All Grills AND Light Are Not Created Equal

Summer grilling season is just around the corner! And ADMIT IT – we all love something straight off the grill. This past weekend, I spent time with my friend Heather Blake with Rocky Mountain Cooking. Heather is a recipe blogger and her recipe post this weekend is Bourbon Whiskey BBQ Sauce Ribs. She invited me over to photograph her creation on the grill and the gorgeous end results.

Before I got to Heather’s, I hadn’t given cooking on the grill much thought. You either have a charcoal grill or a gas grill, I guess the preference is yours. Wellllllll, let me tell you, all grills are not created equal and here’s why I say that. Heather introduced me to her Traeger Wood Pellet Smoker/Grill. Where do I start…here’s a little bit about Traeger.

Traeger Wood Pellet GrillsHow It Works

Set it and forget it, Traeger makes grilling simple. The auger at the bottom of the hopper pulls the hardwood pellets into the fire pot where they contact the hot rod and ignite the pellet grill. Set the temperature on your pellet smoker to the desired setting and begin cooking, convection-style heat cooks food evenly and encircles food with delicious and flavorful smoke. Some of the benefits of this type of cooking is

  • Taste – Wood naturally enhances the flavor
  • Versatility – You can grill, smoke, bake, roast, braise and barbecue
  • Ease – No need to babysit the grill, set it and forget it
  • Consistency – Cook like a pro every time you barbecue
  • Join their community – TONS of recipes

When I walked into Heather’s house, it smelled like heaven! I’m pretty sure she is the envy of all her neighbors, when she fires up her Traeger, because you can’t miss the wonderful smell of ribs cooking wafting through the air.

She had started cooking the ribs earlier that morning, but by the time I got there, they were ready to be sauced. We went out to her deck and I photographed as she proceeded to brush on her Bourbon Whiskey BBQ Sauce recipe creation. Her patio was shaded, so the light conditions were perfect for photographing these gorgeous racks of ribs.

Tips for Photographing in Natural Light

I’m primarily a natural light photographer because nature really does provide the best light. Sometimes though there just isn’t enough light to pull off that brilliant shot.

Natural Light – The Pros

  • It’s cheap and readily available
  • If you need really hard light you can shoot on a sunny day. If you need really soft light you can shoot on a cloudy day.
  • Natural light tends to bounce around and seep through openings in doors and windows. It can make for some very soft light.
  • It can give you a bright and airy quality to your photographs that is difficult to achieve with artificial lights.
  • It’s quick work to measure your light and position your subject with a nearly constant light source.

Natural Light – The Cons

  • You have to go find it. And sometimes the direction of your light doesn’t mesh well with the background you want to use.
  • It typically doesn’t last very long. You have a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon that are typically pretty good for soft light. If you want a low hard light you only have less than an hour on either side of the day.
  • Weather can be a factor.
  • You may need to invest in fast lenses to take advantage of natural light that isn’t super bright. This can be expensive.

Cloudy, Shady or Diffused

As you can see from the photograph of Heather photographing her ribs, she has a wonderful large window we used for a great source of natural light. But you will also note, we used a large diffuser to further soften the light. I also suggested to Heather that she place sheer white curtains across the window, another cheap way to diffuse the light. I also suggested that she pay attention to the times of day when the sun is NOT directly streaming in the window. And obviously, those times will change based on the time of year.

Cloudy days are perfect for shooting indoors or outdoors because the clouds provide the perfect diffused light that wraps around objects perfectly. The downside to flat grey days are that things can end up looking flat. Here are some tips for shooting outdoors during a cloudy day.

  • Try to use textures and props that provide height and depth.
  • Shoot food that has lots of texture. This will provide depth and height.
  • Choose bolder colors like bright reds, yellows, oranges. They will hold up well to the diffused light.
  • Hold a prop, plate of food etc. and walk around in a circle slowly and watch how the light affects it. Once you find an angle that provides ample light and shadow then you know which way to set up!
  • Use diffusers, foam core or bounces to direct and aim light.
  • Find a shady area to provide more contrast.

Shooting Outdoors Can Bring Extremes

The main thing to keep in mind when you are using extreme light outdoors is to keep the highlights and shadows in check. That means trying to minimize the large contrasts between the dark and light. Here are some tips.

  • Don’t put white things into white plates or bowls. This will cause everything to blend together.
  • Set your camera to the lowest ISO setting to get the most of the shutter speeds on your camera.
  • Try to find shady areas or under trees to minimize the harshness of direct light. Or even a patio umbrella. Be careful with patio umbrellas, because the color may produce a strange cast of color onto what you are photographing.
  • Shoot earlier in the day or later in the afternoon. The direct light of a noon sun can be pretty harsh, with hard shadows to deal with.
  • Shooting with direct sunlight can bring about some dramatic effects and can catch subtleties in an image that might be lost in softer light. Things like water beads, mist, steam, ice crystals (think of a cold, frosty glass of beer or soda) do better with more light.

The Need for an Additional Light Source

Sometimes you don’t have a choice about whether or not you can shoot in a natural light source or not. This is more important if you plan on, or are already shooting for clients, as you won’t always have the ability to choose the light source, time and weather to complete the shoot. There have been times I have been hired by a restaurant to photograph their food, and the location is dark and has several different competing light sources. This is where having lighting equipment comes into play. Here’s a few suggestions for equipment for time when natural light isn’t readily available:

  • 5-1 Collapsible Reflector – I like the size of these and having 5 different options is pretty sweet. You’ve got reflectors and diffusers. Here’s the exact one I use Neewer 43-inch round.
  • Photography Lighting Kit with Bulb –A great light set that offers enough light to fill in when natural light is low in demand! I use this set-up by PBL.
  • Clamps – You can find plastic and metal clamps at most hardware stores. These are super handy to hold things into place. I use this type, in various sizes to hold stuff all the time Spring Clamp
  • Foam Core, Cardboard and Foil – these are the cheapest option for sure. Simple! I am a big fan of using a piece of white foam core. You can cut into lots of different sizes and using the clamps, you can bring up your shadows in specific places and snap. DON’T FORGET THE BLACK! Getting some black foam core will help with the opposite effect, it will help darken areas of your photos.
  • Large White Sheet or Sheer Drapery Panel – Perfect for when you want to diffuse a larger area. Again, a very cheap option.

Amazing Results

Here’s a few of the final images from my afternoon with Rocky Mountain Cooking and my introduction to the world of Traeger Grills. Until next time, cheers from behind the camera,

Teri V.

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