BEHIND the COOKBOOK | the PHOTOGRAPHY of BROWN EGGS & JAM JARS: PART 2
Does the photograph make you want to reach in and eat it?
At the beginning and at the end of every recipe image we made, this is the question we asked. If the answer was yes, we knew we had a winner – if we were unsure about it, then it would be off to the wayside.
One of the many reasons working on Brown Eggs and Jam Jars was such an incredible project was Aimée’s philosophy of authentic, real, & home-grown – everything was, in a word, honest. Since this was our first time photographing food on a scale such as this, all we had to go on was philosophy. In our wedding work we strive for just that, honest, real, authentic emotion. Right from the beginning, we knew on that respect, we were always on the same page. Check.
A while back, I attended a workshop from a noted wedding photographer who was talking about the photographers who inspire him. The common thread that links them, he said, is that “all their images are all so pleasing and easy to read”. Our goal as a photographer is to help the viewer get drawn into an image, explore it with some interest and then to walk away remembering and continuing that experience. If you flip through this book and leave involuntarily salivating a little bit, we’ve done our job.
Photographically speaking, we like to distill it down to 3 components: light, composition and moment – having all three makes for a successful image.
In a way, the concept of ‘moment’ is a lot easier to grasp within the context of documentary work. It is, by definition, temporal. Moments are there, then gone – and a documentary photographer’s job is to quite literally capture it before that disappears. When we talk about food – something much more static – we are trying in a way to capture a moment that is not so much temporal – though sometimes that happens – but impressional. We are essentially trying to capture “mood”.
This salad is in the Orchard Outings chapter – a fall chapter, and we wanted to convey the “late-afternoon-y-ness” mood of Autumn. We loved both as standalone images, but the one on the left was a little more spring-like, than the one we eventually used in the book on the right.
There are certain tools that photographers use to lead your eyes around an image. The Rule of Thirds, The Golden Ratio, Leading Lines – these are all important aesthetic tools that helped us get to an interesting photograph – and incidentally a good primer on composition if you’re so inclined to google. But it was the idea of ‘story’ helped us conceptually compose our most successful frames. The food always had to be the star, supporting elements, like characters in a book act as foils for the main event.
This image was the title image for the “Sugaring Off” chapter. Note how we naturally read the image from left to right, top to bottom. Aimée’s hand pouring the hot maple syrup onto the bed of snow, then we see the taffy starting to form, then the finished sticks and finally on the bottom right, her son Noah enjoying the treat. The setting and supporting characters to the image – the snow, the spatula, the popsicle sticks are present and give clues to the process, but they’re not centre stage. “Family, Food, Life,” Aimée would remind us throughout the entire project.
The image of the Radish Chive Butter is one of my favourites too. Our eye spirals around the image from ingredient to ingredient and finish dead centre with the finished product. As a kind of epilogue, there’s an assembled crostini ready to be eaten.
If you think you don’t like radishes, I dare you to try this and not be convinced otherwise. We were verifiably distracted for the rest of the shoot the day these were put out.
As Angela described in the previous post, a good majority of the images in the book are artificially lit. By this we mean that we had the help of strobes and were not relying solely on available natural daylight. If we had it, we would use it like the pizza image in the last post, but to that respect, lighting is a means to an end. It means nothing (at least when making images for a cookbook) to have really cool light, if the subject of the image is obscured by distracting elements. Everything has to support the purpose of the image. I would consider myself a semi-moderate photo-geek, so modifying the light that came out of the strobes was important to me only so much as the modifier helped to achieve the look and mood of the image we were after. Here is a quick rundown of the lighting setups we used, and why:
Beauty Dish: Definitely one of our favourites, a beauty dish is traditionally used in portraiture to envelope a subject with a hard light that isn’t harsh. The resulting image looks focussed, crisp and sharp.
This frame of the s’mores on p.105, we really wanted to return you to your first childhood fireside experience of them, but at the same time elevating it to another level.
Incidentally, the wave of creativity and my more than slightly haggard look can be attributed to the bottle of champagne that we shared to celebrate the book deal.
Super big soft box: Occasionally we would want to soften the light to give the impression of the wonderful diffused window light. Given the nature of shooting schedules and temperamental weather patters, we didn’t always have it. Light gives depth to an image, and if you don’t have enough light, things start to look flat.
Here’s a side-by-side of the scones on p. 160. It was a cool greyish day when Aimée hosted her jam swap that year and the natural window light just wasn’t sufficient for the image we wanted to take.
We decided to put our giant soft box outside and fire the strobes at full power – sometimes they wouldn’t go off (left) because they didn’t have enough time to re-cycle. When it did, the whole image had more three-dimensional, texture was more apparent and everything was a little bit more real. Final image (right)
Speedlight grids: The problem with bare flashes is that light goes everywhere – to control the spread of the light, you can use a grid to focus and concentrate the beam. Think lasers.
We really wanted to highlight and bring out the colour of the Stone Fruit Sangria without spilling light all over the place. The image is supposed to evoke “late summer sun, and dinner with friends”. We put a speedlight almost directly behind the pitcher, with a grid to focus the entire beam and light it up like a lantern of wonderful deliciousness
There is some debate in the Chin houshold of who has claim to this idea, but because I am writing this post, I’m going to say it was me.
I suppose you could ask, how do we justify using artificial light to give an honest photograph – isn’t “natural” light the most “natural”? I would answer, photography, just like in music, needs dynamics. In music you rely on the louds and softs, the phrasing, the slight pulls and pushes to give life and emotion to the notes on a page. It’s not dis-honest to do so – it is simply giving the music “life”. Similarly, because artificial light is repeatable, predictable, portable and manageable we can control the colour, quality, quantity and direction of the light serve to amplify and subtract, add texture and visual interest. We can tell a story.
So… at the end of the day – Does the photograph make you want to reach in and eat it? I hope so.
Next time we’ll put up some too-adorable pictures of the kids behind the scenes.