It all starts at the restaurant where Dan and I sit down at the bar and talk. We have very limited amount of time (2 days only) and a list of approximately 15 dishes. What we need is to select 3 dishes out of those 15 and photograph them.

Dan talks, I listen. Ham. Orange. Green. I am sucking in the words and filtering them through. Ocean trout. Baby bok choy. I start getting an idea how the dish would look like. We talk about plating. We brainstorm background. We want background to have relation with food we photographing. And that’s when walk-in refrigerator comes up. That’s where Dan is curing his meats. And that’s what we decide to starts with- food on plate in the foreground with cured meats in the background. Possibly wide angle lens.

I normally do homework before the photo shoot. However having too much structure might become burden in rapidly changing and unexpected environment. In this case having a brief idea of the staring point and figuring out the rest on location during the photo shoot was indeed the way to go.

Next day we meet in Heritage Tavern’s Fitchburg kitchen. While Dan is unpacking food ingredients I walk in into the fridge.


This is the first thing I see. Straightforward snapshot shows how the meat fridge looks like with  fluorescent ceiling light ON. Meat is scattered all over the fridge. Some is on the shelves the left and some is in the right. I decide to go with the meat in the middle section only. I also don’t like green shelving bars.


I fire few test shots with off camera flash. As expected I get the reflection on the metal refrigerator surface.No bueno…


I get a peace of fish and place off camera flash on the rack above. The light keeps bouncing off and gives me unwanted reflection on the back metal wall.[bra_divider height=’10’]


Off camera flash for now is directly above the object I am photographing.


Grid on the off camera flash gives nice directional light and solves wall reflection issue.


Once I get the subject lit, I move to the next step-  add some dimension and shape to the background. Second off camera flash with DIY snoot is placed below the hanging meat. I put white foam board and cover it with black aprons to kill some of the possible light spill to the back metal wall. Notice metal trays on the ground. These are to collect  fat dripping of the meat. Yes, its a bit greasy out there.


For each snapshot I need to turn off fluorescent lights off and work in complete darkness. All I care is about getting the lights right. I’m getting somewhere. I also move and re-arrange meats and sausages in the background. Two flashes are now in use and I feel that the shiny surface of the metal plate is a bit distracting.


So I flip the plate. Burnt dark edges of the plate definitely add more contrast and helps to ocean trout color really pop out.


Dan is given a signal to start putting it all together. I move first flash to the back a bit and put a DIY snoot on it to create a back light. This flash becomes my main light.


I throw in third off camera flash in front to fill in a shadow main back light will be creating.


I test the lights and it all looks good. Dan is given green light to fluff up the dish right before for the final shot.


Our final shot. Country ham wrapped confit ocean trout, baby bok choy, foraged mushrooms with XO sauce. BOOM!


Off camera flashes and different modifiers used in this photo shoot.

After walking into the cured meat refrigerator it took us 3 off camera flashes and almost 3 hours to capture that final image. My biggest challenge was working in pretty cramped space with lots of reflective surface. DIY snoots (I’m glad I keep extra peaces of black felt and foam in my suitcase) and grid definitely helped to give direction to light. Getting the right light angle though is very time consuming process- little move would make a big difference in how things would look. Video below gives you an idea of how much work is placed in photo shoot like this one. Time lapse was captured next day while working on another dish at Heritage Tavern.

Paulius Musteikis is a professional editorial, food and documentary photographer in Madison Wisconsin area. His food photography work has been published in numerous paper and online articles. Paulius Musteikis is regular food and restaurant interior photography contributor to local (Isthmus, Madison Magazine, etc.) and national (Eater.comFood And Wine, etc.) food publications.

All images © by Paulius Musteikis Photography


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