How I Got That Shot: Putting the Sparkle in Bubbly

December 13, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Christopher Testani

Christopher Testani wanted his lighting to resemble “a warm ray of afternoon sun” coming from a nearby window, creating streaking highlights and long shadows on the set.

Client: Bon Appétit
Creative Director: Alex Grossman
Photo Director: Alex Pollack
Photo Editors: Elizabeth Jaime, Emily Eisen

© Meredith Munn

Christopher Testani. © Meredith Munn

Editors at Bon Appétit hired photographer Christopher Testani, a longtime contributor, to shoot several stories for last year’s Thanksgiving issue. “It was basically a week of shooting the well of the magazine [for] that month. Each day was broken up into shooting a particular story or section,” he recalls. He wanted to create a single lighting setup that could be rearranged or modified, depending on the story or the ingredients he was shooting.

Testani’s clients include Travel + Leisure, Martha Stewart Living, The New York Times Magazine, Real Simple, Dwell and Swanson’s. He says the common denominator in almost all his assignments—from travel stories to portraits—is a culinary angle. When he’s photographing dishes or recipes, he says, he’s more interested in shooting “a food photo” than “a still life,” preferring to show food that looks natural and delicious, rather than create a graphic composition. His esthetic, he says, is “enhanced realism.” He often combines window light with artificial lighting and strives to create directional light that looks natural and believable, no matter the light source he’s chosen. He has a few “go-to lighting packages” he relies on, and then tweaks the setup, adding gels or modifiers, depending on the subject or the mood of the story.

For a Bon Appétit story about entertaining before the big Thanksgiving dinner, he had to shoot some glasses of Champagne and cocktails. “I was envisioning a scenario where it was late afternoon on a November day, some cool ambient daylight was still inside the house, and maybe a warm ray of afternoon sun was coming through a window or curtain somewhere nearby, adding some beautiful highlights and long, directional shadows to the scene.”


Amy Wilson was the prop stylist, and Rebecca Jurkevich was the food stylist for all the Thanksgiving stories. In planning the pacing of the layouts, the magazine wanted a mix of overhead and three-quarters shots, but decided that, rather than showing the typical sideways shot of bubbles floating through a Champagne flute, Testani would shoot the drinks from above.

He wanted to shoot everything in camera, which would mean topping up the bubbles in the Champagne throughout the shoot. He wanted his lighting to cast long shadows as well. He notes, “A lot of drinks can look like something else that they aren’t supposed to look like.” His lights and gels helped him achieve the effect he wanted: “nice, bright, straw-colored Champagne.”


He started with a Profoto Pro Head with a 7-inch reflector and a ¼ CTB gel running on a Pro-8a 2400 pack. He placed the head on a stand about 6 feet high at the end of the set that corresponds to the top of the photo. He had the light point away from the glasses, and bounced it into a white foamcore wall. To diffuse the bounce light further, he suspended a 6×6 1-stop silk between the set and the light.

He needed a second light to create long, directional shadows and highlights in the Champagne. He placed a Profoto Pro Head, with 7-inch zoom reflector, 5-degree grid, and a 1/8 CTO gel on the same end of the table as the first light, but directed it towards the center of the set. He adjusted the height of the light until it created shadows of the right length.     

Testani says there was a lot of light bouncing off the white walls and ceilings. To keep it from affecting the density of the shadows, he needed negative fill. On some shots, he says, he’ll box his set in with foamcore—“not a complete 4×8 black box, but something close to that.”    

For the shot of Champagne glasses, he placed black v-flats on either side of the silk to help limit spill from his main light. He also placed a 4×4 black flag over the set to deepen the contrast and strengthen the shadows.


Testani placed a Canon 5D Mark III on a stand so it hung about 3 to 4 feet above the tabletop, and used a Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens. “I like the natural feeling of the 50mm lens and I like using a fixed lens in general, rather than a zoom. It offers better optics and sharpness.” He shot at f/11 at 1/160th of a second at ISO 100.

Post Production

Once the stylists have built up a set, they begin to adjust the elements, and Testani likes to photograph the whole process in order to capture many variations. “Sometimes it’s beautiful, then we work backwards through a process of taking things away. Or, [the set] gets built out and we say, ‘It’s not enough,’ or the scene has to be done a different way.” He shoots tethered, and likes to edit and process his images in Capture One. During the shoots for the Thanksgiving story, he noted his favorite captures to digital tech Meredith Munn, and the creative director and photo editors checked the monitor, making selections as the shoots progressed.

After a shoot, when he gets an order for high res files of the selected images, Testani likes to do his own color corrections and contrast adjustment, unless the job calls for extensive compositing. “I like to have control over it, because I think it’s very subjective once you get into hours of staring at a screen and thinking, ‘Is it too blue? Is it too magenta?” he notes. “I like the colors to be vivid, but not unrealistic.” The finished layout in Bon Appétit conveys the esthetic he strives to achieve.


How I Got That Shot: Food That Pops

How Christopher Testani Crafts Light for Mouth-Watering Food Photos

Create Spotlight: Gather Journal and the Theater of Food