Recently I had the amazing good fortune to attend a food photo shoot for an international food market with the world-renowned food photographer Jon Edwards at his studio in Monrovia, CA. Also sharing the spotlight were preeminent food stylist Denise Vivaldo of FoodFanatics, her colleague Cindie Flannigan, with Jeff Parker assisting. I had never seen a professional photo shoot, so I was really excited, not only to see how it was done, but to learn some tips to improve my food photography. Be sure to check out Jon Edwards Photography website.
Here are the main characters in this story: (top) Jon Edwards , Denise Vivaldo, (below) Cindie Flannigan and Jeff Parker.
The studio is in a 4500 sq.ft., 2-story red brick building with a 20 ft. ceiling and a wall of industrial-style frosted glass windows that face south. When I arrived at 9:00 am every thing was pretty quiet, because the food packages and ingredients from the client’s commissary hadn’t arrived yet.
Here you can see how the camera and computers are set up. The digital camera is a Hasselblad H2 with a medium format and an attached Phase 1 Back (P45) digital sensor. That means it has a larger format and the sensor has a bigger file than a 35mm like my Canon T1i. The camera is tethered to the Mac computer (center), so the RAW photos can be seen immediately on the monitor.
To the left of Jon’s monitor is his assistant, Heather, who actually has three jobs, as Retoucher, Photo Assistant and Digital Tech. She is wired to Jon’s computer also, so she can do the post-production work on the photos. Heather has a BA in photography from Brooks Institute of Photography with an emphasis in advertising. Her work is amazing. More about her later.
The back quarter of the floor space is jam-packed with shelves of food photo props of every color and description.
The kitchen is adjacent to the photo studio area. Here it is, waiting in readiness for the food and ingredients to arrive. The food stylist’s equipment bags are on the floor in the corner. On the wall is the client-prepared list of what photos are to be shot, along with a description, such as if the shots are to be vertical or horizontal. They were crossed off one by one as the day progressed. In the middle of the work table was a foot-high stack of paper towels that had been ripped from a roll, with the sides neatly aligned. This food preparation area was meticulously neat and organized.
The client’s food finally arrived and Cindie and Jeff got to work preparing the first plates. While Jeff was working on cooking and beautifying some chicken legs, sausages and onion slices for the shoot later in the day, Cindie created this salad. She cut the stems off the spinach and arranged each one perfectly on the plate, then added the other ingredients. From there it went to the table in the studio in front of the camera. Behind the table is an 8-foot high piece of white cardboard used to reflect light, and a smaller piece clamped to a tripod. You can see Cindie painting the potatoes with oil to make them shiny. And Jon takes the shot with a remote. The clients looked at the photo on the monitor and gave their approval.
Here the hero arrives covered with a wet paper towel to keep the veggies from drying out. Jon shoots the hero and looks at it on his monitor. The other two photos I took and you can see that they tried one with white boards under it and the other with a brown wood table. My photos aren’t exactly like Jon’s because I was shooting over, under and beside his camera. My photos also don’t look like Jon’s because my camera is a measly little thing compared to his and I’m no photographer. But mine will give you the idea, so no laughing.
In the middle of the studio was a work table where the plates from the kitchen were placed until they were put in front of the camera. Also on the table was Denise’s styling tool bag, here a front and back view. The iron was used on napkins and placemats that needed a touchup.
Cindie prepares the pasta salad in the kitchen and in front of the camera Denise re-positions an olive with a long tweezers and brushes it with oil to give it highlights.
This was the moment of my epiphany for the day and where Heather re-enters the story. I took my shot of the pasta salad and was holding it up next to the photo on Jon’s monitor. His photo looked sunny and warm (on the right). My photo looked gray and lifeless (on the left). So I asked Heather to come and have a look and see if she could tell me why. “Oh sure, you have a problem with your color balance. Give me your camera.,” she said. So, she took my camera, pushed a couple of buttons, gave it back to me and told me to go back and take the photo again. So I did. Eureka!! It was golden and sunny (middle) just like Jon’s. I was just about jumping up and down. OMG! I asked her what she did, and she explained she changed the white balance from AWB to the “shade” setting. I never would have known to do this in a million years. Heather is brilliant.
The bowl of pasta and meatballs is sitting on the work table in the studio on a stack of possible placemats and napkins. They chose pokadots for the final shot.
The hero comes to the work table in the studio along with a tray of the hero’s components, which will be used by Denise to add to the hero if it needs it. Here you can also see how I took one photo on AWB and one with the “shade” setting to see the difference. The square of carrot on the right was added by Denise after consultation with the Jon.
Here you can see Denise’s tweezer repositioning the walnut half. The client was concerned that it was sticking up too far, so in the final photo it was lowered more into the salad. My photos are now very similar in color to the one on Jon’s monitor. Oh, I am soooo happy about that!
You can see how the component parts of the curly pasta salad came from the commissary in plastic tubs and Cindie carefully placing each piece. This gives you an idea how far the camera is from the hero. And I am in awe of the beauty and simplicity of the bread crouton and little sprig of rosemary which are used to garnish this dish.
The Chicken, Sausage and Burger photo was the grand finale for the day. This is very similar to the final money shot.
Cindie is using a hair dryer to soften the cheese on the burger patty. Earlier in the day Jeff was torching the barely cooked chicken thighs.
Cindie builds the burgers so they look perfect, with perfectly manicured bun tops.
The components for the last shot come out of the kitchen one by one and are assembled into an artistic array.
At the end of the day I wanted to get a photo of Denise and Cindie together. During the day there was no time because they were working in different rooms and were really busy. Well, these are two people who have a lot of trouble standing still and smiling at the same time. They are really wiggly. So the photos are more like impressionistic paintings. Think of it that way.
Thank you Jon, Denise, Cindie, Jeff and Heather for letting me share your work day. I am in awe of what you do. Especially your meticulous care in making sure the final work for the client is as perfect as you can make it. I learned so much, its amazing! And I hope I didn’t bug you too much by running around and photographing every little move you made. Thank you again.