Sunday Mornings — On food, photography, and musings

May, 2015 Washington, DC

The Premise

I photographed a rustic wedding at Brookside Nature Gardens on Saturday, and between the aesthetics, mood, and the company, I was inspired to treat myself to a well-deserved Sunday brunch. And some food photography to match.
Growing up, my mom always engaged us in Sunday brunches after Church (and every other meal), so I suppose when I found myself 3000 miles from home, I adopted this ritual.

I hadn’t done one in months, so I decided to go all out. I subsequently decided I might as well blog it cause I’m a millennial.

Food photography prep

English breakfast is my go to meal for such occasions, it’s super simple, no additional ingredient, just slice and fry. You can cook everything in one pan if you please.

Food photography - Getting ready to cook

Full Disclosure. I don’t particularly strive for an organic diet, but it helps that the closest shop to my house is Yes! Organic. And the closest one to my workplace is Trader Joes. But like I said, I’m treating myself!

My first ever photo on a DSLR. My english breakast.
Fun fact: The very first photo I took with my 5D was an English breakfast in Glasgow, back in February of 2011.

The Playlist

La Belle Musique on shuffle during the laborious process of cooking and shooting. The whole selection’s exquisite, but I discovered a cover of Drake’s Hold on We’re Going Home by Vancouver Sleep Clinic & GXNXVS.

Fun fact: I love the original so much, I made a photo.

Vancouver Sleep Clinic was already on my radar from the track Collapse and his entire Winter EP which I’ve thrown on repeat on more than a few late nights.

For the actual consumption part, Hôtel Costes, a collection of lounge music mixed by DJ Stéphane Pompougnac. This has been my default Sunday Morning treat yoself tune since my music taste started taking a turn for the eclectic. There’s 15 of these, so you’re guaranteed to not run out. In my case, #15.

Inspiration

For the photo aspect, I wanted to do something on the darker side of food photography. Some of Sinfully Spicy’s (awesome name) work reflect this. But in particular, Joe St.Pierre’s (another great name) super hipster food setups.

Lighting (Tech Speak Ensures)

To keep things simple, I used a one light setup, constant light to see precisely what’s happening before I click the shutter. I recently got a 1000W LED for our film and wedding work but after what I did here, I might reassign it.

In the initial photos, I was able to flag the light to create the strong contrast between the light and shadows, however just with the included diffuser, the initial shots proved much too harsh. I really liked the contrast, but the shadows were too dramatic for food. Raising the light didn’t really do too much to soften the shadows, but it gave a nice highlight to the coffee and flattened things out just a bit.

40 test shots later, I settled for the diffuser bit of a standard 5-1 reflector just in front of the LED light. As you can see from the Before and After photos this helped out quite a lot. I lost the strong contrast though, but if it came to it.. I can fix it in post. The final lighting set up came to the one light, raised, flagged, and feathered, and more often than not I was shooting top down or at least raised. This is apparently also flattering for food (and women).

Food photography lighting diagramFood photography lighting setup

Gear

  • Canon 6D
  • Sigma 35mm 1.4 Art
  • Nifty Fifty (Canon 50mm 1.8)
  • Godox 1000W LED (White)
  • 5in1 Reflector
  • A film camera for show

Cooking

Food photography cooking

Nothing special here, but it’s good to note that when cooking and shooting, timing is very important. Presentation and shooting takes a great deal of time, time which the food will become overcooked, discolored, or start drying out simply exposed to air. If this were a food photography shoot, I would have several of everything laid out, purposefully undercook the food to maintain the color, pick the best of the best (the hero food) for shooting. I would have props and aid on set to keep things looking fresh. Then I subsequently throw it all away cause it’s more than likely going to be inedible by the time we’re done if it wasn’t already.

Given how time sensitive this particular meal is, (oils and fruits are especially prone to change when exposed) prep here is especially important. Mise en place. For the meal, everything will start frying at once you need to have all in arms reach before you start.
With the photos, given the complexity of the set up, it would be best not to adjust the lights what so ever as your dishes come out. . . The light should be set up in one spot so you can freely move around the table and get different looks and maintain consistent lighting.

If you want to cook and shoot, hire a food stylist.
If you want to shoot and eat. Hire a professional chef and explain the dilemma above.
If you want to cook and eat, get on Instagram.

There’s actually a research that found that instagraming our food before consumption makes us less likely to enjoy it. In my case though, there’s a certain amount of pleasure derived from making something look great, so sacrifices must be made. My sister raised a valid point when she said “If Mayowa doesn’t take a photo of his food, did he really eat it?”

Fun fact I see this at times on IG, but I’ve read it’s best not to cook eggs, tomatoes, and beans in a cast iron skillet.

Photography Presentation

Not unlike a cinematic shoot, I staged everything in zones. I knew I wanted to photograph the bread, fruit, tea, cast iron skillet, tea, details, and then the full table.
I started with the fruit and bread as the rest of the meal was finishing (in low heat). For staged shoot like this, weather fashion of food, go with an additive process. Start with the basic elements and addon. In this case, it also followed the logistic order of consuming the meal. Bread on the table, add a fruit. Enter grapefruit from stage left. Proceed.

Food photography starting point

What Instagram bound food photo is complete without avocado? Enter avocado. Salted and peppered for contrast. The pink salt crystals presented an opportunity for a detailed shot. This would have been better with a macro lens though.

Food photography macro

Going with the flow, a cast iron skillet follows. Fabrics are always good for food photography. I’m working on acquiring more.


Then the main meal follows. Don’t get stuck on shooting from the same position. Switch it up, move the camera, rearrange items on the table.

Food photography layoutFood photography close up

Tea. I like tea.

Fun fact: I discovered as of two nights ago that I presently have 22 types of tea in my apartment.

Food photography final comp
Bread. What goes with bread? Butter naturally. Butter’s one of those tricky things hard to apply. I tried different steps from just the butter on bread, shoot. Put bread and butter in a turned off oven to heat it up just a bit. Shoot. Spread butter on bread, and shoot yet again.

Food photography final comp

Finally the whole composite. And don’t forget to take some snaps as you eat. There seems to be an appeal to this as well.

Closing Thoughts

From the first photo to the last, three hours went by. The whole meal cooks in 15min. So, the obvious question. Why all the trouble?

Taking photos of my meals was actually my launching point into strobes and fashion photography. You can do things with food that you (probably) shouldn’t do with people.
I went through stage at uni where I knew that unless I wanted to return to a steady diet of rice/pasta/rice/pasta I would need to actively cook.
Cook not just to consume, but to enjoy. This was around the time I also actively began to learn about photography. The same concept applied. I didn’t just want to take photos, but create art. Many many many long hours in Glasgow were spent in our basement flat watching David Hobby among other strobists, and practicing on recipes. On one such project I found myself prepping and cooking a meal for an hour. Doing a three hour shoot, and then taking some 15-20minutes to enjoy my meal. The worst part though, is you really can’t cook, eat, then shoot. Besides a chronic case of Itis, the remaining meal will be discolored and unappetizing (for the camera) after that time. More importantly perhaps, that’s extra dishes.

Hence in this case, I went first with setting up lights and concept before cooking. This factors a great deal into pre-production for any type of shoot, fashion, commercial, or weddings. This is an aspect of my work I’m currently focused on improving.

What can you do with this?

Whether you’re presenting on camera or presenting for people, yourself included, the same basic principle apply. Things that look nice makes us happy. The meals you put on your table should follow suit. Feel free to use these techniques to spruce up your next meal!

And with Mother’s Day coming up, this is something super simple, super fun you can whip up. If you do, please share. I’d love to see the results.

Thoughts?

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