Lighting Lesson | Indoor Portrait Setup

portrait BTS kitchen

Recently I had an opportunity to shoot a portrait of one of my food photography clients. Bliss and Baker is a mother-daughter team in North County San Diego making some really delicious crispie treats that you can find at local retailers and restaurants around town.

Just looking at the behind the scenes iPhone snap above of our setup, one can instantly recognize the challenge with shooting a portrait in a home kitchen. In most cases you’ll be presented with multiple light sources varying in color cast and intensity. The light sources native to the environment may or may not be usable for the story you’re trying to tell or even able to be utilized at the desired camera angle. In this case, we opted for a relatively tight crop (still loose enough to tell the story, but tight enough to not have any light sources showing in the frame.)

I wanted to mimic natural light more or less while maintaining an “indoor” mood. Since none of the natural light sources really worked at our desired camera angle (toward the kitchen using it as a backdrop), I opted to set up something akin to the light that would normally be there.

For the main light, I used the PCB Einstein flash with 4 foot octabank attached.  This would give us a nice catch light in the subject’s eyes while providing some soft directional shadow.

For the fill light, I wanted a nice blanket of light that would fill the room and provide a bit of hair light to our dark-haired subjects (just like ceiling lights in a kitchen would do). So I went for a ceiling-bounced light with barn doors attached. The barn doors help contain the spill of light so you don’t end up with reflected hot spots, lens flare or other lighting weirdness from light spilling everywhere.

Finally, I dragged my shutter just enough so that the natural light from the window could add a bit of fill to the background elements. We shot various shutter speeds for varying degrees of background brightness but this is the portrait the client settled on.

portrait of two people

Over the past year or so we’ve also photographed quite a few food shots for this duo- here’s a little sampling, all of these are from our San Diego photography studio –

krispie treats

krispie treat food photorob_4586aerial food shot
Shout out to Wade Steelman for the photo assisting and BTS photo!

Shooting Ballet Folklorico in San Diego

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to shoot Ballet Folklorico in San Diego for AAA, documenting the people and dance. I was traveling around my hometown like a tourist to various locations to see rehearsals and performances both indoor and out. The shoot resulted in three magazine covers for AAA and I’m stoked with how these turned out! This type of dance is a photographer’s paradise, utilizing a lot of color and controlled movement in combination. With this type of photography I had to think less like a lifestyle photographer who can stage scenes and ask people to do things and more like a sports photographer, often “zone focusing”, anticipating movements and waiting for something to happen. This would be followed by a burst of shots, some good some bad, and some with just the right elements to satisfy the photo editor’s needs.

Dance Photography

Above: Dancer: Reyna Mendoza Company: Danzarts , captured at 1/160, f/2.2, ISO 3200

I can honestly say this s the first time I’ve been published at over ISO 1600, especially for a cover image but the choices at a recital are to either  a) use direct flash b) light the whole scene with off camera flash or c) ramp up ISO and make the most of the light that is already there, which is less disruptive to the performers and audience.

Dancer Portrait

Above: Dancer: Mireya Pinell-Cruz Company: Danzarts ISO 100, 1/125, f/3.2 (Lit with strobe and single 32″ softbox)

I was also tasked with getting a few posed portraits so generally I used a small softbox to keep things contrasty and emphasize the vibrant colors.

Ballet Folklorico Dancer

Above: Dancer: Dayanna Solis Company: Folklórico Real de San Diego (Claudia Gomez) ISO 250, f/2.5 1/400

The sweet spot shutter speed for this type of dance seemed to be around 1/125-1/500 for getting a slight motion blur on the clothing while keeping the dancer themselves sharp on the face. Outdoor shots afford the photographer more options of course, but I still had to watch my settings more than on a typical portrait or lifestyle photo shoot.

Here are a few outtakes/inside shots from the shoot…



Chef Portraits

Posted by on Oct 15, 2015 in Food, Portraiture, San Diego | No Comments

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot quite a few restaurants in and around San Diego and the Inland Empire. Often, my primary assignment is to capture the food but one of my favorite parts is to grab a portrait of the chef or restaurateur. Sometimes its at the request of the client, but often its for my own creative exercise and portfolio. Chefs are generally personable and passionate but they also tend to be busy, so I generally have about 5 minutes to come up with a decent composition, find some sweet natural light or set up a strobe, and coax a genuine facial expression out of them. I don’t care if they smile, I just want the expression to look “real”. To me, the whole portrait hinges on the expression, so the lighting and all that “techy” stuff has to be second nature.

Here are a few images from recent assignments around San Diego and the IE- see any chefs you recongnize?









Props top to bottom- Vince Scholfield (Catania Coastal Italian), Shaun Gethin (Bijou French), Stephane Voitzwinkler (Mister A’s), Bruno Lopez (State Fare), Javier Plascencia (Bracero Cocina de Raiz), Steven Riemer (Oceana), Joyce Patra (50-Fifty), David Warner (Bottega Americano).

Thanks to all these great chefs for sharing some time with me and preparing great dishes for my camera!


Beer Photography – Lighting Setup and Technique

Product photography, and especially beverage photography involving glass, is a true melding of technical geekiness and artistic decision making. Although the challenges of photographing glassware and liquid can be at times frustrating, the rewards are high. It’s the feeling of building an image, as if building your own coffee table. You look at examples, start to assemble the parts, lay out a design, and then invariably stray from that design as you go, to come up with something unique. All the work that goes into that coffee table is taxing, but when you see it in your living area it’s all the more satisfying that you slowly built it, piece-by-piece. I used to hate tinkering for several hours on one shot, but now I can truly say I enjoy it. Using some tips from my friends at Photigy, as well as their Facebook support group, I set out to make this photo of Iron Fist Brewing Co.’s “The Gauntlet” IPA.

Craft Beer Photography

This is the setup.

beer lighting setup


The shooting surface is an orphaned part from Ikea. A gray surface was the closest thing I had to metal to represent “Iron”, but the gray looked a little flat to me, so at the end of the day, I ended up blueing it a bit in post production.

The camera was secured on a tripod so that I could keep everything static for comping together multiple shots in the end, if needed. I used a 5d Mark III, with a Lee circular polarizing filter, and 100mm f/2.8L macro lens.

There are four lights being used. The main light is fitted with a small reflector, as well as a layer of diffusion material, followed by a polarizing gel. This way we can set the camera’s polarizer for the scene and rotate the polarizer on the light until the reflection of our main light disappears. It didn’t disappear completely, so there were still some light reflections to clone out in the end. However, they were much smaller and darker than they would have been without the polarizing gel.

The second light is a strip box at camera left, shot through a diffusion screen of Rosco #3026 diffusion material. Angling the softbox so that it just touches the diffuser will create a highlight on the glass that has a defined edge on one side and tapers off more smoothly on the other. The trick is spacing the glass and bottle just right so that the highlight is not interrupted. If there are small inconsistencies in the highlight they can be addressed in post.

The third light is aimed at the background, and has a blue gel taped to it to make the background a light blue.

The fourth light is a speed light (Lumopro LP180) laid on the table behind the bottle and glass. This creates the glow through the glass so that you can see the liquid. This one was re-positioned many, many times by hand until the desired result was reached.

Photo Mechanic Culling

Post Production/Retouching

The trickiest element in this shot was the foam.  When  first opened, the beer was alive with carbonation, but once it settled is was hard to revive. I deployed the Rob Grimm Chopstick Jedi Move, but I really only got one good resurgence of foam, and clicked as many captures during it’s rise and fall as possible. I ended up comping in a modified version of one of the foam spillovers to give the image some tension.

I also comped in an image where the table looked glossy, but did not have the shadows from the backlight, in order to keep the shadows looking natural.

Lastly, I retouched the small highlights off the bottom and off the bottle to make things look cleaner, added some vignetting and color adjustments to the backdrop and foam, and did some global contrast and sharpness adjustments.

Next time, I’ll definitely have more bottles of the beer on hand and a pump to get it in an out of the glass without moving the set around.

I spent the better part of a day shooting and editing for one final image, but now that I have a workable setup and routine I should be able to prepare and execute much, much faster on future beer shoots.


K.I.S.S. Portraits – Keeping it Simple in Commercial Photography

business portrait

Recently I did a corporate portrait session for a local Biotech and it was the first one I think I’ve ever rolled in with just 50mm and 85mm prime lenses and a camera for the most part. Of course I always tote a backup camera and some lighting gear along for the ride but the K.I.S.S.  method prevailed because of the beautiful window light and great overall blue color cast of their office environment.

CEO portrait

There are many factors that can put pressure on a photographer to go crazy with equipment such as a higher budget, more eyeballs on the photos (broad usage) or a brief window where the CEO is available, knowing that there will be no “do-overs”. Some of these things can cause us to over do it with a bunch of unnecessary lighting gear or extra lenses to cover all possible focal lengths. The simplest solution is often sitting in front of our face. Clients are not gear geeks like us- they won’t care if you use window light and a piece of white foam core for a reflector or an expensive Profoto head with a 9 foot octabox attached. They just want results.

Portraits are of course all about the subject’s comfort in front of the lens and the genuineness of their facial expression. We also need to look out for details like wardrobe malfunctions, stray hairs , etc. When we K.I.S.S. in terms of equipment, this often frees us up to concentrate on those things instead of becoming a “gear wrangler.”

corporate head shot



corporate portrait

(hair styling and makeup: Stephanie Costa).

Bag Check: Food Photography

Posted by on Oct 15, 2014 in Food, Tutorials and Tech Talk | 7 Comments

mac and cheese

One of the nice things about food photography is you don’t have to sell your little brother into slavery and mortgage your house to get professional results. Since each photography assignment is a little different and a little special, I decided to do a little “bag check” post today about the equipment I typically use as a professional food photographer.

This is my personal kit and is geared mainly toward food magazine work and other in-restaurant types of  photo shoots. It can easily be broken down to a relatively inexpensive kit. Since most of my work is magazine assignment work, I normally need to pack a kit that I can:

1) Walk some distance with when parking is bad.

2.) Fit into tight spaces around restaurant tables.

3.) Produce good results with on a variety of shots quickly (interior architecture, chef portraits, plated food).


For my main camera, I use a Canon 5d MK III, and carry a 5d MK II for backup. I find that the full frame and large RAW files make for great quality product and food images. But in the grand scheme of things, the camera used in food photography is not the most important factor. Any decent DSLR will get the job done. If a full frame DSLR is in the budget, I highly recommend it. The thing is, you’re mostly going to be shooting on a tripod, at low ISO’s with manual focus. This means fancy features like 8 billion auto focus points and clean images at ISO 4 trillion are not really coming into play here. Anything from a Canon 7D to a Hasselblad will be capable of some stunning food photos that will print plenty large.

lenses for food photography


1. 100mm Macro. As you probably guessed,  a good macro lens is pretty essential for a food photographer. I prefer the 100mm macro (non “L” non-IS version) from Canon. From my own experience its plenty sharp, lightweight and works like a Swiss watch. I have not had a legitimate reason to want the IS (L) version as of yet. For non full frame cameras, consider a 50mm or 60mm macro lens. This will get you far enough from the food, that you won’t be able to cast a shadow or interfere with your own lighting scenario. It’s also good for shooting creepy crawlies or flowers on the weekends for practice.

**update – I recently was able to find the L version 100mm macro for $700 on the used market and made the upgrade, selling my non-L for nearly $400. Although the difference in sharpness is nominal, it does have a focal range limiting switch that makes the L version easier to use for portraits. And of course the IS is a bonus for handheld portrait work. I could still strongly endorse either version. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras

2. 24mm f/3.5 TS-E MK II. This is a pretty specialized lens and I absolutely love this thing. I use it not for shooting food but for shooting restaurant interiors and exterior architecture, maybe even a funky wide angle environmental portrait here and there. The “shift” feature allows you to shift the lens to the desired composition, while keeping the camera level. This allows you to keep all your vertical lines straight in architectural photography. It can also be used to stitch a 3 image panorama without any noticeable seams, since the camera’s angle of view will not change as the lens is shifted across the sensor. Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Ultra Wide Tilt-Shift Lens for Canon Digital SLR Cameras

interior restaurant photo

3. Primes (these are totally optional, but its good to have at least a fast 50mm). I use the 50mm f/1.4 or 135mm f/2  for chef portraits. On a budget, the 50mm f/1.8 will do just fine. I mostly just use the 50mm length, that way I can easily blur the background but still be wide enough to include some environment. If the place is not as pretty or I want a tight head shot, the 135mm L is my go-to favorite. If you’re starting out in food photography, your 100mm macro can double as a great portrait lens! Skip the extra expense and just use that.

chef portrait

4. 24-70mm f/2.8. I have mixed feelings about this lens. Its not the sexiest nor the most fun to shoot with but it does have a very convenient range of focal lengths and will focus almost as close as most macro lenses, which makes it useful when 100mm is just too long, or when you want to capture a closeup of food, but use a wide focal length to include some of the restaurant interior in the shot. This is not an essential lens to have in your bag but can be useful in a pinch.


Here’s the area where I like to go super minimalist. You just can’t have C-stands and serious light heads in a restaurant and get out of there under two hours. So for editorial jobs I bring a simple light stand (Manfrotto 420b, which can be a boom or a straight stand), a speedlight (Lumopro LP 180) and a regular shoot through umbrella. Add some foam board for bounce and a handheld silver reflector and that’s about all you need. Most days I won’t even fire up the flash but its good to have it as a skim light for accent or as a main if you can’t scrounge good enough natural light in a dark location.

tripod and remote switch


For food shots with long shutter speeds and architectural shots, I like my fairly basic Manfrotto Tripod and ball head. How fancy you go here really depends on your own taste and resources. Ball heads are quick and easy enough to level. Any tripod legs will do the job as long as they are sturdy. Don’t forget to bring a remote switch so as not to shake the camera by pressing the button.

*Update, I recently updated my tripod head to the Really Right Stuff BH55 and L bracket. The L bracket is a huge convenience for switching orientation! However I stick with my assertion that any decent ball head will do the job just fine. Nicer tools are faster and easier, but wait until they are cost effective for you.


ipad with eye-fi card


For on-the-go tethering, I like to use my iPad and Eye-Fi Pro X2 card. Tethering is not 100% required but it does allow you to see details in shots you may have otherwise missed on the back of the camera. I find that Eye-Fi with the Canon 5d Mk III is very reliable if you buy the  Pro X2 Eye-Fi card and set it to “always on”. Using the Shuttersnitch app instead of the standard Eye-Fi app on the iPad will increase reliability. I rarely disconnect or have issues with this setup, even when turning the camera off and back on or taking a break it holds its connection quite well. Clients also like to review images in Shuttersnitch because of the star rating feature and easy-to-use interface. Eye fi is an inexpensive and lightweight solution: Eye-Fi 16GB Pro X2 SDHC Class 10 Wireless Flash Memory Card (EYE-FI-16PCX)

food styling tools


Aside from actual photography gear, I like to keep a few items with me that might help style food or make life a bit easier. I bring some acrylic ice cubes with me from Trengrove (more for commercial beverage shots and to use for beverages in the background that need to look good without melting), aforementioned foam board to use as reflectors that stand up on their own, and a few linens or cloth napkins to add color (if the client/publication allows you to modify the scene). I also like to bring some q-tips for basic food styling or “sauce control” to coin a new term and a small funnel for pouring beverages without sloshing up the sides of the glass. I also bring a pair of tweezers for styling small bits of food if needed. On editorial shoots of course styling is limited but for commercial food photography, a food stylist on set is always the best way to go if its in the budget.

There you have it! That is pretty much the kit I’ve been carrying as a professional food photographer for the past year or so. Of course I augment it a bit in the studio or for longer shoots but this has served me well. If you’re strongly interested in food photography, please check out my online food photography course here:

What would you add?

White Seamless Studio Setup

studio portrait white background


One of the questions I get asked a lot in classes and workshops is how to achieve a pure white background without a lot of Photoshop knockout. Well, the short answer is to simply light your background about one stop brighter than your subject. In this case, my background is  a 9 foot wide roll of white Savage 107X12-1 Seamless Background Paper – Super White.
. For the floor, I’ve used white tile board from The Home Depot which has two benefits: it is slightly reflective and it keeps people from standing directly on the seamless paper so your paper will last longer. Editors and graphic designers like a clean white background so that the subject could be plopped anywhere on the page without borders or easily extracted and placed on a different background.

white background lighting diagram


For a full length portrait of one or two people, this is the basic lighting setup. As you can see we have separate lighting for the subject and the background so that we can control the background exposure separately. I like to have at least three or four flashes on hand for this, but it could be done with fewer lights as well. It will be quicker and easier with a handheld light meter. I use my light meter to measure the subject at f/8 for example, and my backdrop at about f/11 or f/13. A few important points:

  1. The background lights are aimed in a cross pattern (the camera right light is aimed at the camera left portion of the backdrop and vice versa) this ensures a more even light distribution.
  2. The background lights are flagged off from the camera, so there’s no flare or bounce directly at the lens that will decrease contrast.
  3. The subject is far enough from the background that they don’t enter the path of the background lights.

I like to light the subject first until I am satisfied with the light distribution/modeling on them, and then turn on the background lights later. Using softboxes rather than other modifiers on your subject will prevent spill and make the setup easier to understand as you build it up. A telephoto lens (about 85mm or longer) will help narrow your field of vision and keep distracting elements (like the sides of the backdrop) out of your photo. The above was shot at 85mm. Prime lenses tend to work better for this, as there will always be some light bouncing off of the backdrop and coming toward the camera.

white background product photography


For product images there are many possible configurations , but I find that plexiglass, painted white on the non shooting side, makes a great reflective surface. I set my product on a table with the plexiglass under it and shoot my background setup as seen above. The product table sits about where my portrait subject stands, about 8 feet away from the background. You’ll want to hit the top of the backdrop with some light as this will reflect down in the plexiglass and make it appear whiter. Its also helpful to turn all lights in your studio environment off so that you can see just the modeling lights and gauge what will happen when you click the ‘ol shutter button.

It is inevitable that some gray will sneak into your photos so I like to finish the photos off in Photoshop with the dodge tool set to “highlights”. Just run it gently over any areas that are not quite pure white. You can check your work by opening the info panel and as you run your mouse around the photo, the pure white areas will read “255” on all RGB values. As with all things photographic, practice makes perfect.

Thanks for reading and check out my subject above on Dr. Oz! We had a lot of fun shooting her at the studio here in San Diego and this is one of the outtakes from the session. Makeup and hair are by Stephanie Costa.

Optimizing Photos for Facebook Display


It’s no secret that the ‘ol Book of Faces can be a great marketing tool for photographers as well as just a generally fun place to show off some family photos. Facebook, however, has a tendency to compress, convert, or otherwise mangle your photos if you don’t do some image prep ahead of time to maximize their display quality.  Here are some steps I’d recommend to optimize your images for Facebook display. I recommend using Photoshop but you could certainly mimic these settings in Lightroom or Capture One, for a more direct export.


The first thing we want to do is resize the image on our end before upload. (go to image>image size.) This will ensure that we have more control over the resize process and will also shorten the upload time. The current max size is 2048 pixels on the longest edge, so this is what I’d recommend. You can leave the PPI (“resolution”) value at 72. PPI is just a tag, and it doesn’t affect screen display.

I leave resample at “bicubic”  and I will manually apply some sharpening in the next step. I like to do the sharpening manually, but you may find that a “bicubic sharper” resampling, or one of the other resize options does the trick for you without additional sharpening. Adobe recommends “bicubic sharper” for downsizing an image, but since I like to sharpen manually, I’ll stick with the standard bicubic. More info on that setting here.


Next I use “unsharp mask” to apply some sharpening. (go to filter>sharpen>unsharp mask). I like to do this manually so I can tinker with the sliders. For this type of image, I find that moderate settings are best but, for food or product photos, I may dial the settings up a bit. This is where your own personal taste comes in.


The final step is to save the image. I like to use file>save>save for web (ctrl+alt+shift+s). I find that PNG format works best for Facebook (especially for images like this one that have a gradient background), but JPG also works just fine for most images when saved in the highest quality (100). Make sure if you are in something other than sRGB, that “convert to sRGB” is checked. Most browsers don’t obey color profiles, so sRGB is pretty much a web standard. I leave my copyright and contact metadata setting on as well. Stripping metadata will make the image smaller and faster to load, but I prefer to keep my copyright info embedded.

You’re done!  Keep in mind that this method is for large 2048 pixel images.  Cover photos will need to be exactly 851 pixels wide by 315 pixels high and profile photos will need to be 160 pixels by 160 pixels. Here is a guide to all the various image sizes used on social media.

If you prefer to automate the process for 2048 pixel images, you can download my free Facebook Resize Photoshop Actions below.

Here is the above photo as seen on my Facebook page. If you like this post, please stop by and support the page.

Facebook Resize Photoshop Actions

New Website!

Posted by on Jul 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments


Hey guys- I’m working on a new site- a blog that is a website and a website that is a blog, all integrated and built together in WordPress (theme by ThemeTrust). I decided to post a new edit with my Food, Lifestyle and Portrait work (thank you, Sean at Wonderful Machine) in addition to working with a totally new, start-from-scratch layout. I’ll be deploying some subtle tweaks in the next few days. In the meantime, feel free to contact me regarding any new projects!