Oct 05

Anatomy of a 365 picture

I have been doing a 365 photo project this year. I committed to taking one picture every day throughout the year. I thought it might be interesting to occasionally share my process to see how I arrived at my finished photo.

A picture of the day from early January

First, as happens so often, I started asking myself the question “What should I take a picture of today?” It was coming on dinnertime and rather dreary and wet outside. I was on dinner duty and making macaroni and cheese – real comfort foot on a gray day – so I thought that perhaps that would make a decent picture. Now I’ve been taking a picture a day for over nine months now, so I wasn’t sure if I had perhaps already taken such a picture, so I checked my 365 postings. I found that I did a macaroni and cheese picture in the very first month, but that was a picture of ingredients; the finished product had not been shown, so my idea was viable. Time to take the picture.

I gathered my camera and put my 24-105 f/4 lens on it, then got my Speedlite 580ex II. Often, when I’m taking an photo indoors I will pull out my external flash so that I have more control of the lighting. Natural light is certainly possible, but then I have to use a tripod or else boost the ISO way high, and even then I don’t really have any control over the quality or direction of the light, so out comes the external flash. With my Canon 60D, it has remote flash capability built into the camera, so I can set it up so that the external flash is triggered by the camera without any wires at all. I also have control of the flash compensation of the flash, as well as whether the built-in flash triggers as well. In this case I opted for the external flash alone. If I didn’t like the results I could modify my setup later.

Macaroni and Cheese as a texture

The dish was done and had just come out of the oven in an iron skillet. I tried composing a shot of the mac & cheese in the skillet, but it didn’t really work – it was just a sea of texture in the pan and just wasn’t very recognizable or interesting, so my first thought was to zoom in further. I wasn’t very happy with the result. It made for an OK texture and – technically – I had now satisfied my picture of the day goal, but I thought I could do better.

Adding broccoli made a much better photo

I decided that it would be much more interesting to have a serving on a plate with some broccoli to add green. As soon as I started to lay out the broccoli I could see the image coming to life. I remembered something I once heard about food shots – how they were all staged. For example, in a macaroni and cheese picture (that used real macaroni, not these squiggly things), they would rotate every piece of macaroni so that the hole wasn’t facing the camera. It’s true. If you can find a picture in a book or magazine of macaroni, you’ll see that the holes aren’t facing the camera. Coincidence? Apparently not! Anyway, I didn’t have to worry about this, but the broccoli would have looked much less appealing if I hadn’t rotated the pieces so that the heads were visible. Just a detail, but it makes a difference!

With the first shot I took, I pointed the flash at the ceiling for general illumination. The result was pretty even illumination, but the photo lacked definition. I decided to try for more directional lighting.

Directional light added contrast

I next turned the flash so that it pointed at the plate rather than the ceiling. Now I was getting some definition in the image, but the light was too strong. I could either turn on the on-camera flash (for a two-flash) shot and try to balance the light, or try to diffuse the light from the flash so the shadows weren’t so stark.

Indirect light from the wall adds softened contrast

I decided to use the wall as a diffuser, so I held the flash pointed toward the wall. To get the wall lighting I moved to the left, which highlighted the broccoli, and I wanted the macaroni and cheese to be the star of this shot.

Soft light from the left highlights the macaroni and cheese

So I moved back to the right, but I then realized that I wanted the light to come more from the left, so I rotated the entire place setting so that the wall was on the left side of the plate rather than in front of it.  This resulted in a picture that I liked.

The last step in the process was post-processing. I mostly take my photos in RAW mode – that is a mode available on most DSLRs that allows you to save everything that the camera captured and process it after the fact. When you take a JPEG photo, the camera makes decisions about color, lighting, contrast; even sharpening. When you take a RAW photo, there are some standard settings, but you then have full control over everything to adjust it just the way you want. I use Adobe Lightroom in almost every case to process the RAW photo before posting.

The final picture after post-processing.

In this case, I adjusted the white balance, then brightened the dark areas a bit, enhanced the clarity (this makes things appear a bit crisper), added a touch more vibrance (color saturation), and added a touch more contrast only in the dark areas. For the final step I added a bit of vignetting – you will notice how the corners are a bit darker in this final picture – and that was my final photo that I posted.

I hope this helps to see my creative process a little bit. This was a relatively easy picture. Sometimes my ideas get way ahead of my ability and I’m never able to get the shot that I want. In this case, I was able to get it fairly quickly, with a minimum of experimentation. But it’s important to note that experimentation is the key to a 365 project. The idea – at least for me – is not to just take a picture a day (although I’ve taken some bad pictures just to get that one photo a day done), but I’d like to at least make an effort to take a decent picture. I think that I’ve succeeded for the most part.

I’ll be writing more on this in the future.


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