One of the trickiest parts of food photography is dealing with reflections. Whether it’s shiny plates, silverware, glassware, or even the food itself, the reflection can either make the photo gorgeous or look sloppy. I often find photos of my own that I can see a tiny me and my camera captured in glint of a wine glass. It’s very hard to avoid when shooting with minimal studio equipment in a small space.
Taking control of the reflections, however, can be really fun. Pro studios do this all the time with special patterns, called gobos or cookies, that fit over lights to cast just the right shadows onto the subject to set a particular mood. There are gobos with all sorts of window-related patterns, such as blinds or french door molding, as well as more intricate designs like trees or clouds. One good book on studio lighting that I’ve found, Still Life and Special Effects, has some great examples of this complete with illustrations of where each light should be. One of my favorites shows the reflection of a magazine article in a spoonful of liquid called You should know it’s good for you (pg 206).
“Still Life and Special Effects Photography: A Guide to Professional Lighting Techniques”
(Roger Hicks, Frances Schultz)
But, even if you aren’t using studio lighting, you can do some interesting things with reflections. It just takes a little planning and a little playing.
First, figure out what pattern you want. For the tea shot above, I used a crocheted table cloth with leaf-like patterns that I picked up at a thrift shop. But, you can use paper cut outs or even a plant to cast interesting shadows. Flat patterns are easier to manipulate though, especially if you don’t really want the shadow-caster to show up in your shot.
Next, you’ll need to position your pattern between the reflective subject and the strongest light source (like a window). Then, you’ll need to take a few shots at the angle of the final shot you want. Because you won’t want the pattern to show up in your image, you probably want to shoot from above your subject or fairly close in. Getting the shadows to fall just where you want them will probably require a bit of moving both the subject and the pattern around, so having a tripod makes this whole process considerably easier. Getting proper exposure is also important so that the shadows stand out, without being overwhelming or harsh… a little exposure adjustment in Photoshop later can usually compensate if you don’t get it quite right in the camera.
Of course, sometimes you end up with great reflection shots that are completely unintentional, like this photo that I took at a roadside picnic in France. I was focused on the wine glasses and capturing that roadside feel, and completely missed the cloud reflections until looking at the photo later.