The exercise brief was to photograph a Sandwich somethingsomethingSixByTwelveorsomething somethingorotherTextUpperLeftorother…. I kinda lost track after “Sandwich” to be honest — I had already decided there would be BACON in this shoot!
Photographing food comes with certain benefits and special “considerations” (aka difficulties). Among the benefits may be post shoot snarfing, if care is taken keep everything edible and safe. Among the considerations are specialized styling techniques, and the fact that it is just like a normal product shoot except that the product’s aesthetics and attractiveness degrade within minutes or even moments.
Preparation is key for both the food and set. Sketching the ideas well ahead of time, knowing the constraints (layout, time, the food’s usable ‘dwell time’ and so on). The set, props, lighting all need to be designed, tested, and finalized so the food can be shot immediately when ready for the set.
I made some rough sketches of ideas for the image itself, and lighting diagrams that should support them days before the shoot, and gathered the props. Some stacked layers of folded felt in different colors served as a stand-in for initial lighting test work. A day or so before the burger shoot, I assembled a pastrami and swiss sandwich to (a) dial in the details of the lighting on real food, and (b) to have for lunch afterwards. Styling food is a specialized skill which I do not pretend to possess, but doing it on my own, researching methods and approaches, well, it helps me to understand the scope of such work, and allot the correct amount of time for it in the future. With sandwiches, a particular issue is to reveal and present all the components of the sandwich clearly. If some beautiful lettuce leaves are hiding the beef patty, then the viewer may have no idea what kind of sandwich it is. “Where’s the beef?”
So I worked with the pastrami sandwich, positions of lights and camera, exposure settings and a representative styling approach to get everything ready. Lots and lots of test shots later, I ate the sandwich as I retouched the image (presented below for reference).
On the morning of the shoot, I prepped the workspace in the kitchen for the burger assembly, and then headed off to the take-out counter of our local Famous Dave’s BBQ. I ordered two identical burgers, and asked for buns and such to be kept separate. The restaurant manager taking the order got a quizzical look at that request, so I explained my intentions. She was excited & enthusiastic, and went well out of her way to help me. She asked the chef to make the patties with cheese look beautiful, and she had every single element of the burger wrapped/packed separately (something I was too hesitant to ask for, but which really helps). The menu item I ordered is a cheeseburger with jalapeño bacon and pulled pork bbq to top it off. She included some regular bacon for me, as the jalapeño bacon is blackened. I thanked her profusely and promised to show her the result.
I rushed home and began assembling the burger from the best of the two sets of finished ingredients, only to learn that we had left out the pork. In the time it would take to go get it, the rest of the burger would no longer be fresh enough to shoot. I needed an instantaneous Plan B, so I built a double bacon cheeseburger, placing the lettuce, pickles, bacon, and tomatoes carefully. It turned out to be critical that she had provided regular bacon: the jalapeño bacon was, in fact, too dark to be recognizable in the stack, so I switched it out.
Carrying the assembled sandwich oh so carefully to the set, I placed it on the mark, fired off a test shot, made a couple small adjustments to the fries. After about one hundred and forty test images made over several days (including the pastrami sandwich testing), I got the final burger image on the sixth shot, within three minutes.
After reassembling it into two separate burgers, I ate both of them as I began processing the image.
In case you’re wondering, they were delicious.
In case you’re wondering further, yes, I made a print of the image and took it to the manager: she was delighted and hung it on the wall in the take-out area.
all images/content © Bret Doss, all rights reserved
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