How I Got That Shot: Food that Pops

June 21, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes


For a story on avocados for Refinery29, Aaron Graubart wanted to cast graphic shadows on a textured surface. He used a single Elinchrom 40 x 40 and took off the diffusion, so it behaved as a reflector and also cast double-ringed shadows.

Trained as a painter, still-life photographer Aaron Graubart likes to make images that are “colorful, graphic punchy and bold.”  He says, “I’m not interested in doing that gentle, soft focus. I don’t like mushy stuff.”

Clients like Captain Morgan, Dunhill, Marie Claire, Men’s Journal and Reebok hire him for his strong directional lighting, graphic shadows and his ability to capture texture. His assignments range from complex ad campaigns requiring large crews and multiple shots to be composited—such as the campaign he shot for Häagen-Dazs with the ad agency Goodby Silverstein San Francisco—to smaller product and food shots for editorial clients, such as the one he recently shot for Refinery29.

Whatever the shoot requires, however, he likes to find a solution that is simple. “I’m a firm believer that if you can do it with fewer pieces of equipment, then do it,” he says. He explained how he used minimal gear and directional lighting on two very different assignments that required him to make food look good.

CLIENT: Refinery29

CREATIVES: Erica Gannet, senior photo editor; Zoe Bain, senior food editor


Senior photo editor Erica Gannet had liked Graubart’s still lifes, and hired him to shoot a story on avocado recipes for Refinery29. Prop stylist Alex Brannian was on the initial calls with Gannet. “Alex is full of ideas,” Graubart says. One of her suggestions was to use varying shades of greens and aquas around the green avocados. Graubart wanted to incorporate textured backgrounds. “There has been a lot of work done in recent years with heavy shadows on really flat surfaces. I wanted it to have more of a sense of place and add some texture so the food didn’t look like it was floating.”

He notes, “Often with editorial, you still want to make a beautiful picture, but you feel you can experiment.”

The shoot took place in Graubart’s New York studio, on a tabletop surface. Brannian brought plates she had spray painted, and a variety of fabrics to try with each recipe that food stylist Jen Beauchesne made. Says Graubart, “For me, it gets interesting when you have a photo editor or art director and a stylist, and you’re all bringing something to it and you end up with something bigger than you went in with.”


Graubart wanted to cast the dark shadows next to the avocado dishes, so he placed a single light set slightly above and about 3 feet to the left of the tabletop. Graubart, who is English, says he’s been using Elinchrom lights since he began his career in London. For the avocado shots, he used the Elinchrom 40 x 40 centimeter softbox on an Elinchrom AS3000 AF head. “In this case, I took the diffusion off, so it’s like a reflector,” he explains. It was placed on a light stand so it was about 7 feet from the floor. Using the raking light—and no fill—he was able to pick up the texture of the elements. The modified reflector cast a double-ringed shadow onto the nubbly and silky fabrics the stylist had selected. “With something so still and set up, if it’s absolutely immaculate, it looks too perfect. It’s nice to have something a bit off,” the photographer explains.

When Gannet asked to slightly soften the darkest shadows, he pulled the light back. Once he had the first recipe shot, he tried to keep the position of the light consistent for each photo in the story.


Shooting for an online publication, Graubart chose to use a Canon 5D Mark II, with a Canon 24-105mm zoom lens. He shot at ISO 100 at f/16. It was set on a boom arm that extended from the top of his Manfrotto tripod so the camera was over the lower part of the table, but at a three-quarters angle to the dishes, rather than directly overhead.

Shooting tethered, he previewed his images on his MacBook near the set. He uses Capture One software.


Graubart says the retouching was minimal, and he handled it himself. “It pretty much ran as it came out of the camera.”

Graubart had to make sure the lighting was consistant across each element of this Häagen-Dazs shot—on the marble, the wooden popsicle sticks, and the ice cream itself, which were shot separately, and composited in post. To light it, he used a Profoto strobe and a medium softbox, this time with its diffusion material in place. “This was a much softer light,” says Graubart. © Aaron Graubart

CLIENT: Häagen-Dazs

AGENCY: Goodby Silverstein San Francisco

CREATIVE: Jim King, head of production


During the week-long shoot for Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Graubart had to make multiple shots that were composited in post. As on the Refinery29 assignment, Graubart was focused on “lighting and texture.”

To show a variety of flavors with mix-ins and swirls, he photographed pints of ice cream and chocolate-coated ice cream bars sliced in half. Graubart worked with the renowned stylist Victoria Granof on the shoot. “We had all kinds of contraptions to cut things with: We had saws and cheese cutters, we took some to an industrial butcher who cut some with a band saw, all because we had to get a very specific texture.”

Graubart, Granof and the team brought dozens of freezers into House Studios in Manhattan to keep each flavor of ice cream at the optimal temperature to achieve the right consistency. “Some ice cream flavors hold their coldness longer so you can get them in the shape you want, others melt in seconds,” the photographer notes. “It was February, so it was freezing outside, but we had all the windows open and all the air conditioning machines were on. Everyone was in hats and scarves to give us more time to work with the ice cream.”

To capture shots of the surface of each flavor, Graubart photographed numerous slices taken from large containers. He made multiple images of each flavor, looking for the right texture. When the shoot was done, all the leftover ice cream was delivered to the Bowery Mission, one of New York City’s longest-running food programs.


Graubart needed to get consistent lighting on each element of the Häagen-Dazs images—the marble background, the popsicle sticks, the ice cream slices—to make sure they could be composited realistically. To photograph the circle of ice cream bars, he first photographed each bar in the position it would appear in the finished composite. The shots were then composited together, and photos he had made of slices of ice cream were added in post.

“This was a much softer light than the [Refinery29] story, but it’s essentially the same technique,” he says. He placed a Profoto strobe and a medium softbox—with its diffusion material in place—to the left of the tabletop. He wanted the lighting to look natural, he says, “imitating the sun.”  To add slight fill and soften the shadows, he used small white reflector cards to bounce the light. The cards, which he cuts down in size when working on tabletop shots, give him a lot of control, he explains.


Graubart used a Phase One 65+ back on a Hasselblad H series camera with a Hasselblad 50-110mm f/3.5 lens. The camera was placed on an arm that extended over the table, positioned to shoot down into the center of the circle of ice cream bars. Jim King, then head of production at Goodby, was on the set. Graubart’s retoucher, David Miao, a frequent collaborator, came to the studio each day to review the day’s take.


“The art director was absolutely involved in every step of the process, not just in the selection but in conversations with my retoucher, step by step,” the photographer explains. Miao would send versions of the composites to Graubart and the agency, who discussed each step of the composite, and how they wanted every element to look, down to the chocolate chips. Graubart says of the creatives, “They knew exactly what they wanted, which was helpful.” The finished print ads ran in magazines and online.

See the story in the digital edition (for PDN subscribers; login required).

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