Bringing Food to Light

Close-up Photography on a Lightbox

Inspired by Harold Davis’s latest book, Creative Garden Photography, I decided to make a series of lightbox photographs of food items. The concept is to record the iconic shapes of fruits and vegetables up close. My basic technique is to slice translucent subjects very thin, then pose them on a light pad so they are backlit against a white background. For opaque subjects, a little front lighting is added so their colors and textures are visible.

To make the photographs, I placed my subjects on a 17 x 24” light pad. The pad is large enough so that, in addition to solitary slices, I can create larger arrangements in various configurations. The light pad I bought can vary the intensity of its luminosity. For translucent subjects, the light from the light pad is sufficient illumination. Their shapes are revealed by the light shining through the thin slices. Opaque subjects require some front lighting so that in addition to the white background their colors and textures are visible.

In crafting these photos, my goal was to create strong images that reveal the iconic structures and graphic qualities of my subjects. When they are arranged in groupings, I sometime build visually interesting patterns. These might be organized chaos or arrangements that use the photographic concepts of line, color, form, and texture. In either case, I wanted to build images with strong graphic quality that reveal the essential characteristics of the subjects.

Yunnan Golden Needle tea leaves

It’s important to understand the photographic intent in creating the photos. While each photo is unique, the goal is to reveal the inner qualities of the subjects. In the case of the stringy Yunnan Golden Needle tea leaves, my goal was to use the apparent randomness of shapes and display that quality. I do not think this image would have worked if I had arranged tea leaves in a more orderly pattern.

Lima beans with single kidney bean

The arrangement of the beans presented a different opportunity. The subject was amenable to an arrangement that emphasizes line and form. At one level, the photo is about the structured organization of the smooth skinned lima beans. But the predominant theme is clearly the color contrast between the light limas and the solitary red kidney bean. Compositionally, the arrangement is orderly, with the red bean at about the rule of thirds point where its impact is maximized.   

The photo of the mixed legumes emphasizes yet another compositional principle, the use of color to achieve impact.  Here again I’ve employed a rather carefully organized chaos to suggest randomness.

Pear slice

The fruit and vegetable slices present still different compositional opportunities. In these cases, the compositions are the iconic profiles and colors of the subjects themselves, which makes them quite recognizable and yet unusual graphically. Unlike the tea leaves, beans, and legumes photos, where some front lighting supplemented the light pad, the fruit and vegetable slices were entirely backlit.

Red bell pepper

To reiterate a key point, the pictures in these compositions were intentionally organized in the patterns they display. They are by no means random scatterings that reflect only happenstance. Instead, in building each composition I carefully placed the elements in arrangements that seemed to me to be effective.

A technical note is in order. I made these photos with a Nikon Z7 mirrorless camera, which has a resolution of 45.7 megapixels and gives me a high degree of resolution. I set the ISO at 64. The camera is mounted on a Smith-Victor Pro Duty 36-inch copy stand that allows me to shoot straight down on my subjects.

My lens for these photos is a Zeiss Milvus f/2 50 mm Makro Planar lens, which is a manual focus lens. I achieve sharp focus by zooming in on the LCD screen so I can see the details up close. I set the f-stop at the higher end of the range, typically f/18, so that I get as much depth of field as possible. The exposures vary. I normally shoot multiple exposure sequences that enable HDR processing.  For this series, in some photos I’ve chosen to display only a single image from each exposure set. For others, I used layers and masks in Photoshop to combine several images to enhance the final result.

I plan to use these and similar images to make a set of food-themed note cards and to hang some of them in my kitchen. These images represent only the beginning of my explorations of this fun technique. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it, and more images to display, in future postings.

Published by Norman Reid

I worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 27 years in the field of rural community and economic development. I retired a few years ago and have been devoting my time to photography and writing. I've been a semi-pro photographer for more than 25 years and sell my work on the Web. I live in rural Virginia not far from the Shenandoah Valley.

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