BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Illuminating Secrets to Mouth-Watering Photography

Contrary to popular belief, the key factor in achieving enticing images of food is not the camera you use and how many megapixels it has, but how you choose to light the scene.  For many professional photographers, this means buying numerous pricey studio lights, not to mention the never ending list of accessories, tools, and toys needed to properly manipulate the quality of that light. As more hobbyists have discovered a passion for food photography and food blogs became ubiquitous, however, this industry standard is rapidly changing. Preferring a softer, more “realistic” look as you might find the food in your own home, natural light is frequently the best choice for creating the most appealing shots, and one that I typically go with as well, despite easy access strobe lights. Knowing a few tips and tricks, put to use with plenty of practice, can enable anyone to capture luscious food photos worth drooling over.

The list of essential equipment is very short: A serviceable digital camera or camera phone, a dish you’d like to capture, and light are the only absolutely essential ingredients. For best effect, it’s highly recommended that you save your photo sessions for bright, sunny days, and aim to start shooting any time from late morning until sunset, for the best intensity of light to work with. Taking photos at different times of the day will yield varying results and some interesting, more atmospheric or moody effects, due to the higher or lower positions of the sun, so don’t be afraid to try different hours to see which you like best.

Though you’re always looking to use bright sunlight, avoid placing the dish in direct sunlight, as this will cast harsh shadows and highlights, making it difficult to properly expose. Make sure that all indoor tungsten lights are turned off so that subject doesn’t cast two shadows, giving the scene a clearly staged, unnatural look. Additionally, be aware of any ambient lighting inside that might cast confusing colors or shadows over the set. Tungsten bulbs, the most common type found in household lamps, can give off a slightly yellow-tinted light, as they range from 2500 – 3500 degrees Kelvin, so they’re never a good choice when photographing food.

It’s generally a good idea to arrange your food with the window light shining in behind it, to act as a back light. This tends to be most flattering, as it gently showers soft shadows evenly over the front, from the angle which you’ll be capturing it. The sunlight can also work nicely at either side, but if the light is too bright, it will give the food an overly-dramatic feeling, much like split lighting for portrait photography. As a rule, I never place the food so that sunlight hits it from the front, for the same reason that I would suggest never using the flash built into your camera: It flattens out the subject, giving a “deer in headlights” appearance. Font-flash is as unflattering on inanimate objects as it is on people!

If you find that the shadows are too dark, there’s still no need to bring out a secondary source of light; carefully placed mirrors can be just as effective, not to mention the fact that they’re far more budget-friendly.  By adjusting the mirrors so that they bounce the sunlight back into the darkest areas of the subject, you’ll be able to keep the same natural, soft lighting all over, but bring out more detail in the textures that would otherwise become lost due to low light. In a pinch, you can fashion a close facsimile with aluminum foil covering a piece of cardboard, folded and propped up at your desired angle. The same technique can be used with white poster board, or even gold fabric reflectors, to lend a warmer hue to  the image.

On the other hand, should you find that your window light is too “hot,” meaning that it’s blowing out the detail in the highlights, you can very easily diffuse it with everyday household items. Taping a large sheet of white parchment paper over the entire window will soften the light very effectively, as long as you ensure that there are no gaps where the light can escape and create a dappled look on your subject.  If there’s just one small area of your food that’s too bright, you can use the opposite tack as you would with mirrors; Use a black card, or piece of cardboard covered in black construction paper, angled to block the offending highlights. These cards can be cut to any size needed, so they’re very versatile.

With experience, the proper lighting setup will become second nature. With just a bit of creativity and a willingness to experiment, you’ll be able to create food photos that look every bit as delicious as the pros. Once you learn to master the light already at your disposal, the only thing you’ll need is a sumptuous dish to feature, and you’ll be well on your way!

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Flipping Over Pancakes

The greatest traditions of excess are born from their polar opposites, of fasts or famines, celebrating, repenting, or simply surviving. Shrove Tuesday carries that torch with unmatched enthusiasm, having evolved into an unrestrained eating and drinking bender, theoretically in preparation for the 40-day Lenten fast ahead. Pancakes are the star of the menu because historically, the fresh eggs and milk already on hand would spoil during that time of abstention, so the only reasonable thing to do would be to make massive amounts of flapjacks and throw a huge party, naturally. How this simple predisposition to thriftiness evolved into the revelry and debauchery of modern day Mardi Gras is a whole ‘nother story.

Those same concerns of preventing food waste certainly aren’t of primary concern for current festivities, but the universal love of pancakes has kept the practice alive. A simple sort of decadence, pancakes are as easy and uncomplicated as they come, making themselves right at home on the fanciest and unfussiest of tables alike. Regardless, it always feels like a special occasion when diving into a fluffy short stack, buttery and sticky with maple syrup. Despite their humble nature, countless cooks still find the prospect of flipping the perfect pancake rather daunting- Myself included. My own personal pancake disasters are too numerous to recount, but particularly infamous misadventures include scrambled pancakes, pancakes that are both raw and burnt at the same time, and pancakes flipped perfectly… Outside of the pan and literally into the fire.

For this Pancake Tuesday, I decided to seek advice from a master. Sitting myself down at Saturn Cafe with full view of the open kitchen, a few key elements for pancake perfection became clear.

1. Consistency matters. This means two things, actually: The viscosity of the batter is essential for the right texture. Too runny and you’ll get crepes. Too thick and you’ll get doorstops. Your best bet is a ratio of approximately equal parts liquid to flour by weight. The other component to this concept is that you should be consistent in your delivery. Use a ladle or measuring cup to dose out the same amount of batter every time, and space them an equal distance apart. Don’t forget to allow sufficient space to flip!

2. Take it slow. Pancakes already cook quickly so there’s no need to rush things. Keep the heat closer to medium-low to prevent them from burning on the outside before cooked all the way through. Look for the surface to be covered in ruptured bubbles before proceeding.

3. Add in, don’t mix in. Goodies like nuts, fruits, and chocolate chips are often the spotlight ingredients of truly decadent pancakes, but like any celebrities, they should arrive fashionably late to the party. Mix-ins stirred directly into the batter with sink to the bottom, creating some scantily clad pancakes. Wait until they’re about halfway done cooking before sprinkling your starlets on top, keeping them evenly distributed and at the center of attention.

4. Keep it on the down-low. When it comes time for the dreaded flip, don’t try anything fancy. Don’t expect to toss those little flapjacks in the air like pizza dough and don’t pretend that you can flick the pan forward to succeed without a spatula. Check to make sure that they’re ready by peeking underneath first. If the bottom is evenly golden brown, you’re good to go. Make sure the spatula is completely underneath and supporting the cake and keep it as close to the pan as possible when you turn it over. Be firm but gentle. Don’t slap it down forcefully, unless you’d like to redecorate your kitchen walls with raw batter.

If you have flour in the pantry, you could have pancakes for breakfast. The most basic formulas need little more than that to yield ambrosial breakfast treats, to dress up or down as your heart desires. There’s no reason to wait until Fat Tuesday rolls around to break out the skillet, but while we’re all throwing caution to the wind and pouring the syrup on thick, you might as well take advantage of the celebration to indulge.


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Shell Shocked

Whole coconuts are a luxurious culinary delight as much as they are potentially lethal weapons. Yes, you read that correctly. The humble brown-husked coconut, now fully immersed in popular culture and ubiquitous in even the most basic mainstream grocery stores, is ripe with potential… To maim or seriously injure the irreverent home cook. You’ve survived the harvest, cleared from the danger of falling coconuts that sometimes fall like bombs on the heads of unsuspecting beach-goers, but freed from the tree, that rock hard husk takes on an all new means of attack. If I were to add up all the cuts, gashes, bruises, and scrapes I’ve personally accumulated over the years of failed attempts to break into the delicious white flesh within, let’s just say it wouldn’t be a pretty picture.

In spite of it all, I keep on coming back for round after round of punishment. It was only after a sleepless night of internet searches that I thought to investigate a better way to get my coconut meat and eat it, too. Turns out, there is a trick to it. Just whack the damn thing. Seriously.

Put away the steel spikes, hammers, rubber mallets, machetes, and any other heavy artillery you thought was needed to break into those spherical fortresses. Just hit the coconut with the blunt side of a heavy knife a few times, all around the center, until it cracks cleanly into two perfect, equal halves. Catch the water in the bowl underneath and have yourself a victory toast.

With this radical new approach, I have all the coconut I can possibly eat. After drinking the water and using the meat to make coconut butter and coconut flour, I was left with the empty shells.

Nothing goes to waste around here, though, so they too became the focus of my restless mind. For the avid crafter and food photographer, what could be better than a brand new set of beautiful, organic bowls? The most difficult part of the project is sanding away the rough hairs on the outside. Once clean and fairly smooth, even out the edge just so that it’s not sharp, but allow some of the character of the coconut to remain. Strive for wabi-sabi aesthetics, not perfection.

You could stop right there and seal the deal with a food-safe enamel, or go over it first with a bold splash of colored paint. I went with a bit of glitz and glamor for this set, spraying the interior with gold before touching up the exterior with a high-contrast black matte. I know there will be many more where these came from, so the opportunities to unleash new color combinations will be endless!


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Fry, Fry Again

The title of “fried rice” is really a misnomer in most cases. Across a wide sampling of restaurant offerings from high- to low-end, this perennial takeout staple rarely, if ever, approaches a state close to being fried. Not deep fried, not pan fried, and in the worse cases, barely even sauteed. Merely warmed in a hot wok at best, it’s little more than a pile of stale, soy sauce-soaked leftovers tossed with a few limp vegetables if you’re lucky. While it’s true that even the worst fried rice is still reasonably satisfying, fulfilling the starchy component of a typically greasy meal in need of a carbohydrate foil, rarely does it stand out as extraordinary. Such a shame that this staple isn’t given just an extra ounce of respect to elevate it beyond the realm of mediocrity.

The trouble is, there’s a real art to crafting actual fried rice, complete with chewy clusters and crispy edges, and a certain brand of bravery required to crank up the heat to high. It’s not actually difficult, but demands a bit more finesse than simply tossing a bunch of grains into a skillet.

  • First of all, needless to say, rice matters. The number of varieties out there are as numerous and unique as snowflakes, but the best options for fried rice are sticky. Be it short or medium grain, sticky rice provides just the right amount of starch to sear nicely and create small, savory clumps.
  • It needn’t be day-old or leftover rice, but it’s certainly easier to work with if it’s not still hot. Freshly cooked rice is a perfectly fine candidate for frying, but let it cool a bit before throwing it back into the fire.
  • Give your ingredients room to breathe! Use a big enough wok or skillet to allow a good amount of direct contact across the grains; a 9-inch cooking surface can accommodate 2 cups of rice at most. When in doubt, break out the big guns.
  • Do not fear oil and use a good amount of it, even if you’re using a so-called “non-stick” pan. There needs to be a thin layer of it across the bottom, shimmering slightly, to make that golden-brown and crispy exterior happen.
  • Speaking of shimmering, your oil needs to be blisteringly hot before any grain ever touches it. Crank up the heat to high and get the pan so hot that it scares you. Start cooking and stop merely reheating that rice!

  • Once it’s in the pan, leave it alone. Don’t fuss with it, but give it some space to work its magic. Excessive stirring will prevent the starch from properly caramelizing or getting crispy. You can turn the heat down slightly if it’s starting to smoke, sure, but don’t move it for at least 15 minutes before flipping the rice over to cook the opposite side.
  • Add more oil if necessary. Do not fear having rice stick to the pan. Those will be the crunchiest, most delicious parts in the end.

It’s the kind of anything goes dish where no recipe is needed, and pretty much every vegetable addition tastes good. As long as there’s a healthy splash of soy sauce, perhaps a bit of sauteed garlic and ginger, you really can’t go wrong. The real beauty of fried rice is its versatility, no matter how you dress it up or down.


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Fun with Fondant

For someone who loves making layer cakes, my decorating skills are fairly deplorable. Sloppy, crumb-flecked swaths of frosting make up the base of every creation, a veritable ocean of sugary waves caught in a tsunami, leaping higher and rougher with every turn of the lazy Susan. Carefully fitted piping bags save me from utter embarrassment, covering up the worst of my frosting offenses, but even then my ability to create edible art is severely limited. Seashell borders? Simple rosettes? Done and done. Anything fancier and you’re out of luck. I can’t begin to recall how many grand plans for grand, sky-high layer cakes have turned into plain little cupcakes because of these shortcomings. The basic swirl is one technique I’ve managed to master after eight years of practice.


Naked Mint-Chocolate Chip Cupcakes (The “Before” Shot)

Considering my difficulty in this edible art form, I don’t know why I didn’t investigate different options sooner. Fondant has seen a huge rise in popularity over the years thanks to reality TV; every bakery special enough to get a slot in prime time seems to specialize in the stuff, peddling what seems to be more fondant than actual cake. Now it’s a startling rarity to find a wholly buttercream-covered confection, especially on the large scale. That said, it needn’t be as intimidating, as difficult, or as tasteless as detractors [myself included] frequently grouse.

Thanks to the kindness of Yolli, I was granted the gift of a few goodies to play with. Instantly, I was drawn to the enigma that is ready-to-roll fondant. Some contain gelatin, but those featured in the shop clearly list ingredients and even go so far as to label themselves as “suitable for vegetarians.” Though homemade vegan fondant is certainly possible, I wouldn’t venture to say that it’s either quick or easy. These colored rectangles of sugar dough take a huge amount of hassle out of the equation.

Even with the aide of meticulously designed fondant cutters, my first few flowers were laughably bad. I can’t say that practice made perfect, but I quickly saw the results improve with every additional petal. Most surprising of all was the flavor: Not dreadful! Sure, it’s mostly sweet and bland, but not nearly as loathsome as so many pastry aficionados claim, and quite enjoyable once dry and crunchy. Consider me a convert.

I would hardly consider myself an expert after just one attempt at sculpting, but there were a few tips that stood out in my mind as helpful hints to share with prospective sugar crafters…

  • Start small, stay small. Especially when you’re modeling individual pieces, rather than working on a big sheet to cover a cake, the key to fondant success is to only work with as much material as you can fit in your hand at one time. For all six flowers I created, including all of their multiple layers, a scant marble-sized piece was more than enough to do the job. Excess fondant dries out quickly, especially once rolled thin, making it crackle when re-worked and generally difficult to manage. After about 3 – 4 hours in a dry place, the pieces will completely harden like air-drying modeling clay.
  • There is definitely such a thing as being too thin. Roll out the sheets of fondant to perhaps a millimeter or two thicker than you’d like the final piece to be, because you’ll be stretching it subtly as you shape it. It may not sound like a lot on paper, but when you’re dealing with such fragile pieces, it makes a world of difference. This is especially true of bigger sheets that are used to blanket an entire cake. Corners and edges put a lot of stress on the plasticized sugar, so allow those pieces much greater girth than you would want for finer, smaller ornamentation.
  • Allow yourself plenty of time. Estimate that it will take at least an hour longer than you’d prefer, and then you might make a closer estimate of what sort of time is require to complete the job. Patience is critical; rushed sculpting is guaranteed to look sloppy, no matter how experienced the sugar artist is.
  • Be liberal with your use of confectioner’s sugar. Rather than flouring your counters before rolling out, it’s vital that the fondant is rolled out in confectioner’s sugar to prevent it from sticking to the counter. Excess sugar is easily absorbed into the dough, leaving no trace of the white powder in the end. Going too lightly on the application will lead to a sticky, frustrating mess. Don’t forget to dust the top of your fondant rounds, the rolling pin, and any cutting tools, too.
  • Toothpicks are your best tools. Keep plenty of them on hand to help punch out shapes that cling to the insides of cutters, carve out subtle impressions on leaves, and poke indentations or holes, depending on what you want to craft. They’re cheap, accessible, and helpful in any project. You don’t need to go out and buy a whole arsenal of specialty stamps and cutters; small cookie cutters work just as well, and provide a greater range of shapes in general.
  • Just try it! I’m terrible at sculpting, no two ways about it, but practice, sticking with simple shapes, and not over-thinking the process can create some sweet results.


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Brown Out

Of all the food styling challenges to darken any visual artists’ day, the exasperated complaint that a particular dish is “too brown” to photograph nicely comes up more often than the average eater might imagine. Considering how many edibles are naturally brown, not to mention that the act of browning through high heat is what makes scores of culinary creations truly delicious, that’s one huge stumbling block to overcome. Banish those old prejudices- Brown really can be beautiful! With just a little bit of planning and attention to detail, there are many ways to prevent a photographic brown out.

When scheming up the overall color palate for any shot, always first consider the color of the food itself. To allow the “hero” to stand out, you want something contrasting, but not jarring.

Think about the occasion you’re making the recipe for. Holidays often come with their own distinctive sets of hues, but try to go beyond the cliched green-and-red for Christmas or orange-and-black for Halloween. Try to picture the mood instead; shimmering white snow around the winter holidays for a more sophisticated palate, or earthy greens and coppery gold for the changing autumnal leaves.

Take the mood you’re trying to set into consideration, too. Fun, whimsical kid’s birthday cake on display? Go bold, bright, and vibrant with those shades! Cozy breakfast in bed with pancakes? Stick with soft, warm tones that echo the soothing morning glow instead.

If you’re still stuck for the perfect accent colors, consider the individual ingredients in your featured dish. Chocolate-cherry cookies bake up a muddy brown, but a vibrant red-violet background would get the point across quite nicely.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to art, but when all else fails, go back to basics. Simple white plates are invaluable for keeping the focus on the food, brightening up those darker shades, and preventing visual fatigue brought on by busy patterns. The same principle applies to white backgrounds as well. Subtle textures like stone, fabric, and wood prevent the food from “floating” in the frame, without fighting for attention.

Emphasize texture so it doesn’t appear flat, shapeless, and quite simply boring. Raking the light across the subject, rather than shining it directly into it, shows off all the nooks and crannies of a cake’s crumb, no matter how dark and plain.

Don’t forget about the garnishes! Nothing perks up a boring, bland-looking stew like a sprinkling of fresh herbs. That bright green color tells viewers, “Look, this is fresh!” no matter how long it’s been simmering on the stove. Depending on the flavors being featured, consider reaching for crushed red pepper flakes, chili threads, salsa, edible flowers, berries; anything that makes sense with the dish and breaks up that sea of flat brown color.

Although these are my most commonly employed tricks for managing a photographic brown-out, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative solutions. Every composition will demand something different, which is where the artistry of food styling and prop styling comes into play. When you have a brown situation on your hands, what’s your favorite fix?


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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?