Road Train !!!!!!!!!!

by Russell McMahon

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Most of the photography I have been making recently has been for my Cooking.Stackexchange blog posts. I have run into some problems when choosing a surface to put the food on. Maybe somebody can suggest a better idea?

This is what I have used so far.

  • Glass, frosted on the underside. This is what my dining table is made of. I am not too good at lighting, and the glass is practically unmanageable for me. While I have had some serendipituosly good pictures with great reflections, most of the time the results are bad. Looks weirdly green from some angles.
  • an unrolled window blind, pale yellow. Sturdy thing, but if it gets a wrinkle once, it is hard to straighten it again. If liquid or powdered food is spilled on it, it is hard-to-impossible to clean during the shoot. Way too narrow for many compositions.
  • Plain cheap off-white cotton fabric. Wrinkles a lot, can't be cleaned. Color not too great, a bit "dirtyish".
  • MDF plate laminated with white melamin. This is what I currently use. Can't be folded/rolled for storage. The white melamin reflects colors from its surroundings - it creates no visible highlights in the picture, but when setting the white balance, I can either make the melamin white/grey (I don't have the equipment for even lighting) and give the food a slight off-color, or keep the food color and have a color cast in the background. The white surface is also a bit too even for my taste - it looks like I am trying to achieve a "no background" effect and failing. This is an example of what my pictures look like with it.

blackberry preserve

  • a colored place set mat. It doesn't have the problems of the melamine plate, but when I shoot from an unusual angle (and I do that a lot for closeups), the geometrical pattern of the weave shows that the angle was weird. It is also moire-prone when resizing. The vivid color gets reflected in gleaming white porcelain plates. And the mat is way too small. An example, complete with bad angle:

ice cream on mat

  • A black silicone dough-rolling mat. Washing leaves droplet shapes on the matte surface, and they are hard to buff away from silicone. Dust is way too visible on it. Also, it looks like I am trying to achieve a "perfect black" background and failing. It is also too small. And many foods don't look good on a black background.

  • Arranging the food on a wooden cutting board. It looks natural for food, but the pattern is strong enough to be distracting (I ended up covering it with a napkin). Also, when the whole board is in the picture, I have to align the camera perfectly, else the sides of the board are not parallel to the sides of the photograph, and using the transformation tool only helps to a degree. This picture was made with the cutting board on the glass table, you can see the weird geometry and the greenish color of the glass.

Picture on cutting board

Can you recommend a surface which doesn't have these disadvantages? It should be easy to stow away (I can't afford to keep a fully built-up setup all the time), reasonably cheap, and look good. I need it to be big (my melamin plate is about 100x80 cm and I hit its limits when I shoot from shallow angles). No strong colors, and it shouldn't reflect much. I would prefer some subtle irregular pattern, not a uniform color. A slight neutral color would be good - pale cream or yellow is OK, but I am considering a light neutral grey so I can measure white balance off it (when I shoot with natural light, it is too much work to make a greycard picture every time a cloud moves in front of the sun). And I must be able to easily clean it from spilled food during a shoot. Something pliable (so I can construct a makeshift seamless background) would be nice, but not necessary.

I guess the perfect surface doesn't exist, but if you can come up with ideas which match most of those criteria, I would be very happy.

Edit The "easy to clean" criterium is non-negotiable. I want to place a juicy berry directly on the surface, or a stack of cookies. When I move them around, I want to be able to wipe off the resulting juice stain resp. grease stain without much effort. This makes paper and fabric a bad choice for a "main" surface. (I am aware that I can temporarily use napkins under plated dishes, but I am more concerned about a "generic" surface right now). Also, I am pressed for space, so, I am looking for something which will look reasonably good in most situations, as opposed to a selection of surfaces which look great in a narrow range of situations.

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Re " ...(I don't have the equipment for even lighting) ..."-> Making your own acceptably effective "soft box" should be extremely doable. This can be achieved at very low cost with scrap material. Foil as reflectors. Various plastics or cloth as diffusers. –  Russell McMahon Jul 19 '12 at 3:10
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There is, in fact, a set of instructions for building a cheap softbox right here on this site. –  user2719 Jul 19 '12 at 3:48
    
That "cherry, berry, nut" photo from the blog is awesome, I don't know what trouble you are talking about! –  dpollitt Jul 19 '12 at 18:52
    
@dpollitt thank you. I overexposed the header photo about 1.5 EV in post, and also upped the contrast afterwards. While this made the background a real white, I can't do this with most pictures, because it overexposes lots of other things, including my white plates. –  rumtscho Jul 19 '12 at 19:01

7 Answers 7

Food usually looks best in its natural habitat; I think it's a mistake to shoot it in a "Sears portrait studio", isolated sort of way. When you shoot food with nothing but a backdrop/tabletop or a sweep, you lose a lot of the visual cues that tell the viewer that the food is delicious. Baked goods, for instance, often look their best surrounded by the trappings of baking: a bowl of eggs, a sack of flour (like anybody actually uses fabric sacs at home anymore), a few vanilla beans, or what have you. Plated main dishes look best in a place setting, complete with flatware, beverage, napkin, perhaps candles and/or a centrepiece, and so forth. I'd have been a lot more liberal with the blackberries, for instance, and had them surrounding (but primarily behind) the bowl.

That means, among other things, that your surface doesn't need to be nearly as large as it might seem at first. In some instances, you can sort of build a "backdrop" of associated goodies that rises out of frame at the back. In others, you can let the table come to an end, with an out-of-focus background that lends an ambience to the setting. That out-of-focus background can be quite fake, as long as it looks right in the picture. (A piece of cheap tan or light brown paper/cardboard and a few shiny things, if they are well-blurred, can simulate a wood-panelled dining room with Michelin stars well enough that very few will be able to tell the difference.)

Your actual surface should vary with the food you're shooting. For some things, you'd want a very plain, honest, rustic wood surface. That would probably be the table you're setting up on (and you can make that a modest-sized folding table). Beyond that, you're looking at tablecloths (or cheap fabric that can pass for a tablecloth if nobody needs to see the edges), tea towels, napkins that look good on camera (they don't actually have to be OMG-expensive linen) and the like for some shots. For others, you might want to try matte- and gloss-laminated woodgrain, marble and granite prints. (That was a lot easier twenty-five years ago when you could get tacky vinyl sheeting almost everywhere in almost any pattern imaginable. A sudden and inexplicable upswing in taste among the masses has made things unnecessarily dificult for us.) You might find that a couple of different large-ish tiles of natural stone from your local home renovations store come in very handy for some shots. You can actually tile them and clone out the seams in your favorite editor if you need a bigger surface, but you'd need a sturdier table/counter than the cheap folder suggested above.

As for the grey card: you don't need anything big. A dot the size of a dime is more than enough to white balance with, and you can put it just about anywhere in the frame and either crop or clone it out.

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Some very good ideas here, thank you. I'm not sure I will be able to implement most of them (I don't have storage space for many different backgrounds, nor shooting space to create an out-of-focus background in the distance), but it sounds like sound advice for the general case. –  rumtscho Jul 19 '12 at 18:59
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As far as general suggestions go, studio lighting is really bad for rendering a pleasing food photograph. Just moving to natural light (next to a window for instance) will make a HUGE difference. –  Shizam Jul 19 '12 at 23:06
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@Shizam -- the problems requiring white balance are from natural (window) light in the original question. Studio lighting is just fine and dandy; almost every commercial food shot ever was done under artificial lighting, and for a reason: it's much more predictable and controllable. –  user2719 Jul 20 '12 at 4:33
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@Shizam -- start with one light, always. There is no real difference between a softbox and a window with a net (sheer) curtain over it, or between a bare small reflector at a sufficient distance and direct sunlight. Don't be afraid to use a bare bulb (no reflector or softbox) either to generate an ambient light level. Add reflectors or fill only as needed. If you think of studio light as sunlight that you can control rather than as studio lighting, all of your studio pictures will be better. –  user2719 Jul 20 '12 at 16:00
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@StanRogers Ok, I'll set this up Sunday :) xkcd.com/386 –  Shizam Jul 20 '12 at 19:29

Addressing your surfaces question, I tried a couple things before I read somewhere (I forget now) to buy some 3'x4' poster board from a craft store and paint them several colors you like then use them as surfaces and backdrops for you photos. Most of the later photos I shot here were done using my poster boards. There are some even more adventurous suggestions too that I may try soon.

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Where I live, I can just buy poster board in a wide array of colors. This allows me to skip the time and cost of painting. But if a custom color is desired I could of course paint one. –  dpollitt Jul 19 '12 at 18:43
    
Sorry, if I wasn't clear: paper and cloth are not acceptable, unless somehow treated, because I don't plate everything, and I have to be able to remove fruit juice and grease stains during the shoot. –  rumtscho Jul 19 '12 at 18:55
    
Depending on your budget, one option is to buy a bunch of large poster boards, and after they get dirty only use them for plated shooting. If you go through them at a reasonable rate it wouldn't cost too much. –  Derrick Coetzee Jul 19 '12 at 19:40

My first suggestion would be to crop tighter. Don't include both the frosted glass table and the cutting board; include only the cutting board. I, personally, would shoot a lot on a wooden cutting board. I like the warmth and it seems like a great connection to the kitchen without showing a cluttered countertop or other prep area, for example. I see you've tried the cutting board, but hear me out: you can get them made of many different types of wood and in many different sizes.

One problem I think you're encountering is size. Really, you need a big cutting board -- much bigger than you have -- so that you don't need to worry about angles and cropping to include/exclude it entirely.

Look at the size of the pattern relationship to the size of your subject. The large pattern of your existing board is almost definitely not distracting when you've got a big steak or a pile of vegetables. But when shooting smaller items you want to be conscious of the pattern and I would seek out a smaller pattern/grain or a larger one. A large pattern -- shot close -- will not be distracting when shooting small items, IMO. I don't know what kind of wood a "typical" wood cutting board is made of, but I certainly know what it looks like and I bet yours is the same as mine. Others to look at: bamboo (it's got a really tight grain and so there's not much pattern aside from the stripes of aligning it), solid cherry (practically patternless and a warm slightly pink color), butcher blocks (made of many smaller blocks of hardwood).

You don't need to shop at the kitchen store for a wooden cutting board (at least, not for one for a photo setting) -- go to the hardware store and buy some lumber. You can find many nice woods in large enough pieces to make a nice faux cutting board. If you don't find exactly what you want get some stain and make it the right color!

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I just use what I already have, either a nice wooden table, cutting board, or window sill. I choose the least distracting ones, that are the closest to the current natural light when I take the image.

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Generally, a wooden table would probably work, but I don't have a wooden table, and my window sill is 10 cm wide only. –  rumtscho Jul 19 '12 at 18:56
    
@rumtscho I had a similar issue in my old house, so I used an end grain chopping/cutting board such as this: crateandbarrel.com/end-grain-chopping-board/s628085 –  dpollitt Jul 19 '12 at 19:01
    
That's too small. The background in the header photo in the post is 1 meter deep, and I had to chop the pic to 16:9 so the ugly vertical backdrop won't show. The shallow angles I sometimes use eat lots of surface. I don't think I've seen somebody sell cutting boards the size of table plates. –  rumtscho Jul 19 '12 at 19:12

I don't think I can comment yet on other posts, or I'd do that - but here's my two cents.

  • Posterboard etc can be varnished so that it's at least mostly water-resistant, and fairly easy to wipe clean. You can obtain matte varnishes as well, at least here, in just about any large stationery store around the paint section.

  • You know those foldable/twist-collapsible sun shields that people put behind their windscreens in summer to prevent the car getting too hot? If you can find one of those with a white back as opposed to a silver one, that's collapsible and portable, and they're made of plastic that I'm sure is wipe-off to a certain extent. Trawling those two-dollar stores full of random stuff might also find you some huge, 2m x 3m waterproof plastic storage bags in block colors. They'd do fine as a backdrop.

  • All that said, I'd second the comment about food being shot best in its natural habitat, so to speak, or an artificially created one if need be. I'm a casual photographer, but usually my food photos shot just before I eat the food in question, wherever they happen to be. I do tend to plate everything on white plates though.

I'm not sure what the context of your photography is, whether the subject needs to be isolated or is meant to be more atmospheric, but I'd generally go with shooting it where it is, and just moving distracting bits and pieces out of the way, doing your best to minimize a color cast. Also - food is really fun to photograph!

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I've used a back-lit frosted acrylic sheet for a lot of my product shots, which has allowed me to properly expose for the item, and overexpose the background. You could probably do the same with the frosted glass, but I imagine that it would be a little tougher just because of reflections.

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Interesting idea, I will try to see what the glass looks like when backlit. But it still has some color, will have to see if that's a problem. –  rumtscho Jul 19 '12 at 18:57
    
if the glass itself is colored, you might be able to find a color gel for the light that would balance (just a wild guess, but it seems that a light pink might be helpful). –  chills42 Jul 19 '12 at 19:34

I am not offering this an an answer but rather as an additional resource. First, I'd like to agree with @StanRogers that food often looks far better on a table or in a "normal" setting where you might ... um ... eat food.

The additional resource I wanted to add was Plate to Pixel. It is an amazing book by a very talented food photographer. One thing you might notice almost immediately is that most if not all the settings are natural. If you are seriously doing any amount of food photography, this book is one to consider buying.

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