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Softly does it!

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If you’re shooting outdoors you usually check out the weather forecast and pray for sunshine, but this isn’t always the best kind of weather to work in. It depends a great deal on what it is you’re photographing.

The overcast conditions that the shot above were taken in were at first glance far from ideal. It was an outdoor shoot for an up and coming wedding venue which boasts the most wonderful gardens, but the day was a dull one and there was absolutely no detail in the sky – just dull grey clouds. Naturally, when a couple marry they want sunshine and warmth, and dream of spending time with friends and family in a beautiful outdoor location sipping fine champagne and nibbling on canapes. A cloudy forecast is the last thing they would want.

However, there are benefits to this kind of weather, and that’s the softness of the light. The image above is very delicate, and if it was shot in blazing sunshine would look very different. It would be much harsher and have far more contrast, and wouldn’t give us anything like the delicate hues that we see here. There are no shadows blocked up, and no highlights blown out, it’s all been captured rather nicely!

The Kitchen Studio

A studio is just a room. It’s how you set it up that determines whether it’s a studio or not.

mgs-4853If you want an easy to access studio for shooting food and products, then you often don’t need to venture any further out than your own home. In this case I’ve used my kitchen.

My kitchen is quite useful as a studio because the ceiling has been painted white. This instantly gives me a huge light source from above, which is perfect for lighting products. I usually bounce a couple of flashguns off it, and have them on light stands high up above shooting level. This pretty much eliminates any danger of lens flare caused from stray light from the flash heads.

In this case I’ve used two flashes, just so that I can have them on half power and don’t need to worry about recycle times or changing the batteries, but a single one will do the job too.

My kitchen walls aren’t painted white, but this doesn’t matter as I’ve built a hinged tabletop out of chipboard that lets me drape over a roll of white paper for a background. I’ve also bought a few A4 white foam board pieces which I’ve taped together to provide me with some cheap, portable but very effective reflectors. I’ve also taken a sheet of glass out of an old picture frame and used that as a base in order to get a reflection of the products I’m photographing.

mg-4878WThats pretty much all you need, and the results you get are surprisingly good. There’s no dependency on ambient light at all, it’s a completely consistent setup regardless of time of day, and it can all be assembled ready to go in less than 15 minutes.

What’s also important is that because it’s so simple you’ve got consistency across different days of shooting. Images that you shoot using this ‘studio’ in January will be under exactly the same lighting conditions as those that you do in June, and this is important if you are doing work for catalogues or websites where products are continuously being added or updated over time. They should all look the same.

All in, including the flashguns, light stands, tables, paper rolls and cards I reckon you could set this up for under £200. It’ll pay itself back very quickly.

Lighting a Room

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Lighting an entire room with just a couple of portable flashguns sounds like a big ask, but under the right conditions it’s completely achievable and very simple to set up.

Especially if your room is like this one, and made up of white walls on two sides and a white ceiling. By firing a flash into the ceiling you effectively give yourself a light source far bigger than even the biggest soft box, and by opening the white wardrobe door in front of the model (out of shot but to the left in this image) you’ve got the perfect reflector. Light bounces about everywhere giving lovely soft shadows and gentle, even illumination.

A second flash was put inside the bathroom (along the short corridor to the right of the image). This was to show that there is another room along there, but also to blow out the yellow light that’s emitted from the ceiling LED light (the light has been brushed out) and make sure that the entire image is the same colour temperature.

The iPad screen can also act as a light source, simply open Word and create a new blank page and you’ve got a white LCD panel – though in this case it wasn’t required.

Glass Bottles

img-5552Photographing glass bottles on a white background can be tricky, and in this shot we’ve got some polished, highly reflective metal to worry about too. Once you know what to do though, and have access to some basic kit, it’s not as hard as you might think.

The main thing to try and avoid is strong reflections in the glass, and to do this you need to make your light source as large as possible (relative to the size of the bottle).  My light source is two flashguns, one is fired into an A3 white board to the left of the bottle, and another board is positioned to the right to bounce the light back in. The flash is flagged so that no direct light hits the bottle, only reflected light.

The white base and background is taken care of by a roll of white paper, and the reflection is from a sheet of glass from an old picture frame. The second flashgun fires a burst into the white background to blow it out to white rather than grey.

You can pick up a cheap light tent off eBay that will do a similar job, but a couple of pieces of card and some paper is a good, cheap way to get the same results.

Welsh Heat

white-heatWhenever I do a food photoshoot it’s also nice to fit in a session photographing ‘behind the scenes’ in the kitchens. It’s quite a contrast. On the one hand you have the calm, sophisticated and elegant ‘front of house’ angle that the customer sees, and on the other the busy, hot, sometimes tense and frequently pressurised atmosphere of the kitchens.

I like to base these shoots on the beautiful ‘White Heat’ book from the mid 1990’s, featuring a young Marco Pierre White at his prime, and superbly captured on film by Bob Carlos Clarke. The book was photographed on Polapan, which is a high speed monochrome instant slide film giving plenty of grain, lots of contrast and a unique tone. I’ve loosely replicated this style in my post processing.

Here are a selection of some of the images from an evening’s service at the beautiful Ynyshir Hall in Wales, in the kitchens of their incredibly talented Head Chef, Gareth Ward.

Fine Dining

img-18684The brief: an image of a fine dining venue, showing off the classic stone interior and fireplace, and featuring a party of friends sitting down to enjoy an evening meal. Warm glows and comfort were the key messages to get across.

The first thing to think about is the angle and field of view of the shot. The room featured in the image is pretty huge, but the more of the room you try to get in the shot the less significant the people become. I decided that the best option was to include half a dozen people around the table with the fireplace and tapestry in the background.

The ‘guests’ were positioned around the table so that each of them were visible and the ones in the front weren’t blocking the ones at the back. I also wanted to make sure that we could see at least some of the face of the couple nearest the camera, so I rotated the chairs a little to get a slight side view when I took the shot. The front couple were chosen to be nearest the camera because they were wearing light grey rather than black, so they wouldn’t merge into the chairs. The men at back of the shot to the right were positioned to add a little balance to the composition.

Next up, how to light it. The ambient light in the room is quite warm, and comes from spotlights up in the roof. I liked this warmth and wanted to keep it, so I took a meter reading for this light and underexposed it by a stop so the candles on the fireplace (and the firelight) could be seen.

img-3109The table and the guests need a little more light though, so a shoot through umbrella with a solid back was positioned high above them pointing down. I also added another shoot through to the left, to light up the couple nearest the camera and illuminate the purple sashes on the chairs. You can click on the image on the left to see more.

The exposure was 1/8sec at f10 at a relatively high ISO of 640. I needed a small enough aperture to give plenty of depth of field, and a low enough shutter speed to let in all that ambient light. I couldn’t go too low though otherwise the guests would appear blurred, so I didn’t gamble on anything lower than 1/8 sec and made sure that they remained as still as they could as I took the shot.

The fire was helped along by throwing in a couple of candles. This gives it a real extra boost for around five minutes as the wax burns. The last thing to do was get the group to engage with each other in some way. It has to be believable that they are all friends, so I asked them all to raise their glasses to make a toast.

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