Food Photography: My First Outdoor Food & People Shoot

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I'm a novice food photographer.  This is my food photography journey and a story about my first attempt to shoot food and people outdoors.  It's billed as Ladies Grill For Breakfast (But We Ate At Noon!).  No, it wasn't the consumption of the tequila sunrises we dranked at the beginning of the event that delayed getting the food to the table.  There were some successes and some disasters! 

Every opportunity to do anything, especially anything new and different is an opportunity to learn.  Here's what I learned.  And here's my "Do" list.  (Note: I refrain from using "Don't" because who needs more of that!)


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The shooting took place at in outdoor kitchen in my community.  Last year, management installed this lovely structure.  You can't see it in the image but just behind the chairs, is an outdoor brick rectangle firepit overlooking one end of a small creek.  Comfy rockers surround the pit. 

The outdoor kitchen has two large gas grills, two counter bars, granite tops, and tables and chairs.  It's surrounded by trees but many days it's the structure is bathed in sunlight.

It's a wonderful setting just begging to be photographed!  

Here are my Do's when photographing food and people outdoors

  • Site Reconnaissance.  As one of my photography mentors put it, on any photo shoot, if possible visit the site once or twice ahead of time, "reconnaissance missions," and take shots. I'm so happy I took the advice, visited the site and took photos once about the same time of day the event would take place.  A "reconnaissance" can reduce stress for the real event.  It gave me a chance to note ligthing needs, amount of space for equipment, and the movement of the sun. 
  • Lighting Outdoors Under Covered Structures.  I quote, for "big scene" shots that will include people milling about the grilling activity, set up two good off-camera strobes at 1/2 to full power 10- and 2-o'clock positions that are far enough away so they won't be in-frame."  Well, I only own one speedlight but thought I could use my favorite 25" diameter China ball with it's 75 watt daylight bulb.  Not so!!  It turned out to be a breezy day.  I could barely keep the light stand upright, not alone a China ball on a boom arm in place!  That brings me to the next "Do."
  • Sandbag(s).  Although I had done my site reconnaissance, I had overlooked the possibility of a breezy day.  For days, there had been little to no breeze in the area. I didn't want to drag along yet another piece of equipment and didn't take sandbags.  Sandbags would have held down the light stand.  So with every breeze, I or someone else was grabbing the light stand; still, light stand, the speedlight and umbrella were blown over a couple of times which finally dislocated the battery door on the flash.  Luckily I was able to repair the speedlight.  Do bring a sandbag or anything that will stabilize a light stand.  If necessary or possible, assign someone to just hold onto that light stand.  Better safe than sorry. 

  • Framing A Group Of People.  Fill the frame or as my mentor noted, make the image tight.  Note in this first image all the negative space versus the second image where I cropped it to fill the frame.  I really wanted this image to include everyone.  My question or my homework is to practice at developing an eye of grouping people to fill the frame.  But group people to appear natural rather than staged.

Although I had cropped the top and the bottom of the image, there is still a lot of distracting negative space in the background.  

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The image below is the tight crop and really draws the eye to the center of the story, mixing tequila sunrises.  Frankly, I don't like cropping too much from an image because it reduces pixel.  For me, DO learn to shoot to fill the frame!

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  • Take the Widest lens and Be Intimate With It.  I know this should be obvious and it's not that it didn't cross my mind.  Aside from the kit lens, which I almost never use, my lens collection for food photography is a Canon EF 50mm prime 1.8 STM and a Canon Macro lens 100mm prime F2.8L.  While I have so much more to learn about these lenses, I feel I know them and what to expect.  And I LOVE them! 

    For this event, I really needed/wanted a wide prime angle lens.  But my budget was tight.  So just days before the event, I purchased a used inexpensive old model wide angle Canon EF zoom lens 20-35mm F3.5-4.5.  It's not a bad lens but I'm use to working with a prime lens!  I had very, very little time to check it out when it arrived.  I wanted to use it for flat lay images.  In trying to shoot with the lens, I had one disaster after another.  I had problems mounting the camera on the boom arm.  I fidgeted a lot with settings--AF or MF, where's that manual focus ring again, the light stand blew over again, and on and on it went.  I couldn't even manage the focal plane correctly!  A wide angle lens, as I learned later, is a great lens for creative shots, particularly for separating the foreground from the background.  We, my wide angle lens and I, will definitely become intimate.   

    I took my 50mm which was attached to a second camera but I didn't use it.  I had considered making a video of a couple activities.  Perhaps I need to add another "Do" : reign in one's ambition? 
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  • Learn to Use A Filter.  I call this hindsight learning!  In the image below, note the blown out background.  First, because I didn't have sufficient lighting (see Lighting above) to light my adorable patient model and didn't have a filter for the background, I was forced to adjust my setting only for the model.  If I had made my settings for the background, the model was literally in the dark.

    Allan Weitz writes in his article A Guide to Filters for Lenses, at B&H Photo Video, the primary use for filters is to improve the quality of the image.  There are many types of filters from clear to color-tinted lenses.  As of this writing I'm still researching the best filter that would have allowed me to improve this image.  I can only encourage you to start with Mr. Weitz's article.
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A filter would have also helped in the shot below with aluminum foil. Could I have made two shots, one for the foreground and a second one for the background, then used a stacking feature in Photoshop?  Yeah, possibly! 

Next photography purchase:  at least one filter for shooting food outdoors on a sunny day.

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  • Be Kind to One's Own Work.  All was not lost as I had discovered when I reviewed the images of some of the foods.  These were taken with the macro lens.  The image of the tomahawk ribeye steak on the grill is a little too tight.  I was trying to shoot it with the flames licking around the steak.  A discussion on that effort leads to a problem with the tabletop gas grill which I won't discuss here.

    Anyway, seeing food close up, highlighted to a mouth watering invitation always brings a smile to my heart.  
vegetable kabob on the grill

vegetable kabob on the grill

swordfish kabob on a grill

swordfish kabob on a grill

tomahawk ribeye steak on a grill

tomahawk ribeye steak on a grill

What's my next move for shooting food and people?  Keep it simple and go to a farmers' market.  

You may also be interested in these Food Photographer's Journey entries: