Last Shot Before Death Valley 

My Landscape Class’s field trip to Death Valley kicks off tomorrow morning when we will all hit the road and head to a most unusual place. It is a place at once terrifying, especially if you were a person in the 1800s trying just to get across the desert to the dreamed-of coast, and to a modern photographer, enticing and inspiring.

It is a place where both the mundane piles of sand and the mysterious moving rocks of the racetrack exist oblivious to each other. And it is a place where some gazillions of intrepid photographers descend to way below sea level to see amazing vistas and bizarre formations and, if there at the wrong time… like summer… can experience heat like no where else on this continent. Furnace Creek is very well named.  Air temp can reach 130 and the dark tarmac of the road will burn skin nearly immediately.

But today here in San Diego, the weather is, as usual, perfect and I shot a demo in my Beginning Lighting Techniques Class in preparation for a food assignment.   We had a lecture the previous class about general issues with food and emphasized that in many cases it is the specific texture of a food item that makes it appetizing. My problem was getting some subject that did not require kitchen prep nor would it lose its appeal quickly like nearly any prepared dish would.

So I settled on a breakfast pecan muffin and a cup of coffee as the simple subjects. These gave me a chance to show the lighting to bring out the texture of the chopped nuts on top as well as the texture of the cake/muffin part. And it allowed us to play with the idea of making a beverage, in this case some left over coffee, look fresh and appealing.  This demo was not about styling but about lighting issues so I kept the “set” as simple and clean as possible while still adding some complexity with the subjects.  The muffin is solid and textured; the cup is ceramic but with a shine to it, the coffee stream is translucent, in all encompassing nearly all of the various surface types in one shot.

Here then is the finished image. The items are sitting on a black acrylic surface with a black seamless about 4 feet behind everything.  Lights are Photogenic 320 W-S Monolights mounted on an overhead grid.

Pecan pastry and coffee hot for a lighting demo at City College.

Pecan pastry and coffee shot for a lighting demo at City College.  ISO 100, f14 @ 1/125, Canon 70-200 f2.8L

Lighting consisted of

  1. The main light was a beauty dish from behind at an elevation of about 30 degrees to skim over the top of the item and show both texture and some specular reflections from the glaze.  This gave me more definition than a soft box but still spread some light over both the pastry and the cup
  2. This particular item had some of the topping spill over in front so an accent light in a normal 7” reflector came in from the side (screen left) at a steep angle to rake across the side and show the cake texture as well as make it stand out from the background.
  3. A nearly identically placed light from the other side but a bit more forward (toward the camera) and brighter helped give some volume and brighten up the deep shadows on screen right’s side.  These lights created highlight and shadows that emphasized the sense of roundness to the cup and the pastry.  But…
  4. This left the front of the pastry with a very dark shadow so a white bounce card was hung from a boom arm to put a little bit of light back onto the front so it looked more like it would look if you were sitting in front of it with your body blocking the light from hitting the face of it.
  5. A fourth light with a narrow snoot was placed behind and slightly to the (screen) right of the coffee cup (just out of the image area) and aimed right over it to light up the stream of coffee being poured into the cup.

A student assistant then poured the coffee from one mug into the cup and I took several exposures as the cup filled. I was hoping to get some bubbles along the edge but to my surprise the cup really filled with foam. We did it a couple more times and the foam got more pronounced with each pouring.

The final shot was from the second pouring and was the 2nd from the last exposure as the cup was being filled.

Once the shot was made and all questions answered, I turned my back to start breaking down the set and the poor muffin was devoured pretty quickly by students that looked like a pack of ravenous wolves descending on a baby bunny.

So, with this shot edited and ready to show in class next week,  I now leave in the morning for something completely different…

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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