Sometimes the Bear…

Among outdoorsmen there is an old saying… “Sometimes you eat the bear… sometimes the bear eats you.”  It is not too much of a stretch to apply that to the commercial photography niche of food photography.  If you are doing images for a cookbook and/or working in the studio, it is common for the stylist or sometimes the author or a hired chef to prepare the food for shooting.

In those circumstances, the result is that predictably the food will arrive in front of the camera and a carefully prepared “stage” exactly at the right moment, with all of the items looking wonderful and the overall presentation nearly perfect. When this is done well the photographer’s job is made much easier and all they have to do is perhaps sometimes some subtle tweaking to the arrangement and then using proper lighting, capture, and editing of the images to make them appear appetizing for the viewer.  Of course the food prepped and presented for photography might not be perfect for actual eating, but it will be perfect for you to take its picture.  In that case (assuming your general food shooting skills are solid) you eat the bear.

But when working editorially for a third party (a magazine, for example) or producing “advertising” or exemplar shots for a restaurant guide and, worse yet, shooting “cold” (meaning having no idea what is about to be placed in front of you to shoot or what the shooting environment itself will be), that luxury goes away.  Unless you are working with a restaurant where the owner or manager or chef really understands that regardless of how good the food is to eat, if it is not properly prepared and presented for the photography session (and a good food stylist and photographer would know) a different set of issues arises, especially in terms of the “presentation” of the item(s).   Bottom line, compared to being prepared for nearly immediate consumption, if the food arrives unprepared for the demands of the camera, no amount of arrangement tweaking or lighting techniques or  camera skills or even prodigious editing skill may be able to save the day. That is when the Bear eats you…

Speaking of being eaten by the bear… We did a shoot that raised these issues right to the forefront.  First let me assure you the food itself was very, very tasty (we had it for lunch after the shoot… it WAS certainly prepared to eat) but the presentation of it, as it was brought to us, was simply the same as it is served to customers.  If the food was good why would that be a problem?  I’m glad you asked or I’d have nothing to write about.

For starters, the baskets were a little too small for the sandwiches and ended up bending them like an over-ripe banana and wrinkling the bun like the skin of a 120 year old beach bunny.  I assume this was to make the sandwiches look larger to the customer but it created a nightmare for us.

The hot Philly Steak Sandwich was tasty to eat but the jumble of ingredients, mixed on the grill where combined hot juices dulled the color of everything else, and then was neither drained nor patted down to minimize or eliminate the juice, nor, for that matter, were the initially colorful ingredients arranged carefully in the bun as a food stylist would do, was hugely problematic.    You may be familiar with the stories, mostly true, of stylists carefully arranging the sesame seeds on a hamburger bun or using all manner of trickery to enhance the appearance of the food items to be photographed.  There are photo-based critical reasons for that effort.

In addition, this time, not only did the combined meat and ingredients’ juices quickly soak the bun edges giving it the texture of a very large and very old raisin.  The random mix of additional items (peppers, onions, etc.) now all discolored by the mixed juices, photographed less like the tasty sandwich it actually was, and more like some poor creature ground into mincemeat under the tires of a semi-tractor pulling multiple fully loaded trailers, all of which ran over the now unrecognizable victim. In this case, all that juice added to the taste but detracted from the photo.

But it didn’t end with one sandwich.  The cheese fries had melted cheese spilled out on the paper in the basket.  No restaurant customer would care or probably even notice, but the camera cares.

Then there was the cold sandwich.  This did not have the juices problem of the hot sandwich (though it also was too large for the basket).  However, the additional stuff on the cold sandwich totally covered up the meat making it appear to be an onion and tomato slice sandwich.  And, of course, to add some ‘sport’ to it all, they also wanted to show one of their frozen deserts in the shot and provided one without asking whether its color was not all that complimentary to the rest of the items.  Why not…

Now none  of those things was a detriment to the EATING of the food which was delicious, but all of them were detrimental  to the “portraits” of the food items.  Let me reiterate this to be clear:  the cooks did a great job of preparing the food to eat; it was excellent and I would happily recommend it.  What we had was not a cooking problem but a photo problem.   For our purposes, where the goal is to create an image that will make people want to go there to eat, all that really matters FOR US is preparing the food to have its picture taken.

And that was a problem elevated in importance because the dining room itself was, aesthetically, not designed to take your mind off of the food.  This was a place to grab a sandwich and wolf it down, trying hard not to look around: eat and run.   It is not an candle-lit, ambiance-dripping place with a romantic chamber orchestra in the corner where you would want to sit and savor the both the food and the radiance of one’s companion or the brilliance of their repartee.  So including it in the shot was not going to solve the image’s aesthetic problems.  In retrospect this might have been a situation where we would have been better off shooting a person or couple eating the food in situ with very shallow depth of field.  But the available time and budget would not have accomodated that approach  even if we had had the luxury of a pre-shoot visit and came up with it as a solution.

So we did what we could.  Without planned or otherwise aesthetically positive environmental elements to include, we concentrated on the food itself.  We placed a table in front of a wood slat wall to give us a backdrop with some textural interest if we would need it.  The ambient light suggested a natural vignette that we could use as motivation for the actual strobe lighting.  Now it was up to composition, lighting, and editing to make it all work.

Cynthia tried a number of different arrangements for us to shoot.   The lighting was designed to increase some texture and drama in the items by raking hard light across the surfaces at shallow angles.  Only the “top light,” created by bouncing a stobe off of the low dropped ceiling over the nook where we were shooting, was soft.  There was also some soft reflected light directed back at the front of the food arrangement from a fold-out reflector.

So how did it turn out?  Below are a few of the optional shots submitted as proofs for the cover.  Remember, we needed to leave space for titles and other text that will appear on the final cover.

one of the options for the cover shot.  Note the layout has left room for the title plus other standard text/copy put on the page.

one of the options for the cover shot. Here items are arranged loosely to mimick a table in front of customers/diners.  It doesn’t really work even after  noting the layout has left room for the title plus other standard text/copy put on the page.

Aa second optional  shot.

A second optional shot (above).  Items here are arranged a bit more formally and look more like they are connected.  But the look of the sandwich ingredients and spilled cheese in the basket of fries is not good.  Nor is the bent, wrinkled look of the buns.

We also tried a version with just one of the sandwiches.

We also tried a more tightly cropped version with just one of the sandwiches. You can really see the spilled cheese but at least you can see some of the meat in the cold cut sandwich.  This could work because the cold sandwich is much more photographic than the other hot sandwich. But the restaurant is primarily about those hot steak sandwiches… so they really need to be in the shot…     Bummer.  Plus here you can really see the spilled cheese in the paper.

So as a last resort, since the cover really needed to include a steak sandwich, the middle shot was chosen for a second level of editing/retouching to see if anything might help. Work included fixing the bent and wrinkled buns, bringing back the color to the juice-soaked items in the hot sandwich, cleaning off the spilled cheese from the basket with the fries and making the lighting just a tad more in keeping with the new textures on the buns.  I can’t tell you how much I wanted to do something to that frozen desert but that was what they wanted so I left it alone except to enhance the lighting on it..   And here is the result of that work.

Cover shot two after additional retouching.  This improves it but it is still not of the quality it might have been had it been prepared for a photo shoot in the first place.

Cover shot two after additional retouching. This improves it but it is still not of the quality it might have been had it been prepared for a photo shoot in the first place.

This level of retouching now becomes quite tedious and time consuming.  It took about two additional hours beyond the basic editing in the version shown above.  But getting rid of the bent and wrinkled buns and putting color back in the ingredients made them far more appetizing and the effect of cleaning the spilled cheese, though subtle, still makes the presentation more professional looking.  Unfortunately, once again the call for the shots came to us at the very last minute as an emergency so there was no time (nor any budget) to do this for the submitted shots.  I did it to use in my classes and to show readers that some improvement can be had but given the rates for serious retouching, it is a very expensive fix especially when another five to ten minutes in creating the presentation would have solved it and created an even better looking final shot.

On a sadder note all but the creative techniques classes were cancelled for the summer due to the low enrollment which was predictable with such last minute notice.  Looks like some more shooting will be needed to fill in the time and make up some of the wrecked treasury.

Finally, re the Bristlecone Pines Trip, I have room for three more so if you know of someone who might like to go please have them contact me.  Next week I will put out an email to those enrolled on making reservations for Thursday evening in Ridgecrest.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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