Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dancing with the Panda

I recently did an architectural photo shoot for Panda Restaurant Group, which operates Panda Express, Panda Inn and Hibachi-San Japanese Grill. Panda Express has 1285 restaurants covering 38 states and Puerto Rico, and the photo shoot was of the "model restaurant" next door to the corporate headquarters. The images were used initially for 5 foot tall prints at a trade show, and brochures.

Although my 13 mega pixel Canon 5D would have made good 5 foot prints, I wanted them Panda to be thrilled with the print quality. I purchased a 21 mega pixel Canon 5D Mark II camera right before the shoot, so I was able to deliver 60 megabyte files instead of 36 megabyte.

We did the interior photography with the camera tethered to a Macintosh laptop, so the managers from Panda were able to make instant decisions about camera angles, lighting, etc. As the trade show requiring the prints was a week after the shoot, they wanted the interior images right away, so I took the laptop next door to their corporate headquarters and delivered edited high resolution TIFF files to their in-house graphic designer, then went back to the restaurant to shoot twilight and night-time exteriors.
This Panda Express restaurant is located next to a Walmart, so it is extremely busy. They didn't want people in the shots, so we planned the interior photography to be from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm, hoping for fewer people. Even during this slower time, we still had 40-50 customers per hour come in. We encouraged the customers to sit at tables on the side where we were not shooting at the time.
The most difficult shot was of food serving bar. We had to do a 1/6 second exposure to get the flat screen menu displays to show up, and match that light to the existing room light and the strobes. When we got the light right, we would have the cooks fill the serving bowls over the top so the food would be seen in the foreground of the picture, and clean the Plexiglas shield to spotless perfection. Then 10 customers would come in, and ask for Orange Chicken and Broccoli Beef - items we had closest to the camera - and we would have to ask for more to be made and clean the Plexiglas again before we could take the shot. An exercise in patience!

How the image of the food bar was done

A ProFoto compact flash mono light with a 7 inch reflector and a 20 degree grid was placed in the kitchen behind the food counter, very low, pointing at the Orange Chicken and Broccoli Beef in the foreground. This defined the food, and made it shine and look wet. A second ProFoto mono light with a medium softbox was placed to the left of the food bar, as high as it would go. A third mono light with a softbox was placed behind the camera, and high, pointing down. All images were taken using a tripod.

The lights were adjusted to minimize reflections on the Plexiglas shield, and a polarizing filter was used to remove additional reflections. The first test exposures were done without the strobes firing, so I could get a baseline exposure of existing light. As the menu was several flat screen TVs mounted above the food, the baseline exposure had to be long enough to capture the screens, or they would be black. The screens were selected and lightened in post production. Final exposure was f10, 1/6 of a second, at ISO 500. I was concerned that a longer exposure would cause the screens to change, and a higher ISO would create noise, so I felt this was a good compromise.

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