“The best camera is the one you have with you.”
I’ve no idea who came up with that quote, but it’s a good one. After travelling back from The Lake District to Newcastle I decided to take the Military Road rather than the lorry-ridden A69. The Military Road is a quieter route, but also much prettier, passing many interesting spots like old Roman forts and running along the course of Hadrian’s Wall.
One of the most iconic parts of Hadrian’s Wall is Sycamore Gap – as featured in the ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’ movie. I’ve photographed this location before, but the weather was particularly good on the day I was travelling so I thought it deserved at least a “drive by shooting”.
You can catch a fleeting glimpse of the tree from the road itself, and fortunately there’s just enough space in a layby for a car to pull over and grab a quick shot. I wound the window down, reached for my camera, zoomed so that the door frame wasn’t in shot and took three or four photographs. A couple of minutes later I was on my way again.
Worth stopping? I think so. I rather like it. Most images I’ve seen of Sycamore Gap focus on the tree, but by being much further back you see the scene in context with it’s surroundings, and it all appears much less important and significant.
Flowers are one of the easiest things to photograph, provided you follow a few simple pointers.
First of all, if it’s sunny find some specimens in the shade, or even better shaded with dappled light as a background. Next, get close in, and make sure that your focus is as accurate as possible before you release the shutter. Choose a wide aperture, but not too wide, as when you’re shooting this closely your depth of field is tiny – you want to try and get all of the flower in focus but still blur that background.
Hold the camera as steady as you can, or even better use a tripod, but wait until any breeze has stopped blowing before you shoot. If the flower is moving even a little bit it will be moving in and out of your zone of focus. If you don’t have a tripod choose an appropriate shutter speed for the lens you are using – go a little higher than normal just to be sure you’ve no problems with camera shake. If you’ve got a fold up reflector then sometimes this can be handy to bounce a little light in from below, but if you don’t then you should be fine.
And that’s it. No fancy lighting required as nature provides all that, all you need to do is find a good spot with plenty of flowers and you’re off! The image on the left was shot at 1/100 sec at f5, on the 50mm setting on my 17-50mm zoom lens (crop sensor).
Whenever 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.
The 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.
The 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.
You can set up a studio anywhere. Sometimes it doesn’t even need to have walls or a roof, it simply needs to be a place where you can control the light in order to take a photograph.
The image on the right is a good example of this, and was actually taken outside at night, on the top of a set of concrete steps at the back of the kitchen.
I was lucky enough to be asked down to Ynyshir Hall in Wales to photograph the incredible menu of chef Gareth Ward. The plan was to drive down there from Newcastle (an unenviable 5 hour journey) on Wednesday night, stay over and spend most of Thursday shooting, and then head back up North in the evening.
The best laid plans can always come undone though, and when I arrived it was mentioned that they suspected that they had a food inspector in that evening. If so, it would mean that the following morning was going to be a write off, as the chef and manager would be spending time with the inspector rather than me.
Their suspicions turned out to be correct, so we didn’t manage to start shooting until about 2pm. This was never going to give us enough time to photograph everything, as the kitchen also had to be preparing for evening service, so after getting around half way through we made a plan.
We couldn’t photograph the food in the restaurant any more, as it was going to be full of diners and needed setting up, so we set up a mini studio out the back of the kitchen on top of some concrete steps (see the image on the left – click it for a larger view). A diffusion panel was leaned against the steps to use as a main light source, and folded white card used as reflectors. A battery powered flashgun on a lightstand provided the light – so no mains electricity was required.
During service it took little extra effort to prepare an extra plate of food as table orders went out, so it turned out to be a very efficient way to finish the shoot off and photograph the rest of the menu.
Here are a few of the images we captured that day. There’s a mixture here, some have been shot in natural daylight, others with a little bit of flash thrown in, and some out the back in the dark with just a flashgun. See if you can tell which ones are which.