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How I Got That Shot: Giving Fried Chicken a Graphic Look


fired chicken drumsticks New York magazine Bobby Doherty
© Bobby Doherty for New York Magazine
The cover photo that Bobby Doherty made for New York magazine's Cheap Eats issue. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images from the shoot. 

Client: New York
Photography Director: Jody Quon
Photo Editor: Leonor Mamanna

As a full-time freelance contributor to New York magazine (who was recently hired as a staff photographer), Bobby Doherty was given the task of shooting all the images for one of the magazine’s most popular annual offerings, the Cheap Eats issue. The assignment from Photography Director Jody Quon allowed him to shoot in his usual style: bright and graphic. “They knew that I like photographing fun food, and it’s easy to make cheap food look fun and poppy and delicious,” he says. 

While he can use all the lights and equipment in New York’s in-house studio, Doherty, 24, chose to bring along the small Speedlites that he used for all the test shots and assignments he’s created since he gave up assisting and launched his own career a year ago.

Doherty’s cover shot for the issue, showing diagonal lines of chicken drumsticks, demonstrates how a graphic, sophisticated image can be created with the simplest means: some art-store supplies, a couple of flashes and post-production savvy. “I’d rather just keep the space I’m working in as simple as possible, so I can focus on the image I want to take.”

Logistics: The challenge when shooting an annual is finding a fresh approach to the subject. For the last Cheap Eats issue, Doherty notes, New York’s staff photographer visited restaurants to photograph their completed dishes. This year, “they had all the restaurants come and bring in their dishes.” Doherty spent about a week making tabletop still lifes of categories of food: hamburgers, doughnuts, sandwiches, barbecue, fried chicken. Working with Photo Editor Leonor Mamanna, he would “shoot everything, and then see what was appealing” as a cover image, Doherty recalls. 

Doherty’s poppy palette comes from his paper backdrops. He buys these in 20 1/4 x 30 1/2-inch sheets at a Dick Blick Art Materials store in New York City. These sheets, which are matte, come in a variety of colors and tend to be more economical than rolls of large backdrops. “I don’t like having to worry about keeping them pristine when shooting something like barbecue or fried food so I bought ten sheets of everything I thought I’d use.” 

Doherty has a few favorite papers and colors. For the fried chicken, he chose one that’s a vibrant yellow. “One thing I do like is that there’s very little grain, and since I’m shooting things that are pretty small, you don’t see any texture.” 

Lighting: While photographing the food items in the Cheap Eats issue, he used one to two Canon Speedlite 580EX IIs, which he fired remotely as he shot. In some photos, he used a classic setup: one main light, a second light for fill. To photograph the drumstick, however, he chose a single light source. “I wanted a rich, black shadow to contrast with the yellow and show off the full texture of the fried chicken.”

He placed the flash on a three-foot stand, slightly behind the chicken to camera left, pointing down at an approximately 45-degree angle. He kept the light close to his tabletop, he says, “so it could be really close to the drumstick, and it didn’t cast a huge shadow.”   

Doherty insists that he doesn’t avoid using the equipment available in the New York magazine studio. “There are things I absolutely have to use it for. It’s just that sometimes it’s easier using the Speedlites.” He explains, “For photographing smaller things, I’d rather use a little flash than get the power pack and the heads and the sandbags, because then I’m just trying to make the light less powerful,” he says.  

He also prefers simplicity. “I had assisted photographers on shoots where they were using six lights set all over the place. I think that sometimes it’s easy to get very caught up in the technical aspect of things and lose sight of the content.” Says Doherty, “With these Canon Speedlites, I don’t have to set up six lights. I can think about the photo I want to make.”

To shoot most of the photos, he stood looking down at a slight angle to the subject, and fired his lights using a Calumet Pro Series wireless flash trigger.

Camera: Doherty shot with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III using a 100mm macro Canon lens. “I shot it at about 1/160 of a second,” he says. “This lens is great because it stops all the way down to f/32.”

Post-Production: Once he had his stark and graphic drumstick, he cloned it in Photoshop to make a graphic pattern of lines of drumsticks running diagonally across the cover layout. “It’s funny to describe the process,” Doherty admits, “It’s just a single object, cut and pasted.”

Once he isolates the subject from the background, he can check the levels in the background and the shadow. “With the lasso tool I’ll then add the shadow back in and then repeat [the subject] with copy and paste.” 

While the post-production was quick and easy when he had made tight close-ups of small objects, other subjects—like an arrangement of cheeseburgers—were easier to capture in camera. “When you’re doing this kind of image,” where some objects appear to be further from the camera, “perspective becomes an issue.”

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