Hard as Pie


As the holiday season approaches, food styling needs start to kick into higher gear. Food is such a critical part of the holidays, and making food look good, even more so. It’s all turkeys, stuffing, cookies, cakes and pies. Especially pies. I recently shot a pecan pie for a regional magazine. The pie was baked in a local bakery, and I had the whole pie to work with to get a shot of a single slice, on a white plate, on a white background to allow lots of room for text to be placed all around. Styling pie is not particularly easy, and this particular pie, while mind-blowingly delicious, didn’t make it easier. When styling pie, you really want something that can hold it’s height fairly easily, with a nice thick bottom crust. This pie loved to sink and while the outer crust was incredibly thick, the bottom was almost nonexistent. Still, I thought it might be nice to show you a little walkthrough of the shot.

Before we get to the shots, I should back up and tell you about the pie itself. While I got it from the bakery, I had talked with the pastry chef before hand. They gave me a pie that was basically cooked, but pretty lightly. I brought the pie home, and then finished the baking at home, so the pie filling wouldn’t look gummy and the crust wouldn’t be overly brown. Now, with pecan pie, this probably was a lot less necessary, especially since a pecan pie really needs to cool before you can slice it, or it will just run all over the place. That said, you don’t want it cold, or the filling will look less appetizing. One of the trickiest parts of pie is finding that balance between firm but cool, and warm but runny. I went for a medium brown on the crust, and let it sit for about 15 minutes at room temperature before slicing.

Pecan Pie Pm-000006

While the pie was cooling, I started doing some test sets using whatever happened to be sitting in my studio as the dummy hero. In case you haven’t heard that term, the hero is the main subject of the shot. In my case, my dummy was a pear from an earlier shoot. I placed it about where I wanted the pie slice to be and just played with the lighting some. Note, lots of problems here, that at the time I didn’t care about. I was just trying out fabric, angles and props. Once I decided on a fabric, I’d worry about ironing.

Pecan Pie Pm-000007

With the pie about cool, I pull my slice. Not exactly photo worthy! It’s all sprawled over the plate. It kind of looks like someone stepped on it. And, while it has a bit of rustic charm, it’s not the look I was going for. But, believe it or not, this slice did end up being my hero. It just took some playing with first. To begin with, I needed to add some height, particularly in the front. I carefully removed the top pecans and set them aside. (Sorry there are no photos of this work, but my hands were covered in sticky filling). Then, I started scavenging from the rest of the pie, pulling out thicker pieces of filling and hand placing them in the hero slice, until I got a thickness that was a bit higher than I needed (knowing it would sink). I then replaced the pecans on top, moving them around as necessary. I liked the sliced pecan showing white on the edge, so I made sure I worked the other pecans around that. Then, the smoothing started. Most of this was just done with a knife, kind of swiping upward (keeping the height) until there was a good edge. Oh, and that beige color cloth wasn’t doing it for me, so I took it out.

Pecan Pie Pm-000013

At this point, it’s important to work quickly. Every second the pie sits there, it will sink. Gravity is trying to undo all that height you added. So I only am doing this on one side of the pie… the one that is going to appear in the shot. The other side doesn’t have to be cleaned up, unless you are doing a shot staring down the point.

Once the pie is all smooth, I start some clean up. I use a wet (just with water) cotton swab to clean up most of the mess. In particular, with this pie, there was a tendency for an oily layer to build up on the edge of the bottom crust that made it look less appetizing.

Pecan Pie Pm-000023

Then, I start shooting again. Planning the shot with the dummy helps get the basic shot, but I really never know exactly what I’m going to do until I get the hero in place. In this case, I decided to completely change the orientation of the shot, to get much closer to the pie and really get the texture of the pecans and the filling.

After a few shots recomposing, I start to notice that I need some styling touch-ups. The tip of the pie is jagged and sagging. A bit of patch material (taken from the remaining pie) fixes that up easily.

Pecan Pie Pm-000024-1

The pie is looking good, but I need to reframe some, as there will be text below the pie. And then, for the final touch… my hand.

Pecan Pie Pm-000029-1

Honestly, I hate being my own hand model. My hands are too pink and stubby. It’s frightening, but my 13 year old daughter hands that look less childlike than mine. But, she wasn’t around, so I got to pose myself. Luckily, the camera was pretty close to the set, so I could take the shot with my wired remote (got to get myself a wireless) instead of a timer which I hate.
Pecan Pie Pm-000038

Remember how I said that you have to move quickly? If I hadn’t gotten my shot in, I was going to be rebuilding pie! Actually, as it turns out, I was rebuilding pie (from a new cut piece) anyway, this time on a smaller plate so that the designer had more flexibility in cropping. As a photographer, it’s always a good idea to see the layout the designer wants before shooting… or you may end up wasting a bunch of time.

For those of you interested in the more technical details of this shot, the final was done with a 100mm at f4.5, tripod (of course!!!) and natural light coming directly from the right and about 45 degrees from the left/behind. The light was not diffused, but the table was set about 3 feet away from the window to the right and about 2 feet in front of and 2 feet to the right of the window to the left. I exposed for the pie, blowing out the background some in camera, and then used Photoshop to finish blow out the white fabric entirely, along with some of the plate, just to give the sense of a plate and to let the pie really pop. I did some color modification on my hand to remove some of the pinkness, and lightened it a bit to take away focus.

Oh, and yes, we did eat the rest of the pie afterwards… the styled pieces were still edible, but well, my hands had kind of been all over them, so they didn’t get eaten.

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