Urth Caffe

Photography tips, training, lessons and examples by famous Los Angeles Commercial photographer Dennis Ray Davis.Life lessons from corporate and advertising shoots, and "how to" articles about photography. Los Angeles, California commercial photography clients keep Mr. Davis on industrial, corporate and advertising shoots for restaurants, catalogs, advertising agencies and magazines.

Down to Urth

In Los Angeles, where even car accidents are theater, I should have expected an audience gathering as a result of putting up studio strobe lighting and food stylist’s gear in a shopping mall food court dining area. People were eating their sandwiches and fries at the tables around my lighting gear, while others walked by questioning “what is this for?” I'm sure there were some disappointed actors! I was shooting chicken kabob and rice and in full concentration when I was approached by an employee from Urth Caffe and was asked “do you specialize in food photography?”

We exchanged contact information, and a week later I was in a meeting with the chefs, food stylist, management and owners of the Urth (pronounced like earth) Caffe chain, based in Los Angeles.

During that meeting we discussed replacing their catering menu photography, and creating new product photography of their coffee products for their website and marketing. We talked about props, backgrounds, dishes, and then walked around the restaurant, bakery, coffee roasting room and kitchens looking at locations to shoot the products and food. We decided to start with a test shoot without the food stylist to prepare a quick advertisement.

My test project was to create an image for a poster promoting gluten free bread. I brought my ProFoto Monolights into Urth’s coffee roasting room, and set up a scene in front of a stack of coffee bags and a brick wall. We started by stacking the seeded buns on white plates, but due to the name of the company decided to go with a more organic, earthy feel and put the bread on a cutting board covered with flour, sunflower and poppy seeds. Eggs, a coffee bag and a metal scoop holding flour are added as props and the right lighting - we had a poster!


We started the food photography portion of our shoot at 6:00 am, hoping to shoot in front of the fireplace inside the constantly crowded indoor dining area before the peak of the breakfast customers arrived. Urth Caffe offers a discount to government employees in uniform, so local police and firemen flock to the place for some of the world’s best natural juices, coffees, teas and made from scratch pastries, breads and desserts. Much of that is in front of me on tables placed in front of the ornate, ceramic tile fireplace. I am shooting on tripod with a Canon 100 mm macro lens on a Canon 5D Mark II body, as this long lens will throw the background out of focus, and make the food on the table stand out. I had to be about 12 feet from the front table to compose my shot, and my back was right up against a table full of 4 of L.A.’s finest in blue uniforms.

“Good morning, officer” I said to the huge balding man, and went back to my business. Waiters would bring plates of food to food stylist Norman Stewart, who would pick out his favorite items, add a flower or cup, and bring in pastries and fruit plates as the mood hits him.

Friday morning we are on the other side of the glass, still shooting in the general direction of the fireplace, but now from inside the large bakery, where the restaurant patrons on other days can see bakers preparing the pizza crusts, buns, handmade breads and desserts. Now we are shooting cakes, and the beautiful chocolate curls on top of the cakes make me want to snatch them off, stuff them in my mouth and eat them, as I have a great weakness for chocolate. The out of focus people in restaurant dining area create beautiful highlights and blurred streaks.

With food photography, the strongest “key” light is normally low and to the rear. This light skims across moist food, creating shiny highlights. My common tabletop lighting setup puts one Profoto 600 watt second monolight with a 7 inch reflector and a 10 degree grid at the rear of the better part of my tabletop food photography sets. This key light is supplemented by two additional ProFoto monolights with medium softboxes on them, to the front overhead both left and right. I add small cardboard silver reflectors in front of the food as needed to fill shadows.

However with location lighting, all bets are off. The shots in the bakery and roasting room were lit by florescent and incandescent lights with green or orange color casts. I light the food, but shoot with a tripod mounted long exposure often of 1-2 seconds to bring the exposure of the background up to the level of the flash pointed at the food. This is why you see gold and green highlights in some of the out of focus backgrounds in location shots.

Food photography requires an eye for what’s appetizing. You taste the food with your camera lens, exploring angles, reflections and points of view. Sometimes I think about food compositions as a new country to explore. There is always an angle where the food looks its best, and I mean to find it. If you’re key light is low and behind the food, then place your camera directly across from the light, and allow the light to create highlights on the wet areas of the food. This works great with meat, as it looks really succulent and mouth watering.

Norman Stewart is an artist with food, and created some amazing arrangements that were fun to light and photograph. I shot 60 gigabytes worth of images that week, and I am still picking my favorites. Urth Caffe has 4 locations around Los Angeles, and has just licensed a branch in Japan. They use the best ingredients, import their own coffee and tea, bake all their own breads, pastries and desserts from scratch, and every plate is a vision of beauty. If you are visiting Hollywood or Los Angeles, it is a delightful feast worth the trip to visit Urth Caffe.