A True Team Food Shot

This past week saw a flurry of work since we shot two restaurants back to back with very tight deadlines.  Each presented its own challenges but the first one resulted in a final image that was truly a team effort as it contained parts of shots each of us took.

On Monday we were assigned a cover shot for La Miche Kabobgee in Kearny Mesa, a Lebanese Restaurant’s. In fact the deadline for this was a day: shoot that morning and deliver by evening!  Fortunately it was on Washington’s Birthday so I had the day off.

The restaurant is fairly new, less than 10 months.  And the owner was justifiably proud of the place.  He worked very hard to find the best ingredients for his extensive menu of authentic Lebanese food.  Unfortunately for us that meant that he wanted to show lots of different dishes.  We tried to explain that the more items we included in a shot, especially a vertical shot, the smaller each one was and the less the viewer could see of it. I don’t think he was convinced.  He also really wanted a shot of a special bread oven used to make authentic types of breads.  But the oven was nowhere near anyplace reasonable to set up the arrangement of dishes.

Plus, to add some “sport” to the situation, we had an hour before the restaurant opened for lunch in which we could work more or less out of everyone’s way.  The only thing to do was to divide and conquer.  We decided to do the oven shot first.  The plan was we would set up the lights for it, then while I shot that image, Cynthia could be setting up the food shot in the dining area itself. When I finished, I would bring and reset the lights based on the food arrangement.  it was a workable if not ideal plan.

Except…  the owner just kept bringing out one dish after another to add to the collection.  We had seen and commented on a fascinating Lebanese heater that was a display piece in the restaurant.  Cynthia decided to use it as a centerpiece and ultimately used it to hold one of the dishes.

When the additional dishes finally stopped arriving, it created an interesting horizontal shot with the brass heater holding an entrée plate surrounded by a necklace of smaller appetizer plates of single items.  I finished at the oven and as she was finishing up styling I brought the lights over and rigged them for the food shot.

The problem this ultimately created for us was twofold:  The first problem was that the food-only shot did not even come close to working as a vertical, even with a crop cutting into the dishes.  There was just too much stuff.  She tried several arrangements but the ones that created a vertical layout were too much like stacked bricks and not very dramatic.  There was no option but a horizontal unless we could remove or crop items which the owner did not want us to do.

Cynthia shot the  horizontal arrangement while I tried to hold several bounce cards at once to put some extra life into the heater.  Getting those angles right without getting in the shot required some trial and error attempts.  That experimentation cost us some time and when we finally got it, the lunch crowd was at the gates and it was time to strike the set.

The second problem was that I was not happy with the oven shot as a cover shot.  It was not that there was a problem with the shot per se, and, cropped down to format it certainly made a nice vertical layout.  It was that pretty as the oven was with its red tile surrounding pieces, there was nothing in it that image that inherently would make you understand this was a Lebanese Restaurant.  We had been hoping the food shot would work and which would please the publisher, and this could be an insert shot for the feature page.  None of those hopes were working out.

The owner provided us a great lunch from the dishes we had shot and while eating we discussed this dilemma.   The shot that fit the layout did not tell the story… and the shot that told the story did not fit the layout.  But the restaurant now had customers and what we had was what we had… There was no way to rethink it and reshoot it.

Here are the two shots in original capture form.

The two shots that were used for the final.

The two shots that were used for the final.

The answer, we decided, was in the postproduction.  Even if we could use the food shot, we were going to have to replace the background which was the bottom of a less than attractive display counter.  So, we wondered, munching away, would it be possible to replace that background with the oven shot?  Our initial hopes of doing it all in-camera to buy time for the short deadline has just left the building…

Both shots needed some editing so when finally assembled, here is what we had.

Composite cover shot using the bread being baked and the table spread.

Composite cover shot using the bread being baked and the table spread.

Then, on Tuesday we had another early morning shoot, this time for a Mexican Restaurant in the Point Loma area.  Again, the publisher wanted FOOD!!!  And again the owner wanted to show of her newly remodeled dining room.  What a surprise.

The Sales Rep had come in early and really dressed the dining room in bright colors and made it look very flashy indeed.  Obviously we had  to shoot it.  We pulled a table into a corner at an angle so we could shoot over it into the dining room.  Cynthia gathered some of the unused props the sales rep had brought to help dress the area where the food would be.  But then we had a problem of, to use a cooking metaphor, too many chefs in the kitchen.

Both the sales rep and the owner had their own ideas and were talking over each other trying to tell Cynthia how to do her job.  It was at that moment that I realized just how much I loved not having to interface with the client’s unless I really needed to because, as is the case with chefs, especially from some cultures, they will not listen to her and I have to get involved.

For the nit picky among you, trust me, we realize, upon calm post-shoot reflection many of the things we wished we had done: a dish turned a little, a prop moved a little, a background item removed, the list goes on and seems endless.  But when you have little more than an hour to walk in cold with no idea what you are going to be shooting, then are trying to arrange furniture and food and other stuff AND remember to leave room for a very busy cover layout of title and text, and two (or sometimes more) are chattering away telling you and each other what should, in their mind(s), be happening, none of whom know the different issues of translating a nice presentation ready to eat as opposed to a nice presentation ready to PHOTOGRAPH, it is a wonder you remember your name. Sometimes in that chaos stuff falls through the cracks.  Hopefully it is little stuff…

By the time Cynthia sent one of them back to her corner they had slowed us down sufficiently by simply standing in the way of placing lights and props, we were running rapidly out of time before I had to leave to get back to campus for a class.  And so we were both a bit frazzled by the time we were able to start shooting.

Anyway, in what has almost become a templated approach, we shot over the food into the dining room.  The hope is that we gave enough space to the food to please the publisher and enough of the dining room to please the owner.  Plus, as usual, Cynthia shot some great details and close ups for use in an inside feature for the restaurant.

This time no composite was needed; the room was lit with a flash unit in a softbox bounced off of the relatively low ceiling.  Here is the final version of the cover shot showing both food and room.  We also gave them a couple of options that was primarily food.

Cover version showing dining room

Cover version showing dining room

Cover version shot tight on food

Cover version shot tight on food

Now that the flurry is over, at least for this week, perhaps after I do a pile of grading this weekend I will have time to look again at some of the shots from the Colorado trip that now seems like it took place way back in a previous life.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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