Photography & Props

Photo Fridays: The $7 Target Dollar Spot Find

by Shawnda on June 7, 2013

in DIY,Photography & Props

DIY Beer Paddle and Monogram Beer Flight Glasses

I can’t walk into Target without taking a stroll through the Dollar Spot. Usually, I’m looking for a pack of stickers, a rubber ducky, a sparkly pencil… something cheap with which to bribe The Little into riding in the cart without going full mushroom cloud mode on me.

More than once, we’ve had to turn right around and leave. ‘Cause there ain’t no meltdown like a crowded-Target meltdown.

This week, on a stock-up-for-a-road-trip trip, I took a solo detour through the aisles and left with the greatest Dollar Spot find ever: a beer paddle and beer flight glasses.

For $7.

DIY Beer Paddle and Monogram Beer Flight Glasses

I fashioned a DIY monogram stencil out of painting tape, clear packing tape, and an Exacto blade and used a jar of Armour Etch that I’ve owned since… well, I was planning to monogram the vases for our wedding reception. Back in 2006.

The original finish on the beer paddle was awful. The polyurethane coating was uneven and most boards had dried drip marks down the sides. (What did I expect for $3?) I sanded it away (down to a matte finish) and brushed on some leftover stain I found in the garage.

DIY Beer Paddle and Monogram Beer Flight Glasses

The best part wasn’t that it only cost $7. The best part was I completed the whole project during a rare-these-days naptime. To celebrate? Yep, I had a beer. But only a small one!



Homemade Sriracha

I’m going to walk you through how I setup, style, and take a standard shot, start-to-finish. What you’ll see below is an accurate representation of how I shoot a recipe photo – especially the missing prop – with maybe 5-7 minutes extra to account for the extra stop-and-start points. Oh – the recipe for the subject, a homemade sriracha, will be posted next week.

But you probably want to move along and find out why I did what I did. And why I didn’t do what I didn’t… so let’s get started!

9:31am I push the coffee table over to the window and grab the following items from our-coat-closet-turned-my-prop-closet:

  • 2 boards – One will be the tabletop for my shot, the other simply a surface that I can prop up against a box and clamp on a poster board background. These tabletop/boards are super easy and affordable to make, you can find instructions here.
  • Black poster board
  • 2 clamps – Purchased at your friendly neighborhood home improvement store for ~$3 each
  • Reflector – Read more about using the “bounce and fill” technique here.

Homemade Sriracha

I already have a picture in my head of what I want the shot to look like. Now it’s time to get that image out of my head.

I also already know the color palette of the food that I’m working with and I use that to decide which color linens (if using) and tabletop to use. Because the sriracha is such a beautiful red-orange, I wanted to shoot “dark” so that the richness of the vibrant color really came through. I also went neutral/white – basic – on the rest of the objects in the image so as not to distract from the hot sauce.

9:43am I’ve just wasted 10 minutes searching for a beat-up, little shallow tin dish that belonged to my great-grandmother. Can’t find it anywhere. But I’ve gathered everything else I want for the shot from the prop closet and kitchen:

  • Homemade sriracha in a reclaimed Central Market jelly jar
  • A few “consolation prize” white dishes to replace the missing tin dish (at this point, I haven’t decided which to use)
  • Tea spoon
  • Neutral linen found in the remnant bin at the fabric store
  • Coarse twine
  • Scissors
  • Tepin chiles from the plant in our backyard (because I used them in the hot sauce)

Homemade Sriracha

Originally, I was going to cut a small square of fabric to use as a “coaster” for the jar. After I got started, I changed my mind and put the fabric away.

9:51am I’ve now washed my hands 4, maybe 5 times. You can ask my 2-year-old – these chiles are NOTHING to play around with. I’ve cut chiles, composed the shot about halfway or so, and then stop to take a top-down picture to check exposure and to look at the shot on my camera.

Homemade Sriracha

Thanks to some of the fabulous instruction I’ve gotten from some of the greatest food photographers anywhere, this is also where I stop to ask myself:

  • Am I heading in the right direction to get that super fab “this should really be in a magazine” (ha!) image that I had in my head?
  • Does the shot and styling make sense? Am I showing you homemade chicken noodle soup that I’ve poured into a carafe that I usually use for margaritas? Or am I presenting it to you in a way that you would actually recognize and serve the soup yourself. Or did I actually just put a knife and fork next to that stack of chocolate chip cookies.
  • Is my eye drawn to the food or is it distracted by all 15 of my props?

Then I move on to the finer details. I do spot a few things in the photo above that I don’t like: the spoon placement is awkward and the leaves of the pepper between the jar and round dish are facing the wrong direction and not catching any light.

9:53am Composition is mostly done, problems spotted 2 minutes ago are now fixed… but the spoon is still a problem and I find the twine shooting out of the top of the screen a little odd.

Homemade Sriracha

9:54am But first, I walk to the kitchen and take another pullback shot.

Homemade Sriracha

9:55am I like the exposure, the tweaks to the composition, but that spoon is still bugging the crap out of me…

Homemade Sriracha

9:56am AND THIS IS WHY. Scale. My tea spoon is far too big for the jar and the shot. By shooting overhead, it wasn’t so clear that I have as much spoon sticking out of the top of the jar as I do jar. (Sidebar: don’t be afraid to cut those pretty little paper straws down a couple inches so you don’t have 5 inches of straw sticking out of a tiny glass of milk.)

Homemade Sriracha

9:57am I run over to my little utensil box to grab a new spoon. And just like that, I’m a happy blogger. I take the final shot and the picture is in the books.

Homemade Sriracha

9:58am I reach into my camera bag for my USB cable and I find an open tube of blue Toy Story toothpaste in its place. Typical.

10:12am I am my worst critic. I’m staring at the photos in Lightroom, seeing a couple of teeny tiny things that I wished I had noticed before. But because I made the rookie mistake of cleaning up already and the details really are minor, I click my “The Usual” preset and export the photos. For more information on how I edit, check this out.

The stats:

  • 26 minutes – That’s a little elevated, due to the extra stopping and trying to figure out what I needed to shoot after I got started. I’d say that I usually spend 15-20 minutes photographing each recipe post.
  • 21 photos – That’s nearly double what I’d take for a standard recipe post, my goal is no more than 12. I’ve wasted far more time than I like to think about in the early days of this blog… taking 40 shots of a recipe, only to waste even more time sorting through the nearly-identical pictures.
  • 1 recovered USB cable – found it in my daughter’s toy box.
  • 1 missing prop – still haven’t found it, but it’s definitely not where it belongs nor is it in my daughter’s toy box.

You can check out my Photography page for a collection of tips, tutorials, and FAQs to get a little more information about the photography that you see on this site.

So for those of you that has asked to see my setup and want more information on how I style a shot… did that kinda sorta help at least make things a little clearer? Even just a little?



Fresh Cherry Margaritas

Having shot a number of cocktails margaritas in the last year or so, I’ve gotten the process down pretty well. Shooting the cherry margarita went a little something like this:

1 – Getting exposure set correctly, empty glass strategically placed over the barcode sticker on the poster board.
2 – Added a cocktail napkin that I scored from Etsy and cherries that I scored from HEB.
3 – Happy with exposure, I rimmed the glass with salt and poured the margarita in the glass. No ice yet – the clock starts ticking the second you add ice.
4 – Adjusted napkin placement and added more cherries. Happy with the composition and exposure of the shot, I added the ice and lime garnish and called it good.
5 – I pulled back to get a shot that would crop to a square/1:1 for submission to the “pretty food sites.”
6 – Not 100% happy with the fact that I couldn’t get those pretty splatter marks and pits in the picture shooting at 3/4ths, I shot from overhead. If I was going to ruin the poster board, I wanted it to count :) Plus, after shooting like 12 margarita recipes, they all kind of start to feel the same.
7 – Start of happy hour (not shown) :)

Fresh Cherry Margaritas

Some notable things about the photos:
– The shot is backlit.
– My work surface is my coffee table, which I’ve moved against the window overlooking the patio (as seen here).
– My “background” is simply the matte side of a white poster board sitting on top of my coffee table.
– Because the extra set of hands needed to help me with the reflector (also seen here) for this particular shot was working Toddler Crowd Control, I used the flash to add more light to the front of the glass.

I’ll show you how I work with back-lighting in an upcoming Photo Friday. ‘Til then, keep calm and make margaritas!



Photo Fridays: Light vs Dark

by Shawnda on June 1, 2012

in Photography & Props

Fresh Cherries

Which one do you prefer?

The very first choice I have to make when I set up a shot – well, right after “do I eat first or shoot first” – is: light or dark?

I usually have an idea in my head of how I want the final shot to look. But before I pick a dish out of the prop closet, before I dig into the container of discount fabric scraps, I have to decide: bright & happy or dark & dramatic.

After that decision is made, the rest falls into place.

The same shot can look completely different, evoke completely different reactions. I adore the bright whites and blown-out highlights in a slightly over-exposed photo. There’s very little to distract from the subject, your eye is drawn to color, and there isn’t a shadow in sight. The reds of the cherries and contrasting aqua colander really pop against the white. It’s reminiscent of spring, summer. It’s bright & shiny. Total happiness.

Fresh Cherries

And at one time, I would have never considered trying anything else. I had my all-white dishes, my almost white placemat and napkin, and an enviable amount of light coming through gigantic windows (I miss those windows!). But my photography heroes don’t always shoot bright & happy so I’ve been working on pushing myself out of my bright & overexposed box.

There’s such beauty in darker shots, one I’m learning to really appreciate. Colors don’t pop in the same way they do against a white background but the richness and saturation are so much more dramatic.

Burgers and Ice Cream

My “dark” backgrounds are either one of my darker wooden table tops or a black or dark brown poster board clamped to one of those propped-up tabletops. I guess I’ll show you how I do that – set up a shot – in the next installment of Photo Fridays.