Jonathan Gayman: Hotpot, Lulu Seafood

The Image

Jonathan Gayman

Lulu Seafood, St. Louis, Missouri

Time / Date:
2:45 PM, February 16, 2012

The Technical

Camera Body: Canon 5D Mark II
Lens: Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS
Speedlight Kit: 580Ex IIs, Shoot Through Umbrella, Small Octabank, Pocket Wizards

Camera Settings:
Shutter Speed: 1/160s
Aperture: f/5.6
ISO: 160
Focal Length: 32mm

The Story


I am primarily a food, beverage, and product photographer. With commercial projects this generally means studio work, a place where I have a lot of control over every aspect of the shoot and plenty of time for pre-production and planning.

I also do a lot of editorial food photography, which is very different from a commercial photography. Editorial assignments are often very low budget, which means you don’t have much time for pre-production, and they usually take place on-location at a restaurant. A low budgets means that in most cases you don’t even have the opportunity to scout the location ahead of time – you just have to show up and get to work. When shooting an editorial assignment, the key is to be prepared for curve balls, have an idea if your head of the shot you want, and then be prepared to throw that idea out the window when you see exactly what you have to work with.

The Scene: 

Lulu Seafood is an authentic Chinese restaurant located in the University City area of St. Louis. The space is opulently decorated with Chinese screens, paintings, lanterns and draperies … it is an interesting space, although the first challenge I saw on arriving was that the space was quite dim, and there wasn’t any place with natural light. The second challenge I saw was that the tables were covered with simple vinyl table cloths … not very exciting. I always try to think outside the box when it comes to finding light and finding surfaces, but in this case I was stuck with the plain table cloth, and had to rely on my lighting kit.


I always like to shoot food with natural light (particularly for editorial projects) but sometimes that just isn’t an option. I have a speed light kit that fits into an airline-sized roller bag which I bring to all editorial shoots just in case. It has four speed lights, umbrellas, a small soft box, light stands, batteries, and all manner of clamps, foam core and reflectors for modifying the light. I’ve built up this kit over the years, and I can set up a full studio shoot in a matter of minutes using just what is in this case.

I have recently starting shooting my studio work with a Mamiya Leaf Credo system, but when I’m shooting editorial assignments on location I always bring my 5D Mark II. A medium format system is amazing, but you can’t beat a DSLR for convenience when you need to move fast. My workhorse lens for editorial is my 24-105, but I also pack a 90mm macro, and a 70-200, just in case.

Last piece of gear that is essential to any food shoot? A kitchen towel. You are inevitably going to need to wipe your hands on something when shooting food, so always, always bring a towel.

Making the Shot:

The assignment was to shoot Lulu’s Seafood Hot Pot. Hot pots are meant to be shared, so I wanted to get a shot that really illustrated communal eating. I really wanted an overhead shot, like I was looking down on a bustling table, mid-meal.

Since I always like to be ready to shoot food the instant it arrives from the kitchen when it is most fresh, I knew I only had a few minutes to get set up and ready to go. Since I had to rely on artificial light, I quickly set up a small octabank for my key light, and then a medium sized shoot-through umbrella from the rear for a backlight. The backlight would give me those beautiful specular highlights across the surface of the hot pot, while at the same time adding some nice texture. With my lighting in place, I quickly started grabbing plates, bowls, placemats, chopsticks and a tea pot that I found from a nearby table. The hot pot arrived piping hot from the kitchen, and I got to work, adding in props, removing them, repositioning, spilling things and adjusting lights until I got the right balance of composition with “planned spontaneity.”

Editing & Processing:

When I am shooting commercial work, there is often a lot of post-production. With editorial work, I like to keep my photos a little more rough, a little more “real”. Almost all images get tweaked for levels, contrast, and color, but I always try to get the best possible image in-camera. I like contrasty food images, with strong colors, so I tweak the files with that in mind. Unless I have major post-production fixes to do, all my edits are done in Lightroom.


My advice for aspiring food photographers is to start a food blog and learn how to cook. When I got interested in food, I started a food blog specifically as a vehicle to learn how to shoot different types of food … the colors, variety, and textures are infinite, so you need to know how to shoot a lot of different types of things. I also found that learning how to cook has helped as well because it gives me insight into the process and long things will take to come from the kitchen. Knowing what is involved with making the food makes me a more informed photographer. I can also give a chef advice on how to cook for the camera (which is different than cooking food that will be eaten). The experience I got as a food blogger was invaluable when I started shooting paid assignments


There are far too many food photographers out there that inspire me, but a couple that immediately pop to mind are Romulo Yanes, who was a photographer for Gourmet Magazine for many years, and Katie Quinn, who is an Australian food photographer, blogger and cookbook author. Both of them make some of the most delicious and amazing food photography that I know.



About the Photographer

Jonathan Gayman is a commercial photographer based in St. Louis with a focus on food, beverage, and product photography. His keen eye for light and composition fuel thoughtful and inspired photography, whether he is shooting in St. Louis, Chicago, New York, or on location around the country. Jonathan is a regular contributor to many food publications including Feast Magazine and Sauce Magazine, and his work has appeared in USA Today, Time Out New York, St. Louis Magazine, and Alive. In addition, Jonathan’s work has been used in national and global corporate publications including marketing materials and annual reports for some of the nation’s top businesses.

Jonathan started his career as a graphic designer in New York City. After he started photographing the art for his own design projects, the jump to full time photography was the obvious next step. Since 2006, Jonathan has been bringing his unique photographic perspective to clients all over the country. Whether shooting delicious food projects, editorial assignments, annual report features, advertising, or marketing materials, Jonathan brings experience and creativity to any project. His top level design sensibilities help to make him an innovative and effective photographer. His understanding of how photography will be used in print and on the web adds dimension and insight to his work.

Facebook: /jonathangaymanphotography
Twitter: @jonathangayman

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