Chill Lessons from Ice Cream Food Photography

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Product photography — especially food photography — is a highly specialized skill, as any photographer who has ventured into this category will attest. It’s a given that the resulting photo needs to look delicious. The challenge is that the fragile subject has such a limited life.

Maybe it is these poetic qualities that draw artists toward the plate, camera in hand.

chill

Chill

I spoke with photographers Nicole Rae and Jeffery Saddoris who collaborated on a beautiful e-book called Chill. Every page inspires “ohhs” and “ahhs,” while it’s obvious that careful attention was paid to the diverse colors and textures of homemade ice cream ingredients.

What did they learn doing their book, and how can it help you get started with food photography?

Q: What was the most difficult thing about shooting ice cream (besides the melting)?

Nikki: Well, the melting was the biggest challenge, to be sure, but, beyond that, the challenge was just coming up with how we were going to shoot 20-something different flavors, without them all looking like, “Oh, look, there’s another bowl of ice cream.” Since this was our first foray into food photography, we did a lot of research and spent a lot of time talking through each of the shots and doing test setups to see what worked and what didn’t. Then, there was the lighting. When we first started shooting the book, our lighting was very flat, which is great for portraits, but doesn’t really translate to food.

Jeffery: Flatly lit foot is very unappetizing, and with ice cream, especially, you want to see the texture; all of the little nooks and crannies; the barking that shows off of the ice cream, but also whatever mix-ins have been added. But, in the end, it all comes back to the fact that your subject melts.

Q: How did you compensate for this difficulty?

Jeffery: 
We came into this book never having shot food before, so we did a ton of research on composition, lighting, and post-processing, as well as researching some of the top photographers who do this kind of work really well. We also bought a bunch of back issues of Gourmet magazine on eBay, which had, in our opinion, the most gorgeous food photography in the business.

ice cream photo

Showing texture in ice cream photography

Nikki: We ended up pre-shooting every setup, often multiple times, with “stand-ins,” usually wadded up balls of paper which, though it might sound silly, gave us not only something to light, but also to see how depth of field would affect the entire composition. With only 2-3 minutes to shoot each scoop, we didn’t have time for any of the “What about this?” moments. We worked out the lighting and exposure beforehand, so that all we had to do was replace the stand-ins with the actual ice cream and take the photographs. If we thought of another setup during a shoot, we would simply make a note to try it later, rather than try to change the current setup to accommodate it.

Jeffery: Working with ice cream, you need to work fast, which may sound obvious, but, when you’re actually doing the shoot, there’s always the temptation to want try something else, meanwhile, your subject is turning into soup. One of the ways we extended our shoot time is to freeze all of the bowls or ramekins that we used. We would also pre-scoop each flavor onto cookie sheets and leave them in the freezer until we were ready to shoot.

Scooping ice cream the way you see in magazines is an art, and often requires a lot of ice cream to get right. We only had two pints of each flavor when we were shooting, so we had to play to our strengths. Early on, we decided that we wanted the shots to have character, and we wanted to make the ice cream in our photos look like the ice cream that people would make following our recipes. We also leveraged Nikki’s aesthetic as a fine art photographer and shot with often very shallow depth of field, focusing on the ingredient or details unique to a particular flavor.

macro ice cream

Macro and low depth of field angles

Q: What recommendations would you offer others shooting products with limited shelf life?

Nikki: 
Without question, the best thing you can do is to be as prepared as possible, which really goes for any shoot, not just food.

We’re already working on our next book, which is about as far away from ice cream as we can get, but many of the same rules apply. Know when your window has closed. Even non-frozen food has a limited time in front of the camera. Shooting salads, the dressing spreads and settles; meat starts to get dry; and the filling oozes out of pie slices. You need to know when the food has lost its life and stop shooting. Don’t continue just because you think you are getting good shots. You’re not, and it will show in the end result.

Jeffery: Also, don’t be heavy-handed in post-processing. Stylized portraits may look great, but people have very definite ideas about the color of food, and certain plugins or filters are going to shift those colors and make your food look very unappetizing. Nail the white balance, the exposure, and maybe punch the contrast a little, but, beyond that, tread very lightly.

ice cream cones

Ice cream cones

Nikki: Know what is and isn’t working. We actually started over about a third of the way into the shooting of Chill, because the shots just weren’t turning out the way we wanted them. We took the time to regroup and try a different direction. In the end, it made all the difference. It also helped to set us up for the next book, which we can’t wait to share.

Photos: Nicole Rae and Jeffery Saddoris.

About the Author:
Katie McCaskey is a business owner, author and freelance writer on photography topics for Vistaprint, a global provider of customized calendars, and hundreds of other products that can be personalized with photographs.

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One Comment

  1. Wilfred Fillerup says:

    The meaning of the phrase “ice cream” varies from one country to another. Phrases such as “frozen custard”, “frozen yogurt”, “sorbet”, “gelato” and others are used to distinguish different varieties and styles. In some countries, such as the United States, the phrase “ice cream” applies only to a specific variety, and most governments regulate the commercial use of the various terms according to the relative quantities of the main ingredients.

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