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Sweet Grass Summer CSA Recap and My Food Photography of this Series Explained

Earlier this spring, I was determined to cook more at home and started weighing my options between some popular meal kit delivery services and local CSA (Chef Supported Agriculture) programs. The advertised ease of meal kits packaged with original recipes was so tempting, but I felt it was bearing on my conscious and my heart to support more local farmers. Finding the time to cook would be challenging, so anything to motivate me and make it worth my time was welcome.

I was elated to find that one of my favorite Memphis restaurants would be an answer to essentially everything I was looking for.

Literally, I signed up the minute I read that Sweet Grass was packaging a weekly CSA program with locally sourced goods and original recipes from Chef Ryan Trimm himself. Batches included vegetables, fruits, cheeses, and even prepared items from the Sweet Grass kitchen. They create their own pickles and meats for the restaurant menu and began including them in the weekly CSA. It was a treat to find thick-cut bacon, sausages, or pastrami to prepare in my meal ideas. (In fact, Chef Ryan is opening another restaurant downtown that will sell these meats. I'll save the details for another post.)

The spring CSA season lasted 8 weeks and every week there was a gorgeous selection of colorful and delicious items. I loved seeing vegetables with all their oddities not normally showcased as the model of its kind. I didn't intend to start photographing the food but found myself wanting to document the natural uniqueness before devouring them.

I began photographing and experimenting with different food photography ideas but only got around to sharing one collage around the concept of showing the raw form next to the cooked form. If you're curious, click here to see the Spring CSA image I shared on Instagram.

Before summer rolled around, the photo got the attention of Sweet Grass and I partnered with them to continue the food photography series throughout the 8-week summer season. I was so flattered as I feel I'm already their biggest fan. I did learn a lot about cooking which I can share in later posts, but I thought I could start by sharing how I set up most of my food photography shots in this series.

Let me start by clarifying that the images don't accurately show the amount of items in each package. I think about half of my batch lasted me more than a week. I photographed maybe a quarter to half most of the time. The first step in the photo setup was certainly styling, which meant being selective and narrowing down to a beautiful array.

Styling & Composition
Selection of the Goods - Choose 2 out of 4 peaches that will look best in the photo, for example. What seemed to look best were items with stems, rich color, and interesting marks and shapes that wouldn't read as unappealing to eat.

Cleaning and Polishing - Towards week 2 or so I started to realize that washing helped bring out the color. For example, the potatoes deepened in color with washing. Items with tight skins like tomatoes and peppers I polished with a little oil to make shinier, then sprinkling the water on the skin would form perfect droplets.

Props - I had to use what I had around me. I had several woven baskets. Actually, the rectangular one was just a lid from one of my storage boxes. Then I started seeking out wooden bowls. This was also another reason why I had to narrow down selections - to be able to fit in the props.

Color Arrangement - When arranging within the basket, I tried to distribute similar colors and sizes evenly. Also food with warm/cool colors like red/green and yellow/green were paired together.

Revealing the Inside - Sometimes fruit like melons didn't photograph well from the outside so I would slice them open to photograph it's color and beauty held inside. With corn, I usually opened up the husk to show hints of the kernels.

In order to achieve the dark mood, I found the best place in my apartment building for natural side lighting against a dark background.

The photo to the left is a shot of my typical setup. The window at the end of the hall faces south and catches the right amount of diffused daylight around 7pm.

The lower half of the wall is actually a deep red but in most of the photos reads as black because it isn't illuminated enough in comparison to the food. The floor is a runner of black tile within a traditional pattern white hexagons. Sometimes I photographed directly on the floor and other times I wanted to blur the floor.

In this photo, you'll see I placed a tile floor sample on a cardboard box to create distance. The other box you see on the right is just my stepping stool when shooting down. Unfortunately, I only had about 15 minutes to shoot before I lost light.

I found that this dark mood was most successful with food rich with color and texture and with props like the woven basket and wooden bowl with that same richness. Images of the final dishes plated on shiny white surfaces didn't seem to work quite as well.

Gear & Settings
Camera: Nikon D700. I would recommend shooting with any full frame camera. The D700 also works very well in low light.
Lens: My trusty 50mm f/1.4.
Settings: With the low light I had at 7pm, I usually set my ISO to around 1000 and shutter speed at 160 with f2.2.

I did minimal editing but I always took out floor imperfections but rarely any imperfections in the food. I use an action called Perfect Portrait from the Coffee Shop blog for the boost feature. It also sharpens it a bit but overall it brought out more texture and contrast in the food.

The photo below on the left is the resulting photo in the previous "typical setup" photo.


Please let me know if you have more questions in the comments below. I am currently photographing the early Autumn CSA for Sweet Grass so please follow that series week to week on my Instagram page.

I should also mention that each CSA member gets a 10% discount when eating at Sweet Grass or Next Door during the Wednesday pick-up days, in addition to all the great things mentioned earlier. Do consider signing up for the Sweet Grass CSA in about 5 weeks before the late Autumn season starts.

Happy Autumn!

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