Donna's Photography Blog

Importance of Writer/Photographer Communication

Posted in Food Photography by Donna on April 14, 2010

Here’s my version of the Fettucini Alfredo dish Michael wrote about in his blog

I was so excited to implement what I had learned, from food stylist Adam Pearson,  when photographing pasta.  He showed a bunch of us at food blogger’s camp in Ixtapa, Mexico, how twisting the pasta into round swirls keeps the photograph from looking like a big blob on the plate. He also suggested that you not use as much sauce so the pasta doesn’t appear to be drowning. Even down to the individual strand wrapped around the folk, I tried my best to implement these new techniques to make the photo more appealing.

But the one thing I forgot to do was ask Michael is, “what do you want to show in this photo?” If I had, I would have understood that by eliminating some of the cream sauce, I failed to show what the texture of the dish is all about. After conceding to Michael, I asked my son James which he thought was the better photo. He considered them carefully and then said, “I don’t know but that one looks tastier”. He was pointing to the saucier Michael version.

So once again realism wins out over style—as it probably should—most of the time.

Professional Kitchens: When Flies Are Welcome

Posted in Uncategorized by Donna on April 9, 2010

Photo taken before Michael’s demo in Florida

I’m a photojournalist by nature and feel comfortable with using available light and don’t use a lot of equipment by choice. I’m so much freer  when you don’t have pounds of metal around my neck—and people feel so much more free not seeing long tubes of metal with huge orbs of glass pointed at them. There is definitely a time and place for professional equipment and it’s not when you are in a professional kitchen.

I took these photographs in the Naples Florida Ritz Carlton kitchen with my little Lumix point and shoot digital camera—flash turned off. I would not think of going into a professional kitchen today with anything more than a camera. Yep, that means no tripod or lighting equipment of any kind—in fact, carrying anything can feel unweildley  in a place where people need to travel fast in tight quarters. Trying to set yourself for a quick photograph can make you feel like fish out of water when a professional kitchen is in motion. Not understanding the importance of flow in a professional kitchen can also piss people off so much they won’t want photographers back in there with them ever.

I say this from experience. I once brought in a power pack with strobes into a small restaurant kitchen because I thought the lighting in the kitchen wasn’t good enough. Good enough for what? What was I thinking? I probably walked away thinking I got something good and the folks there appreciated the time I took to capture what they were doing. Wrong. Not only did I not get realistic action, I probably screwed up their production flow.

Cooks and chefs won’t ever try and stop you so, the only time when a kitchen wants to see a fly on their walls is when a photographer shows up. Meaning, be that. Let them do what they do—cook, do their dance—get their food out—and, if you stay out of their way, you will get some great shots—promise.

When Food Photography Is Easy

Posted in Food Photography by Donna on March 29, 2010

Michael’s Mom lives 21 floors up with a spectacular view of both the Intracoastal and the ocean. The sun in Florida is intense and with the added reflectors of the water and white concrete, it can often be too hot to photograph outside. When we arrived the sun was peeking in and out through the clouds and this photo was taken when the sun ducked behind them.

Her balcony is a perfect location for photography because there is no direct light—similar to an open garage door. This photo was taken with the light completely behind the platter with no reflectors used at all. As you can see, I didn’t even style the table. Do the unlit votive candles bother you? Not me—we wanted to eat right away.

I don’t like to travel with a lot of photo equipment when enjoying time off with the family so I just brought my Lumix digital point and shoot. It has a decent zoom lens and you have some control with manual settings but mostly I just turn it on auto and click. When you have perfect shooting conditions like this it’s like getting a gift.  The sun must have known I was on vacation.

Plate,Props & Surfaces For Food Photography

Posted in Food Photography by Donna on March 19, 2010

Someone asked recently in Michael’s blog comments where we got this plate, and I thought its worth talking about some. When I first started taking photos for Michael’s blog I didn’t think too much about plates and utensils, but as time went on I got tired of our round white plates and the same white hotel napkins.

When we were first starting out, before the kids arrived, I went to garage sales and thrift stores in search of overlooked treasures to furnish our home. You can find single plates and unusual linens, odd pieces of silverware, interesting old utensils and cookware. The only draw back is it takes time. If you have a little extra time, Thrift Stores can be like going to 30 garage sales at the same time. So I did go to a few thrift shops recently and found some interesting stuff— like some beautiful older linens that had a stain or two on them for $1.Perfect for photography because you can easily hide the stain or erase it later.

I also took the suggestion of photographer Matt Armendariz & Food Stylist Adam Pearson and found some very affordable fun stuff at Crate & Barrel—this is where I got this white rectangle wave dish—perfect to contain the ample juices. You can purchase single plates, glasses and even napkins and place mats so achieving a whole new look doesn’t cost very much at all. Other places to try are Pier One, and the home stores of TJ Max & Marshalls. I like the salad-sized plate for photographing finished dishes so you can get in real tight but still show the various elements that make up the dish. A small portion generally photographs better, unless of course your doing a foot long hot dog or something.

If you’re willing to spend a little more, look for the work of local potters. Non-shiny surfaces are very photo-friendly. If you don’t see exactly the size you’re looking for, get in touch with them and see if they have more or if they would make it for you. You’ll also feel good supporting your artist community.

The the real fun for me is using anything you can find for surfaces, whether it’s in your garage, hardware store, attic, or even on the street, playing with different textured surfaces adds a lot visually to your images. The juxtaposition of a beautiful plate of food, with linen napkin and antique silverware, on an old peeling painted piece of wood could look very cool. Here, I photographed these various peppers on our outdoor front porch floor. I liked how the simple gray tone helps to highlight the peppers bright colors and different textures.

So start by looking around your home for different vessels & surfaces—even if they have nothing to do with food. And, as always, make sure you have fun.

Photographing Brine: When Food’s Not Pretty—Try Everything.

Posted in Food Photography by Donna on March 15, 2010

We made this photograph for Michael’s book Ratio and knew it would be a challenge. Not only because it’s a murky liquid with things floating in it, but it was to run in B&W as well. We started photographing the brisket submerged in the brine, but it, of course, wanted to float. Not only did that really look scary, but you couldn’t see the brine. The brine on its own looked like a polluted lake so, finally, I took a cinnamon stick and pushed the meat under the surface. the whitish fat layer lightened up the brine and the floating spices then looked kinda cool. The stick going in by hand, even though that might not be what you would do, gives the photo action. . . and this photo needed all I could do.

I guess what I’m really saying here is, don’t give up when your really discouraged and say, “Heck, I’ll just photograph the dry ingredients in cool little piles.” That would be a solution, but would that photograph really say “Brine” to the viewer?

So, keep trying different things, until whatever your photographing looks more exhausted then you feel.

Photography 101: Lighting & Editing Decisions

Posted in Food Photography, Uncategorized by Donna on February 18, 2010

Full final corrected@440This is the final version of this photograph of lemon confit I did recently. It was lit with strobe lights, camera on tripod with a long shutter speed (1.5 sec.) to get the evening light outside the window. It’s been cropped and corrected in Photo Elements, which I will discuss next, but here is the lighting set-up:


This photo was taken with my point and shoot with the strobe modeling lights left on so that I could show how the lights effected the subject. When I took the photo, I turned off the strobe modeling and room lights so that the only available light was the evening light out the window.

The final photo I chose has a fill card in front to the right, but not too close, I like the contrast of the dark and bright salt areas—it looks more natural and less like a studio shot. Here are 3 uncorrected  versions: #1—no fill card; #2—fill card to the left about 1 foot away; #3—Fill card closer, just inches away from the bowl

3 @440

corrected example@440These 2 images above are from the same file. The first is the uncorrected file right out of my camera. The second is the file created in Photo Elements. The first thing I did was color correct the yellowish cast by using the “eliminate color cast” tool, reading an area in the salt to get a true white. I try and get the color balance right before shooting, but sometimes when mixing different temperatures of light, I get it wrong.

Then when I cropped the image to my liking, I found the dark vertical bar on the far left and top distracting, so, using the “rubber stamp” tool, I copied some of the blue light areas pasting them to eliminate all the black from the window frame and some other glare spots on the window glass.

Next I turned to the ” burn & dodge” tools to lighten and darken small areas. I love these and use them almost always. They remind me of my darkroom days and wish it had been this easy to do back then. I lightened the sky and jar base and darkened all of the glass areas where the glare made it look milky. I also darkened all around the jar base and corners, something I always do to keep the viewer’s eye focused on the subject.

Finally, I corrected the lighting levels slightly and added just a little contrast. I think this shows best in the glass top  and salt areas where it gives the image a little POP (don’t know the technical term for “POP” but it’s what a little extra contrast does).

What I didn’t do is touch the saturation levels. I recommend extreme restraint when it comes to increasing color saturation—we don’t want food that looks radioactive. In fact, as far as correcting photo files, you shouldn’t have to do a lot to them. You’ll get a better quality image if you spend more time on getting the original file as close as you can to being perfect, which of course nothing and no one is, so don’t be hard on yourself and have fun.

Available Light/Snow And Using Fill Cards

Posted in Food Photography by Donna on February 6, 2010


It snowed last night and at around noon today the sun was coming through a thin layer of clouds—perfect for shooting food with available light.

AV #1@440That’s the view out the window and that’s my setup for this photo. I did this just to talk about using available light, white fill cards and also I just wanted to take a photo of the cool pewter antique dish I found a couple of days ago.

AV #3

These two photos were both shot at ISO 100, F5.6, a 6th of a sec. shutter speed on a tripod. The first is just window light and the second has a white fill card placed to the right bouncing the light back filling in the shadows in front. You can see a big difference in the single clove’s exposure. I only used one board here but you could use 2 in front to fill in even more shadows.

AV #2Then I turned the garlic toward the light, moved the camera so that the light was now coming from behind it. First shot is just with window light, second one, I used the fill card to bounce the light back (you can see where the card is).  Less of a difference here. Front lighting is flatter and not as dramatic.

So when there’s a blanket of snow outside—open a window and think of it as your big soft box studio light. Grab some white boards and go play.

Buttermilk Dinner Rolls: Making Quick Decisions

Posted in Uncategorized by Donna on February 5, 2010

Rolls Fav@440

Today, this is my favorite shoot of these rolls. They were photographed last night before dinner, edited after dinner and delivered via email to Michael before I went to bed. I decided quickly and now I’ve changed my mind. I really want the table in the shot.

Another request to pull out the camera now because these babies are going on the table. In situations like this when you don’t really have time to consider what will make the best shot; out of pan, in the pan, cutting board, pulled apart, while buttering—not? The best thing to do is shoot away, try different things, and move as quickly as possible.

Rolls 5 @440

We decided we liked this shot—OK, but today I’m wondering if I should have cropped it tighter for his blog.

Roll 3@440After he brushed the butter on I played with the towel and angles.

Roll 2@440Then we took it out of the pan—um…like it in the pan better. OK, shoot tighter. In the end, we were happy, but I’m happier with the shot I chose today.

Getting Creative With Salt And Slate

Posted in Food Photography by Donna on February 3, 2010

3 salt types@440

When Michael asked me to do a salt shot, I thought, “what can I photograph the salt on that’s interesting and makes sense?” Salt—mined—rock—salt of the earth—Hey, I can use my Home Depot slate floor tiles. I bought some that are 12X12 inches and some 5X5 inches.  I’m the kind of girl who likes hardware stores so I have fun looking for interesting inexpensive surfaces and props just about anywhere.

And as long as you’re taking a shot like this to illustrate a point, take some others for future use.

SALT written out@440

I love these tiles so much I’m afraid I’ll use them too much. Here they are used for a bread shot taken not so long ago.

Sandwich Bread_2

I stood one tile up in back and blurred the crack line where they met in photoshop.

Completely Unstyled Roasted Chicken Photo

Posted in Food Photography by Donna on January 27, 2010

Chicken roasted in skillet@440

After the last shot that ran—Styled Chicken & Dumplings—I am so glad Michael asked for this roasted chicken shot that I just took on Monday. Every Monday Michael serves a roasted chicken, and when this came out of the oven, I decided we should quickly shoot it because;

1: He talks about roasted chicken a lot and we can’t keep running the same photo (even if David Lebovitz loves it). 2: It just looked so beautiful and 3: My lights were all set up.

Michael let me get two frames off before he whisked it away. You can see Michael’s hand towel on the handle because he had no intention of letting it go. Flash-flash, and away he went to carve away on his Boos cutting board.

I turned off my camera and lights and called the kids into dinner. Really. No fussing, no styling and no propping. We didn’t even need a trivet because I had a slate tile on the table already from an earlier shoot that day.

And,  most importantly, it was divine. Thanks Michael, you make a mean Monday’s roasted chicken.


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