Amateur’s Food Photography XI – Building an image

by Jenn on July 10, 2011

in Photography

Gluten Free Spaghetti

Over the past month or so I’ve learned an important lesson that I want to share with you all, which is about experimenting and building an image. The photo above started out very differently, and I’m not sure I would have arrived to an image that I was happy with if I wasn’t willing to experiment.

If you aren’t satisfied with how something looks, you don’t have to settle for it.  One of the beauties of food/still-life photography is that you have control over everything – it’s also what makes it so challenging.  Take a look at your image, see what you are dissatisfied with, and then let yourself change things around, rearrange and try again. This of course may require making the dish a couple of times and you may need to set aside actual dedicated time for the photo (not just a quick snap before eating dinner).  I like my images best when I try a shot a couple of times and take time in between to really look at a frame and see what I like/don’t like about it (something I had been doing before, but was particularly emphasized to me while watching Penny de Los Santos conduct her shoots during her free Creative Live seminar a couple months ago).  I think it’s especially useful if you are not sure of exactly how to execute the shot you want (as someone learning photography, this is usually my situation).  Remembering to step back, assess my image, and alter the elements in the frame has been immensely valuable for me to get closer to “the photo I want to create”.

Let’s start with this bowl of spaghetti – this was a dish I was photographing for one of Dario‘s recent photography challenges (which if you want to improve your photography, I highly suggest participating in – lots of varying themes and great chances for feedback), and my first try looked something like this a few minutes before digging in to enjoy this yummy bowl that would be my dinner:

Gluten free Spaghetti

I really didn’t like this result at all.  I felt I had to get way too close to the pasta in order to show it off against the rather boring background, and the tomatoes even blurred and in the background still stole the show. (and we’ll ignore the part about me being out of focus for now, ha).

I had gone for a brighter pic with our white walls as the background and a pale blue tablecloth (and by tablecloth, I mean 2m cut long sheets of fabric from my favorite fabric store that I just put over my IKEA dining table), doing my best to effectively style prepared gluten free pasta.  There was bacon, tomatoes, olive oil, parmesan and basil mixed in.  The window light came from the left, a white foam board on the right, I chose a side angle and got my shots.  But when I looked at them later that night, I realized I was way too close to my subject for this to be attractive, and the props just felt weird, almost as if they were floating against the white background.  I didn’t feel like this pic was setting a scene very well, so the next day decided to give a 2nd try.

I used a different tablecloth – I felt this was starting to look a little more rustic:


But I wanted to give the table a little more sense of place – while the tablecloth choice I think helped set the mood, I thought a darker background would give a little more rustic flair – so I propped up the aged dark green shutter door I had just purchased at a local brocante at the end of the table and felt that now I was getting towards a setting –


Funny how just one little background change can alter the entire effect of an image, eh? Already, just by switching the tablecloth and placing that shutter behind the table, I have a completely different photo from the bright blue one I started with.  And while these tomatoes are gorgeous, I felt that they had the potential to overpower the fairly neutral colored spaghetti – so I tried a few different light modifications to see what the effect would be, using my 5 in 1 large (42″) reflector kit:

Effects of Light Modifications

See how the different light modifications affect the light on the tomatoes? If I wanted tomatoes to be the star of the shot, I might choose to brighten up their shadows a bit.  However, I wanted these tomatoes in the background as mere props to help set a scene, like I started with the brighter bluer pic.  So I chose to have their shadows enhanced and moved them to the back hoping they would not stand out so much and just blend in to the scene.

I set up my frame with nearly everything but the spaghetti (which I hadn’t even begun to cook yet):

The cheese grater in the back in order to be able to make out the shape of the wine bottle against the dark background, parmesan now also propped on the cutting board, and an empty plate and fork to play around with how the dish might actually look in the photo.

Then came the spaghetti – I wasn’t feeling the red plate after all (not sure why, because now looking at it I think it might have worked better, oh well) and went for this really cheap plastic brown flowery plate instead – I think because I felt the red one was standing out too much? Not sure.

Anyways, spaghetti, it turns out, is a real challenge to style effectively, especially sticky gooey gluten free spaghetti.  After draining it and shaking it in the colander well I added in a little olive oil to help it keep from sticking together so much. Then I took a forkfull and twirled together a few strands, which I set aside – that would become the top of the pile. For the main pile, I just grabbed the pasta with my hands until I had enough together sorta going the same way, and then used a fork to twirl it around and used my hands to shape & tuck in flyaways that looked out of place. Then took a spatula to carefully place on top the smaller twirled one from earlier, and had my plate of spaghetti – as my reflector was already in use blocking light on the tomatoes, my husband held up a silver serving tray to bounce light on the shadowed side of the pasta:


My goal was to have the pasta stand out from the rather busy scene – so blocking light where unwanted highlights might form, and adding light by reflecting on to what I wanted to shine, I did my best to make the spaghetti the “star” of the dish.  Happy with my lighting, I added my garnish – unfortunately I didn’t have any extra tomatoes after the night’s dinner before, so didn’t get to garnish with them this time so only used bacon, basil, a little more olive oil and parm slices.  Then I fixed my ever changing auto-white balance, changed my angle and played with the positioning of my fork a little bit, and had my final image.

Gluten Free Spaghetti

Are those tomatoes still competing with the pasta? Yeah I think they are.  But I really loved their shape and character and what they lended to the setting.  I wish I had more so I could have added them to the dish as well in the final shot.

Is this shot perfect? Heck no. But by trying a few times, trying a couple different ideas, playing with my lighting to see what I liked best along the way, and building my photo gradually  – stopping to think about the effect of each decision in my photograph – I was able to create an image that I was generally pleased with – a lot more pleased than my previous photos at least.  Sometimes, all it takes is devoting some time and thought and experimentation.  This is definitely how I am going to be approaching my photos from now on, as I think this will really help me improve – not just improve my styling and photography, but also hopefully my ability to visualize and execute a concept.  Maybe as I get better I will be able to make these decisions without having to physically enact them so much, but as an amateur looking to improve, this seems to be a good strategy :)

No matter where you are in your technical abilities with photography, I think this strategy can be useful.  You just have to be willing to have some dedication and patience, and keep on practicing :)

How do you approach a shot?  I’m curious to hear about your experiences!

Missed the earlier posts and want to catch up on the rest of the series?
1 – Look at photos with a critical eye (and making fun of one of my early ones!)
2 – Food photography is about celebrating light
3 – Take your time and find your “zen place”
4 – Angles of Light

5 – Pay Attention to Props
6 – The Histogram
7 – It’s Not the Camera, It’s the Lighting
8 – Exploring New Directions
10 – Plate to Page Workshop Summary

Also an interesting read is Neel’s 31 Days of Food Photography Tips going on right now on Learn Food Photography – go check it out :)