I prefer sweet potatoes over regular potatoes any day. Maybe it’s the bright cheerful color, or the subtle sweetness and richness of their flavor, I don’t know. Back in the States we would cook sweet potatoes at least once a week – here, however, they are a specialty food for us and I can only justify them every once in a while. Did we have a special occasion? Not really. I just saw a roasted potato recipe on my friend Simone’s food blog and knew I had to make it with sweet potatoes. Call it a sudden craving due to the coming baby, or just a random moment of “yum, sweet potatoes would be really great in this”. Whatever the reason, I knew it was sure to be a success
This meal is actually one of the options for Simone’s Donna Hay Styling and Photography Challenge. And you have until the end of the month to enter your own version! There are two great looking dishes for this month, the roasted potato dish I mimicked above, as well as a grilled rump steak dish (and both of them are naturally gluten free, woohoo!). All you have to do is head over to her site for details, but basically the challenge is to try to replicate the mood of one of the photos given from the lovely Donna Hay magazine. The particular images in this month’s challenge were photographed by Ben Dearnley, who has a stunning portfolio of gorgeous food photography work. I love all of the color contrast and vibrancy in his images, as well as his way of controlling shadow to really define or accent a scene.
Sometimes, I think amidst all of the current food blog photography trends for overexposed or faded images, many bloggers forget the importance of shadows, and that they can also be your friend. Most food photography tutorials will tell you to use soft diffuse light – but it is important to know that there is such a thing as too soft, too diffuse – and then light becomes flat and the image dull. Shadows are not always the enemy, and figuring out how to balance the shadows with the rest of the image and composition is an important element to consider.
To me, this challenge has two distinct aspects – the styling, and the lighting (ok, it is a styling and photography challenge, no?). Here is what I did for each – they are by no means perfect, and I’ll go through some of the things I liked and didn’t like about my effort above:
The original image features 3 different mason jars filled with potatoes and topped with chimichurri, arranged in an old rusted rack on what looks like some sort of stone surface. There is a bowl of arugula in the back, another mason jar of the chimichurri up front, and a few rusted out flatware pieces in the corner. Immediately when I looked at this image I thought to myself, “oh man, where am I going to get these props?” I don’t exactly have a studio full of food props to pick and choose from (just an overflowing set of shelves along one wall of my living room that I’m sure makes guests coming over scratch their heads at all of the random plates and napkins and the like until I explain it’s for a food blog – and then some still scratch their heads, ha!).
Previously when looking for a dark background, I would use a small slate cheeseboard or a sheet of black poster paper. But I knew that this scene would be too large for my cheeseboard, and the paper would not have enough texture. Luckily I happened to find a larger piece of slate for a good price last weekend, and decided it was going to be the best chance I had at giving this image the contrast and texture I wanted to mimic the mood of this photo.
For the jars, I just took random jars/glasses we happened to have in our cabinets. The back one is a cheap drinking glass (ikea maybe?), the front is actually a mason jar, and the weck jar on the right originally contained a nice artisanal mustard that we had enjoyed last year – I tend to keep interesting/useful jars from food products because they can often be great containers to reuse. And the very front is a stemless wine glass. Then just pick out some old beaten up flatware, and I’ve got my props.
In truth, I did not do much actual styling to the image. I filled the sweet potatoes into the jars, picked out the nicest looking browned ones to be on top because I knew they would show up the most in the photo. I kinda turned the chimichurri into pesto after using way too much parsley, so I just went with it and dolloped a bunch on to each jar of potatoes. Filled the glass of wine, sprinkled some sea salt and ground pepper on the slate, added a mess of arugula and parsley stems to fill in the background, and I had my scene.
What I didn’t like was the texture of the chimichurri “pesto”, but I’d already used up all my parsley (note to self, read the entire recipe before making anything!), and in the weck jar the warm sweet potatoes created a lot of condensation. If I were creating this image only for the photo and not also for our dinner, I would’ve let the potatoes cool completely before photographing them so as to avoid that issue. But this was also dinner and neither my husband nor I were too keen on eating cold sweet potatoes that day. So I decided to accept that and let the issue go this time.
I made the lighting hard on myself. I decided to light this with my speedlight. Yep, I used flash for this image, despite the fact that I’m pretty sure the original was naturally lit. Why? Because I want the practice working with flash, and because I know that in theory, artificial light can be manipulated to look like natural light, despite the fact that several people often like to say natural light is best. Light is light. It requires skill to be developed to handle it properly, no matter whether it comes from the good sun outside or a bulb on a stand in the room. I wanted to see if I could experiment to try to capture a similar mood using artificial light.
I put a shoot-through umbrella over the flash, and first went to create a fall-off from the top right to the bottom left of the image – by that I mean I wanted a gradient of light from one side of the image to the other. In order to do this, it’s important to make sure that the relative distance from the bottom of the image to the flash is greater than the distance from the top of the image to the flash. In the image above, the left had the flash about 15 feet away. The top of the image is maybe a foot closer, so there is not much difference in the relative distance to the flash, and you can see that the resulting lighting on the left image is much more even than the image to the right. On the right, I pushed the flash up as close as I could get it (and adjusted flash power accordingly since being closer = much brighter light), so now we are looking at distances of about 1.5 vs. 2.5 feet to the flash. Since the bottom of the image is nearly twice as far away from the light as the top, you can see more of a gradient of light.
Then opposite the light source, I decided to use my big light modifier kit to help draw out the shadows more, and so placed a large black absorber just in front of where I was holding the camera. My husband asked me why I didn’t want to use the reflector side, so I did for one frame to show the difference – black absorber was used on the left, reflector was used on the right:
In this case, the reflector erased most of the shadow and gradient I had been working to create. It opened up the contents of the sweet potatoes in each jar more, and flattened the image. Adding a black absorber instead I felt kept the eye focused less on the background, and more on the food.
Next I played with the arrangement of the glasses and the angle of my camera until I got a composition I liked. Since this was staged on my kitchen counter, I didn’t have room for my tripod and had to freehand it. I decided moving in closer worked better for me, and resulted in the final image above. The main thing I’m unhappy with? The reflection on the surface of the wine in the glass. It’s distracting to me and I’m sure now that I pointed it out to you, it is to you as well. This occurred because of how I changed the camera angle when settling on my final composition, so that light bounced from the light source off the surface of the wine and into the lens. I should have altered the angle of the light accordingly to get rid of that polarized reflection, or at least stuck my polarizing filter on the lens to gain back that nice dark color of the red wine.
Ah, but hindsight is 20/20, no? It’s important not to get so caught up in the moment of the shot that you forget to take a critical look at your image and fix the flaws before the food gets eaten by your husband Overall, I’m not displeased with my efforts. I definitely have some things to work on, but I like the overall mood and atmosphere I created. It is exactly like the original? No, and that’s ok. It’s my interpretation.
I know this was a long discussion this time, but hopefully you found it helpful! And if you are just looking for the recipe, head over the Simone’s site and make yourself up some great roasted potatoes with chimichurri!