How Oriana Koren Lit Photos for a Non-traditional Food Story for California Sunday Magazine
September 20, 2017
For a California Sunday Magazine story, Oriana Koren lit a dark kitchen by setting her Speedlight on the refrigerator and bouncing it off the ceiling.
Plates of lobster and crab grilled cheese, from Koren's story for California Sunday Magazine.
The chef of Three Stakxs Kitchen prepares for a lunch crowd in the back of a Vietnamese boba bar where he rents workspace. Koren says, "I wanted to show the creativity of people who have always worked in the food industry but don’t get the attention that a new restaurant in a ‘hip’ neighborhood does.”
The chef behind A Taste of Chyna, in the parking lot of her Inglewood home. Koren say she didn't want the lighting for the story to be too gritty. “Too gritty for me is that super poppy lighting and harsh shadows," she says. "I wanted a little of that element, but was still conscious of where the shadows were falling.”
Client: California Sunday Magazine
Photo editor: Paloma Shutes
Client: Ostrich Farm, Los Angeles
Food photographer Oriana Koren says when editorial and restaurant clients hire her, “They’re coming to me for a mix of editorial sensibility and documentary storytelling.” On assignments for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Lucky Peach and Los Angeles restaurants such as Odys + Penelope, Kismet, LEONA and Sotto, she captures the workings of the restaurant “from the back of the kitchen to the front of the house.” She typically has to shoot in confined spaces with less than ideal lighting.
Koren recently shot her first assignment for California Sunday Magazine. She had pitched the story idea to photo editor Paloma Shutes: a look at underground chefs in South Central Los Angeles who are using Instagram to promote their businesses and their menus. In coverage of the food industry, Koren notes, “There’s an erasure of contributions by marginalized groups, especially people of color. I wanted to show the creativity of people who have always worked in the food industry but don’t get the attention that a new restaurant in a ‘hip’ neighborhood does.” Underground chefs produce professional quality food without professional equipment. Koren drove around the city, photographing chefs who prepare food for catering, delivery or take out using home kitchens or small spaces they license from convenience stores. One chef whose customers “drive from all over LA to have his seafood boil” uses three burners in a hole-in-the-wall space he rents from a bubble tea shop.
Chefs Malachi Jenkins, a culinary school graduate, and Roberto Smith, co-owners of Trap Kitchen LA, are among the most famous underground chefs in LA. Koren notes that they’re former members of rival gangs, which has attracted some press attention—and in turn has brought them several celebrity clients who hire them to cater events. The day Koren arrived at Smith’s home, he was parboiling meat to bring to an event they were catering for the rapper, songwriter and producer Future, who had requested a traditional barbecue.
Koren says she honed her techniques for using speedlights during the five years she was shooting weddings in Chicago. “I realized that a lot of wedding photographers were billing themselves as ‘natural light photographers,’” she says, which meant they couldn’t use flash. “I wanted to be able to be thrown into any lighting situation and be able to kill it,” she says. She had trained with strobes in college, but she bought a copy of photographer Syl Arena’s handbook on speedlights, some Canon Speedlites and stands, drew lighting diagrams, and experimented with remotely triggering her lights. She then applied studio lighting tricks to weddings. In the process, “I learned the importance of balancing your flash with the ambient light to get pleasing images.” After she moved to LA two years ago to focus on food photography, she used portable speedlights to create images of high-end restaurants and document the action in hectic kitchens under harsh lights.
Koren says she often uses one or two Speedlites when she needs fill. For example, when she was building her portfolio of food images and wanted to demonstrate her ability to style plates, she approached restaurants she liked and asked to shoot their signature dishes. Ostrich Farm needed an overhead shot of their breakfast menu, and Koren wanted an overhead shot for her book. She arranged the plates on a marble countertop, and asked staff to reach into the shot. Windows behind the subjects provided some lighting, but to fill in shadows, Koren set up a Canon 580EXII to the left. With the light on manual mode at 1/8th power, she bounced it into a wall she created using white poster board she cut to fit and stood at the opposite end of the counter. The result was a soft, even lighting that suggested a sunny morning. The restaurant licensed the shot for an online ad.
After approaching many restaurants, within six weeks she had a portfolio of styled food shots ready to show clients.
To provide some guidance for her California Sunday Magazine assignment, Shutes pulled images from Koren’s food portfolio and created a PDF that suggested the kind of lighting and setups she wanted. In going over the logistics of the shoots, they discussed the possibility of using on-camera flash. In many of the photos she took, Koren bounced off a wall, ceiling or card. “I didn’t want it to be too gritty,” she explains. “Too gritty for me is that super poppy lighting and harsh shadows. I was conscious of not using certain lighting tropes I’ve seen. One is that poppy light where you can’t see the food. I wanted a little of that element, but was still conscious of where the shadows were falling.”
When she arrived at Smith’s home for the shoot, she recalls, “All his kids were home,” plus he was busy preparing for the barbecue. The room was cramped, so she placed a chair next to the refrigerator she could stand on in order to get the whole scene in the frame.
“There was no light in the kitchen,” she recalls. She originally tried opening the back door to let in sunlight, but that alone made Smith, in the center of the kitchen, too backlit. “So my flash was the main light.”
In preparing to shoot, “I always set up my exposure for ambient first and then decide how much light I need.” She estimates how many stops of light are lacking in a scene, adjusts her lights and then makes test shots.
In Smith’s kitchen, she placed a Canon 480EXII on top of the fridge to camera left, and used it in E-TTL mode and zoomed to 80mm. She rotated the light and tilted it 45 degrees so it hit the kitchen’s white ceiling. “I had it at 1 ½ power because I needed that to make it seem like there was a light in the kitchen,” she says.
As she was shooting, Smith’s little boy toddled through the door, and was backlit by the sunshine he let in.
The light that bounced off the ceiling illuminated Smith’s face when she asked him to look up, and also illuminated the food he was preparing. That gave the shot some of the grit she and Shutes had wanted, “but enough polish that it looks like something I’d deliver to a high-end restaurant.”
Koren shot both the Ostrich Farm image and the shot of Smith’s kitchen with a handheld Canon 5D Mark II and a Canon 24-105mm lens. The overhead food image was taken at 1/100th at f/5.6 and at 35mm. “I dragged my shutter as much as possible to get ambient light,” without adding blur on the hands of the subject or blowing out the highlights.
The kitchen shot was at 1/125th at f/8 and at 24mm.
At the end of each day of the five-day California Sunday Magazine assignment, Koren reviewed her images and sent a selection of low-res images to Shutes for feedback. “There was constant communication,” the photographer recalls.
Koren brings her images into Lightroom to tweak colors and contrast or remove minor flaws. “If there’s anything that needs to be retouched, I’ll do that in Photoshop,” she says, “but about 90 percent of my post is done in Lightroom.” When she’s finalized her selections, she sends them to the client for review.
Her underground kitchens story appears in the August issue of California Sunday Magazine.