Gourmet Photography: Making Memorable Images of Forgettable Subjects

Close up photo of a few holly leaves with a splash of yellow color in the background. "Holly leaves with a bit of color." © F.M. Kearney
Holly leaves with a bit of color. © F.M. Kearney

By F. M. Kearney

Besides photography, one of my other passions is cooking and baking. To satisfy my sweet tooth, I’m always baking some type of cookies or cakes. I use baker’s tools like piping bags and scrapers to make them look like they were purchased from a bakery. People often tell me I should bake professionally, but I have little interest in doing that. I don’t think I would enjoy it as much if I knew I had to do it. I also have an extensive collection of cookbooks and a filing cabinet full of recipes, categorized with folders devoted to specific meats, vegetables, and of course, sweets. However, I would never consider myself a chef. A cook, perhaps, but never a chef. Unless I’m intimately familiar with a dish, I have to follow a recipe. True chefs don’t “cook by numbers.” They instinctively know how to combine obscure ingredients to produce the most spectacular dishes. I love watching cooking competition shows on the Food Network. I always marvel at how chefs are able to take an odd-ball collection of ingredients like a banana, a pork chop and a cup of cashews, and combine them into award-winning, gourmet masterpieces.

I started to wonder how I could apply that same concept to photography. It’s really not that difficult to create an amazing photo of a great subject in the perfect light. But, what if your subject is less than stellar and your lighting is awful? As a personal challenge, I set out to find the most unremarkable subject and to shoot it in the worst possible light.

I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York during the peak cherry blossom season. After spending the morning shooting the beautiful pink blooms amongst the hoard of other photographers, I sought out a much more mundane subject. In an area of the garden that wasn’t getting much attention I found a young, American holly tree. Also known as Christmas holly, these trees are often adorned with bright red berries, which nicely compliment their rich green foliage. This tree, however, was young and berry-less, leaving it singularly-colored in a common shade of green. From a distance, this tree didn’t look any different from the millions of other trees and bushes you might find just about anywhere else in the world. Essentially, I had found a drab-colored, mundane subject bathed in harsh, midday light… PERFECT!

Unlike when shooting the cherry blossoms, I now had the entire area to myself. I could work without the distractions of onlookers asking questions about what type of pictures I’m taking, or about the proper settings they should use on their camera. It’s funny how people assume you know everything about photography when you’re using a tripod. The first thing I needed to do was to control the high-contrast light. In the past, I’ve used a flash or a reflector – in some cases, depending on the situation, I’ve used both simultaneously. For these photos, I used an off-camera, hand-held flash aimed at the shadow areas. I reduced its intensity by about a stop so as not to blow-out the highlights. I also used a polarizing filter to reduce the glare on the sun-drenched leaves. In areas where the glare was too excessive for the polarizer to handle, I toned it down further by painting it out in Photoshop.

One of the best ways to deal with a boring subject is to shoot close-ups. Studying minute details opens up a whole new world of possibilities. From a distance, the only color I saw on this holly tree was green. Up close, however, I was able to see that almost a full range of colors were actually present. Each leaf ranged in color from dark green to light green to almost yellow along the edges and its prickly spines. The direct sunlight coated the stems in warm shades of amber, with the tips adorned with bright red and yellow buds. I enhanced these colors somewhat in Photoshop, but none were artificially added. In the opening image, I introduced even more color to the scene by including some of the dead, bright yellow leaves scattered around the area.

Holly leaves with background out of focus. Harsh light can create soft bokeh. © F.M. Kearney
Harsh light can create soft bokeh. © F.M. Kearney

Harsh light can be your friend

Although harsh, direct sunlight is generally loathed by most photographers, it can provide beautiful bokeh highlights in the background. I normally carry a small water bottle in my bag to spritz flowers in order to simulate dew drops. In this case, the water wasn’t beading up too well on the smooth, waxy leaves as dew drops, but merely wetting them and forming weird little puddles. I soon realized that the spill off was creating interesting bokeh effects on the leaves in the background. I gave up trying to create dew drops and liberally sprayed all the leaves behind my main subject. The photos above and below show the beautiful effects possible in this ugly light.

Vertical photo of holly leaves with bright, out-of-focus background. More bokeh effects. © F.M. Kearney
More bokeh effects. © F.M. Kearney

Bokeh, texture, and blur

When you feel as though you’ve exhausted all of the creative things you can do in-camera, fear not… there’s a myriad of creative possibilities available in post. In the days of film, I used to pride myself on all the effects I used to do in-camera. In this digital age, I’m constantly amazed at the effects that are now possible and the ease and control with which they can be applied.

I was shooting with a 70-200mm lens and an extension tube. I shot all of the images at 200mm and f/4. The limited depth of field created the soft backgrounds I was seeking, but, as is usually the case, digital technology can take it several steps further. I used the Gaussian blur filter in Photoshop to add blur to selective areas of the photo below. I wanted to emphasize the spiky edges, so I removed most of the blur from those areas – something that would be impossible to do in-camera.

Photo of holly leaves with background softly blurred. Using the Gaussian blur filter to emphasize specific areas of the image. © F.M. Kearney
Using the Gaussian blur filter to emphasize specific areas of the image. © F.M. Kearney
Photo of holly leaves with a texture effect applied adding light and color to the background. Using texture to create an artistic look. © F.M. Kearney
Using texture to create an artistic look. © F.M. Kearney

Another creative technique is to apply texture. Photomorphis has a huge selection of textures that can used in a variety of ways. I used it as the background in the image above. By stacking the photo of the leaves together with the texture file, I was able to blend in or out various portions of each until I got just the look I wanted.

For a really wild look, I applied an Impressionist effect. Topaz has a line of software programs to create numerous types of special effects. I used Topaz Impression to create the image below. The program is designed to transform photographs into Impressionist-like paintings. The effects can be endlessly altered to suit your personal tastes. I applied a number of techniques to create a sort of mixed-media look.

Same holly leaves with a white border fading in from the edges. Using Topaz Impression to create a mixed-media look. © F.M. Kearney
Using Topaz Impression to create a mixed-media look. © F.M. Kearney

I spent about an hour and a half shooting the holly tree below. As you can see, it’s spectacularly unremarkable. In fact, it’s so obscure it practically camouflages seamlessly into its surroundings. But, don’t be so quick to pass it by. The next time you find yourself in horrible light and out of ideas, take a look around and start thinking like a chef. You might be surrounded by a smorgasbord of ingredients with the potential of creating some tasty images.

Photo of the holly tree used in this article. The tree stands at the edge of a grassy field. The unlikely source of my inspiration. © F.M. Kearney
The unlikely source of my inspiration. © F.M. Kearney

Photo of F.M. Kearney F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at starcollec@aol.com, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).