Tuesday, January 28, 2020

How to photograph food with a Ring Light

If you’ve seen any of my behind the scenes shots you might notice that I frequently shoot with a ring light. I like to call my ring light my not so secret secret weapon. When used effectively it’s a handy tool for creating a bright floaty aesthetic that will set your work apart from other food photographers. It’s a handy tool that can immediately shine light anywhere that you need it but learning how to effectively use this tool can be tricky.

The number one reason that I use a ring light is to fill in the shadows. In my own personal work I like dark moody photographs with striking contrast and selective focus. But thats not necessarily the look you want to go for when selling breakfast cereal. Nobody wants their breakfast to be dark and moody, a little depressed and having a bad day. When I did a job for Kellogg's NYC cereal only restaurant I didn’t dare give the food an attitude problem. I did everything I could to make that bowl of cereal look like it was floating on a cloud. And when you’re on a job your clients are going to want you to shoot in a style that more matches their brand as opposed to your own personal aesthetic. While dark and moody might work for some bars or restaurants the majority of clients are going to be interested in a more bright light aesthetic and a ring light can help you to capture that look.

A ring light is a light that circles around the lens of the camera in the shape of a ring. Because it’s coming from almost the same place as the lens it ‘sees’ and shines light to everywhere that the camera ‘sees.’ Because the light goes everywhere that the camera sees it fills in any areas of shadow with nice bright clean light. I typically have my ring light turned down approximately 1 stop below my main light. This is because I want my ring light to be subtle and not overpower what I’m shooting. Too much ring light will flatten out what your shooting and not enough and it will cause it to be dark and moody and finding the right balance can be tricky. This all depends on the aesthetic that you’re going for too. Sometimes you want everything to be flat and even and sometimes you want everything to be dark and moody. But if you want to capture a nice well lit eggs benedict I recommend starting at having your ring light set at 1 stop below the main light and adjusting from there. You’re light level will also vary depending on how far your ring light is away from what you’re shooting. If your plate of food is perfectly lit at a distance of 2ft at 4ft it will only receive half as much light. At 8ft it will receive a quarter as much light and so on. Where ring lights get tricky is when you’re shooting objects that are reflective. The light from the ring light will bounce off shinny things and can cause unwanted highlights or weird sheens. This is most pronounced when shooting either cocktails or steaks. In these cases I typically will either turn my ring light way down or turn it off completely. Steaks can be an issue because of the oil on the steak will reflect weird funky highlights. But not enough oil or not enough highlights and your steak will look dry and flat. It’s imperative when shooting steaks or any other kind of meat to get an even level of shine and this can be accomplished by carefully positioning your main light so that its not coming from directly behind you or directly in front of you. Ideally it should be off to one side or the other at approximately a 45 degree angle. Subtly is key to a well lit steak and often when photographing food moving your light or your camera an inch to the left or right can result in a dramatically different photograph.

When shooting cocktails with a ring light the light will reflect in either the liquid or the glass. This can be an undesirable effect for clients who want to see the product that they’re selling as clearly as possible. But fear not. Highlights when used effectively can cause your cocktail to lighted up and shine. I like to refer to this as an electric feel when the reflection is just perfect. I try to take it on a case by case basis and evaluate how the ring light reflection looks in each individual shot. When shooting bartenders making cocktails my main focus is the bartender and lighting them up clearly and evenly and the ring light is effective in this. Typically in this situation I’m shooting quickly and don’t necessarily have time to reevaluate every single shot and will opt to retouch the reflection out if it is an issue in post. If I’m shooting just the cocktail on it’s own I’ll often either turn the ring light off and use more fill cards to illuminate it or I’ll change my angle slightly. When pointed directly at a cocktail glass the ring light reflection will pop off the glass. But typically if you shift about 15 degrees up or down the reflection will either minimize or vanish completely.

I own two different kinds of ring lights. One is an Ikan LED ring light and the other is a Profto strobe ring light. I vary my lighting setups depending on what the needs are for the photoshoot that I’m doing that day and switch between using strobe light and LED. Strobe is great for freezing action shots or when my clients have a project where I think that I’m going to need a lot of light. LED can be great for creating more subtle lighting effects or for when I’m shooting video. Always when shooting with a ring light I recommend using a lens hood to shield your lens from any unwanted glare. 

Whenever I’m interested in trying at a new piece of gear I’ll rent it for the day to get a feel for how it works before I commit to buying it. I always prefer to own my photography gear so that I can develop a relationship with it and get to know it’s individual quirks. Often you can get a deal on renting equipment if it’s a long weekend or a holiday and I would check with your local rental house. If you explain that you’re just trying it out they might even give you a discount for an overnight rental if you bring it back first thing in the morning.

Read more at How to be a Food Photographer

Sunday, January 26, 2020

When it comes to the internet.

When it comes to the internet I feel like a boy who is holding out a picture that he made, trying to get people to look at it. But I'm drowned out by Twitter bots, Nigerian Princes and internet porn. So much internet porn.

Friday, January 24, 2020

I am a Food Photographer for Hire.

I am a food photographer for hire. I work with internet startups, spirit makers, magazines, restaurant groups, etc. But one of my guilty pleasures in life is working with small family owned businesses. I feel lucky that my work can help people to advertise their businesses and achieve their dreams. There’s no better feeling than that.

I Heart Antica Pesa

New food photography work for Antica Pesa's Valentine's Day Specials.

Only you can make all this world seem right
Only you can make the darkness bright
Only you and you alone can thrill me like you do
And fill my heart with love for only you

Only you can make all this change in me
For it's true, you are my destiny
When you hold my hand I understand the magic that you do
You're my dream come true, my one and only you

Only you can make this change in me
For it's true, you are my destiny
When you hold my hand I understand the magic that you do
You're my dream come true, my one and only you

How to Shoot Fire Baby!

How to shoot Fire Baby!

You can do it too!


Inevitably if you’re a food photographer in NYC somebody is going to set something on fire and ask you to photograph it. The easiest way to do this is to use strobe lighting and a slower shutter speed. This let’s you control the exposures for the food and fire independently. The strobe illuminates the food that you’re photographing and the slower shutter speed exposes the fire. It’s a balance between the two and finding that can be tricky. If your shutter speed is too slow the fire will blur. But not fast enough and the fire will be underwhelming. Below I outlined a real world example of how that is done.

This video was from a food photoshoot that I did for Feroce in NYC. Feroce is a charming Italian restaurant run by the restauranteur Francesco Panella. I've worked with him and his family for several years. They're always really fun to work with and I'm always genuine surprised by the creative things that they bring me to photograph.

This was a difficult video to capture but well worth the effort. It’s actually not a video but a series of still photographs that I shot rapid fire and then stitched together in post. My first attempt was good but the fire was underwhelming and hard to see. I was shooting with strobe and dragging my shutter but the ambient light in the room was just too much to make the flames look impressive. Sheepishly and a little embarrassed I asked Stefano the chef if he could make another one. He was happy to do it. I hate it when I’m on set and a shot doesn’t go very well. I almost always shoot tethered to a laptop and everybody on set can see what I’m doing. This is great to get instant feedback and when things don’t go as planned it makes it easy to adjust and try again. Sometimes when things don’t go well it just feels like the air gets sucked out of the room. But when that happens it's incredibly important to stay calm, confident and make sure that the people that you're working with feel calm and confident too.

Fear not! Just be confident and try again.

We lit the first one on fire a couple of times again while I changed my lighting and took test shots. This was during service but at an off time when there weren’t many people dining. I asked them to turn off the lights in the restaurant closest to where we were shooting. I used one light reflector white side down and attached that to the island next to the table, and hand held a second one over the dessert. My goal was to make a tent to block as much of the ambient light from the restaurant as possible. I was using a ring light during the shoot but unplugged it from my power pack for this shot. For my main light I had a 102 Speedotron head with a beauty dish, socked and gridded 25 degrees. The power on the pack was turned all the way down and on top of that head I put a sheet of neutral density. Neutral Density is a thin sheet of gel like material that you can shine the light through and it will lower the light output without changing the color.

My goal being I wanted to dim the light as much as possible to push my ISO to a range where I could use a shutter speed that would freeze the action of the flame. We poured and re-ignited the first flambe many times and it looked soupy and not very appetizing. But by the time Stefano was ready with the second dish I was prepared for the hero. He poured the fruit and lit the flame and everything was perfect.

Almost. I didn’t notice it at the time but some of the fruit had spilled out onto the table. What made that a very difficult thing to retouch was that there was shine on the table from the light reflecting off the torch and ramekin. After some careful retouching to the individual frames to remove the spilled fruit everything was finally perfect.

Camera Setting

ISO 6400   F 4.5   1/50 Sec
Canon 5D Mark IV

This is an excerpt from my website How to be a Food Photographer This article can be found at How to Shoot Fire Baby!

Monday, January 20, 2020

How to be a Food Photographer

You’re only as good of a food photographer as the people that you’re working with.

It’s a team effort and professional food photographers never work alone. It’s vitally important to seek out and find teams of talented, friendly and good natured people to work with. If you’re a photographer and you invest your heart and soul into a photoshoot but the chef brings out poorly plated food your photograph can only be as good as the chefs work. But the reverse can be true that the chef can bring out the most beautifully arranged plate of food ever plated that will make you want to burst into tears and if the food photographer isn’t bringing their A game to the shoot it will reflect on everybody’s work. Your team is essential and extends to everybody whose involved in the shoot. Whoever is producing the shoot, the people who prep the food for the chef or food stylist, whoever’s transporting everything to the set, even the accounts payable people who pay the bills to the poor people who have to wash the dishes. Never forget to show your team love and appreciation for the hard work that they do. Be the person that everybody wants to work with and the food photographer that they’ll want to have back again next time.

Surround yourself with people who make you look like a better photographer than you really are.

The single best piece of advice that I could every give to anybody is to surround yourself with people who make you look like a better photographer than you really are. Even if you’re #1 on the call sheet that day you’re just one part of a bigger team. And that team can really make or break the shoot even more than you ever could. You're never going to become one of the top food photographers working alone. You're going to need a dream team.

Often during a photoshoot the food photographer is one who sets the tone for the shoot. I always welcome having an art director on set who can help me direct the photoshoot so that I can focus more on getting amazing shots. But even in that situation you’re still the center of the action and you’re mood, the tone that you set and how you interact with others is vitally important to the photoshoot’s success. If your heart isn’t in it everybody will see it written on your face even before you open your mouth.

There was a short period before I became a food photographer when I photographed women’s purses and shoes for a fashion brand in NYC. I could never pretend that I loved what I was doing. I don’t secretly go home on the weekends and dress up in women’s clothing, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it just wasn’t the right job for me and I could never pretend like it was. I couldn't engage with the things that I was photographing on an emotional level. As a food photographer I can genuinely come to work excited to be there. I love what I do. And everybody around me can sense that I love it and it helps them to get engaged and excited for the shoot.

The food photographer is often just the last step in a long process that begins long before the photoshoot. When the original concept or idea is conceived for a product that somebody wants to sell, to all the many steps and tiny actions that go into building that brand to the moment when they’re ready to shoot and hire you to shoot it. But even after the shoot is over how those photographs get used to market and sell that product is just as important as the photographs themselves. As great of a photographer as you might be it’s important to take a moment of humility and show appreciation to the hard work of everybody around you. Without it there wouldn’t be a photoshoot and you wouldn’t be a professional food photographer.

Be Grateful. Be Humble. Show your Appreciation.

Interested in reading more? You can find my guide at How to be a Food Photographer

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

New Food Photography Work for Feroce

These photographs are from my latest photoshoot at Feroce in Manhattan. Feroce means fierce in Italian and the restaurant is run by the very charming Francesco Panella and his family. In my life as a food photographer in NYC every day is a different culture and experience. On Monday I'm working with the Italians, Tuesday the Dominicans and the next day everybody is speaking Chinese.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Photoshoot for Seedlip at Leyenda.

I am a professional food and cocktail photographer in NYC and shooting bartenders is a guilty pleasure of mine. You have to be quick and fast paced to catch the action shots while their doing their magic but I'm always up for a challenge. I'm really lucky when I get to work with talented charming people and it makes being a professional food photographer in NYC a lot of fun.