Lessons Learned from Shooting a Chef

This is maybe the 4th or 5th time I’ve shot portraits of a chef, and I’ve really come to love it. I felt like I learned so much this time, and I’m excited to share it with you all.

Don’t tell him to smile. Give him a reason to smile. The difference is night and day.
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For crying out loud pose your subjects before you start photographing them. Don’t just have them stand there assuming they know what to do. Tell them that it will probably feel awkward but look great on camera. Subtle changes can make a big difference.
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During the first half of the shoot I used a three-point light setup. If your key light is too bright, your background light (aka rim light) will be lost. Notice the changes around his left temple. There needs to be enough room (on a brightness scale) to brighten the rim of your subject without blowing the highlights and losing detail. … Do what David Hobby does and set your key light last.
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Hard key light combined with hard background light on opposite side of the subject produces a very stylized look. Using a fill light washes out most of that look.
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Generally I don’t like tilted shots, but it might have helped to try some here to keep things from looking so rigid and stiff.

For the right chef the dramatic look of a key-only light setup might make for a really cool photo. …probably would work best with a softbox thought.

Sometimes you just have to say “Screw the three-point lighting” and just use natural window light. This way you don’t have to worry about creating the mood of the place, but you can simply capture it. This is especially helpful if you’re trying to showcase both the setting and the chef. A reflector nearby will bounce just the right amount of light back on your subject so that his face isn’t too shadowy.
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As much as I don’t want to admit it, I am much better at working with natural light than I am at crafting light from scratch. Even an average window-lit shot from this shoot is way the heck better than any of the three-light shots. Sometimes you have to let go of your pride and preconceived notions and go with your gut. Both my client and I really wanted to nail a shot with the windows, water, and boats in the background, but as soon as we sat him down and shot parallel to the windows we knew we were onto something much better.

If your subject is wearing white (eg. chefs, brides, etc.), have them to turn their back to the light source. This will minimize the light it catches and you will have fewer blown-out highlights. Have them turn their face toward the light in order to light it properly –this is often a more pleasing pose anyway regardless of the light [see next comment]. All three of these photos had the exact same exposure settings, but the brightness in his shirt is quite different.
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Angling his head in a different direction than his chest creates a much more dynamic pose.
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If his face is still too dark, overexpose the white shirt by just a little bit –about 1/3 stop– then you can bring it down in post. Use the Graduated Filter to only darken the lower part of the image, not his face.
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As a general rule, window-lit portraits look fantastic in black and white.

I should have experimented with some gelled light to give the background more color. Shouldda wouldda couldda…

Learning from other people is great, and I highly encourage it; but until you learn something yourself it’s easy to forget (or not fully understand in the first place) what the other person was trying to teach you. For example, I feel like all of the stuff I’ve written here are things that Bambi Cantrell talked about in her recent Creative Live session, but I didn’t really get it until now. There is no learning method that can replace good ol’ fashion hard work.

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