Given the low light I so often find myself in, I sometimes think what I do is more “skotography” than “photography.” (“Photography” comes from the Greek “phos”, or light, and “graphi”, or drawing, so “drawing with light.” “Skotography” comes from the Greek “skotos,” or darkness. And, yes, I just made up “skotography.”) In my previous post, I wrote about the shot list and its implications to some of the logistics of the shoot, and now it’s time to talk about the gear.

In light of the shot list, here’s what I packed. Canon 5D MkIII was the body of choice: full frame sensor, good in available light, much improved low-light focus of the earlier models. I knew I’d have to go wide to get the interior, and since I didn’t know how wide, I brought a 24-70 f/2.8 and, in case it was really crowded, a 17-40mm f/4. I also packed an 85mm in case I needed a tighter closeup. I also brought a second 5D in case the first one went down. I brought a monopod, because I knew I was going to be shooting at me slow shutter speeds, and I knew space was going to be tight, so I didn’t bring a tripod. (In hindsight, I could have used one.) I brought a Speedlite, flash extension cord, and gels, even though I knew I was unlikely to use a flash: while I might get away with it in the kitchen, in the dining room it would be very distracting to diners. I also brought a small LED video light that runs off of AA batteries and a small sheet of diffusion material. I brought a reflector card, silver foil on one side, white on the other, and a black kill card.

Chef Jason Marcus
Chef Jason Marcus

The video light saved my butt. First, the kitchen was dark, especially the corner I was working in, and the lighting, such as it was, was behind the chef—fine for profiles, but not good otherwise. Jason and the kitchen staff were also wearing black jackets, so I couldn’t count on any light reflecting off of them. While a little LED light doesn’t throw a lot of light, it doesn’t have to. I was shooting handheld at ISO 6400 (yes, that’s 6400), at 1/125 second at f/3.2 or so. So a little light held in my left hand 3 feet from the chef’s face did an amazing job of filling in some detail. The video light comes with a hard plastic CTO filter and a hard plastic diffusion panel, and I used them both. Color balanced for tungsten to match the ambient, including the light under the range hood, and I was good to go. I also used the light to light the dishes coming through the pass-through to the servers.

Duck fat washed mescal with crispy duck skin
Duck fat washed mescal with crispy duck skin

On to the bar and dining room. I set up on one end of a long communal table for the cocktail and plates. Still with the 24-70, but this time on a monopod, because my shutter speed was down to 1/25 or so. (It was really dark in there …) I used the video light, this time with a double layer of Tough Spun diffusion tented loosely over it to give me a slightly larger and softer light source, to the side and a little behind the dishes, and with a silver reflector card to bounce some light into the shadows. I try to get the plates from three angles: directly overhead (or close to it), from the point of view of a diner, and just above table level. The same for drinks, but I usually like to light these more from behind. I checked the times in the EXIF data, and see that the cocktail and dishes took me about 17 minutes from start to finish.

In the dining room and bar, I shot wide from a number of viewpoints. Xixa has several different types of tables, including a long communal table parallel t the bar, some round deuces, some booths, and an area with banquettes and moveable tables, so I had to made sure I got it all. Existing light only, to capture the ambiance and not bug the diners. I used the monopod on all these, with slow shutter speeds. Tungsten balance worked fine except for the entrance area, which was lit in part by street lighting in a less-than-lovely sodium vapor (I think) shit yellow.

Heather Heuser at Xixa
Heather Heuser at Xixa

For the portrait of Heather, I asked her to stand near the entrance, in front of the long table and bar. I stuck the LED light with the CTO and Tough Spun on a Gorilla Pod and used a voice-activated light stand—one of the hostesses—to hold it for me to light Heather’s face. The LED was enough to compensate (with a little help later, from Lightroom) for the yellow outside light.

Exterior of Xixa
Exterior of Xixa

The outside shot was a bit tricky. First, the yellow street lights. Second, Xixa has no signage. Third, there were white and orange construction barriers on the sidewalk. Fourth, the area is pretty much under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, not the most picturesque part of Brooklyn. So I got a few shots of the front with a hostess visible through an open window. Then a couple with people coming in, including the one that was used, with the BQE and street traffic visible. (This one required some help with highlight recovery in Lightroom.)

More photos from my shoot at Xixa in Williamsburg on my archive site.

And the piece as it appeared in the NY Times, including a slideshow for the digital version.

2 Comments

  1. Though I have no clue as to how I ended up here(curse you wikipedia), it was a fairly good read, although from an consistency point of view you could’ve mentioned how much this gig netted you. 😉

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