Can a pizza be edible art? I think so because my buddy Jim Griffin and his crew are known for their hand-crafted masterpieces. Their studio is a small bistro in the hamlet of Templeton — conveniently located a few miles from my house. Folks come from far and wide to eat their pizza. (Hidden tip: if you’re driving between LA and San Francisco on Hwy 101, Templeton is about half-way. So time your departure accordingly.) Click on the pic above to see those pies extra-large.

When Jim asked me to shoot a portfolio for his new website, I knew there was only one time to shoot–Friday night when the kitchen is hopping and the pies are flying. It had to be a Friday night because Jim wanted pix that looked like his food rather than over-styled fabrications. The challenge would be to shoot the food without creating a delay in the service.

So I set up shop right in the middle of the small, crowded kitchen on a Friday night. By small, I mean that the whole area measures about 250 s.f. — including the oven, the hot and cold prep lines, the front counter, and all the staff. My gear was one camera (5DM2), one lens (24-70mm f/2.8L) two Speedlites (580EX IIs), a Sto-Fen dome diffuser, an umbrella adapter, and…don’t miss this, a Cardellini clamp.

^ My studio was the prep table next to the pizza oven. The glowing orb above the pizza is my Speedlite.

I had just a half-minute (at the most) to photograph the pizzas after they were prepped for service. Basically I used the ever-versatile Cardellini clamp to bolt a Speedlite to the adjacent table. I controlled the slave with the master in my camera’s hot shoe — which I disabled so that it would not throw on-camera flash at the usbject. “Disabled” means that the master sends the instructions to the slave(s) via a pre-flash and then remains dark when the shutter is open. As the distance between the slaved Speedlite and the pizzas did not change, I operated the Speedlites in Manual mode for consistency from flash to flash. When I shoot food moving out of the kitchen in the hands of the servers, then I switch to E-TTL because the subject-to-flash distance is variable.

My sensei, Joe McNally has the Justin clamp. I have the Cardellini. A Cardellini (which is also known as a “Matthellini”) is essentially a pair of vice jaws on a long threaded shaft. It will grab onto anything from a pane of glass to a large pipe and hold securely. In a restaurant kitchen, and everywhere else, the Cardellini will lock down securely and can be removed in a few seconds. To connect a Speedlite to a Cardellini, as you can see below, you need a swivel adapter and a cold shoe. You can read more about the Cardellini here in an article I wrote on PixSylated about how I used it to turn a ladder into a light stand.

^ My light stand was a Cardellini clamp -- a piece of grip gear that is always in my bag. The Sto-Fen diffuser helped throw the light around -- essential given how close the pizzas were to the light (about 12").

The ambient light in the kitchen was bright fluorescent. The good — and the bad thing — about fluorescent is that it’s everywhere. Food benefits from the highlights created by directional light. To overcome the ambient light, as you can see below, I just dialed my shutter speed to a point where the camera did not record much of it.

^ My exposure setting effectively killed the ambient light -- giving me total control of the light on the pizzas.

If you’re wondering what the name of this place is…it’s Griff’s Bistro & Pizzeria. Unfortunately Griff’s is closed for the next six months as it re-builds after a mid-December kitchen fire (middle of the night, no one hurt). Believe me, it’ll be worth the wait…and the drive.


18 Responses to Speedliting Pizza On A Busy Friday Night

  1. Nice one Syl..

    I'd have also tried bouncing into the ceiling too, with a tight zoom to control the 'soft box' the effect creates.

    Shame about the fire though.. nasty.

    • Syl Arena says:

      Hey Sean — Essentially, the fluorescents had already turned the kitchen into a giant softbox. Light was bouncing in from all directions. We wanted a bit of snap to the light — which is why I used the Speedlite in close with the Sto-Fen.

  2. George Van Buren says:

    Thanks for the idea. I will try this the next time I order a pizza

  3. Alvin Ngan says:

    Nice blog! I’m getting into food photography myself, and I’m finding off-camera flash the way to go for more directionality as you mentioned. Are there any wireless transmitter / receivers that are affordable you can recommend to pair with my 580 EX II?

    • Syl Arena says:

      Alvin – If you have a single Speedlite and want off-camera E-TTL control, then a long E-TTL cord is the way to go. If you don't mind walking to your Speedlite to change the power, an inexpensive set of radio triggers will be about the same price as the long E-TTL cord. If you have two Canon Speedlites and one of them is a 500-series, then learn to use Canon's built-in wireless system.

  4. Andrew says:

    Sorry buddy, really like your informative site and images etc. But I think this was a job you should have declined.
    Pizza’s are especially tricky to shoot. And your images prove it.

    “Jim wanted pix that looked like his food rather than over-styled fabrications” Why didn’t you explain to Jim that this is a nieve and ineffective marketing approach?
    Pizza’s sag in the middle and the crust on the edges is higher so you have to put something underneath to lift it up to catch highlight with or the crust will be washed out from your back light as you try to enhance the textures.
    Regular pepperoni and cheese will make the pizza look to greasy, etc.I’ve worked for two of the best food photographers in Montreal, they both shot Pizza’s for the big chains. Two different food stylist did it pretty much the same way. Lightly cook the crust, then dress it and lightly cook that, then apply the cheese and brown it by hand using either a blowtorch and aluminum foil to control the areas being melted or an old fashion BBQ coal starter that they carefully waved over the top of the cheese to get it just so. You should do him at least one glam shot for the splash page or an ad.

    • Syl Arena says:

      Andrew — My client received exactly what he was looking for. To describe his vision as "nieve and ineffective" seems a big strong from such a distance. Griff's is the antithesis of a big chain pizza joint and wanted photography that loudly shouted the difference. BTW, it's spelled "naive." A "nieve" is a clenched fist.

  5. Ivan says:

    If it were my pizza place, I'd be very pleased with these shots.

    Nothing against food stylists, or perfection in photographing food, but I rather like this approach.

    The pizza looks delicious. Do you think I could get Griff's Bistro to ship me a few pies? I'm in NJ.


  6. chuck says:

    Thanks Syl for taking the time to post. The pizza's look great
    Did you use any color correction gel's on the flash ?

    As a novice canon shooter I find the Speedliter's Handbook a must read for anyone learning flash photography.

    • Syl Arena says:

      Hey Chuck – I did not use a gel for this shoot. Here's why – as you can see in the set shot above – virtually 100% of the light in the frame came from the flash.

      Generally I gel for one of two purposes: either to blend the flash in with the ambient light (fill flash during a sunset shot or when using flash in a tungsten-lit environment) or to make the flash a specific color for dramatic effect. When 100% of the light in a shot is from a flash, then I can use the white balance slider in Lightroom to tweak the overall tone (warm/cool) as I need it to be.

      Thanks for the kudos on the Handbook. Please add a review on Amazon, if you are so inclined.

      • Billy says:

        Syl, any word on when Amazon UK will be recieving stock of the book? I can't wait to get my hands on it but it's still being held as a pre-order.

        • Syl Arena says:

          Billy — I've been trying to get a definitive answer, but have nothing more than a generic "soon." Apparently, between the cold weather in the US and the cold weather over your way, freight shipments have been delayed. As soon as I get a more precise answer, I'll pass it along. Sorry for the delay. Thanks for your patience!

  7. Claude says:

    Hey Syl, I think these shots are very effective as I am now hungry for a pizza! I also like how you used shallow DOF. Simplicity, in this case, is the winning ingredient.

  8. Aaron Aubrey says:

    @Andrew.. I think Syl did an amazing job on this. The shots clearly show the product that the client is getting, and it looks amazing, even without the styling. Jim clearly knows his marketing and thus chose to have 'real' shots of real food, instead of a stylized substitute. The last thing he wants is his customers complaining that their pie doesn't look just like the one on the menu~

    @Syl.. this is my first time commenting on either of your pages.. thanks a ton! I've learned a lot from you, can't wait to get the speedlighter's handbook~

    Any plans on making it to Vancouver??

  9. John Woods says:

    You state you had two 580's? Did you use just one, or did you fire both?

  10. gopa kumar says:

    hi Syl,
    very informative indeed, the peek into the production! thank you.


  11. Michael says:

    Good Evening from Dallas, Syl!! First time leaving a comment. I enjoyed your pizza photos and thanks for mentioning the Cardellini Clamp in this article…and also in the podcast you did with Camera Dojo a couple weeks back. You are a no-nonsense kind of guy that takes a very down-to-earth approach to off camera flash photography and I hope you keep doing podcasts and blogs!! Thanks!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *