On Assignment: Cafeteria Lunches

One of my favorite things about being a photographer is that if you pay attention, stories are everywhere. But the trick is paying attention—even if that story is presenting itself after you have had a drink or two at a New Year's Eve party.

That's where I met Judith Schardt-Shure, a cafeteria manager at a local public middle school. We asked each other the typical "So, what do you do?" party questions, and the 30-minute discussion about cafeteria food that followed left me wanting to know more—and wanting to make sure other local parents knew, too.

Which is exactly why I have developed HoCo360 over the last three years. It has now turned into what I had for 20 years as a newspaper photographer: a license to be curious.


When I left The Baltimore Sun in 2007 I was still just as curious as I had ever been, but no longer had the weight of the paper as license to act on it. So one of the many reasons I started HoCo360 in 2010 was to fill that void. These days, you don't need printing presses any more. And the quality of information doesn't really correlate to the platform, either.

HoCo360 is a visual journal, with content defined solely by the boundaries of Howard County, Maryland. Beyond that, there are no limits and there is no structure. It is a SoJo (solo journalist) experiment that long-time readers know has paid off in many ways.

Like any publication, it is an amplifier. It's something that can take a party conversation and, ultimately, broadcast it to other people in Howard County and beyond.

How far does it go? In 2013, the answer to that question is that it's Darwinian. If the content is quality and reputable and interesting—or better yet some mix of the above—it will spread. If it's not, it won't. Simple as that.

And for the party conversation to lead to access that will in turn lead to an article, the existing content on the site needs to be of sufficient quality to persuade people to give you the time and attention you need to make it happen. It's a little bit chicken and egg. But you start off with things you can do without anyone's help, and then expand your reach as you create a little critical mass.

The conversation ultimately led me to Mary Klatko, who is in charge of the Howard County Public Schools' lunch program (think 3,000,000 lunches served a year) and she was able to make the story happen.

My goal for this piece was simple: to condense the 30-minute conversation I had with Judith into something quick and visual and easy to digest (sorry!) for other parents. So I wanted to photograph the food just as it was. No rock-n-roll lighting, and no context other than as it is served to students.

Reason was, I wanted the food to speak for itself. Similarly, I wanted the lighting to be very natural but with texture and detail everywhere—something straddling super-realistic and industrial.

For detail, I used my medium format camera, which give incredible depth and resolution. (Here's that top picture at 100%, albeit compressed from a 16-bit .TIF to an 8-bit .jpeg.)

To reveal detail way down into the shadows of the very three-dimensional food, I pushed a 47" Octa (on an Einstein e640) right on-axis as fill. It's maybe 1.5 stops down, and ensures there will be nothing you can't see. Normally I use umbrellas of softlighters for soft sources. But I needed a clean highlight here in case the trays were highly specular. I didn't want any umbrella ribs to show in the reflections. I was ready for polished chrome if that is what they threw at me.

The shape of the food is courtesy two slaved SB-800 speedlights on the 90-degree lines as shown, each with a LumiQuest LTp soft box. They are key-lighting at a hard angle, so the texture will be there. But they are also crosslighting, so there will be legibility everywhere.

This is a situation where I do not want the light to call attention to itself at all. The light is all white, and designed to disappear. I just want the food to look hyper-realistic and three-dimensional.

And the fact that the food was served on white trays was a nice surprise. (But for the record, I was ready for chrome just in case.) Because of that and the white paper backdrop, the only color in the frame is carried by the food. It was lucky, but I'll take it.

In addition to the info-graphic above, done for the post, we did several other food shots. They are here on HoCo360, if you are interested. And for those of you who find yourself wondering what, exactly, you are going to spend your life photographing, might I recommend just starting a web publicatiion in your area of interest and seeing where it goes?

You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Including a license to be curious.

Next: Stink Bugs for Dinner


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Blogger bobfoto said...

OK, now I am officially hungry.

Great post David, from concept to completion.

April 05, 2013 8:17 AM  
Blogger John said...

Those are some impressive school lunches! Way better than I remember in school.

I really like the simple composition and lighting of these shots... almost has an artsy kinda feel but still being to the point.

There is some fantastic detail in these shots as well, even in compressed .jpgs.

Did you stop down quite a bit or is that just the nature of the medium format?

April 05, 2013 9:22 AM  
Blogger t0n3 said...

great photos! i love learning from your posts. I wouldn't have thought to use the side lighting, but it looks great! now i'm hungry for some school lunches!

April 05, 2013 9:27 AM  
Blogger Jason Hamner said...

It's very exciting to see your lighting expertise used on food, since that is where my photography/blogging interest is. A lot of food bloggers will claim that you only can take good food photos in natural light, so it's great to see a post that proves that conventional wisdom wrong.

April 05, 2013 9:36 AM  
OpenID Joe said...

This post is inspiring me to take your advise and develop a project similar this. It is a great catalyst to motivate oneself to get out and shoot and provide an information resource in a cohesive themed format. I have done a few themed projects, that when assembled, would be a great way to kick off the publication. I can see how the publication can be an ice breaker when trying to approach people for photo opportunities. Thanks David, you got my wheels turning!

April 05, 2013 10:29 AM  
Blogger Jon said...

Nice work! Lunch trays are a whole lot of fun to work with, no? I recently did a series of non-traditional lunch trays as part of a personal project. The idea was to show various meals in a child-like format that are decidedly not for kids. I experimented with chrome trays and ugly 70s-colored trays (mauve, mustard yellow, seafoam green) and finally solved the issue by spray painting various trays white. Here's a link to my project if you're interested: Re-Defining The Lunch Tray

April 05, 2013 11:22 AM  
Blogger Jimbo James said...

This is a great suggestion! I've been thinking about a similar concept of focusing on a community. Before your post, I struggled with trying to estimate the market and opportunities before investing time in the effort. But your approach to "just start" and subsequent exposure has me convinced to start today.

April 05, 2013 1:06 PM  
OpenID myamericanmyth said...

Curious about your shooting position and how you compensated for the light you had to have been blocking from the octa with your body. Seems like even a tripod mount might have blocked a little too.

April 05, 2013 1:16 PM  
Blogger Stanley Weaver Mendez said...

Gotta ask, did you consider using a polarizer filter or other means to eliminate the reflections on the food (specifically on the apple and gravy)?

I mean, the photographs are amazing, and the reflections dont take anything away. In fact, i think they add some to the 3D effect you wanted to give it... so wait, let me rephrase that, had you wanted to eliminate the reflections, how would you have done it?

April 05, 2013 1:57 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

"might I recommend just starting a web publicatiion in your area of interest and seeing where it goes?" - I was considering this by the time I got to the third paragraph. It might just fulfill some of the goals I have for my work. Thank you.

Great food shots, by the way. I appreciate you sharing.

April 05, 2013 2:38 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Reflections, AKA specular highlights, are an important piece of information that connotes texture. I generally do not want to kill them.

April 05, 2013 2:50 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Actually, medium format give you less DoF. I stopped down for this. ~f/16, IIRC.

April 05, 2013 2:51 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


I didn't use a meter; I was working off the back of the camera so I only saw the images in which I was blocking some of the light. Non-issue.

April 05, 2013 2:53 PM  
Blogger Woody said...

I was gonna encourage you to check out my pal Jon's awesome lunch tray series but I see he already has done so himself. Always one step ahead of me, that guy.

Nice piece, Hobby!

April 05, 2013 3:04 PM  
Blogger DGV said...

Looks like the Einstein is right over the food..how did you position yourself to avoid your/your camera shadow from falling on the food? From the BTS pic, it looks like the camera would have been right under the softbox. Maybe its just an illusion to me.

April 05, 2013 3:32 PM  
Blogger Garrett Brady said...

Simple setup, well thought through and looking amazing!

HoCo360 is a fantastic idea.

April 05, 2013 5:37 PM  
Blogger Ron Nabity said...

My wife and I recently moved to a smaller community and we found it difficult to find any information about it. I thought of your project and started one of my own: "LIFE in Lincoln" (www.lifeinlincoln.com)

It's a great way to learn about the history and the people that make a community what it is. It is also a great way to introduce yourself to a new town. Thanks for the tip way back when!

April 05, 2013 10:47 PM  
Blogger Ken Elliott said...

David - I took your advice some time ago and created VolCo360.com. Copying the "360" part of HoCo360 was intentional. I figured you would - at some point - create a top level 360.com domain were all the 360 sites could be indexed.

I have found that VolCo360 gets me into places I could not otherwise go. It's also another reason to shoot.

April 06, 2013 1:35 PM  
Blogger ch said...

Strobist, 'it's what's for lunch.' eh heh

April 06, 2013 7:38 PM  
Blogger Mike Kelley said...

Fantastic project and great photos, David. Especially relevant given that this is a hot-button issue these days, and your shots are beautiful. I wish my school lunches were 20% as good as this - hell, I'd eat one of those right now!

April 07, 2013 9:37 PM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

Thanks Dave
Appreciate minimalist use to show this stuff love when you don't go wild
Nothing like flashing foam core plates great wrap!

My questions (2) is I have two Einstein's using WL speedrings to use with what I have in my arsenal from past umbrellas softbox.s etc.
Can your 35 inch PB octabox be adapted to speedlts?

Is that a 37 inch ?

April 07, 2013 10:34 PM  
Blogger Heber SD said...

Awesome Dave. First time I post on your blog but i have been following for a while.This might as well be the start of our own 360 blog in our hometown. I work for a school district and i can relate to this post. Some parents don't exactly know what their son or daughter eat. Little do they know that most students don't necessarily like healthy foods. This kind of publication would showcase the healthy foods our Food Director constantly strives to provide for our students. Outstanding pictures.


April 08, 2013 12:16 PM  
Blogger Heber SD said...

Outstanding post Dave. First time I post but i have been following for a while. I head an IT Department and many other hats but amongst those i head a yearbook club and i have learned lots just by following.

I am sure our Food Director is going to love this idea as we have been trying to come up with ways that parents can be made aware of the healthy foods their children are given. Our 2013 Yearbook is going to look even better and it will remind parents of the foods their children ate during this time.


April 08, 2013 12:21 PM  
Blogger Marti Stone said...

Would love to know more about your local blog. Specifically, are there ever times when you end up selling images made for the blog to the individuals or organizations involved, or is it all a local donation?

April 08, 2013 4:18 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Nothing formal at this point on the print sales. But it happens ad hoc, organically sometimes. That's a switch I can turn on more efficiently any time I choose. Ditto with local advertising.

But right now, I am just keeping it as a pure magazine. And more important to my income streams, it is far and away the best marketing tool I have seen for my work as a freelancer. If you check the about/bio page, you'll see how I set that up.

April 09, 2013 12:15 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

As a commercial shooter (and someone who hasn't been constrained by photojournalistic ethical standards for a long time), I'd be tempted to do a little extra manipulation on these in post, especially for the poster application. Given the white trays you were dealt, I'd do a quick cutout of the food and tray and put a color gradient (subtle or dramatic) set to multiply over the background. It would give a little more separation and could make the food really pop.

It's probably not you, and I respect that, but I thought I'd mention the idea. :-)

April 12, 2013 1:22 PM  
Blogger amc5805 said...

Beautiful images. Just to clarify, is your camera just at the edge of the octagon? Thanks for any clarification regarding its position.

April 12, 2013 6:02 PM  

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