One of my favorite photography blogs, www.strobist.blogspot.com
, featured an article on food photography this past summer. I had always imagined food photography to be a simple process. However, the steps described in the article revealed an elaborate and complex art form. Shortly afterwards, Strobist announced a challenge, “For this assignment, you should be looking to create a mood -- to make a photo that would look at home on the cover of a high-end food magazine.”
Searching my cupboards for a simple and easy food to prepare, I decided on oatmeal. Old fashioned oatmeal isn’t exotic or challenging to cook. However, I imagined that with some creativity, it too could appear on the cover of a food magazine.
Oatmeal is also one of my favorite foods for breakfast year-round. Topped with a generous amount of brown cane sugar, raisins, and real butter, oatmeal is delicious. Each warm and creamy bite melts in your mouth. I wanted to convey the wholesome warmth, the creamy texture, and sweet flavor.
Thinking for several days about how to present my "masterpiece", I settled on an idea. Imagining a colorful summer outdoor scene, like one that might be found at a rustic restaurant or home patio, a simple bowl of oatmeal would be adorned with delicious toppings and transformed into an awe-inspiring breakfast.
The next morning, I began setting up the photo shoot. First, I began heating some water. While it heated, I pulled out a small round wooden table and set it up outdoors. The summer day’s green tree leaves and grass complemented the light-colored wooden planks of the table.
Gathering two wooden chairs and a beige table mat, I set them outside around the table. I leaned down to the height at which I would photograph the scene and checked how it would look. Something was missing. The scene needed something else to add depth. I decide that a small vase of flowers behind the beige table mat might add interest.
As the water began to boil in the kitchen, I knew that timing was tight. I quickly grabbed an empty clear glass vase and ran into my backyard. Collecting a few yellow and white flowers, I quickly put them into the narrow vase. On my way back through the kitchen, I convinced a family member to help stir the oatmeal. He drove a hard bargain, but I gladly agreed to give him half of the oatmeal after the shoot was over.
After placing the flowers on the table, I looked over my check list. Next on the list, I needed to gather the toppings. Grabbing a bag of raisins, I poured a few onto a white saucer and very carefully crafted their disorderly appearance into a neat mound. Unable to resist the allure of the soft stick raisins, I admittedly snitched several during the mound’s construction. Hoping to add a little variety to the predominantly tan and brown colors of the oatmeal and toppings, I also added a colorful fruit. Though a little ripe and soft, the peach’s brilliant orange and red colors were nearly perfect. After cutting the juicy fruit into small wedges, I carefully arranged them around the rim of the white saucer beneath the bowl.
Back at the stove, stirring swiftly with steam billowing around him, my helper soon informed me that the oatmeal was ready. As the creamy oatmeal was poured into the bowl, I carefully formed its shape into a handsome dome. A handful of brown cane sugar crystals and a few raisins were sprinkled in a ring on the surface. The oatmeal needed to be photographed while it was still moist and hot. However, adding the real butter now could mean that it would melt before its picture was taken. Taking that chance, an extra thick slice of butter was cut and added to the middle before everything was hurried outside.
Outdoors, the beige place mat was positioned on the table so that the sun shown directly behind it. The low morning sunlight gave it a three dimensional appearance by bringing out the textures of the raisins and oatmeal. However, at the same time, this created a dark shadow in front of the bowl and saucer. All the beautiful bright red and orange color of the peach wedges was lost in shade. To balance the lighting without losing the texture and detail of the food, additional lighting was needed.
The best way to provide extra light was with a small battery-powered camera flash set to the side. Not wanting to hold the flash the entire time, I mounted it on a tripod. I also connected it to a wireless trigger so that I would not have to reach over to manually fire it each time. Next, I took several test pictures and fine tuned the flash’s position until the bowl and saucer were evenly lit on the left side. The right side of the bowl and saucer, however, still needed a little extra light. Unfortunately, I did not have another flash to use. Remembering how well paper reflects light, I quickly grabbed a piece of poster board. Using the bright white poster board as a less powerful light source, the large sheet was taped to a chair on the right side of the table. I carefully angled the chair and sheet of poster board until it reflected some sunshine into the shadows on the right. I was almost ready to take pictures.
Peering through the viewfinder of my camera, I experimented with different angles and distances. I carefully adjusted the camera lens and focus settings so that everything behind the bowl would recede into a blur. Many of the distracting details, the flowers, chair, and edge of the table, were smoothed into a creamy background. The main point of interest in the image was suddenly centered squarely on the white bowl, saucer, peaches, and oatmeal - just what I wanted.
Later that morning, after the photo shoot was over, my helper and I enjoyed our special breakfast. The melted butter had made a shiny glaze over the top of the creamy oatmeal. Everything tasted as good as it looked.
During the process, I learned a new appreciation for food photography. Food photography involves more than just regular food and more than just a spontaneous snapshot. Every time I see a photo of food, I think of what went into making it. These images, like my own, no doubt took creativity, planning, and timing to succeed.
I have been delighted to sell a few images from the “Oatmeal” series on Dreamstime and other photo sites. Who knows, perhaps these images really will grace the pages of a food magazine someday. Even if they don't, I certainly enjoyed making them.