Let them eat cake

Discussion in 'Lighting Equipment' started by g._armour_van_horn, May 28, 2009.

  1. I shot my first cakes today, thought I'd see what everybody has to say about this first effort. The set is a 32x48" chunk of plywood on two stacks of cardboard boxes with an Amvona graduated background running from the front edge back and up the wall a bit. A 36" square softbox with a 300ws head is directly above the tabletop, about two feet up. There is a head with a 9" reflector and diffuser about arms length to the left of the camera, right about lens height, and another one high to camera right, both of these heads are set to 50ws.

    As props I found a couple of resin cutting boards at the local store that specializes in fancy stuff, in colors I thought would set off the chocolate icing. I bought a "pie server" as a prop, even though I detest this particular brand because of their big clumsy handles — I thought it looked good.

    I e-mailed about a dozen of these small images to the client who thinks they're wonderful. (He'll be over tomorrow to pick the cakes up and can make final choices based on full-res images, but I wanted him to see what I had before I started washing things up.) This weekend the winners will be at Chocolates by George , along with just about all the other food I've ever shot. But this isn't the end of the cakes that he will be offering, so I wanted some feedback before the next session.

    Here's the one with coffee beans.

  2. And this is the one with pistachios.
  3. And another on one of our dinner plates.
  4. You need a gray card to be reflected in the silver cake knife so it's not blown out. All three need some front fill, so you can see the front of the cake, and reduce the shadow under the plate.
    And all need to be back lit to produce "shiny" specular highlights that show the smooth shiny texture of the frosting.
    Food is best shot with a combination of hard back light to produce specular highlights and soft front fill to light up the details and fill the shadows cast by the back light.
  5. I used rim lights and a little bit of fill to shoot this one.. the rim lights let me add a lot of definition to the edges and the softer fill allows me to keep some details in the front of the cake.
    <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mtbtrials/3525158271/" title="Mike+Andrea-8720 by .Donkeykong., on Flickr"><img src="http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3346/3525158271_e8d2b764e1.jpg" width="500" height="333" alt="Mike+Andrea-8720" /></a>
  6. Van,
    I'm beginning to think photographing food must rank up there as one of the more interesting yet difficult subjects to master. I've shot a few and have backed-off doing others until I learn more about lighting and staging an interesting shot. In that regard check the links below for two Photo.Net posts that may be helpful. I've also read here many times the suggestion to read Light, Science and Magic by Hunter, Biver & Fuqua. I just started it and it's well worth reading to learn photographic lighting.
  7. Van, I just finished a food photography course and learned a ton of stuff. You always want a little contrast in your lighting, because the thing with food (and other product photography) is that you want it to appear as three-dimensional as possible. Charles had some really good points in his response.
    Also, I would suggest trying some different backdrops to enhance what you're shooting, or go bright white. Do an online search for food photographers and really study their work, because it helps alot. Lou Manna's site is great, and he has a book that's worth reading as well. There's also another book called Food Styling For Photographers that has some great tips for styling your shots.
    Happy Shooting!
  8. Bill, The second of those two links is one I've read any number of times, and was probably most clearly in my mind as I set about to shoot these cakes. The problem is that I didn't notice the ratios, I was dumping almost all the power into the overhead softbox, while Brooks had the overhead softbox 1.5 stops below the light from the right side. I guess I should have put a 16" reflector to the rear right, and lower than I had it, and dump most of the power into it.

    I couldn't very well have put a grey card in place to reflect in the pie server, that's the main light it's reflecting, but if I'd dropped that a couple of stops while bumping the other lights it might have looked better. We'll see next week. I was actually very happy with the reflections off the tops of the cakes, that's what they looked like, and the pistachio cake was that much shinier than the coffeebean cake.

    Lowering the second light and giving it more power would have run the risk of flare in this case, but there's no reason I couldn't have increased my working distance by switching from the 60mm to a 90, 105, or 110. (I seem to be well covered in that range.)

    I was reasonably happy with the fill from camera left, but I could have easily bumped it. What kept me from doing that is that the cakes are made right on an 8-inch circle of cardboard, and I was hoping not to make that any more prominent than necessary. Unlike in Brooks' example, where they bought enough burger makings to feed the regiment to get the one shot, I had one of each cake and was not allowed to touch them. If they hadn't been going to be sold as food this weekend, I would have done some surgery on the edges of the cake at the very bottom, up to and including spray enamel, at which point I would have been much more willing to poke some more light at the edges!

    Many of the "whole cake" shots I saw, most of them if you don't count wedding cakes, actually had the first slice cut out and visible to show the interior of the cake. That might have made it more challenging, but it also might have made it more forgiving as there would have been extra interest and contrast. I don't think I'm going to get to go there.

    And yes, it's probably time to reread Light: Science and Magic. It's probably been six months now.

  9. Hi Van,
    Here are some thoughts for the next time you're shooting cakes........
    As you've said, the overhead softbox should have had less power to it than the side key light so that it acted as a fill light and still was able to create that soft specular highlight on the top of the cakes. You should also try positioning it as close as possible to the cake., just out of the crop.
    Positioning your key light on the right/rear side of the cake as low as needed to create some rim lighting and shadows will help add texture and give the cakes more of a three dimensional look. If you see a reflection of that light on the front surface of your lens you will get flare. But it's an easy thing to simply flag off that light so it doesn't reflect in your lens. Always look at the front of the lens to check for reflections of any lights in the surface of the lens and flag them before you shoot. You'll need some extra stands, clamps and black foamcore.
    Never use a third light on the opposite side of the main, key light because it adds extra shadows and fights the key light. It's always better to simulate lighting from one direction rather than two.
    There's no real reason to show the entire cake in these examples. They're pretty plain over most of their top. You could be much closer to show more detail and that would be a better point of view. There are real reasons to cut open the cake and show the inside. What kind of cake is under that icing? Is there a filling? Is there more than one layer? What is the texture of the cake itself? Is the cake chocolate, yellow, white? These are all important attributes of a cake and should be shown. Have your client make more than one sample of each cake for any future shoots and explain these points to them. Having more than one example of each cake would also allow you to show a slice, close-up in the foreground. Cakes are cheap there's no reason to have just one sample of each at a photo shoot.
    Another thing to consider is the background or surface that you shoot the cakes on. Using brightly colored cutting boards in this case draws the eye away from the cake. A better approach would be to use a nice plate and white or off-white table cloth with maybe a pastel napkin off to the side. Make a presentation to the viewer as if they had just sat down at the table to enjoy a slice of the cake.
    Here's an example of some of these ideas. This is a very plain orange flavored bundt cake. A close-up of a slice and garnishing with an orange slice helps add appeal. By itself and shown in full it would be much more boring.
  10. Van,
    'Here's an overhead point of view similar to your shots above. The subject's not a cake but you can see the stronger ratio between the overhead softbox fill light and the key light which was a fresnel spot, coming from the left, rear of the set.
    The over head softbox fill gives the specular highlights and softens the shadows and the key light shows texture in the candy and the cloth table covering.
  11. If you have the money and think you'll be shooting food on an ongoing basis, get a fresnel strobe as Brooks indicated was used on this second example. I think you'll find that it becomes your main light of choice. Norman makes one - with a 10" lens. Speedotron makes two of different sizes. Maybe some of the other strobe MFG's make them too, but I don't know much about those guys. I use Speedo and Norman stuff. But you also gotta have stuff to modify that light - all kinds of little mirrors, cards, flags, scrims etc. etc.
  12. Marc,
    You're absolutely right about the utility of fresnel spots for shooting food or many tabletop subjects.
    I have the larger 13" fresnel spot from Speedotron. The large size of the fresnel lens adds some softness to the light when used close to the subject.
  13. To summarize:
    1. I second the comment about the cake knife. It's blown out and very distracting. I'm also not sure whether it's aesthetically meaningful to include it. It's a cake, we can see that. In fact, the nature of the product could be better conveyed if it could be shown partially sliced.
    2. Overhead lighting is too strong. Despite its relative softness, it gives the entire shot a clinical look, which is perhaps the last thing you want food to be associated with.
    3. Narrower field of view, or fill the frame with the subject. A lot of food photography is very close up. The goal is to emphasize the presentation, color, and texture of the food, and downplay everything else. This goes back to the lighting as well.
    4. Shallower DOF. Some food shots have razor thin DOF, they're pretty much macros. For example, a carefully arranged tableaux of a flawless raspberry, blackberry, and mint leaf, in perfect focus, perched atop a blurry sea of creme brulee. Gorgeous.
    5. Go find some cooking magazines or look through some more recent recipe books. Heck, just visit the Martha Stewart website. Study the photographs. (Warning: eat beforehand, else you may get very hungry!) Pay careful attention to how the lighting is set up, what angle the food is shot at, etc. Then pay attention to the presentation of the food itself. What container is it displayed in, and what is the visual relationship between them? What other items, if any, are displayed with it, and why?
    Food photography is not like product photography in general. The goal is not necessarily to reproduce the object faithfully on a neutral background. The goal is to make it look so good you want to eat the page it's printed on.

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