Open-faced Tofu & Garlicky Greens

by Vanessa Rees

I envy my sister Rachel. She has a clean, spacious, beautiful house with a huge garden in the backyard. Rachel’s home is always full of good food and wine. Every time I return home to my cramped little NYC apartment after visiting her I have a “why on earth am I living here?” kinda moment.

by Vanessa Rees

by Vanessa Rees

The last time I visited Rachel she made me these delicious open-faced tofu sandwich with sauted greens piled on top. This recipe is very simple and because of that it is important to get high quality ingredients. You will need good crusty bread, a nice olive oil, and very firm tofu. If you can find it, I recommend Twin Oaks or Wildwood Tofu.

by Vanessa Rees


  • one loaf high quality tough/crusty/chewy bread
  • one block of tofu
  • one bunch of greens (kale, collards, or your leafy green vegetable of choice)
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
  • high quality olive oil for cooking & drizzling


  1. Cut tofu into slices.
  2. Drizzle some olive oil in pan (I used cast iron) and turn on the heat.
  3. Briefly cook tofu on each side. Doesn’t have to be golden brown, just warm. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Wash your greens and slice them into ribbions.
  5. Drizzle some olive oil in a pan and turn on the heat.
  6. Add the garlic cloves to the pan. Let the garlic cook for a bit (roughly 15- 30 seconds). Don’t let the garlic burn.
  7. Add the greens to the pan and cook just until they start to wilt. They should still be bright green. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper.
  8. Slice bread and toast it.
  9. Pile tofu and greens on top of the bread.
  10. Optional: Drizzle with the slightest bit of olive oil.

by Vanessa Rees

Enjoy! Till next time. xx

by Vanessa Rees



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Good Things

First of all, exciting news! I won best food photography blog in SAVEUR Magazine’s Best Food Blog Awards. Thank you so so much to everyone for your support! I did an interview for SAVEUR that you can check out here. I babbled. =)

I’ve been doing some fun stuff lately and thought I’d share with you guys. I know it’s been forever since I posted a recipe but I’ve actually got a really tasty one coming soon so stay tuned.

Without further ado:

Here are some shots I took of MiO Water. I like their playful aesthetic.

MiO Water by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography
MiO Water by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

I usually avoid technical product shots like the plague but I made an exception to do this big overhead shot for SimplySent. I’m a sucker for things organized neatly on a white backdrop.

Simply Sent by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

More shots for SimplySent:

Photography by Vanessa Rees for SimplySent

Photography by Vanessa Rees for SimplySent

A few of the shots I did of jeans for Ralph Lauren, Denim and Supply:

Photography by Vanessa Rees for Ralph Lauren Denim & Supply

Photos from the most recent issue of VegNews magazine:

VegNews food featured photographed by Vanessa Rees

VegNews food featured photographed by Vanessa Rees

That’s all for now! Till next time. xx

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Artificial Lighting 101

Here it is! The blog post about artificial lighting for tabletop photography that I’ve been talking about doing for a very long time.

Natural light is beautiful. Finding and manipulating natural light is an extremely important skill for a photographer to have. That being said, I use artificial lighting for most of my still life and food photography photo shoots. I just prefer the control of artificial lighting for tabletop photography. It’s what works for me.

When I first started doing photography I was intimidated by artificial lighting. It seemed very technical and full of numbers. I remember in my college’s Studio Photography 101 class the professor would talk about guide numbers, equations for exposure, measuring the distance to your subject, lighting ratios, and all sorts of other things that made me want to shy away from artificial lighting. I’ve never been great at math.

It turns out that artificial lighting doesn’t have to be approached in a super technical way. I (and most professional photographers I’ve worked with) don’t do calculations and measuring to find the correct exposure of a picture. If you are more comfortable with a very technical approach then by all means, knock yourself out. But for those of you that don’t work that way, I’ve got good news! Lighting can be a very intuitive and creative process. There are just a few steps and guidelines to keep in the back of your mind. In this post I’m going to talk about those guidelines, equipment essentials, and basic steps to making artificial light work.

My approach to explaining lighting is probably going to seem a little different than other blogs out there. I’m going to keep things as untechnical as possible. I learn by doing, not reading. When I read really technical articles about lighting setups my eyes glaze over. This post will appeal to those of you that learn like I do. I’m going to tell you the very basics that you need to know to get you started. I’m not going to go into too much depth about the technology and reasoning behind the setup. If you learn like me, those things will become obvious as you are working.

Note: I’m going to assume you are familiar with some photography basics. If you haven’t read this post, I’d recommend it. I’m also going to assume an understanding of what aperture, iso, and shutter speed are and how they work together.

I’m going to walk through a very simple 2-light setup. Once you’ve mastered this setup you will understand the basics of artificial lighting and be able to start venturing into some super creative lighting.

I’m assuming that most of you don’t want to spend a ton of money on lighting gear. I’m going to be recommending the most affordable equipment that I know of.



– Paul C Buff makes great, affordable lights. They are called AlienBees. For food photography, I’d recommend buying two (to start with)AlienBees B800 Flash Units. They cost $280 each.

Artificial Lighting 101, AlienBees

Receivers and transmitters. Transmitters and receivers are little boxes that you put on your camera and lights. The transmitter mounts to the hotshoe on top of your camera and the receivers attach to your lights with sync cables. When your camera fires your transmitter sends a signal to your receivers telling your lights to send out a flash. Paul C. Buff makes reliable and affordable transmitters and receivers. You will need one transmitter for your camera and one receiver for each light. Make sure to get the battery powered receivers.

Artificial Lighting 101

– Softboxes are super important. They give your light a nice diffused look & soft shadows. I love this medium soft box.

Artificial Lighting 101, softboxes

Reflectors. Reflectors fit around the flashtube and modeling lamp on the front faceplate of flash units. When used alone the reflectors throw a beam of undiffused light. You will want one for your fill light.

Artificial Lighting 101, Reflectors

Grey card. You will need a grey card to set your white balance. More on this later.

Artificial Lighting 101, Greycards

Light stands. You will need to buy a light stand for every light that you have.

Artificial Lighting 1010, Light stands



– I’m going to assume you are on the “find your lighting” step of this post and that you have all the equipment from the equipment list above.

– The first step in setting up your lighting is to settle on a depth of field. In other words, adjust your aperture until you have everything in focus that you want in focus, and everything out of focus that you want out of focus. Use whatever ambient light is available to you for this step. Don’t stress about getting a good exposure at this point- It doesn’t matter right now if the image is over or underexposed. This step is just about finding your f-stop. Hopefully your camera is hooked up to a computer so you can clearly see what is in focus and what is not in focus. (See this post for more info about hooking your camera up to your computer.)

If you aren’t clear on how aperture effects depth of field, here is a good article on it.

Artificial Lighting 101

I used the ambient light available to find that f6.3 worked for well for this image.

– If it isn’t already, put your camera on manual. Keep the aperture on the f-stop you decided upon in step 2. Set your camera’s ISO to 640 and the shutter speed to 1/200 (generally the fastest the shutter can be when using flash).

– Put your transmitter on the hotshoe mount of your camera. Make note of which channel your transmitter is on (the little wheel on the transmitter will tell you which channel it is set to).

Artificial Lighting 101

– Attach receivers to your two lights via sync cables. Make sure they are set to the same channel as the transmitter that is on your camera.

Artificial Lighting 101

– You will want to diffuse the key light with a softbox. Without a softbox the light will be really hard. Hard light produces strong highlights and dark shadows. The quality is more dramatic and controllable, but generally less approachable and appealing than soft light. So, attach a medium softbox to your light. Read the manual that came with your light if you aren’t sure how to attach a softbox. It’s pretty easy.

– Next you will want to determine your angle of light. That’s just a fancy way of saying where you are going to place your key light. Key lights are generally placed at 15 – 90 degree angle from your camera.

For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to use the example of setting your light at a 65 degree angle from your camera. The light is the same height as the table I’m shooting on.

– Plug in your light if you haven’t already done so.

– Set your light to 1/2 power.

Artificial Lighting 101

– Press the test button on the receiver attached to your light. When you press the button, the light should fire. If it doesn’t, make sure everything is plugged in and the batteries are working. Also, sync cables can go bad. You may have to swap out the sync cable.

– Press the test button on the transmitter attached to your camera. If the key light doesn’t fire, check that both the transmitter and reviver are set to the same channel.

– It’s time to fire your camera! Press the shutter release button.

– How does your image look? Is it under exposed or over exposed? Adjust the intensity of your light until you find an exposure you are happy with. It takes me about 3 test shots to get a good exposure. It might take you 5-7 shots but not too much more than that.

Note: If your light is set to full power but the image is still too dark, increase your ISO to a higher number. If your light is set to minimal power but the image is still too bright, decrease your ISO to a lower number.

Artificial Lighting 101

I tested with 1/2 power & 1/32 power before deciding on 1/16 power for my key light

– You may notice that your shadows are very dark at this point. Well, now it’s time to put in a fill light. Fill is used to lighten shadows and control contrast.

– Set up your second light at a 45 degree angle on the opposite side of the key light. Put a reflector on your light (read the light’s manual if you aren’t sure how to do this).

– Press the test button on the receiver attached to your fill light. It should fire.

– Press the test button on the transmitter attached to your camera. Both lights should fire. If the fill light doesn’t fire, check that the receiver attached to it is set to the same channel as the the transmitter attached to your camera.

– Set the fill light to 1/2 power.

– Point the light straight up and raise the light stand till it is just several feet below the ceiling. We are bouncing the light off the ceiling to diffuse and spread it.

Note: I’m assuming you are working in an area with a white (or off white) ceiling. If you aren’t, you will want to find something large and white to bounce your fill light off of. Like foam core.

Artificial Lighting 101

– Fire your camera. How does the image look? Did the fill light overexpose it or is it still too dark? Adjust the intensity of the fill light until you like how bright or dark the shadows are.

Artificial Lighting 101

I tested 1/2 power & 1/32 power before deciding on 1/6 power for my fill light

– Once you are happy with the exposure, place your greycard in front of the subject you are shooting and fire an image.

– In the software you are using, set your white balance by using the grey card. In Capture One that simply means setting the WB to custom and clicking on the grey card with the eyedropper.

Artificial Lighting 101

– Take a shot to see if you are happy with the white balance. If you aren’t, use the WB adjustment sliders in your software to tweak it. Don’t be afraid to make the light cooler or warmer to give your image a particular mood.

Artificial Lighting 101

Here is the final image after warming up the white balance a bit and increasing the contrast.

That’s it! You should have a well-lit image using artificial light. Now you can play around with the placement of the lights to see how they affect the image. Start experimenting. Change the f-stop to see how it effects the image or try putting a filter on your light (a filter is anything that, when placed in front of the light, absorbs, warps, or diffuses part or all of the beam). This is how I learned everything I know about lighting. Practice and experimenting. You can read about lighting all day but it won’t make you any better at it. You just gotta do it! =)

Note: Keep the 5 main attributes of light in your mind as you are experimenting. These 5 attributes can be adjusted to affect the quality of light emitted and the overall lighting-look:

  • Hard or Soft (or in between);
  • Intensity (the amount of light);
  • Direction (in relation to the lens and subject);
  • Color (of light emitted, adjust this by adding gels or changing your white balance);
  • Beam pattern (the beam angle, shape, and any shadow patterns).

Play around with these elements to find techniques and looks that you love!

Have you ever taken a painting class? Lighting a photo is like painting. At first it is awkward because you aren’t completely familiar with how the paintbrushes feel in your hands, or you don’t know how the paints will react to different techniques. But as you practice and get comfortable with it, you stop thinking so hard about what you are doing. Suddenly all you see are highlights and shadows and how they work within the total composition. Well, your lights are your paintbrushes. With practice you will stop thinking about the technical aspects of lighting and just start painting with light. It’s an awesome feeling.

Good luck!

Till next time! xx


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Food Photography, the Technical Basics

Food Photography, The Technical Basics

In my last post about the creative process behind photo shoots I mentioned that I am going to write about artificial lighting for food photography very soon. I was getting started on it when I realized there is so much basic info to go over before breaching the topic of lighting.

I want to quickly go over the basic setup that I have. If you already know the basics, feel free to ignore this post and wait for the lighting post that will come next week!

The Camera
You will want to get yourself a digital SLR camera that has a hotshoe with flash-sync contacts and tethering capabilities. Most modern DSLRs have both of these features. I personally use a Canon 5D Mark II. (I am selling my Mark II and upgrading to the Mark III. Email me if you’d like to buy my MKII!)

The Lenses
The Canon EF 100mm F2.8 L is my favorite lens for shooting food photography. This is not to say that this is the best lens for food photography. It is just the best lens for my style of food photography. I highly recommend trying a bunch of different lenses and seeing which suits your style. Before committing to a lens, I like to rent it from for a week to get a feel for it. Finding your go-to lens is like finding a wand in the Harry Potter world. You just have to try them out and figure out which one suits you.

All that being said, I can say pretty confidently that these are the most popular focal lengths for food photography:

Oh, I also love the Canon 90mm tilt-shift lens. It has a cool effect.

Side note: You may notice that all of the lenses I mentioned are one focal length. In other words they can’t zoom in and out (like a 24mm-70mm lens). These are called primes lenses. Prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses. The benefit to zoom lenses is the flexibility it gives you, but it’s a tradeoff. I personally like to stick to prime lenses.

Advanced tip: If you can afford them, I also really love to use Zeiss lenses. They are really beautiful lenses!

The Tripod
Some food photographers love tripods, some of them hate them. I personally could not do a shoot without my tripod. Well, I guess I could do a shoot without out it but I’d rather not. A tripod allows me to get the perfect composition in my frame and then tweak the light to be perfect for that composition. If I was to do handheld my composition would shift every time I take a shot simply because of hand movement.

When I first started food photography I used this tripod leg & head combination:

Manfrotto 055XPROB Aluminum Tripod Legs
Manfrotto 410 Junior Geared Head

It was a great combination to start off with! I now use Gitzo’s 5 6X Systematic 6-Section Tripod (Giant) with the Manfrotto 405 Pro Digital Geared Head. I also love this leg/head combination but it is more on the pricey side. The only reason I upgraded was because I need legs that can go pretty high (the Gitzo legs go up to 9′) and a tripod head that could support a medium format camera (the 405 pro head can support up to 16lbs). So unless you need really tall tripod legs or are planning on working with a medium format camera sometime soon, I’d stick with the cheaper ones. It’s all about finding the right tool for the job!

Whatever you decide on, I highly recommend getting a geared head for your tripod. It allows you to make micro adjustments which is awesome for food photography. It’s just the best! In my opinion. =)

What does it mean to shoot tethered? Tethering simply means you connect your DSLR camera to a computer. From your computer you can use software to control your camera settings and view the images you take on your monitor. Most modern DSLR cameras support this feature.

It is possible to do wireless tether (even a wireless tether to your iPad and iPhone) but because this is a post about the basics, I’m going to stick with explaining the less complicated, wired tether.

Here’s what you’ll need to purchase to make basic tethering possible:

-A cord to connect your camera to your computer. Most cameras have a mini usb port for their digital terminal (check your camera’s manual to make sure) so you will want to get a mini usb to usb cable. Get one that is nice and long- at least 10′ so you can set your computer up a good distance away from your camera. Here’s what I use.

Side note: If you are on a professional shoot, be sure to bring a few of these cables with you. They can be finicky and stop working at the most unexpected times.

-Tethering software. You will need to buy a software that allows you to control your camera and images from your computer. There are a lot of tethering softwares out there. Here is a pretty comprehensive list of them.

My 3 favorite tethering softwares:

A lot of these softwares have demos. I’d recommend downloading them and seeing which you like best. None of them are perfect. Capture One has some bugs when dealing with non-Phase One cameras, Aperture 3 doesn’t allow as much control as I’d like, and Lightroom 4 is a pretty heavy (meaning slow and cumbersome) software… In my opinion.

I tend to use Capture One. It’s great for capturing, organizing, editing, and sharing images. Play around with the demos and find your favorite. Most of the softwares are pretty intuitive. Just plug in your camera and turn on the software.


So there you have it. Some of this info is pretty basic but I just wanted to mention all of it before sharing the lighting post that is coming next week. Bust out your camera, get it tethered and when I put up the lighting post you will be ready to dive in!

Disclaimer: Talking about photography gear on the internet can be a dangerous thing. Photographers get worked up when they talk about their equipment. You know who you are! Because of that, I just want to say that everything I say in this post is simply what works best for me. I’m not sharing this info to start a heated debate on all the differences between Canon vs. Nikon or film vs. digital. That being said, if you have a different process or suggestion I’d love to hear it! Just, ya know, use your nice internet voice.

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Creative Process Behind the Photo Shoot

Hi there!

I’ve decided to do a post about the creative process behind my still life and food photo shoots. I won’t be talking about the technical aspects of shooting (I will save that for another post), just the thought process that goes on behind the scenes.

Learning my basic creative process took about a year and a half and I’m still tweaking it as I learn. When I first started out I would just wing it. I learned quickly that this wouldn’t work in the long run. I was having to redo a lot of shots because I wasn’t happy with the end result. I’d end up shooting the same product/food over and over with different props until I found something that worked. It took forever. I’ve learned that planning is they key to success. Now I do so much planning I would say it usually takes me about 2 day to prep for a basic photo shoot.

Every photographer has a different process so please don’t feel like I’m saying things have to be done this way. This is simply what works for me. If you are struggling to find your process, maybe by sharing my experience I will save you some time.

On larger photo shoots you usually work with a food stylists, prop stylists, and art directors. These are amazingly talented people that take on a lot of responsibility. I highly recommend working with them as much as much as possible. However I also understand that when you are starting out it’s not always an option. Sometimes you just have to do it yourself. For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to write from the DIY perspective.

Side note: Don’t be afraid to get in touch with stylists and ask if they’d be interested in doing a test shoot with you. It builds up both of your portfolios and is a great way to network.

So, here it s:

1. The Subject

Obviously the first thing I do is figure out what I’m shooting. For this blog post I will be using Slingshot Coffee as an example since I just wrapped a shoot for them. The rest of the Slingshot photos are at the bottom of this post.

Slingshot Coffee, by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

2. Branding Words

I make a list of 5-10 branding words or phrases. If I’m working for a company, I ask them to provide a few words that describe their brand. You can also come up with a list of words yourself by just spending some time looking a their packaging, their website, etc. These were my words for Slingshot shoot:

1. Mix modern & vintage
2. Mix messy and clean
3. Bright
4. Pops of color
5. Modern
6. Young
7. Approachable
8. Fun

Dapper Paper (the designers behind Slingshot Coffee’s awesome packaging design) provided me with this phrase which helped a lot:

“We wanted a balance of clean, crisp and modern mixed with our vintage-inspired aesthetic to create a timeless and classic beverage label that could be plucked from yesteryear or today.”

Say you are not shooting for a company, you are shooting soup for your blog or a personal project. This list is when you decide what aesthetic your photos are going to have. Dark, moody, rustic, vintage? Modern, light, colorful, approachable, friendly? If you aren’t sure where to start, think of what the food/product says to you. If you are shooting margaritas it’d be kinda weird to have a a super gloomy vibe, right? You’d want to choose branding words that work with the margaritas, not against it.

I think this step is the most important because it sets the direction for the rest of the shoot. In my experience, when I try to create a mood board (step 3) or go prop shopping (step 5) without this list, I get overwhelmed by choices and end up wasting a lot of time.

3. Mood Board

Create a mood board. A mood board is basically a visual version of the branding words. It’s a collection of images that reflect the feel I am are going for. In the past I would create a collage of images in photoshop. Now I use Pintrest’s secret board function. I keep my branding words in the forefront of my mind while pinning. It’s an easy website to get sidetracked on! When I see an image I like, I ask myself if it is on brand.

Oh, and the nice thing about Pintrest is that I can invite clients to pin images with me.

Pintrest Mood Board

4. Sketching

Sketching helps me visualize the compositions before I start looking for props.

If I’m working for a company I will need to get a shot list and any specifications from them before I start sketching. They most likely have some requirements (orientation, angles, room for copy, etc.) that effect my decisions.

These sketches aren’t super detailed because I don’t know what props I will be working with. They just give me an idea of how large my subject will be in the frame or where the subject will be placed. Knowing these things helps me figure out how large my background needs to be, how big my props can be, what size plates I will need, etc.

…It’s just a great way to brainstorm.


Sketching planning for photo shoot

5. Prop finding

Now is when I go prop shopping. With my mood board and branding words in mind, I seek out props that help create the vibe I’ve decided upon. I rent most of my props (Lost and Found Props is my fav) but you can also buy and return them.

A few prop shopping tips:

Find your background first. It’s usually the most visible element and a good starting point.

When you go prop shopping bring your subject with you. If, for example, you are shooting bottle of liquor, bring it with you. If you are shooting tacos, bring a taco shell, a tomato, and a piece of lettuce (or whatever elements will be showing in your taco photo) with you. As you are shopping for props hold your subject up against the props to make sure they don’t clash.

Create a little pile of all your props in a corner of the store. Make sure they are all working together to reflect your branding words.

Photo shoot props, Vanessa Rees

6. Basic setup.
I consult my sketches to figure out what shot I want to do fist. Once I’ve decided, I get my background, tabletop, test subject, and camera in place on a tripod.

7. Lighting
I start messing around with lighting. I’m not going to get into how I setup my lights- I’ll save that for another blog post. The important thing is that the lighting (whatever means you go about lighting your images) works to create the vibe you decided upon back in step 2. If you want a dark and moody shot, make sure you’ve got yourself some dark and moody lighting!

Side note: If you use natural light instead of artificial lighting, you may want to find your lighting before you do the basic setup.

8. Detailing
Now that you’ve got the right lighting, start adding prop details that complete the image.

9. Put in the hero
If you are shooting food now is when you’d want to swap out the test food with the hero. I’m not going to get into food styling because it is not my area of expertise (I rely heavily on food stylists) and there is already a lot out there on food styling. Check out La Tartine Gourmande for food styling tips.

So there you have it.

I hope this sheds some light on the process I go through to set up a photo shoot. I have these steps written on the wall of my studio and I find them super helpful to follow. Please feel free to ask any questions or share any of your own steps!

Below are some of the photos from the Slingshot Coffee shoot that I’ve been blabbing on about:

Till next time. xx

Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees

Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa ReesSlingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees

Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa ReesSlingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees
Slingshot Coffee by Vanessa Rees


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