From the FRYING PAN into the FIRE

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Photographing Steam & Flames in Food Photography
by Malinda Julien
MPhotog.Cr,CPP

Photographing food has a lot of challenges and the one that will burn up some shots is photographing flames. Flambe’ is a French food term, meaning “on fire” and, while not a lot of foods are served flaming, there are still some that are, and showing that “fire” is important. This particular assignment was to photograph the fajitas coming fresh off the grill, with a bit of tequila added, and set on fire. Fire is a bit like photographing water and has some similar properties. We want to see the motion yet we don’t want it to take over the entire scene. Fire, however, is fleeting and you need to be fast.

Let’s run through the shot. Oh, didn’t I mention this was inside the restaurant during serving hours? That always makes it fun for sure!

Fortunately the restaurant is moody and dark which was perfect for using a directional light to light the steam and show through the flames without losing the drama.

Equipment: Canon 5DS R, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L USM II, Flashpoint Pro 600 with a Westcott small soft box. Also in play was a Color Checker and Sekonic light meter. Of course, the camera was on a tripod with a cable release and was tethered to a MacBook Pro with Lightroom open for tether and auto import.

Settings: ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/200 sec, and the flash head was at 1/64 power. Color profile
Adobe 1998, RAW.

Set up: The flash was camera left behind the food at 45º, just slightly above the table top.
The camera was set just slight above the food with a slight pitch into the plate to see the sizzling fajitas.

The trick is to be fast enough to catch the flame with the flash filling in the details before that poof of fire disappears.

ISO 200 was chosen as the fire exposure was measured first with just a lighter. It is important to expose for the fire and then choose the flash to fill the food and details without over powering the fire. The f-stop of 5.6 was chosen to give a slight depth of field fall off to keep our environment and the sides of the dish in mind, but not part of the subject.

Setting the flash to shoot through the steam was a little easier. The fajitas were steaming already when they arrived, and with a few matches lit and blown out, we could measure the light needed to shine through,
but not over power.

The focus has to be dead on and we don’t shoot using AF (the motor will cause camera shake especially in this dark environment). We had to shoot fast, so the focus was set ahead of time.

Image 1

With a color checker in place (Image 1), the scene could be absolutely on point with the color (Image 2): Focus was set on a stand in before the actual food was set. Once all the measurements were taken independently, everything was put together and in about 3 shots we had our final image.

Image 2

Because this was for a restaurant and showing the actual food which will be served, there is no post production other than a slight Lightroom adjustment just for contrast and a touch of vibrance and color consideration.

Post Production: Adobe Lightroom: Profile: Adobe Color, Contrast +5, highlights -36, shadows -48, whites +24, Clarity _20, Vibrance +10, HSL/ Green +64, Orange +14, Sharpening 40, masking 60, noise reduction 16, Lens correction for lens profile.

Working with food is a dance with temperature and lighting. Measurements and preparation are as important in creating the photograph as it is in creating the dish. Measure twice and shoot once. In the commercial world, many times it is important to get what you need and do it in a quickly.

Practice with photographing flames, drips and splashes are paramount to creating the images they will buy. Being fast in producing that image will make you a winner in the client’s eyes and get return calls.

Malinda Julien is a commercial food photographer and owner of Julien & Lambert Photography and Phood Photo in Fort Worth, Texas. Author of the Sugar Biscuit Journey and Home Cooking Kitchen cookbooks, Paved Paradise and ESSENTIAL books. Host of “Home Cooking Kitchen” YouTube™ channel. Instructor of photography through Julien & Lambert Photo Education.