Color & Proofing

Hello friends;

In continuing our discussion about the prepress process, let’s consider the following:

We can see here an image that Sarah created as a design element for one of the essays in our book. If we look closely, we can see that the color of this image appears notably different on each item on which it’s displayed, including the printed page seen just to the left of the laptop keyboard.

To understand what’s going on here (and to identify which image is “correct”), we need to push further into our exploration of color. Doing so will involve quite a bit of technicality, so now would be a good time to put on your nerd goggles.

The blue color Sarah intended for the header image above is one that she originally created in the RGB color space. Specifically, the red, green, and blue values Sarah chose are:

Red: 50
Green: 80
Blue: 144

Adding these values together, we arrive at the following color:

Now, math is math, so these numbers should all add up the same every time, for everyone, anywhere…which is to say that this blue should look the same to everyone everywhere, correct?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite so simple as this – things start to get sticky when we need to get image information into or out of the digital realm. Let’s first start with the moment that Sarah chose her color. She chose it looking at a monitor that’s sitting in our office. Sarah’s monitor is the screen of an iMac. Our office has windows. The windows have sheer curtains. The floor in our office is carpeted. The carpet is blue. The wall behind Sarah’s monitor is green, and the wall adjacent it is brick. The brick is yellow.

Why is all of this important?

Light comes into our office through our window, through the curtains, and bounces around our office – off our blue floor, off the green wall, off the yellow bricks. All of this ambient light creates a color cast on Sarah’s monitor. To add further complexity, this color cast can change minute-to-minute as the light coming through the window changes (as a result of changing weather, time of day, etc.)

Sarah’s monitor itself consists of electronic components that are – despite being manufactured to within very tight tolerances – still physical components that can experience fluctuations based on manufacturing differences, environmental conditions, and age.  Consequently, there is likely to be some amount of drift or difference between her monitor and the monitor of my computer (which is a Dell display), or the monitor you might be reading this text on right now (maybe that of a mobile device, or a laptop, or a tablet).

We ultimately need to take the RGB values that looked nice to Sarah – in that environment, on that day – and render them on paper. Printing introduces another whole host of imperfect conditions we need to be aware of. Paper color, ink density, how firmly the printing plate is pressed against the paper, the resolution of our stochastic screen, temperature, humidity, variations in ink formulation – there are dozens of imperfect, ever-changing factors that influence how a color is reproduced when printed.

The question of which version of the image above is “correct”, then, is a two-part issue: there is the original, intended color that Sarah chose, and then there is the final, printed result. We need to ultimately ensure that what ends up printed on the page matches what we’ve been looking at on our screens for the past year or so as closely as possible.

Accomplishing this requires a concerted effort on the part of ourselves, iocolor, and our printing partner in China to constantly measure and re-measure our colors as we work. This begins with Sarah and I. When working with color-critical images that we know are ultimately destined for print, she and I use colorimeters attached to our computers:

These little devices accomplish a few things. First, we can use them to calibrate our monitors to a known standard. This ensures that our monitors match each others’, as well as those of iocolor’s and the printing press. Having everyone’s monitors calibrated helps ensure that when we share an image with our printing partners, they see it the same way in their environment as we see it in ours.

The second feature offered by our colorimeters: they can periodically read the ambient light in our room and adjust the monitor slightly to accommodate for varying viewing conditions. This, technically, is actually not terribly desirable – in an ideal scenario, Sarah and I would work in an environment with tightly-controlled and unchanging viewing conditions. But we don’t actually have such a working space here, so these devices help us keep ourselves in step with each other, so that colors and images look the same on our screens minute-to-minute and day-to-day.

As a potentially-interesting side note: the importance of monitor calibration is something that’s been impressed upon Sarah and I during our time working in visual effects. It’s almost always the case that shots in a film that are meant to be viewed sequentially are distributed among many artists within a vfx studio, and so the need for consistent color and lighting reproduction on every artist’s monitor is of paramount importance. The artists in these studios frequently work in light-controlled environments, and their monitors are periodically calibrated to ensure uniformity throughout the studio.

*see hyper-technical footnote below if you really want to geek out harder about this.

Once Sarah and I have completely finalized the content of our book and are happy with the visuals of it, we ship all of our digital files to iocolor. They then print a “proof” of each page of the book. The proofs are generated on a large inkjet printer that tries to emulate the paper color and ink behavior that will be used on the printing press in China as closely as possible.

Just as with our monitors, the printer on which these proofs are generated is also calibrated, and has an onboard device similar to the colorimeters Sarah and I use (this device is properly referred to as a spectrophotometer). Alongside every page generated by the printer is a small calibration target consisting of swatches of known color:

The spectrophotometer scans these color bars as the pages come off the printer, measuring them to ensure color consistency page to page. If any drift in color is measured, the printer is stopped and the cause of the color drift is identified and corrected.

Once the proofs are generated, they are shipped to Sarah and I, where we visually inspect every page to ensure it looks like what we see on our monitors. This proofing process is what we’ve been working on for the past few weeks.

Once we’ve approved the proofs and said “Yes, these images look like what we expect,” they are shipped to the printing press in China. When it comes time for our book to be printed in earnest, the sheets of our book coming off this press will also have color target bars printed on their edges. The press itself  has onboard spectrophotometers that measures each sheet for color drift. The press is a closed loop system, which means that it can rebalance ink density as needed to maintain color consistency over the duration of the print run. This ultimately ensures that all 30,000 books we will create match each other within a very small tolerance, and ideally also match what Sarah and I see on our monitors here in Chicago.

Right now, we’re at the point of this process where we’ve approved digital color proofs from iocolor, and these proofs have been shipped to our printer in China. The printer has begun work setting up the press run for our book. The first step in their process is taking our individual pages and imposing them on the large sheets of paper we learned about several updates ago. To verify that this page imposition has happened correctly, the press prints another proof to send us to review. Because the thing that we’re checking here is simply whether the layout of the book remains as we designed it (i.e. that all the pages are in the right order, are oriented properly, are not being cropped oddly, etc.), the proofs for this step are often created at a very low quality. This version of the  book is sometimes referred to as a “plotter proof” or an “ozalid proof”, depending on the printing technique used.

This proof represents the final opportunity that Sarah and I have to effect any changes we may want to make (we’re still trying to comb through the book at every turn to find and correct things like typos or other mistakes). We will spend the upcoming days doing this and passing any changes back to the printing press. Once we’ve put our pencils down on this, the press will begin the full print run of the book.

Until next time;


* Oh boy, you really want to go deep on color calibration! Here we go:

The astute reader will note that there are thousands of different devices in the world that are used to display images: monitors, projectors, televisions, VR headsets, mobile devices, etc. Each of these devices is constructed differently, with different mechanisms for producing an image that you can view. As such, the “correct” way to reproduce Sarah’s blue color on her iMac monitor necessarily differs from the way, say, my 13-year-old Sony TV reproduces the same color (which is to say: the actual electronics in the iMac are operating in a different way than are the electronics in my TV).  How, then, can all of these devices aligned such that they can display the same blue swatch identically?

The answer lies in the concept of a device profile. A device profile is sort of like a translator that says “This is how this particular device works, and so here are some instructions – specific to this device – for producing a particular color on it”. The international standard for expressing these instructions are ICC Profiles. If you’ve done any amount of work creating digital imagery, you’ve likely run into this slightly-inscrutable term at some point in your tenure. ICC profiles provide a translation for representing a color from a known color space on a particular input or output device.

What is a known color space? The international standard for this is the CIE 1931 Color System (sometimes you’ll see this synonymously referred to as CIE LAB or CIE XYZ). This concept has for years remained opaque to me until very recently, when my good friend Erik (who is an extremely talented professional image inspector in New Zealand) shared this very interesting and understandable article explaining CIE 1931 with me. Paraphrased simply, CIE 1931 can be thought of as a centralized, internationally-recognized master language of the perceivable color spectrum, and ICC Profiles can convert color values to and from this language on the behalf of whatever devices they are describing.

Note that ICC Profiles are the mechanism by which color values are translated not only from CIE, but also to it. While Sarah chose her blue based on viewing her monitor (which has its own ICC Display Profile, to describe how to translate her blue to be properly displayed on her calibrated screen), our book is also filled with photography. The color my camera captures also needs to be converted into this master CIE space, and so my camera similarly has a device profile for this purpose. The same is true for any color acquisition device, such as film or flatbed scanners, webcams, etc.

Learning about this helps me understand why some photographers create profiles specifically matched to each of their cameras (and, in fact, to each lens for each of their cameras), to ensure accuracy in their own color pipeline. Because I’m learning this as I go, I have not taken such measures, and so there will undoubtedly be a (hopefully small) amount of inaccuracy in the color pipeline Sarah and I have built with iocolor as a result. This helps underscore the value of proofing our book repeatedly as we go: just as with the recipes, we have to accept some amount of tolerance for the fact that the images coming off the press may not match our monitors exactly, but we want to ensure they nevertheless look good.

Printing 101

Hello friends;

This past month has been – as we anticipated – quite busy and challenging. We’ve begun the prepress process with our printer, iocolor, in earnest, which has involved some finicky details which we intend to cover in depth in this and the next few updates.

To understand what “the prepress process” means, let’s build ourselves some foundational understanding of the printing process as a whole, starting with the idea of a prism.

You’re probably familiar with the underlying principle of a prism, a triangular shape that can split white light into its constituent colors. Light itself exemplifies what’s called an additive color model; colors are added together to yield white. We saw this principle demonstrated a few posts ago when discussing visual effects. The primary colors in an additive color model are red, green, and blue. These three colors can be mixed together in varying proportions to yield many other colors.

Computer monitors embody a real-world example of this additive color model: computer monitors work by projecting light onto a screen.  A given pixel on a computer monitor starts off “black” (i.e. “no color”). To make a pixel “white”, a monitor combines red, green, and blue light. Digital photography works on the same principle; the pixels in a digital photograph all consist of varying levels of red, green, and blue to yield a final image.

A printed image, however, works differently. When we print an image, we start with white paper. Producing color on the paper involves depositing pigments onto the paper. Light has to travel through this pigment to hit the paper; when this light reflects back to our eyes, part of its color has been absorbed (subtracted) by the pigment. Printing, then, is an example of a subtractive color model.

A subtractive color model is probably what most of us learned about back in our earliest days of school. We learned that red, yellow and blue were the primary colors, and that if we mixed these in various proportions, we could produce other colors from them with our finger paints.

Our desire when printing, then, is to take an image represented by an additive color model and convert it to something that works in a subtractive color model. How is this done? Let’s press further into color theory:

The complementary color of red is cyan, which means that cyan pigment serves as a filter that absorbs red. The amount of cyan applied to a white sheet of paper controls how much of the red in white light will be reflected back from the paper. Likewise, magenta is the complement of green, and yellow the complement of blue. By setting cyan, magenta, and yellow as our primary subtractive colors, we’re effectively letting light’s primary additive colors of red, green, and blue reflect off a piece of paper back to our eyes. This model works nicely to effectively “invert” the additive color model computer monitors exhibit.

This seems great; we’ve learned that we can combine cyan, magenta, and yellow pigments in varying amounts to produce more or less any color we want on paper. If we were painters, we could start with a palette of these primary colors, and could dab around with our brushes to combine these pigments to create just the right color we wanted before applying it to our canvas. But pre-mixing each and every color we want to appear on a page is time-consuming; if we want to print 30,000 copies of a 468-page book and get it to you as soon as possible, pre-mixing every single color you’d see would be completely unreasonable.

So, printers use a clever technique to make this process more efficient: they separate an image into its cyan, magenta, and yellow primary components. To help explain this more clearly, let’s introduce some more visuals.

Consider this idyllic barn set against a backdrop of the Tetons, an image which I’m sure will make you feel peaceful and relaxed.

For each color seen in the image above, we can ask “How much cyan is in this color? How much yellow? And how much magenta?” We can separate each of these subtractive primary colors like this:

Mixing full amounts of each of these three primaries in an attempt to create black doesn’t quite all the way work; what one ends up with is more sort of a muddy brown color. It’s also highly inefficient:  imagine printing a book full of black text using three different inks. It would be expensive, and there would also be all sorts of registration problems getting the three inks aligned exactly right for small text.

To remedy this, printers add black pigment as a fourth “primary” color.  Here’s the same barn image, now split into cyan, magenta, yellow, and black components. Note how it makes much more efficient use of the colored inks.

These four colors together comprise the CMYK color space.

So, we have our four primary colors, which mix in varying amounts to yield many other colors. How is this mixing accomplished? Offset printers leverage a technique called “halftone screening” to determine how much of a given color pigment is applied to paper. Halftoning is an optical illusion that seeks to represent continuous tones using dots. Viewed from a sufficient distance, these dots appear to meld together to form continuous gradients of color. The “amount of color” in a halftone is controlled (in most cases) by varying the size of the halftone dot: larger dots = more color, smaller dots = less color.

The relative density of these dot patterns are measured as “dots per inch”, or “DPI”. Generally speaking, the more dots per inch, the finer the achievable resolution of an image.

Here’s a closeup of an image of my niece, printed using Blurb’s print-on-demand service.

Note the ‘spotty’ quality of the image; this isn’t an artifact of my camera. It’s the halftone screening process used, and is a combination of several layers of halftones. Each layer is made using one of our primary subtractive colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, or black. I can separate out each of these layers like this, and we can clearly see the halftone patterns:

You might notice that the ‘grids’ of dots all seem to be oriented slightly differently. This is a technique that aims to obfuscate the halftone optical illusion and make the dot pattern less obvious.

Below is a closeup of one of my favorite cookbooks. Note that we can again see the halftone pattern at work here. Sometimes the various degrees of rotation of each of the halftone screens produce secondary, circular artifacts called “rosettes”. Note also here how the dots are more densely-packed. As a result, the image is a bit more crisp, and finer details are able to be resolved.

Let’s compare these images with one made on a photographic inkjet printer. Inkjet printing works a little differently than halftone screening; instead of a fixed grid, dots are randomly scattered by a nozzle in an inkjet printer. We can see the dots in the image below are smaller, and much more densely-packed.  The overall print quality is higher than that of the typical grid-arranged halftone dots used above. The downside with inkjet printing, however, is that it’s slow and almost prohibitively-expensive to produce a book using this technique.

Let’s now consider this closeup, which is from one of the Modernist Cuisine cookbooks. Rather than modulating the size of the dots (“amplitude modulation”, or AM screening) in the halftone screen, these books were printed using a technique called “Stochastic screening”, or “frequency modulation” (FM) screening. Rather than adjusting the size of the dots, the color gradations in this image were made by adjusting the frequency of the dots. The dots themselves are the smallest and most densely-packed in all of these examples, offering crisp, sharp edges and no rosette artifacts. As a result, the images produced by stochastic screening have a great amount of fidelity and sharpness.

It is this stochastic screening technique that we will be using for our book. Having established that and finalized all our content, our attention now turns to making sure that the images that we see on our screens here in Chicago exactly match those that will come off the printing presses in China. We’ll discuss how this color pipeline works in our next update.

Until then;




Hello friends;

I’d like to begin this update with some dry, “status update” info before delving into an interesting design problem Sarah and I have been working on recently.

As has probably been evident over the last year, we’ve done a fair bit of wandering around and experimenting with what we collectively want this book to be. During the past month, however, we’ve shifted our efforts away from this experimentation and towards finalizing the book’s content. This means taking (or retaking) any remaining photography, completing all recipes and essays, and in general trying to get to a spot where we can confidently step back and say “Ok, this is our book”.

Being able to stabilize the bulk of our content allows us to work on some ancillary things that need to be addressed. A table of contents or an index, for example, can’t really be created until we know what page numbers need to be referred to. We have a few places where we refer to other pages or sections of the book, which up until this point have just contained placeholder text. There are lots of these kinds of little details, and we are working carefully to ensure the accuracy of each.

We’ve mentioned this before, but just to be clear: because we ended up adding quite a bit more content than we originally budgeted for, our delivery date has been affected. We’re currently aiming to deliver sometime around September of this year. This is obviously later than we’d originally estimated, but the scope of our book is richer than we’d originally planned.

This delivery date remains just an estimate, however, and there are still a good many unforeseeable factors that stand to influence it. When Sarah and I printed our own book, The Alinea Project, we happened to deliver its contents to our printer around July, which put us right at the height of “busy season” for book printing.

“Busy season?!” I asked iocolor, flabbergasted that such a thing even exists.

“Yeah. All the big book publishers want their books available before the holiday season, which means they all want to print stuff around July or August, to get books around October or November,” explained iocolor.

Because our print run for that book was so small (750 copies total), we were placed into the printer’s queue later, as a lower-priority project (and, incidentally, received our books after the Christmas rush had ended). Our book was further delayed by a dockworker strike in Los Angeles at the port to which our books were meant to be delivered. This strike lasted for several weeks, leaving our books languishing in a storage container on a cargo ship while Sarah and I helplessly stressed out about late deliveries to our Kickstarter backers for that project.

So, lots of unexpected things can go wrong; part of the next phase of this project involves factors that are out of our control, which will require us to shift energy from creative matters to managing these as best we can. Our updates will shift sharply to focus on the process of physically producing this book in the coming months. 

To highlight one of the more interesting design challenges we’ve been working on over the past few weeks, I’d like to share a snazzy little video:

Anyone familiar with the English language (and, perhaps more specifically, with American language) could be forgiven for finding the lyrics of this song to be frustratingly familiar but not quite comprehensible. They are, in fact, complete gibberish. The singer, Adriano Celentano, is an Italian musician/comedian/actor who designed the song to sound uniquely like American music, despite the actual words having no meaning at all.

I find this completely fascinating. The act of decoupling words from their meanings frees a person to evaluate the lower-level qualities of language itself, which in turn can reveal interesting biases and assumptions.

Sarah and I are currently exploring a design challenge that swims in these same waters. The Aviary’s recipe for A Year In Kyoto is actually several recipes in one, comprising a tasting flight of four small cocktails that The Aviary created during Next’s Kaiseki menu several years ago. Each cocktail in the flight is meant to evoke one of the seasons of the year. When discussing the design of the flight, Chef Micah pointed with interest at our small flavor signifiers we’ve mentioned in previous updates:

“What if we include some text in Japanese that evokes something unique about each cocktail?” he asked. We thought this was an interesting idea, and after a bit of discussion we decided on a single Japanese word for each of the cocktails that we intended to place as a decorative element within the recipe.

Now, I should point out that Sarah and I are not Japanese. We neither speak it nor read it, and have zero Japanese ancestry in either of our families. So the issue of placing these words we’d chosen into the design of this book poses two major problems.

The first problem is obviously one of translation. This seems relatively easy to solve by using any number of online language translators. We hopped over to Google Translate and popped in one of our chosen words: “barbecue”. Here’s what that looks like:

Sweet, totally done, right? All we need to do now is copy-paste this into our design document, and move onto problem two, which is picking a typeface. We’re working on Macs, which come with a few pre-installed Japanese typefaces. Surely we can just pick one of these, dust our hands of the matter, and call it a day, right?

Let’s pause for a moment and consider an example of what this recipe looks like without our Japanese text added to it yet. What I’d like to look at, however, is not the recipe, but rather the text itself. To help force myself into a space where I can focus on this, I’m going to write a little bit of code to randomize the letters and words in this recipe. I want it to feel like an English-written recipe, but I ultimately want to render it meaningless gibberish:


With meaning removed from the words, we can focus more clearly on what Sarah is trying to communicate with the design decisions she’s making. What is the overall feel that this type conveys? To help offer a counterpoint, what if I re-set this text using a different typeface:

While the meaning (or lack thereof) of this text hasn’t changed, the page itself now feels very different. The above text is set in perhaps one of the most ubiquitous typefaces of all, the venerable Times New Roman. Times has been a default system font since the early days of desktop publishing, which makes it one of the most commonly-seen typefaces today. Before its appearance on computers, Times enjoyed an extensive career as newspaper type, having been created in the 1930’s for use in the eponymous British newspaper.

Times New Roman’s wide deployment renders it simultaneously everything and nothing, eminently readable yet totally unremarkable. Because it is so strongly associated with being a “default” typeface (undesigned web pages, e.g., with no other type opinion expressed, fall back to Times), the use of it subtly implies our page is undesigned, as if we simply offered zero consideration to the typeface choice at all.

What if we try a different typeface, this time Courier:

Courier is another widely-recognizable typeface, designed to mimic the output of a strike-on typewriter. This inherently puts our text in a particular time and place in history, and – because the typeface choice is likely to be widely-recognizable – also begins to draw on some associations a reader may have with other uses of this typeface. For example, are we reading a screenplay here? Is this some sort of top-secret dossier from a spy film? The Courier typeface has such a strong personality that it becomes dangerous to use because of the associations it inherently provokes.

We can continue this exercise with any number of other type choices:

In each case, there is no change in the text itself. But we can see how each typeface can provoke associations that may or may not be entirely intended, and can raise assumptions or biases about what the intended meaning of our unintelligible text might mean. It’s possible you might look at the above three examples and wonder if these recipes are meant to be part of a kid’s book, or maybe some sort of kitschy boutique.

This, of course, assumes that you have some exposure to the English language (and, again perhaps even more so, American culture and use of type). But what if you don’t? If you’ve never seen the typefaces in the above examples, you have no preconceptions about them. And if you don’t even know what the words mean, the matter is reduced to a purely aesthetic one of lines and shapes.

The fact that we can deliberately do this exercise with our English(-ish)-language text means we can also accidentally accomplish the same provocation of (potentially undesirable) bias by not approaching our Japanese translation and typesetting choices with a high degree of consideration. Worded more simply: simply slamming some words into Google Translate and applying a system-installed Japanese font, dusting our hands and calling this design task done stands to be grossly insensitive to anyone with any familiarity with Japanese language and design. It could possibly be the equivalent of using a typeface like this:

(The typeface above is an example of what some designers refer to as a “chop suey” font – sometimes also referred to as a “wonton font” or a “chopstick font” – a genre styled to mimic the brush strokes found in some Asian calligraphic writing. These typefaces are meant to convey some sense of “Orientalism”, but are in fact a completely Westernized fabrication that bear no history in or connection to actual Asian typography.)

So the decision to set four seemingly-simple words in Japanese has involved Sarah and I spending the last few weeks learning about the Japanese language and consulting with a few experts on our typeface choices. Type that looks interesting and appropriate to us has, in many cases, turned out to provoke strong associations in directions we did not intend. “This looks like an ad for cheap kimono,” was one bit of feedback we managed to provoke. “This is a typeface used by a large Japanese pharmaceutical company,” was another. It’s probably obvious that such a drastic juxtaposition in style might feel jarring and confusing to readers who have fluency with both Japanese and English language and design, and we want to be sensitive to that. Ultimately, we would like the two languages to sit together on the page harmoniously, both visually and in meaning. We recognize that the effort involved in honing this is likely to go unnoticed by many, but we still feel it is work worth doing.

This sensitivity is not incongruous with what we see practiced by those with whom we work. In fact, the staff of the Aviary (along with those at Next, Roister, and Alinea) all go to quite great lengths to educate themselves on matters such as these so as be prepared for moments in which they may be able to offer an extra modicum of care to a guest. There’s always the chance that the time may come where a small gesture of sensitivity can contribute immeasurably to someone else’s experience…the cocktails are just a small part of the equation.

Until next time;




Visual Effects: Pt. II

Hi friends;

Before we launched this Kickstarter, Chef Micah and I had a “practice run” photography session. The exercise was meant to get me thinking about how we might want to handle the photography of different kinds of drinks. Micah chose a range of drinks to test, including Meet Me In Tennessee, which he worried could look boring when photographed:

Because the drink had been presented to me in this way (“This one’s pretty boring, let’s see how we can make it look more interesting”), I’d already been primed to try some unusual lighting. Then, to add more visual interest, I generated some weird CG flourishes and composited them in:

Another drink that presented me with something to think about was Bring Another Smurf. This incredible drink is actually two cocktails in one glass, separated by a disc of ice. Upon being presented with the drink, a guest is invited to blow into a straw protruding from the glass. This disrupts the ice raft, turning it into a paddle that stirs the drink, which in turn triggers an interesting color change. For our test shoot, we affixed a tube attached to an aquarium pump to the straw to blow bubbles into the drink:

Looking at the photos, I realized that any single one of them sort of failed to properly capture the experience of seeing this color change. We could obviously present a spread of multiple images, but that felt a bit predictable. And in any case I was on this jag to think critically about how vfx could be used as a tool, so I started wondering about the idea of using computer graphics to try collapsing a span of time into a single photograph. I set up a fluid simulation of two liquids and wrote a small bit of code to diffuse their colors together over time. I then rendered out a few frames of this fluid simulation, and composited these into a single photograph of the Smurf.

After finishing these tests, I took a step back to consider them both.

To me, the Tennessee experiment wasn’t particularly successful.  Sure, the weird little light curves do indeed add some extra visual interest…but to what end? Including some random computer-generated element that calls a lot of attention to itself for no apparent reason would be, I think, a clumsy application of this technology. It’s not really different than Chef Achatz’ general disdain for garnishes which serve no purpose on a plate, in fact.

The Smurf test, however, is much more interesting to me. It makes me wonder: can I selectively employ computer graphics in a way that supports the “story” of this cocktail?  Does doing so provide more information in an effective or interesting way? Does it add anything, or is it just functionless digital garnish?

Even if I’m not directly augmenting an image with computer-generated elements, I find opportunity to leverage techniques I learned working as an artist in VFX studios. Let’s consider one example. Here’s a simple image of a computer-generated sphere:

We can see the sphere is illuminated by a single, blue-colored light coming from screen right

Here’s the same sphere lit by another light, this time a warm-colored light coming from screen left:

And finally, here’s the same sphere lit by some ambient light data I collected from The Office in NYC:

(This ambient light data looks sort of like a panorama):

A bit of physics knowledge teaches us that light has the peculiar property of being “additive”. This is a fancy way of simply saying that if you have two lights, and you shine them onto a surface, you end up casting “Light 1” + “Light 2” amount of light onto the surface. We can see this visually here:

In the image above, we can see my ambient-lit sphere, my left-lit sphere, and my right-lit sphere. If we add each corresponding pixel in each of the first three images, we end up with the result on the right.

Now, imagine you’re an artist showing a director the above, rightmost image. It’s possible the director might say, “I love this, except I wish the light coming from screen right was less blue”. It would normally be pretty tricky to isolate the contribution of the blue light alone in the rightmost image. But, because we actually have each light split out separately, we can do a neat trick where we can adjust just one of the images, re-add them up, and change our result:

In the above image, I’ve re-colored the screen-left and screen-right lights to be more neutral in color, and re-added everything up, resulting in a more neutral overall image.

I can even do interesting things where I adjust the intensity of the lights independently, as if they were each on a dimmer switch:

Here, I’ve boosted the intensity of my ambient light, and lowered the intensity of my screen-left light, which yields the result we see here.

Working this way allows a vfx artist to respond quickly to a director’s comments without having to re-do a lot of extra work.

When photographing cocktails in The Office, I knew I wanted to include the Office environment itself in my photos. The lighting in the office consists of lots of differently-colored lights: the bar itself is sort of purple, and is tinted by all the bottles sitting on it. The ceiling lights are all a very yellow tungsten color. And my flashes are “daylight-balanced”, which means they’re more blue-white in color. I suppose a “for realsies” photographer would know how to use colored gel filters to tint the color of each of these light sources to bring them all into balance. But, instead, my instinct has been to try using the above light-splitting idea when shooting in situations like this. Here’s an example of a very, very old bottle of bourbon, lit from above:

Here’s the same bottle, now light from screen-right:

And again from screen-left:

I can add these images similarly:

The above example is a relatively simple one, but other photos are a bit more complex:

Working this way has bought me a lot of flexibility: I don’t have to ask for reshoots nearly as often, and I can effectively change my lighting after the fact. This latter bit is useful if we find that this image might need to be placed on the left page in a spread vs. the right (which might encourage me to ‘relight’ it a bit to make the whole spread feel more balanced).

Another example of leveraging computer graphics: Sarah and I talked a bit about designing a bird flock motif to use as a design element throughout the book. Rather than hand-illustrating several flocks of birds, I offered to help Sarah with this work. I started with a simulation of particles:

Then I created an animated cycle of a bird flapping its wings:

I can then “stick” a copy of this flapping bird onto each particle. I can offset the animation forward or backward in time (so that the birds aren’t all flapping in unison).

Sarah then chooses a frame or two she likes, and we render them out for her to use in her design.

There are lots of other places Sarah and I are finding ways to use our collective vfx knowledge (Sarah also has an extensive career in the industry) to apply towards this book. The above examples are meant to highlight how we’re approaching this, attempting to apply our skills in ways that enhance rather than detract from things. We’re hoping the final result feels harmonious, balanced, and well-integrated.

Until next time;


Visual Effects: Pt. I

Hi friends;

Of all updates we’ve shared on this project, this is the one I’m admittedly the most excited for.

I’ve made plenty of noise about all the things that I have little to no experience with on this project. But, I’ve had the privilege of working as a visual effects (“vfx”) artist on feature films for about 20 years, which makes it a field I do know a little bit about.  In our very first meeting about this book with Chef and Nick, Sarah and I asked, “how do you guys feel about the use of visual effects in this book?”

I felt sure I already knew the answer to this. The “branding” assumptions I mentioned in our Photography updates led me to assume that the images in this book should be spartan and minimalistic, focusing wholly on the drinks themselves. Surely computer-generated embellishments had no place in this project.  But I was genuinely surprised when Chef and Nick both exclaimed “Awesome! Go for it!”

I was ecstatic! The idea of finding ways to apply at least some of my vfx experience to this drastically different context was super appealing to me, but I also wanted to be sensitive about how it was done. So I found myself in the unusual and very interesting position of thinking very critically about the role visual effects might play (if any) in a book about cocktails.

A bit of context to explain how I’ve approached thinking about this:

The thing that attracted me to visual effects in my younger years was that the whole thing seemed like a magic trick: I could type some stuff on my computer, and a picture would appear on my screen. It was so cool! The more time I spent typing, the cooler I could make the image.

When I entered the vfx industry, I quickly learned that visual effects in films can be a pretty time-consuming process: I once spent about 8 months working on a single shot in a film, something that flicked by on screen in less than a few seconds. That amount of time and emotional investment tended to mean I really wanted my work to shine – I wanted what I was making to call a lot of attention to itself. And for many years as a vfx artist, that’s kind of the attitude I carried with me.

This kind of myopia, however, can cause a “can’t see the forest for the trees” kind of problem. I’d often labor on details that became very important to me, but that were largely irrelevant to the film’s director or the audience itself. When showing a director a computer-generated splash of water that I’d labored lovingly over weeks, he might say “Can we make it smaller, and make it move to the right instead of to the left?”

“But that’s not physically accurate,” I’d argue. The director often wouldn’t care, but rather than trying to understand why, I just tended to feel frustrated and pouty.

Then I had a very memorable experience that really stuck firmly in my head, and that drastically reshaped my understanding of this art form. It came during my time working as an artist at Weta Digital in New Zealand. While developing the technology needed to make Avatar, Weta worked exhaustively to develop a cutting-edge way of recording facial animation from actors, then using this animation data to drive the facial animation of our computer-generated characters. The system saved thousands of hours that would have otherwise been spent painstakingly hand-animating characters’ faces to get similarly-believable results.

This system was subsequently used on Rise of the Planet of the Apes for the animation of the completely computer-generated ape, Caesar.

There was one notable exception to the use of this system, however. A climax of the film involves a moment in which Caesar’s trust is violated. Distraught, Caesar presses his face pleadingly against a thick plane of glass behind which he’s held captive. The decision was made, for this critical moment, to forego the use of the facial motion-capture system.

This decision scuttled the efforts of the facial tracking software team, and foisted a large workload on animators. It would have been far easier at this point to just use the tools that had been developed for this purpose. So why did Weta and the filmmakers do this?

The facial mocap rig was an intrusive, bulky device that sat right in front of an actor’s face, straight in their field of view. Trying to act like it’s not there is difficult; some psychological effort on the part of the actor is required to overcome this intrusiveness in order to deliver a believable performance. This moment in the film needed to involve the actor acting frantic and terrified, while pressing his face desperately against a pane of glass – something that would have been impossible with the facial rig on.  In this case, the technology would have interfered with the authenticity needed to properly convey the story of this shot. So, rather than sacrificing this authenticity for the sake of convenience, the filmmakers chose to do things the hard way to create a more emotional moment in the film.

Understanding why this decision was made gave me an understanding of visual effects as a supportive storytelling tool, rather than something that clamors for attention in and of itself. I began developing a sensitivity to knowing when visual effects should shout, and when they should whisper. When considering how vfx might be applied in the context of a cookbook, it’s been this idea that I’ve tried to keep in mind as I explore.

The use of visual effects in a cookbook context also involves another peculiar issue. In the case of films, the objective is often to deliberately distort or fabricate reality. People tend to go see films to be entertained, and vfx allow a director to realize a vision that’s often impractical or impossible to create in the real world. But the images in a cookbook, in addition to being eye candy, also need to serve the functional purpose of illustrating how a final dish or drink should look. Falsifying reality in a cookbook threatens its credibility, and I worry it could ultimately undermine the efforts of our chefs and bartenders.

So my Golden Rule for approaching this has been “Do not mislead or distract”. It feels ethically irresponsible to manipulate images for the goal of misrepresenting the cocktails or suggesting an impossible standard for the reader. Instead, I’ve sought to leverage my experience with this stuff to enhance the book in ways that add beauty or clarity without misrepresenting anything.

We’ll see what that’s meant for the book in the next update.



Photography: Pt. V – Outtakes

Hi friends;

I’d like to conclude the week by saying thank you – sincerely – to those who have taken a moment to offer a comment of encouragement to us, both for this series of updates and for those past. Please know it truly means a lot to us as we find our way with this.

Sarah suggested I end this discussion about photography by talking a bit about photography failures. I like this idea a lot, but I also realize that the factor that makes “bloopers” compelling from a storytelling standpoint is an outright crash-and-burn: something that’s unequivocally bad. In reality, most failures I’ve experienced are more along the lines of “This isn’t as good of an idea as I thought it might be” or “this just isn’t compelling enough”, which tend to fall into the valley of mediocrity. Nevertheless, I’ve dug some up examples from my digital trash pile to share.

To offer a bit of context: a thing I used to get pretty into on my own blog was looking for opportunities to make little “art projects” out of the the various techniques or ingredients that I was getting to play with.  Some examples that I think turned out reasonably well:

I wanted to try similar tactics for this book. For the most part, this has worked out well, but sometimes what seems like a good idea turns out not to be. For example, making an oregano tincture involves sealing fresh oregano with grain alcohol and cooking en sous vide. This starts out looking something like this:

I thought I was being clever and interesting by painting out the outer edges of the vacuum bag in which this oregano is sealed. We’d included this image in one of our early book layouts until one afternoon when Chef Achatz saw it, wrinkled his nose, and asked Chef Micah why we were including a photo of rotting oregano. When I explained what it was, the chefs had an “Ohhhh, right” kind of moment, but it was enough to make me realize that it’s not super-obvious what’s happening in this image, so we decided to scrap it.

For another recipe that uses cantaloupe, I had the bright idea to try building a mosaic of nicely-cubed melon, then realized that – because the melon cubes were all the same color and texture – this didn’t really make for a very interesting image, and in fact only really highlighted my crappy melon cube stacking skills:

Another recipe involves compressing some pear cubes. Apparently resistant to learning from my own mistakes, I thought the textural difference this process introduces might make this cube mosaic idea more compelling. But…meh. These aren’t particularly impactful:

Yet another recipe involves caramelizing some onions. Chef Ingi often stores ingredients like this in vacuum bags to hold them until we need them. Without really thinking it through, I grabbed this bag and tried snapping an image of the caramelized onions:

This obviously isn’t terribly appealing. But Ingi, ever-patient and willing to try helping me with this idea, did something rather incredible and carefully caramelized a half-moon onion slice of onion, then sat it perfectly aside its uncaramelized counterpart:

Incredible technique aside, this image notably more compelling for sure. But we’re not sure it deserves an entire page of space (plus, the layout for this recipe feels a little too congested if we try to wedge this in just for the sake of including it).

But I have experienced one failure that’s unarguably terrible. Our Gin & Tonic involves making spherified cucumber juice. I find the green spheres compelling, and cucumbers themselves are really pretty, so I wanted to try juxtaposing the two together.

These are all just vaguely weird and mediocre though. But I wasn’t ready to give up on this idea, so I came back to the studio the next day to try some even worse ideas:

And finally, here’s one we’re on the fence about. One of our recipes involves a pretty fascinating step wherein a mixture is clarified by milk curds. The idea is that you add milk to an acidulated mixture, which causes the milk to curdle. The mixture is then strained through a chinois, and – this bit is important – becomes clarified by flowing through the curds (so, it’s the curds that are doing the actual straining, not the chinois). Chef Ingi and I thought this step was worth dwelling on a bit, so we built an ad-hoc tank out of a few sheets of plexiglass, filled it with water to which we’d added a bit of vinegar, and then poured milk into it to demonstrate the curdling effect:

We can’t tell if this image is awesome or really offputting. Anyone else want to weigh in?

In between sharing these updates, we’ve pressed forward with more photography this week (including building a small sand dune in the dining room of the Aviary, shooting a drink on it, and cleaning it up in the span of about a half hour between staff meal and doors). We hope to finish the bulk of the photography in the next couple of weeks. Sarah will then need some runway to add these photos to her design, and we’ll take a step back and see what gaps exist or what needs more coverage. While she’s working on this, I’ll shift focus back to the writing side of things, honing some essays we’ve written about food pairing, non-alcoholic and low-alcohol cocktails, and a host of other topics we’ve been inspired to include.

Until next time;


Photography: Pt IV – Fun Is Fun

Hi friends;

A few months into this project, several things happened that would change the trajectory of my photography.

The first came during an early review of book materials with Chef. “How do we feel about including some textures or some other qualities of the Aviary into these photos?” he asked Sarah and I.

I knew shooting in our studio encouraged me to operate in sort of a visual vacuum, and I started wondering how I might be able to address this point. I started hunting around our storage spaces for leftover building materials from the buildout of the Aviary, and also began contacting a few of the contractors and interior designers who fabricated the space. My hope was to collect materials that I could use to build some small sets or backdrops to begin mimicking the look and feel of various spaces within the Aviary. Some leftover kitchen tiles, e.g., excellently replicate the walls near the Aviary’s Kitchen Table:

Shortly after this meeting, we happened to schedule some photos of cocktails served in The Office, the speakeasy situated below the Aviary. The Office – being underground and windowless – poses none of the problems the Aviary itself does in terms of shooting conditions: it’s quiet, mostly empty during the day, and dark enough to allow for very controllable lighting. We also discovered that its luxurious and eclectic decor lent itself to photography that felt strikingly-different than the sleek, minimalist look I’d been generating in our studio:

These moments caused me to develop a sense of paranoia about my photography. I was getting the hang of the technical aspects of things (which is to say: I was growing more comfortable managing reflections and understanding how to light the drinks), but worried about possibly stagnating creatively for the bulk of the Aviary cocktails. And the pressure I put on myself to not let either Chef or our many project backers down loomed large in my mind.

To try to understand how to move forward, I decided to print out several “contact sheets” (small thumbnail-sized images) of every photo I’d taken so far. My goal was to identify patterns and see what – if anything – might push me in a new direction. This is a thing Sarah and I often do when we feel a bit stuck, and doing it this time caused one set of photos to jump out at us.

When Nick, Chef, or other team members visit our office, they invariably notice and point out the same set of photos: those of the Green Thumb.

Compared to the stark white or black backgrounds featured in most of the rest of the photos, this drink looks so drastically different that it almost risks not belonging in the book at all. And yet everyone at work here points at the print of it on our wall and exclaims “Oh that one’s awesome, we should do more photos like that.”

I admittedly really love it as well: it’s bright and arresting and feels whimsical and fun. But it also conflicted with my understanding of the overall aesthetic or “brand” of this restaurant group. Alinea, Next, the Aviary, and even Roister feature interiors that skew towards the austere. I recall some early writings about Alinea that described how its interior design was specifically meant to feel very neutral, so as not to detract attention from the food itself. Luxury brands in general tend to share this minimalist, bare aesthetic:

This minimalist aesthetic indeed allows the product to stand undistracted. It also sort of suggests an air of solemnity: these products are meant to be taken seriously. The aesthetic concept of “luxury” as a whole, in fact, seems to take itself very seriously – these products do not suggest a sense of humor.

But…but…is there anything serious about a drink served with a spritz of hotdog-scented aroma?

“Of course there isn’t!” Nick said when I asked him about this. “This is a book about cocktails! Cocktails are supposed to be fun! We don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.”

This has been a jarring concept for me to wrap my head around, and I realize that it’s almost entirely based on my own bias rather than direct experience here. I’ve been incredibly sensitive to the visual identity and “brand” of the Aviary since the beginning of this project…or, at least, I’ve been very sensitive to what I assumed it was, being one of a group of fine dining, Michelin-starred establishments. So when I found myself questioning whether this Green Thumb photo was “too fun”, it was Nick and Chef who sort of laughed and helped me realize maybe I was taking myself too seriously with this.

I began retracing my steps that led me to this photo. Chef Micah and Ingi had mentioned to me that this drink was actually served with a patch of grass sprayed with the BBQ-scented aroma; it’s meant to taste and smell like summer.


These little tabletop dioramas are not unusual amongst the restaurants here. As Ingi words it, the chefs love to “play dress-up” with the table, the goal being to create a sense of immersion that can’t be created by a plate alone. Several years ago, for example, Alinea literally served a pile of dirt. In the dirt was planted a handful of tiny, perfect baby lettuces, and guests were presented a beautiful pair of small silver scissors that they used to harvest a custom salad for themselves.

Even as recently as a few months ago, guests at Alinea would tromp and crunch through mounds of autumn leaves to get to their table, on which was piled more leaves that the guests needed to clear to find their first bites hidden amongst the foliage.

All of this led me to realize that maybe “texture” didn’t necessarily need to specifically refer to the building materials of the Aviary. Maybe texture could come from pushing the presentation of the drinks to be more interesting and interactive, and maybe my photo of the Green Thumb was actually more on-target with the “brand” and general aesthetic of the Aviary than any of my super-stark photos had been.

I began revisiting the work of other photographers I admire, in search of inspiration. I love, for example, the portraiture of Jill Greenberg:

When I first started learning about lighting and photography years ago, Jill’s work was one of my first sources of inspiration. I wanted to pick apart how she was lighting her subjects. One afternoon, Sarah sat with me in our tiny garage very patiently as I fiddled with my lights, ultimately producing this – one of my very favorite portraits of her:

Flipping back through this work, I wondered Hm…maybe I could try shooting some cocktails sort of like this?

Since this turning point, our shoots have grown notably more complex. This in turn has required more creative thought and planning. By far our most involved shoot as of this writing has been for Turtle Doves, which Sarah explains in this video she shot of us a few weeks ago:

This shoot took a month or so of planning and watching the weather here in Chicago. And Chef Ingi and I decided we didn’t all-the-way love the images we got from the shoot you see in this video, so we ended up waiting another week or so for a second snowstorm to come through before re-doing everything (with a few tweaks to the process). In the end, however, we got an image we think is pretty, well, fun.

Side note: drinking a cocktail from a snow-rimmed glass is pretty awesome.


Photography: Pt III – Early Shoots

Hi friends;

Around the halfway point of working my way through the Alinea cookbook, I felt as though I were starting to hit a stride in terms of photography. I was fascinated by the striking colors and textures that I was getting to experience while learning about this style of cooking, and had grown comfortable lighting and capturing dishes in a way that felt interesting to me. A thing I found particularly satisfying was shooting the dishes on backgrounds of solid black or white, which tended to remove any sense of scale or place, and sort of heightened the sense of disorientation and precision involved in the food. The stark backgrounds also, I felt, really showed off the vibrant colors of the food itself.

It was a fairly well-practiced instinct, then, to try shooting my first few photos for this book in a similar way. But I learned almost immediately that photographing cocktails offered several different challenges that I’d not yet run into.

Let’s see a contrived example. Here’s a single-light setup illuminating a cocktail glass with a fairly simple shape:

Let’s throw some bourbon, ice, and an orange peel into our glass:

We can immediately see a few problems. The reflections of the light onto the glass are fairly distracting, especially the front surface reflection, which is obscuring the cocktail liquid. And the liquid itself is almost completely lost against the dark background.

Let’s switch momentarily to a lighter-colored tabletop:

Having something bright to refract kicks a bit more life and color up into the liquid, which is a good clue for me to keep in mind. As for the glass reflection, a bit of physics knowledge suggests that we might want to put the camera in a place where the light isn’t bouncing off the glass towards it. One such angle is:

The upside here is that we now see nice color and shading in the cocktail, and have sidestepped the distracting reflections. But we’ve also composed a photo that – as we’ve seen – looks pretty familiar. And I don’t want to be constrained to shooting every cocktail from this angle for the purposes of avoiding reflections. I want to shoot this cocktail from my original perspective: low and close. So, I reason, I can probably try inverting my camera positioning strategy, and moving the light to a place where it doesn’t cast a reflection onto the glass from the perspective I want to use:

This is a bit better; I’ve lit the glass the way I’d like, but I’d still like the cocktail itself to have some more presence and life. I can try introducing a second light, with a modifier called a “snoot”, which funnels the light into a very controlled small spot (namely, squarely into the cocktail):

That’s a bit better. But I’d like to push even more light into that drink. This particular cocktail is quite transparent, which means light wants to travel through it rather than bouncing off of it. I almost wish I could put another light under the drink, but clearly that’s not exactly possible. After some experimentation, I find I can do this:

I can tuck a small piece of white paper under the glass. This is hidden from view, but kicks light from the upper, snooted strobe back up into the cocktail, giving me some extra illumination from the bottom:

The usefulness of this is more evident if we switch back to our dark tabletop:

Unfortunately, just because I’ve figured out some clues as to how I might light this one cocktail, it’s still just one of many. The Aviary’s drinks are as diverse and vibrant as the dishes in Alinea, and each poses different challenges and needs.

I learned early on that cocktails involve not just one subject, but multiple. The glass, the liquid inside, any ice or garnishes, and any other elements (hands, smoke, etc.) often need to be lit differently. And, while it may seem like I’m explaining all of this easily, it’s taken me since the start of this Kickstarter to wrap my head around these challenges (and I still have lots to learn). Scrolling through the earliest shoot dates of our photo library, we can see how I did quite a bit of “hunting” to find a decent shot of 2 in 1:

Bitter offered the added challenge of an inverted smoke-filled glass. Simply photographing the cocktail carafe next to the glass didn’t fully explain what was going on, so we decided to shoot the glass being lifted, which helps illustrate its function more clearly.

Tea in Trinidad builds on this problem: the cocktail is served inside a glass sphere which contains both the cocktail liquid and an aromatic smoke.

Thankfully, our chefs are incredibly patient as I shoot, adjust, shoot, re-adjust, etc. and have been uncritical when I ask for remakes of cocktails because of failure to get things right on the first go-around. But shooting over 100 cocktails has given me plenty of time to get the hang of things, which means I’ve gotten faster at designing the lighting setups for each drink. This buys me extra time to think a little more creatively about the photography (and, like the chefs, I don’t really like sitting still too long before I get itchy to try to push things a bit further). We’ll see what that has meant for later shoots in the next update.



Photography: Pt. II – The Studio

Hi friends;

The Aviary is situated in a corner space of the building in which it resides, with lovely floor-to-ceiling windows lining two of its four walls. It is not open during the day, but is open 7 nights a week starting at 5pm. During the day, a full staff of chefs prep components for the evening’s service while another front of house team prepares the dining area.

These relatively unremarkable facts drastically affect how one might approach shooting oodles and oodles of cocktail photos. Aviary’s kitchen is small, without much space for photo gear or maneuvering around the chefs as they’re trying to work. The dining area is less congested during the day, but the massive windows flood the room with daylight. Shooting in this available light is, I feel, misleading, and also lacks any controllability. Blacking out the windows for the purposes of shooting under controlled lighting is unpractically arduous. And in any case, photography equipment would need to be packed in and set up to start shooting mid-morning, then completely broken down and packed back out each afternoon before doors for service. Chef, Nick, and Martin and Lara Kastner have all recalled with heavy sighs how it felt to do exactly this with the original Alinea cookbook: it’s slow, painful, and not much fun.

So instead, we built out a small storage space within the offices above the Aviary, converting it into a photography studio:

While modest, the studio has proven to be quite effective for us. It’s directly adjacent to a small kitchen, which we’ve converted into a test kitchen for the book. We prep and store components for drinks in this kitchen, and its proximity to the studio means we can move quickly to make cocktails for photographing or adjust recipes on the fly as we notice we need to.

Our management of photo shoots is an amalgamation of how a film shoot is structured and how a kitchen runs. We have daily call sheets with shot lists, to ensure we capture footage of everything we’ve planned to, or to make notes about what might need reshoots. The chefs prep any mise en place as needed prior to each shoot.

All of the lighting I use is portable. I suspect this is unusual, but it’s the equipment I learned to use while photographing stuff for my Alinea blog. I’ve grown to be comfortable with it, and it’s incredibly versatile given that part of my job is shooting stuff unrelated to cookbooks at all of the restaurants as well. I can move quickly with these portable strobes, they require no external power or cords, and I can fit into small spaces without being too obtrusive with them.

We invested in a half-dozen or so low-cost portable flashes that can be triggered wirelessly by my camera, along with a handful of various light modifiers. The latter allow me to shape the quality of light, shadows, and reflections in our photography. It’s rare that I ever need to shoot with all lights at once; the reason we have so many is so I can keep them all set up (rather than having to constantly break them down or swap out their modifiers), which turns out to offer a significant time savings.

Given that we’re in a studio environment – and not in the Aviary itself – an early concern for us was how to maintain some semblance of authenticity in our photos. I emailed Chef early on to ask if there might be some spare unused tables from the Aviary in storage somewhere. Incredibly, a day later, a granite tabletop from the Aviary appeared in the studio… along with tabletops from Alinea pre- and post-renovation. Tabletops without the pedestal foot attached are awesome: they’re portable, which means we can move them around or adjust them as needed (being able to sit a tabletop on the floor for a top-down shot is super-useful!)

Armed with this space and equipment, I was ready to start taking the book’s first photos. In the next update, we’ll take a look at some of the first photos I took in this space, along with some problems I ran into early on when trying to learn how to photograph these drinks.



Photography: Pt. I – Context

Hi friends;

I’d like to talk a bit about the photography of this book. I feel there is too much to say about this to fit it into one (overwhelmingly-long) update. So, much as Sarah did when she talked about design,  I plan to share multiple updates throughout the course of this week.

We’ve been pushing aggressively on our photography schedule since Christmas, and are near the 85% completion mark (we think) for photos. I’ve been reticent to write about this subject so far because, honestly, I’ve been learning as I go and didn’t have a ton of confidence that I could share anything interesting until now. I’ve mentioned before that I came into this project having zero experience photographing cocktails. Discovering how it differs from photographing food, learning and developing new strategies to address these differences, and getting to a point on the learning curve where I’m adept enough to make creative decisions rather than just technical ones has taken some time.

Nick wrote extensively about why we are choosing to self-publish this book, but I’d like to belabor one of his points a bit. Printing a book is a physical process; unlike the digital realm, where the use of color doesn’t really affect the “cost” of a web page, laying ink onto a piece of paper involves cost considerations. Black text on a white page literally requires less ink than a photo (which requires a minimum of 4 colors to represent…we’ll get into the technical ins and outs of printing in a later update). All of this is to say: printing photos in books is expensive.

Publishers often seek to mitigate these costs by minimizing the inclusion of photos. When it comes to cookbooks, the ramification of this, as Nick points out, is that a home chef is far less likely to try cooking a dish for which no photograph is provided. Unless the reader already has a familiarity with the flavors or visual character of such a dish, they are unlikely to try making it.

This problem is even more exacerbated in the world of cocktail books. It’s tempting for some publishers to dismiss cocktails as “just liquid in a glass”. The supposition is that cocktails are typically visually boring, so why take up precious page real estate with costly inks to show a glass holding brown liquid? There also seems to be a (perhaps historical?) precedent for the form factor of a cocktail book. They’re generally small, designed to be tucked behind the bar and used more as a reference manual, which supports the apparent lack of need for photographs (why include photos if you’re gonna be looking at this in a dim bar?)

All of this leads to the landscape of cocktail books available today: small, few photos, with kind of a “handbook” vibe. To be sure, there are exceptions to this, but a browse through the “Cocktails” section of a local bookstore shows they are rare.

The Aviary’s drinks are, by design, visually-arresting. The chefs here often seek to provoke some sort of emotional response and want to involve as many senses in this effort as they can. The presentations and flavors are also likely to be unfamiliar. Both of these factors strongly suggest that photography of each drink (and, in cases, the process of making it) could be helpful.

So, from the beginning, this has been an agreed-upon mandate we’ve imposed on this project: there will be photos of everything.

To understand how I’ve approached learning this aspect of things, I feel it might be useful to start here:

This is the first photo I ever took of food. I know…magnificent. But for the sake of discussion, let’s pick this apart a little bit. What’s the story I’m trying to tell here? It’s clear that I seem to have grilled some vegetables and meat, and it’s clear there’s some sort of glaze dripping off the skewers. But it’s not entirely obvious what the flavors in the glaze might be. To add clarity, I included some extra information: the ingredients I used to make the glaze. I then took a photo of everything from what appears to be the position I was sitting just before eating the skewers.

To see why I think this observation can be useful, let’s consider some other images that I did not take:

When I began looking around for examples of cocktail photography, some patterns began to emerge. I noticed one of these patterns was shared in my skewers image: a desire to add information. Taken alone, these cocktails convey little information about what they might taste like. The inclusion of constituent ingredients helps add clarity (and also some extra visual interest).

There’s an interesting problem with this approach, however: if you don’t know what, say, Tiger Sauce or Campari or Red Vermouth tastes like, the extra information isn’t actually helpful.

In making this book, we realize that investing in cocktail ingredients can be expensive. And we want a reader to be able to hunt through our recipes and have an understanding of the flavors, so they can decide whether they might like to try making the drink. But I find the inclusion of bottles and such in photos of Aviary drinks distracting; as I said, the drinks themselves are designed to be visually-appealing, and we don’t want to detract from that. So to address this, Sarah came up with the idea to present this information in a design element that we include on every recipe:

Offloading this information in this way accomplishes a few things: it offers information we hope is helpful, and it pushes me to be more creative by taking away the need for a compositional strategy I might have been tempted to use otherwise.

Let’s consider some more examples:

Another pattern that emerges to me when I flip through cocktail books is the use of the same composition seen in my skewer photo above: the cocktail is photographed from a perspective that one might normally view a cocktail (which is to say: sitting near it, looking down at it). This, to me, is a very comfortable composition: it’s familiar and it conveys scale well. It’s so comfortable, however, that it can lack a bit of surprise or impact.

We can see how a bit of extra drama can be added by using a wider-angle or macro lens, which allows the camera to be positioned closer to the drink. This throws the table and background more out-of focus, and tends to make the photo feel less like a snapshot and more like a formal portrait of the cocktail:

Addressing the issue of adding extra visual interest to an otherwise spartan photo of a cocktail seems to give rise to a handful of recurring strategies. I notice in food photography that adding a human element can often add interest (e.g. hands manipulating utensils or serviceware). This image, for example, was one I took in my early days of working through the Alinea cookbook:

Sarah’s hands were in the photo by necessity: I needed her to hold the bowl because the bottom is rounded, making it impossible to sit on a tabletop (this is by design; the dish is meant to be held by the guest as it’s eaten). But I was surprised at how much I liked the extra warmth and interest her hands added to the image.

I notice cocktail book photographers sometimes reach for this same trick. When the involvement of hands feels natural or functional, this can add some nice extra interest to a photo. In other cases – when there’s no apparent necessity – the image ends up feeling less natural to me.

Another strategy I notice is the creation of a still life or diorama to give a vibe or feel to an otherwise visually-bland drink. These, to me, can range from subtle and interesting to totally perplexing:

By far the most common aesthetic I see in the majority of existing cocktail photography, however, is this sort of vintage, stylized Prohibition-era vibe that suggests cocktails are somehow “antiques”. I think I get it: there’s a very deep, fascinating history to this particular culinary subject, and this antique feel is romantic, charming, and beautiful. But to me it also implies that the very concept of the cocktail is somehow cemented in this rose-colored past and hasn’t changed since.

And, obviously, this is pretty much the exact opposite of the general approach Chef Achatz takes to anything here.

In studying this, I’ve also found a handful of sources of inspiration. My favorite cocktail book from a design and photography perspective is “The Cocktail Lab“. Here’s an example: the book is unafraid to let this drink speak for itself, with no extra adornment:

I love this photo. I love the subtle coloring and the graphic reflections from the lighting environment, and I love that it’s composed the way you might shoot a portrait of someone.

Other examples from the book feature tastefully-subtle and apropos environments or backgrounds, which help offer a vibe for the drink without being obnoxious:

Even in the cases of “still life” approaches, I generally find the extra set garnishes interesting – more modern than antique – which is refreshing to me:

Ultimately all of this study is meant to help me calibrate my standards for this book and formulate an aesthetic game plan. I’d very much like to push myself and the content of this book creatively, to help serve the subject matter itself and to ensure each of you ends up with a book you feel is unique and interesting. We’ll dig a bit more into what that means in the coming days.