Like oysters, every photo assignment has a silver lining. And after shooting this feature for Feast Magazine, on newsstands this week, I have some pearls of wisdom to offer.
Ugh. Those are the worst puns ever.
Don’t Be Shellfish, It’s A Team Effort
But seriously folks, this was a uniquely challenging shoot due to both the subject matter and the lighting conditions. I mean, oysters aren’t exactly photogenic in the classic sense–without the proper care they can look like deceased garden slugs drowning in a pool of slime. Luckily, we were shooting some primo specimens in a gorgeous setting (Demun Oyster Bar) with the assistance of their ace chef Brendan Hickham. To further boost our chances of success, Feast art director Lisa Triefenbach had supplied a detailed brief of exactly what photos she needed. With all of those factors working in our favor, I was confident that we could make these funny-looking little shellfish look tasty. If nothing else, they would at least look pretty.
East Side vs. West Side
The primary image for the article was for a 2-page spread displaying the twelve featured oysters in a sort of “clock face” arrangement, with the magazine’s gutter separating East Coast and West Coast oysters, presumably because they have “beef” from years of turf wars. Or because it made sense for the article. I’m not sure. You can see Lisa’s original sketch below.
Anyway, I knew that I would need a great big platter for this so I picked up a cool stoneware one that had a copper-colored metallic edge on it — a perfect match for the distressed copper-clad bar at Demun. But the lighting dork in me got me thinking about using a clear glass platter for the shot, with the oysters atop a pile of ice, lit from underneath. “It will look gorgeous”, I told myself. Unfortunately, it looked more like the proverbial dog’s ass once we tried it at the shoot. If I had about 6 hours to perfect the shot, it might have worked, but ice melts and I was on a much more limited timetable. So we fell back to the stoneware platter. This is why I always have a backup plan. Here is the craptastic ice shot:
But even the backup plan had its issues. For one, I didn’t realize that the East Coast oysters positively dwarfed their diminutive Western cousins so it was a challenge to keep the presentation from looking too lopsided. Luckily chef Brendan created some tiny pedestals of salt that let us arrange everything just so. And when we realized that the center of the platter looked as empty as the Sahara, Hickham again saved the day by disappearing into the kitchen, emerging seconds later with a mixture of salt, white peppercorns and parsley that added the perfect amount of color and fill to the shot. That guy is good with salt!
Once we had the centerpiece shot, it was time to move on to the individual shots of each oyster. The assignment called for a side and top shot of each species but since there were twelve in all, I didn’t want to compose each photo exactly the same way. After all, this is a food magazine, not a Wal-Mart flyer. Thankfully, the natural patina of the copper bar presented a myriad of textures, and the light beaming in the windows from the setting winter sun was, dare I say, inspiring. So with the aid of a collapsible reflector, I shot all of the individual oysters with *gasp* natural light.
At this point, I had the shots I needed, but Brendan and I tried a few more with small groupings of oysters on a rectangular dish. Why? Because we thought it might look cool. Sure, I could have packed up and headed home but I felt like playing in the light. It paid off too, because one of those shots was chosen to open the article. The extra mile is typically worth the exertion.