Professional Development: Food Photography

Occasionally I like to get out of my comfort zone and photograph things I don’t normally shoot. One evening I got together in my studio with a photographer colleague and we shot some food photos after hunting around Whole Foods for whatever props struck our fancy. The reward was eating the props.




Preparing for a Pig Roast

WARNING! This post contains some graphic images of an intact pig being prepared and roasted. Vegetarians and squeamish people may wish to avert their eyes.

At the end of September, I will volunteer to photograph Braking the Cycle, the 285-mile AIDS ride from Boston to New York to benefit Housing Works. I teamed up with some other participants to stage a fundraising pig roast to support the ride. We raised more than $7,500.00, and though it was very hard work, it turned out to be more fun than I imagined.

Chef Pete is an expert pig roaster, and he set up a cinder block roasting pit in the back yard to slow-roast a 100-pound heritage pig for 24 hours. He took only two one-hour breaks during the night to nap. The meat turned out delicious. Also on the menu was cole slaw, collard greens, baked beans, homemade pickles, and banana pudding.

Stay tuned for my next post which will include photos from the party.


Brooklyn Cookin’ (last of a three-part series)

Sunday morning we returned to the brownstone in Brooklyn with excitement for the final day in the Brooklyn Cookin’ workshop. Instructors Chris Marquardt, photographer, and Mark Tafoya, chef, greeted us with a surprise in mind. Later in the day the cooks would have an iron chef competition and the photographers would do something similar. (See the first post in the series here and the second post here.)

The previous day we worked entirely with available light. Today we applied studio lighting techniques to our food photography with Speedlites,  Elinchrom studio lights, and a range of light modifiers.

We began by reviewing our photos from the day before and talking about the finer points of food photography in the studio, while the cooks made a variety of sweet and savory canapes and desserts involving puff pastry. When the food was ready, the dishes were brought upstairs and we shot various arrangements with a single Speedlite in a softbox and a reflector. I wasn’t thrilled with the results of my photos, but it was a first try, and things got better as I shot more.

Next we went to the back yard to photograph some lunch items combining ambient sunlight with a very powerful studio light. The sun was so hot and bright, though, that we had to take turns holding a diffuser over the set to tone it down.

After lunch was the competition, and in modern American style, everyone was a winner. The Iron Chefs were challenged with six ingredients: oyster mushrooms, bacon, asparagus, chicken breast, potatoes, and heavy cream. The cooks used what they had learned so far to invent their own recipes, and the results were excellent. I regret now that I didn’t make any photos during dinner, but I was so exhausted from the workshop that I just wanted to be off duty and enjoy the food and friendship.

The “Iron Photographers” were challenged with three ingredients: color contrast, shadow, and time. Time felt like an obvious trick question. How do you represent that in a photo? We had only 45 minutes to make our photo and present our best one, so the photographers scattered quickly to conceive and execute their work. The results represented a broad range of creativity and technique. I learned a lot from the other photographers’ photos and from the challenge of making my own.

It’s always sad when such a great workshop with such great people ends. I can’t wait to apply what I learned to some more food photography and to all my photography in general. I now have a new way to look at the world and approach my assignments whether it’s products, events, or people. Our workshop instructors are always doing interesting things, so to keep up, follow them (and me!) on Twitter:
Chris Marquardt: @chrismarquardt
Mark Tafoya: @ChefMark
Alan Barnett: @alan_barnett

And to keep up with everything that is happening at Alan Barnett Design and Photography, “like” my Facebook page,

My first shot of the day. I think I could have done better, but it was a start and we had to move on. I’d have liked the background to be brighter and the shadows on the upper left of the peach tarts to be softer. You can see the improvement in my second shot, the one that introduces this post.

Mushroom risotto was one of the dishes served for lunch. In shooting this, I had to work with adjusting the angle of the two studio lights to achieve a satisfactory shadow and contrast on the individual grains of rice so they popped. I don’t know what the cooks did, but this was among the best risotto I’ve had (and I’ve eaten risotto at some really fine restaurants)!

Same set, different dish, different lighting challenge. The chocolate photographs dark and the cream needs to be bright. How to expose them both correctly? I think I did an okay job.

And finally, my submission to the Iron Photographer competition. The afternoon before I noticed the beautiful light from a skylight on the staircase and brick wall. I hoped we could use it for a set, but that wasn’t possible by the time the light changed. With great luck, the light was back at the time of the assignment. With only 45 minutes, I went with my first impulse of making a self portrait where I could move in some way to represent the time ingredient. I was inspired to borrow the lemons from the kitchen for a small tie-in to food photography. And I figured they would satisfy the color contrast ingredient with their bright yellow color against my black shirt (and I added a black apron to cover my khaki shorts). For the shadow ingredient I knew the overhead light from the skylight would work perfectly to throw a shadow from the falling lemon onto the step. I shot hundreds of photos in burst mode at 1/30 second, triggering the camera with a cable release held out of the frame in my extended left hand. The photo I selected comes relatively early in my effort. I’d like to say that no lemons were harmed in the making of this photo, but the one that kept bouncing down two flights of stairs didn’t survive so well.

Brooklyn Cookin’ (second of a three-part series)

Our first day at the markets behind us, we met on Saturday morning at the home of Ariel Hyatt in Brooklyn. (See the first post in the series here.) Ariel’s brownstone has a spacious and well equipped kitchen on the ground floor, and a large, open space upstairs for the photographers. The cooks brought their own knives and started out learning knife sharpening. Meanwhile the photographers discussed the finer points of composition and some technical aspects of photography.

When the activity got going in the kitchen, the photographers joined the cooks for some action shots of the preparation. The cooks had multiple dishes going at the same time, and the kitchen was full of spirit and color. We worked entirely with available light from the overhead fixtures and daylight through the windows. When the soup was finished, we created a small set near a window in a corner of the kitchen, styled it simply with available items, and each photographer made his/her own shots. Throughout the entire workshop we shot the food au naturel without any food styling techniques. Workshop instructors Photographer Chris Marquardt and Chef Mark Tafoya gave us insightful feedback throughout the day.

After a brunch of chilled cucumber and mint soup, spinach quiche, Vietnamese spring rolls, and blueberry crostata, the teams regrouped to start preparing and photographing dinner. For this we went into the back yard to shoot the grilling action and the plated food with available (and extremely hot) sunlight. The result was flank steak and spinach pinwheels, trout wrapped with prosciutto, quinoa with kale and garlic, and roasted corn and mango salsa.

The day ended with all of us satisfied and more exhausted than the day before.

Chef Mark demonstrates the proper way to trim a crust for the quiche.

Photographer Mark patiently drips spoonful after spoonful of chilled cucumber mint soup while I shoot enough frames in burst mode to catch a beautiful form.

The finished chilled cucumber mint soup didn’t last long after we were done shooting. It was delicious!

Lora helps Chef Mark pour the egg mixture into the spinach quiche.

Tenley expertly sprinkles sugar over the blueberry crostata just before it goes into the oven.

Lora is proud of her accomplishment. Arranging the spring rolls so beautifully was no easy task. Our overnight assignment was to edit all our photos from the day down to one favorite to present. It wasn’t easy, especially since there were two distinctly different types of photos: action shots and food shots. I loved this one that combined both.

We photographed an arrangement of the spring rolls in the early afternoon light of the kitchen window. The adjustable Venetian blind made a great light modifier.

Our backyard grilling photo shoot.

Dinner. We were much happier than the fish!

>> Stay tuned for my final post in the series on day 3 of Brooklyn Cookin’!

Brooklyn Cookin’ (first of a three-part series)

This weekend I participated in Brooklyn Cookin’, a three-day food photography workshop with a really creative concept. Photographer Chris Marquardt and Chef Mark Tafoya teamed up to create the weekend where participants come in pairs. One person from each couple takes a cooking workshop with Mark, and the other learns food photography with Chris, using the cooks’ creations. Then we get to eat the props! Each day was so packed with fun and learning, that I’ll split the experience into three posts.

There were six couples, some local, but others from as far away as Rhode Island, Colorado, and California. In fact, Chris Marquardt came all the way from Germany! All the photographers were accomplished in various aspects of the art and craft, so we got up to speed really quickly and I learned an incredible amount from the others.

The first day we got to know each other and had a great culinary and photographic tour of a small area of downtown Manhattan. The cooks learned about ingredients and shopping, and the photographers got warmed up with some street photography. We started at Chelsea Market, a local Mecca for foodies. As it got crowded with shoppers, the photo opportunities increased. We moved on to The High Line, the new elevated park, with a rich history serving the New York food market on its rail line. The weather was unpleasantly hot and humid, but it didn’t deter us. After lunch we went to the Union Square Greenmarket, a haven for foodies and street photographers alike. We all got along so well that when the day’s activities were through, we had drinks together and became fast friends.

Arranging peppers at Manhattan Fruit Exchange. I’m shooting from outside in the dim hallway light while the inside of the store is badly lit with fluorescent tubes. It was challenging to get a good exposure.

At Buon Italia, Chef Mark explains that there is a difference in taste between the Nutella produced in Italy and the same product from Canada. He prefers the Italian.

This man generously poses for a portrait while preparing seafood burgers at The Lobster Place.

Lobsters ready to enjoy!

I encountered Mario, who works for Chelsea Market, outside Amy’s Bread. Standing with his saw, he looked like a subject from an August Sander photograph. He was shy, but with some flattery I convinced him to pose for a few shots. Our overnight assignment was to edit all our photos from the day down to one favorite. It was tough, but this is the one I chose.

At the end of The High Line, we were so hot and hungry that we had lunch at the closest restaurant that could seat all 12 of us right away. The Tex-Mex food at Tortilla Flats was as good and fun as the decor.

This woman graciously posed for a portrait at the greenmarket. She was working with an organization that helps find homes for cats. She had cages full of adorable kittens. So what’s the tie-in with food photography? Some people say cats taste like chicken!

An entertainer at the market. She was moving so quickly that I switched from aperture priority to shutter priority (which I had preset at 1/500 second) and got a pretty sharp photo. I shot a large burst of frames and was lucky to get one with her looking directly at me with the scroll of the violin perfectly in the lower right corner and her other hand in the frame as well.

Portraiture is my favorite type of photography, but I felt obligated to shoot at least some food at the market. I approached this one as a portrait of the zucchini.

And here I force myself to shoot at a wider angle to capture an overall sense of activity at the market.

>> Stay tuned for my posts on days 2 and 3 of Brooklyn Cookin’!