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.