BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Portraits and Paella

Cultivating an appreciation for portrait and people photography is one thing, and actually producing decent images on the subject is another entirely. It wouldn’t matter if not for the demands of various photography classes, most of which seem to be written with only one type of student in mind. Either everyone with a camera dreams of growing up to become a high school prom photographer, or some of these lessons are really missing the mark. Where is the passion for still life and commercial photography I find myself immersed in everywhere else? Sure, those basic lighting techniques taught with any sort of subject will prove handy once applied to other disciplines of the art form, but for now, courses entitled “People Photography” sound like one full semester of torture. Forced to face this glaringly weak point in my toolbox of skills, it’s turned out to be a learning experience in more ways than expected so far.

Just before winter break, the final project for a certain “Location Lighting” class demanded numerous shots of people and things in all different places, making for a mad dash around town with unwieldy light stands and giant reflectors in tow. Ultimately, I’m pretty sure it was one particular shot, taken within the comfort of my aunt and uncle’s home, that truly secured my grade.

The take-away lesson from this experience? Make the picture about food anyway! By adding this element of interest, and with the help of my very patient and tolerant Uncle Alberto, it was no longer the same frustrating process of trying to make a scene out of nothing. Now there was a story, and a subject I knew how to work with.

And let me tell you a bit about that subject: Paella. Vegan paella, packed full of fresh vegetables and vibrant yellow grains of rice, all infused with saffron. Redolent of onions and garlic, it’s a simple yet classic dish that must not be underestimated. Though there was a more traditional, seafood-filled version on the table alongside this one, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone seemed to have at least a scoop of the veggie version on their plates, too.

That would have been the end of this story, but then, for my birthday, a wonderful gift fell into my hands… My very own paella pan.

Thank goodness I already had a tried-and-true recipe to turn to, because I wanted to fire up that stove right away! My only alteration was to add a dash of smoked paprika, because I just can’t get enough of that stuff. The beauty of this dish is that it’s endlessly versatile, and pretty much any vegetables hanging out in the fridge will do just fine. Consider throwing in a drained and rinsed can of chickpeas for a bit more protein, too.

Uncle Alberto’s Vegan Paella

3 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
4 Cups Brussels Sprouts, Halved
4 Cups Other Assorted Raw Vegetables, such as Asparagus, Red Peppers, Zucchini, Mushrooms, and/or Artichoke Hearts
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 Cups Medium Grain Rice
4 Cups Vegetable Broth
1 Teaspoons Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1 Large Pinch Saffron
2 Cups Frozen Peas

Lemon Wedges, to Serve

Saute Brussels sprouts with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, a pinch of salt and pepper until cooked with hints of browning. Lightly saute the other vegetables for about 5 minutes and season to taste. Remove from pan and set aside.

In a paella pan or large skillet on the stove top, heat the remaining olive oil and cook the diced onion and garlic over low heat. Once translucent, add the paprika and saffron, and stir well. Add rice and saute for approximately 1 minute. Add Brussels sprouts, vegetables, and broth and bring mixture to a low boil. Season with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper, stir and cover. Cook for approx 20 minutes over low-med heat until the liquid has mostly been absorbed. Add frozen peas, stir into the rice, cover and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

Serve in paella dish with lemon wedges.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Smoke and Mirrors

ISO 100, f/3.5 @ 1/125 second

Canon Digital Rebel XTi
Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM
Calumet Genesis 200 strobe with rectangular softbox

Steam rising from a dish tells a powerful and immediately understood story: This food is hot, freshly prepared, and waiting for you to dig in right away. Few elements can elicit an appetite response as readily, even when the viewer is far removed from the scene itself. Let’s not forget what an elegant, dreamlike quality it can add to an image, thinking of it purely as an artistic element. No wonder why the above image garnered so many comments and questions! Capturing that natural steam, rather than Photoshopping it in after the fact, is so difficult that most professionals don’t even attempt it. It’s simply easier and yields more consistent results to hire a post-processing genius and paint in a smokey plume exactly as desired. However for the creative photographer up for a challenge, it’s completely possible and well worth experimenting with.

There are a few key elements for successfully photographing something as elusive as steam:

  • Use a dark background so that the smoke or steam stands out. Sadly, you will never be successful with this technique shooting on white. Think high contrast, high drama!
  • Arrange the set so that you have a bright back light or side light. Don’t use too much fill light, because you’ll flatten out all the detail, rather than show off the textures.
  • Most critical of all, have everything on the set arranged as you want it before you start cooking, so that you don’t have to fiddle around with the composition when the food is ready. That also means getting the right exposure (or at least, dialing it in as closely as possible) so you can just pick up the camera and start shooting. That is very important because…
  • You must shoot the food IMMEDIATELY! Don’t give it a chance to cool, don’t fuss around styling it for ages; just plate it and shoot it. A more casual approach works well for most steam shots, because they look like “a slice of life,” being served just as you might see it at home.
  • Don’t over-think it, and don’t psych yourself out. Yes, you must work quickly, but that’s no reason to freak out. If it doesn’t work, you’ll still get delicious images, just without the steam.

Perhaps the biggest secret of all, though, is that the food or drink doesn’t actually have to be hot or steaming. Yep, it’s true, I did cheat on the above photo. That coffee was about room temperature through and through. The trouble with faking it is the risk that your results won’t look as natural, but it’s a fun technique worth playing with at least once. Now, you’ll have to suspend your doubts for a moment and listen with an open mind, because that steam that seems to be rising from the coffee cup? … It came from a tampon, nuked in the microwave.

An unused, brand new tampon, of course! Soaked in water for a minute and then microwaved for 60 – 90 seconds until steaming, I hid it as well as possible just behind the mug and snapped away. As I circled in white above, you can see the tiny shadow that I couldn’t quite avoid, and then what it looked like on the set. (I placed the tampon in a jar lid so that it didn’t get the decorative paper wet.)

Adding steam separately like this gives you the advantage of working with food prepared in advance, and shooting multiple times without reheating and over-cooking the food itself. Plus, you won’t get any condensation on the rim of bowls or glasses. Just be sure to hide that tampon very well- It might be somewhat tricky to explain to the casual viewer.

Spelling out the setup here: I used a large softbox for the key light to the back-left of the set, a white board to bounce light back into the side, and then sunlight was the main light that came in through the window at the back-right corner. No mirrors were used to avoid strange circular highlights on the glass.

Trust me, it’s not nearly as tricky or complicated as it may seem at first!  Have you successfully photographed steam? Do you think you’d try it now?


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A New Year, A New VegNews

One week of silence passes by with such ease in real life, each day barely even registering before the sun begins to recede once again. In blog years, it feels interminable, as if I’ve been a bad blog parent and terribly neglected my poor baby. Fully immersed in book writing, it’s hard to stumble out of my cave and into the blinding daylight, back into the usual routine. In my absence, 2011 has come to pass, and now we can only work to get the most out of this new year. The cycle begins anew. Top 10 lists or “best of” countdowns are not my cup of tea, so let’s dive right in, shall we? After all, you can’t move forward if you keep looking back [-Or else be prepared to walk smack into a wall sooner or later.]

Kicking off 2012 on a high note, the January/February issue of VegNews has got to be one of my favorites yet. I may not have contributed a column, but things came together beautifully from a design standpoint, featuring my photos in the best way possible. Focused on a fresh and clean theme, with sights set on a dietary fresh start for those who many have overindulged over the holidays, it’s exactly my speed. Bright, clean… And of course, undeniably mouthwatering compositions. Each recipe was a winner by all accounts, but here are just a few choice shots.

Banh Mi, by Robin Robertson, is sure to please aficionados of this popular Vietnamese sandwich. Strikingly simple and fresh in flavor, it definitely has the edge on the competition, skillfully blending contrasting elements into a perfect harmony. “Spicy and sweet, soft and crunchy,” but let’s not forget simple in preparation and complex in flavor!

Raw Pad Thai, by Gena Hamshaw. My first time ever working with kelp noodles, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy they were to work with, and enjoyable to eat. A bit more toothsome than the typically wheat-based pasta, they do soften quite nicely after a few minutes of marinating in any acidic sauce. Though I feared it would be a nightmare to style this odd, translucent strands, they impressed me from start to finish.

Dark Chocolate Truffle Tart, by Beverly Lynn Bennett. A sure-fire hit with any audience, this dessert pulls out all the stops without any effort. Versatile to a fault, it’s a snap to dress it up with any accompanying flavor you fancy, too. Peanut butter, mint, or orange; Any pairing is pretty much fool-proof.

Based on the initial evidence, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is gonna be a good year.


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A Weekend in Wiesbaden

Calling it a “whirlwind trip” doesn’t really do justice to the unbelievable circumstances I found myself in just this past weekend; if anything, we came storming through Europe more like a tornado, touching down only long enough to buzz about busy Christmas markets near Wiesbaden. Forcibly removing myself from piles of work waiting at home, it was a welcome respite from endless homework and writing assignments. There may or may not have been one ridiculous, borderline outrageous impulse-buy that made the following photos possible, but can I tell you? After working relentlessly all year, it was worth it to totally spoil myself for the holidays.

The following are some of my favorite shots, snapped in Wiesbaden, Luxembourg, and the nearby surrounding areas.

Continue reading


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Cover-Worthy

Upon spying the November/December issue of VegNews, I couldn’t help but beam when I saw my photos on the cover! Yes, they are rather miniscule, but they’re still front and center all the same, and such a place of honor should mean a whole lot to any budding photographer.

Above image borrowed from Vegnews.Com

Some of my favorite shots from this issue include…

The surprisingly savory Dill Waffles with Beet Compote, by chef Jesse Miner, whom I finally had the pleasure of meeting a few months back. Let me tell you, this nontraditional breakfast or brunch offering will really cause a stir with early morning guests- I couldn’t stop eating them! Though I typically make big batches of waffles in advance and freeze them for later, these babies barely had a chance to even cool down before they were all devoured.

Gena Hamshaw brings the raw goodies as per usual, this time in the form of crunchy Almond Crackers and a very unique Orange Carrot Dip. The best part about this recipe is that it’s all-inclusive, providing an alternate low-temperature baking method in addition to the standard dehydrator approach. Both easy and elegant, they make for an excellent appetizer before a festive meal, or just a satisfying snack to tide you over on a busy day.

The real show-stopper recipe for this round was the Lasagna by Allison Samson, hands down. Layers of rich, homemade vegan ricotta and Parmesan, smothered with lovingly slow-simmered tomato sauce and all assembled in a towering noodle construction, it was a sight to behold. Though lasagna is one of my photo styling nemeses due to its often messy, unruly nature, this was a dream to capture, slicing beautifully, and showing off each layer with pride. This is the sort of recipe that would make anyone thrilled to eat lasagna instead of a grand roast on Christmas, even.

And that’s not the end of it, but before I go ahead and post the photos for the entire magazine, you’ll just have to check out a copy to see the rest. Don’t miss the holiday candy feature in particular! Though the photos came out looking fairly simple, it was quite a journey to get there. A highly worthwhile effort, I’d say!


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Food Paparazzi

Most comfortable in my quiet “studio” kitchen, working solo and in control of every single element from food to lighting, Wednesday evening’s photography job threw me completely outside of my comfort zone. Featuring many of New York’s premiere vegan restaurants, caterers, and other food organizations, the Healthy Food in Fashion gala promised extraordinary eats from many renowned chefs. Tempted, but intimidated, I balked at the offer; Event photography is not my area of expertise, to say the least. Upon learning that there would be another shooter covering the people, and all I had to worry about was the food, let’s just say that I couldn’t assemble my gear fast enough.

Learning on the fly, I got much more out of this evening than just delicious and memorable morsels. Here are just a few tips for anyone else acting as the food paparazzi for a glamorous (or everyday) event…

Arrive early… But not too early. I showed up a full two hours before the gala was set to begin, and to be honest, I was just in the way for at least one of those hours. Most of the chefs had yet to arrive, and no one had any food prepped and ready for its closeup. It’s definitely easier to get a head-start and begin shooting before guests begin to fill the room, but don’t go overboard.

Consider more than just the food. Yes, that’s the main reason that you’re here, but there’s so much more to the event as well. Snap a few shots of interesting decor, people interacting with the food, anything of interest. It helps tell a more complete story than just a few random plates floating in an ocean of green tablecloth.

Don’t photograph people while they’re eating, ever. It might seem like an interesting “action shot,” but 9 times out of 10, it’s just unflattering. For the remaining 1 time out of 10 it’s downright gross. Plus, it makes guests feel very uncomfortable regardless.

If you’re getting strange color casts from tinted lights, don’t worry about it. Seriously, there are more important things to concern yourself with, especially in post-processing. Don’t go nuts trying to remove the blue highlights caused by mood lighting; it adds ambiance to the photo, in my opinion.

Bump up that ISO, and don’t look back. I typically hate going above 200 ISO due to the grainy quality of the images beyond that, but it’s a sacrifice worth making in such a low-light situation. Since there is really no room to set up a tripod, you’ll have to hand-hold the camera the whole time. A higher ISO can make the difference between getting a useable image, or getting a blurry, out of focus photo due to a longer exposure time. For this event, I went up to 800 ISO.

Do use flash, but don’t use straight on-camera flash. A speedlite (or speedlight, for Nikon cameras) makes a huge difference because you can change the direction of the light. Direct flash will never be flattering to food, so don’t even try it. Always send the light behind you, over your shoulder, or above you, to bounce off of [hopefully] white walls or ceilings. This will help to soften and diffuse it. Also, it helps to get further away from the food if you can’t reduce the intensity of your flash.

Bring about a million backup batteries. That external flash eats them like candy, and there’s nothing more frustrating than having it not fire after you’ve lined up the perfect shot, just because the battery is running low.

Use either a telephoto or zoom lens, to give you some distance from your subject. This is especially helpful so that you’re not jostling hungry guests out of the way, and can stand back from the tables a bit. A macro lens could work if you have nothing else, but I find them harder to stabilize and get sharp images from without the aide of a tripod.

Grab yourself a plate of something particularly lovely, take it off to the side (or enlist a helpful guest to hold it for you) and arrange it nicely. This will help to switch things up, so all of your photos aren’t just big platters of many servings. Also, since you’re taking the food for yourself, you can go crazy and touch it/style it as you wish. And then, of course, you can eat it!

For the rest of my photos from the evening, plus descriptions of the edibles in the spotlight, you can check out my album on Flickr.

Have you ever acted as food paparazzi for an event? What are your tips for securing the best shots?

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