Lighting Techniques

How Photographers are Bringing Life to Still Lifes

July 20, 2017

© Lisa Shin

To photograph ice cream for Häagen-Dazs, Lisa Shin shot on mirrored glass, using a hard key light and a secondary light to bring out texture. She uses the same approach with beauty and cosmetic products.

The demand for still-life photography goes far beyond product shots. Photo editors who need to illustrate a variety of topics are turning to still-life photographers to help them conceive and execute images that communicate ideas immediately. The growing interest in food, nutrition and the sourcing of ingredients has spawned new publications and a new openness to a variety of styles and approaches to food photography. Here we’ve excerpted some interviews with photographers specializing in food, products, splashes and pours to learn more about their techniques and the creative problem-solving they bring to their assignments.

Turning Objects Into Ideas

Photo editors at general interest magazines have trouble meeting the need for conceptual photos that illustrate a range of topics: columns on health, business, nutrition, finance and education all need new imagery in every issue. The challenge for photographers is to shoot an arrangement of still-life objects in a way that communicates a fresh and unexpected perspective. “How do you picture Alzheimer’s? How do you picture breast cancer?” asks Brenda Milis, veteran photo editor.

“It’s really hard to come up with an original visual that conveys an idea, is clean and is a cool image,” says photographer Adam Voorhes, an experienced practitioner of the genre. When Voorhes lands such an assignment, he’ll often collaborate with his wife, a prop stylist and former art director, to create graphic tableaux of objects. As Milis says, collaboration with talented prop and food stylists to create conceptual imagery is “hugely, hugely important.” To learn more about how other photographers and photo editors collaborate to produce conceptual still-life imagery, read the full article.

© Mitchell Feinberg

For a Marie Claire accessories shoot, Mitchell Feinberg photographed a set designed by Megan Caponetto. © Mitchell Feinberg

Collaborative Duos: Mitchell Feinberg and Megan Caponetto Put the Life in Still Lifes

Shooting still lifes requires as much artful composing as it does technical precision. That’s why a collaboration with a stylist is important. Their shared appreciation for adaptation and experimentation make stylist and fabricator Megan Caponetto and photographer Mitchell Feinberg a compatible team. Their partnership has produced iconic magazine covers and advertising work. “I think he and I both love very natural things, like the crooks of a rock,” Caponetto explains. “Things are never really 100-percent planned, so there’s this wonderful ‘What might happen on set?’ quality.” Such a dynamic requires flexibility from both parties. After Caponetto had spent hours working on one particular set
on an accessories shoot for Marie Claire, the duo recognized that the look wasn’t working. “It doesn’t matter how much time you put into it,” Caponetto admits. “If Mitch doesn’t like it, it goes in the garbage, and we find a remedy. There’s mutual respect, so that it doesn’t hurt either one of our feelings.” To learn more about the duo’s work and partnership, PDN subscribers can read the full article here.

Create Spotlight: Gather Journal and the Theater of Food

Michelle Outland, co-founder of the independent food magazine Gather Journal, wanted the publication to bring a different esthetic to culinary imagery. “Because I was brought up in the Martha Stewart world, I knew I wanted to try shooting food in a different way,” she says. Instead of photographing “by a window in a natural daylight kind of way,” she opts for the nontraditional and often hires photographers with little to no food photography experience. “My feeling is that food is theater,” she says, and she lets that perception drive the creative visuals that get published in the magazine. Whether it’s a dark and moody plate of scrambled eggs or a vibrant, high-contrast shot of a cocktail glass, Outland says, she’s looking for food still lifes that are “slightly more cinematic and fantastic.” In this interview with PDN, Outland breaks down her vision for the magazine, and how she’s finding and hiring photographers to help bring her ideas to life.

Marcus Nilsson on Creating ‘Lived In’ Food Photography

A former chef, Marcus Nilsson says he didn’t like food photography when he first transitioned into the career. “I thought it was too pretty, too perfect,” he says. But when he received his first food-related assignment from Gourmet magazine—they were recruiting fashion shooters to help remake the magazine’s food photography—he nailed it, and then started getting calls from clients looking for his gritty, crisply focused style. He’s come to be known for shooting a “lived in” look, for example, “a pastrami sandwich with a bite out of it and a greasy thumbprint on the corner of the plate.” He continues to evolve, however. While he doesn’t have a particular set of gear, Nilsson recently uses his Sony a7 for almost all of his work because it allows him to be “more spontaneous,” he says. “I don’t want to worry about underexposing or overexposing or being out of focus. I just want to focus on what my eye sees.” Learn more about Nilsson’s style and approach towards food photography in the full article.

© Lisa Shin

Lisa Shin’s photographs of ice cream for Häagen-Dazs. © Lisa Shin

How I Got That Shot: Capturing Perfect Scoops of Ice Cream

Photographer Lisa Shin often shoots beauty and cosmetics for commercial clients. On an assignment for Häagen-Dazs, Shin applied her beauty/cosmetic lighting to food. The campaign called for her to combine scoops of ice cream with ingredients that represent their flavors, such as a vanilla flower, a green tea flower or chocolate fudge sauce.

To execute her vision, ten freezers were brought to Shin’s studio. She froze each ice cream flavor to its perfect temperature, then scooped out a portion that got placed in a dry-ice container, giving the scoops time to harden before being photographed on a sheet of shiny glass. Some flavors required more lights than others, Shin notes. The chocolate liquid and the dark brownie, for example, required more illumination to bring out highlights. Working with Broncolor lights, she used a hard key light and a secondary light to bring out the texture. To shoot quickly, before her subject melted, Shin used a Hasselblad 501CM. To learn more about her setup and retouching process, check out the full article.

Will Anderson on the Dark Side of Food Photography

When Gather Journal first approached Will Anderson to photograph food for their inaugural issue, Anderson, primarily a fashion and portrait shooter, had to be honest. “I had never shot food before,” he recalls, but the editors weren’t worried. They wanted him to apply his own style—natural light, rich colors and visually stimulating imagery—to food, specifically wrapped foods, like tamales, and dumplings. “I didn’t even think of it as food in a sense,” Anderson says of the shoot. “I just approached it as creating an image that would be in the magazine. The food was secondary in my mind.” The assignment was a success and Anderson now has a burgeoning food photography clientele that includes Martha Stewart Living, The New York Times Magazine and Refinery 29, who often seek him out for his creative approach and ability to collaborate and enhance their concepts. Read the full article to explore how Anderson combines his experimental shooting style with various food-related assignments to deliver creative imagery.

James Worrell: Sketching Concepts For Editorial Clients to Gain the Attention of Ad Agencies

New York City-based photographer James Worrell has weathered many changes in the photography industry over the past two decades. That’s why, every few years, he reinvents himself to stay relevant. “Everything just changes,” he explains, “and you’ve got to roll with it.”

One such adaptation has been in the way he pitches his still-life work. He creates promotions that highlight his conceptual photo illustrations, in order to show potential editorial and advertising clients that he is someone they should be turning to at the beginning of an assignment—not just at the end when it’s time to shoot. “Everything is so hyperspecialized and there are so many photographers, especially in the New York City market,” Worrell explains. “By the time [the agency] calls you, they’ve looked at your website, they’ve looked at the agent’s website, they may have a few people in mind and so what we’ve been trying to do lately is…find out as much about the project as we can, and then we send them one of my conceptual booklets that might be appropriate for the project.” PDN subscribers can learn more about Worrell’s marketing strategy in the full article.

How I Got That Shot: Creating A Question Mark Out Of Champagne

Bill Cahill was hired to photograph a billboard for the Champagne Bureau that depicted a question mark made out of what appears to be Champagne. Cahill, who has extensive experience shooting splashes and liquids, teamed up with prop stylist Lisa Crockatt. Cahill decided to have a fabricator make a 3-foot hollow acrylic mold of a question mark that was roughly 5-inches deep and filled with Champagne. It was then rigged with black rods on the back that clamped to C-stands for the shoot.

To create the splashes, Cahill covered the floor with plastic and set up a backdrop roughly 10 feet from where the question mark was placed. His crew manually splashed cup-sized amounts of champagne over sections of the question mark. “With one big splash, there are a lot of problems. You aren’t able to get the detail you can with a lot of little splashes,” he says. He estimates that, over the two-day shoot, his crew used up to 200 bottles of Champagne.

Read the full article to find out how Cahill set up the lighting, logistics, capture and post-production of the shot.

Aya Brackett on Bringing the Art and Culture of Food to Photography

Aya Brackett says her food photography is often inspired by the culture behind the food, and that she’s always been “interested in food in its states of disrepair and decomposition and messiness,” she says. “I’m going to keep looking at the way the messiness of food suggests the story behind who made it, or who was eating it, or where it was eaten.”

To achieve her visual style, Brackett uses simple lighting (either natural light or one large artificial light to emulate the look of sunlight) and natural compositions because, she says, “I don’t ever want to do photography that feels like it’s been in the studio.” Brackett, whose clients include restaurants and cookbook publishers, among others, typically shoots from directly overhead or “straight into things,” she explains, and she will often “play a lot with negative space” so that her food photos “look like a painting.” To learn more about her inspiration and style, and how she applies that directly to her food photography assignments, read the full article.

Bobby Fisher on Defying Food Photography Conventions

Bobby Fisher doesn’t particularly enjoy photographing the “very pretty, very daylight-y, very Martha Stewart-y” style of food photography, he says. Instead, his approach to photographing food is “more about making a cool photo than making it look appetizing. I don’t care if someone looks at it and goes, What is that?” Fisher photographs food using dark, rich and earthy lighting, usually continuous lights, he says, like Joker Bug 400 or 800-watt lights, often with a Chimera Lantern Pancake soft box and v-flats. His clients include cookbook publishers and magazines looking for a fresh approach towards the genre—like the colorful, messy aftermath of some elaborate meal. Explore more of Fisher’s work and his collaboration with clients in the full article.