much ceiling and surrounding area.  The food is getting tiny as well.  Even though we could have cropped the frame since the magazine cover is a half sheet, still I hate planning for that when the solution was to simply move closer.

However, the newer, closer position now had the food close enough so that even though we were shooting at f16 with a 50mm lens, the bar and background were not sharp.  (In fact if you look at the bar in the shot above, it is not all that sharp and the far end of the bar is getting pretty soft.)  They are not soft enough to make the food stand out with shallow depth of field (which would need a different composition anyway) but neither were they sharp enough to really see the bar and rest of the restaurant crisply.  If you want to create an “editorial style” shot with shallow depth of field then go for it but not half way.  What we had simply looked like a mistake so it needed to be corrected.

In the old days this would have been a job for a view camera.  To solve it in the digital arena (since we only needed optical corrections on one axis), we mounted a 45mm Tilt-Shift lens and then moved in closer.  The front was tilted down to run the depth of field plane to the back and along the bar to make it all sharp.

But by now it was late enough that there was virtually no natural light helping out the exposure and the long shutter speed, now at a full second, was allowing too much of the incandescent light to influence the whole shot, not just the background where it gives a sense of warmth. With more time we could have solved it but now we had to make it happen in the camera and then tweak it in post production.

The next shot below is the unedited shot as it came out of the camera and into the computer.  We had done about all we could do on site given that customers were starting to show up and we had to quit and get out of the way.

Out of the camera, unedited shot for the final cover image,  Shot with the 59mm f1.2 lens

Out of the camera, unedited shot for the final cover image, Shot with the 50mm f1.2 lens @ f16

So then it was back to the editing booth and work to take the tones where we wanted them, and balance the food and the facilities using light and dark area.  There were also some little areas to clean up and some localized color issues (due to the long exposures) to fix.

In the unedited shot above several things stood out when looked at closely.  For example, the light fixtures over the bar are blown out; I had managed to move the boom and now there is too much light on the white dishes to screen right and too much fall off to screen left on the food; the shadows are distinctly yellow in front of the food, especially the chicken dish; to let the title and the other text for the cover stand out, the ceiling and foreground needed to go a bit darker; and I wanted a hint of detail in the wood work on the bar as it faced the camera; and there is a sliver of the back of a chair appearing at about mid level to screen left.  Closer examination also showed some schmutz had fallen on the table which the flash units just loved so that had to be cleaned as well.

Nothing particularly difficult, just a bit time consuming.

After some editing things were looking more as they ought.

Final edited version of the cover shot for Croce's Restaurant.  In this shot the 50mm lens has been replaced by the 45mm TS/E

Final edited version of the cover shot for Croce’s Restaurant. In this shot the 50mm lens has been replaced by the 45mm TS/E and the camera is ever so slightly moved in to get roughly the same crop.

This was much closer to what Ingrid had wanted in terms of its feel and tonalities in showing off the facilities.  It leaves the “dead” space necessary when shooting to a layout but also gives a fair idea about the food though for my tastes (no pun intended) it would have been nice to push in even closer because the prep and display of each plate was worthy of its own shot.

I received a question after an earlier post about how long these shots have been taking.  It really varies depending on the locale, the needs for the shot and other little variables.  Often we can be in and out in a little over an hour.  This one took a bit longer.  We walked into the restaurant about 3:30, Ingrid arrived close to 4 and I was striking the set while Cynthia took some hand-held details by around 5:45 pm.

I would have loved to have another half hour to take a  strobe in a small softbox or umbrella, and, with a CTO gel (to better match the ambient incandescents) painted the bar area then composited the food shots and the bar shots together as we have done a few times in the past.  But by then Ingrid’s diners were starting to arrive and there would have been no way to herd them into a corner out of the way while we worked.

(CORRECTION.  The narrative above implies (unintentionally) that Ingrid opened this restaurant right after Jim Croce died but in fact there was some time that passed.  He was originally from Chicago and she from Philly and she has had quite a life of her own.  I apologize if that erroneous implication through you off but it was not deeply relevant to the point of the post which was the process of creating the final shot.  For all the information about the restaurant and ingrid, and of course, Jim Croce, here is a link:  -NDK- )


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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