The cheese arrived in a nondescript, white Styrofoam container with little fanfare. The clandestine hand-off arranged in a chance meeting between sessions. “Would you like to do it?” Of course I would.
“Do you have time?” I’ll make it – taking beautiful pictures of cheese is what I do. Continuing to document cheeses that win Best of Show at the American Cheese Society is a project near and dear to me.
With jam-packed conference schedules, an hour and a half early Thursday morning was the best/only time to accomplish the task to have the image ready to insert into the awards presentation later that afternoon.
I’m sworn to secrecy, of course, and don’t even care to know the specific winning cheese, but did ask for the style of the cheese so I could mentally prepare the shot.
The motto for the shoot was most certainly “Work with what you have” and this ethos guided the entire process.
I kept asking: what is available in my environment that could improve this shot? Even in a non-nondescript hotel room, there are things you can do.
Not only was it a situation of using what’s available, serious schedule and natural time constraints were in play. The sun was quickly arcing in the sky and my light was disappearing behind the building.
I also had another commitment in 2 hours and had to be done with the shoot, selection, editing and export. Not a lot of time. And, of course, the awards ceremony, where the image would be featured, was that afternoon. Pressure’s on.
Luckily, I had been working on an efficient photography workflow for my Cheese Photography 101 deep dive session which was successfully presented final day of conference.
This was just the shoot to put those principles to the test.
ANATOMY OF A SHOOT
The cheese was scheduled to arrive around 7:30, when the light would be best. Always begin with the light. Having a big bank of hotel windows does not suck. Unfortunately, I’m on the east side of the hotel and the sun is rapidly rising in the sky, making the “ideal” light a moving target. I’d have about an hour to shoot, max. Efficiency is critical.
Before the cheese arrives, I rearrange the room, pulling the glass top from the end table (glare is not your friend) and snuggle it up against the windowsill in the corner of the room.
The curtains have a nice texture and glow, so I tuck them around the table, making use of a hairclip to clamp the sheer in just the right place. Do you see it there, just to the right of the cheese? With the right focal length, this will be out of the view of the frame.
Styling: Upon my arrival in Sacramento Sunday afternoon, I headed to a thrift store with my dear friend of many decades who met me for lunch and was kind enough to indulge my quest to find some new props for my Cheese Photography 101 session.
My hope was to show how it’s possible to spend less than 15 minutes and less than $15 scouring the market and find 3 or 4 props that would enhance my prop collection. I was not disappointed. (Take the Prop 15 Challenge for a chance to WIN a Best of Show Poster)
Setting up beforehand (tripods, tethers, reflectors/diffusers) and selecting props is always essential for efficiency. Even moreso when there are time constraints like this.
The best, brightest and most flattering light is in the far corner of the room and I guessed I’d have about 45 minutes to shoot. In the end, I did it in 47 minutes. This is not a long time to work with a cheese from beginning to end but it shows what is possible with some advance planning and practice.
When the cheese arrives around 7:45, I am giddy with excitement. I open the Styrofoam shipping container to find the most beautiful, golden-hued wedge with the classic concave rind and a paste that betrays the crystalline structure with a glance.
There are two wedges and I quickly choose the smaller one that has the best angle and fit for the platter. I use a knife to gently “face” the cheese (removing a thin layer that touched the plastic). This adds character to the smooth, wire-cut wedge and shows the cheese texture more fully. Next, I place it in the scene to get my bearings.
My photo shoots mostly run the same way:
- Find the best available light
- Set the cheese in the scene
- Build a scene around it
Luckily the cheese had a naturally beautiful paste structure when sliced and required minimal finessing.
I snap a few shots of the wrapped wedge with name label and secret code for posterity. This detailed code tracks entries from submission through judging & competition, through to the Festival of Cheese and cheese sale. Without this intricate, behind the scenes effort – and the hundreds of volunteer hands and hours that go into it – there would simply be no way to track the 1685 cheeses that flowed through the process. It is a minor miracle each and every year and a big thumbs up to everyone who makes it happen.
Once the wedge is placed, I move it around a bit to find the best angle and light, then add accompaniments to add visual interest.
In this case, my accompaniments are dried orange & apple slices and dried figs saved from waste-bin anonymity as the Opening Night Reception cheese display was dismantled. As the gala wound down, I grabbed carefully chose the most attractive pieces. Packaging my haul in a folded napkin, stuffed them in my purse like a champion quirky great aunt at a buffet. I was ready to go the next morning.
Though the oranges overpower the cheese except in small bites, figs and dried apples are spot-on. All helped elevate the beauty of the cheese.
I quickly find a couple good shots and made some micro adjustments, exploring various angles and adding a bit of silver or white bounce accent each shot. When I’m sure I have a winning shot, I go handheld to capture detail and other angles quickly.
This is a very creative phase and takes a bit of practice, but often yields my favorite shots. With no time to spare and shifting light, I get to work.
Knowing overhead shots are often the best, I grab the bench from the foot of the bed and pull it up close, jumping up for a top down vantage and switching to auto-focus mode.
Loving the angle, I know in a few shots show that, with a bit of bounce, this would be a keeper… only question, how to bounce from the left while holding the camera far enough away and snapping the shot. Not easy while handheld and standing on a bench.
Never deterred, I look around for a solution. Bringing all my yoga moves, I prop my foot gently up on the table, holding the disc between my toes to get the reflector at just the right angle.
As I’m looking down over this rather strange scene – my entire being invested in getting this shot – no matter what – and I’m amazed and grounded in my own experience.
As the pure creative energy flowed through me, I couldn’t help but smile. So often these past months and years, I’ve wondered, really wondered, if it might be time to pack it in, get a “real” job and stop expecting so much magic in life. And then I thought, nah, even if I had a choice, that’s not where it’s at.
In the end, the shoot lasted 47 minutes, capturing 96 images. I spent another 75 minutes selecting, editing and exporting images. It was a heady rush to nail some memorable images in such a condensed time frame using the supplies and locations I had available.
It is very gratifying to provide the winning cheesemaker, Spring Brook Farm/Farms for City Kids Foundation in Reading, Vermont, with some ready-to-roll images to celebrate and promote their big win. The image was even picked up by the LA Times Food section!
The creative challenge was satisfying, as well as the real-time success using the exact workflow methods and photography tips I share in Cheese Photography 101 for Makers, Mongers and Bloggers.
If you are a cheesemaker looking for great image for your marketing & promotional materials, please keep me in mind as the need arises.
Have a cheese photography question or comment? Please chime in below!