If you think “posing” and “lighting” are an odd choice of words when photographing wedding cakes, think again. Cakes are sculptural, with the added challenge of fine, subtle surface details, executed usually in white on white. The cake image should be delectable, fun and so dimensional you want to stick your finger in it.
Caterers, however, want to keep the expensive confections out of harm’s way, so they generally place cake tables in corners or against a wall – not the best background for a great image. Sometimes the cake is just plunked down or a wrinkled cloth with nothing to accessorize it or make a pleasing scene-setter composition. It’s up to you to make a beautiful memory.
- Look for an unusual angle and background that will tell the story of the reception.
- Pose the cake with accessories to make a composition worthy of an interior designer.
- Evaluate existing lighting or create directional, dimensional light with flash to enhance detail.
Storytelling is key
Any unusual thing you can do with backgrounds or angles is what makes your work memorable and different. A flat lit catalogue shot will never fill the bill. We are fortunate to work in some of the most interesting mansions and clubs, all of which have interesting architecture and design, but there is always something more you can do to achieve a unique vision. Often my choice for angle of view is from behind the cake, looking into the guest tables or dance floor. I want to get the flavor of the reception, along with that of the cake. I use a wide angle, usually a 16-35mm zoom because you can’t tell how much physical room you’ll have to work with. This lens choice results in a dramatic view that shows the scope of the reception hall and decor or dancing, while still featuring the cake in the foreground. Your choice whether the room is perfectly set before the guests arrive or lively and peopled with real action.
My biggest helper is a short step ladder.
Just two or three steps elevation alone can create a bridal magazine look. But don’t eliminate the possibility of a low angle. Take advantage of doorways or frame-like architectural details in the background that may look first class from table height.
Posing involves finding the best angle and accessories
Some decorations will have monograms or decorations more prominent on one side. Look closely for flaws, or if the cake is leaning. Choose another angle, hide flaws with a tall goblet, or plan to straighten and/or retouch icing in post. If retouching is needed, I always do this before the bride ever sees her proof images. Having a bad cake table picture is about as bad as the wrong color on the wedding dress or no detail in the beading.
Look for the light
Examine if a nearby window or spot lighting in the hall create the delicate, directional shadow details of white on white icing that you want. If so, your job just got easier. Light volume will generally be low. Even at garden weddings, cakes are usually placed indoors or under a darker tent so they won’t melt. You’re close up and requiring a critical depth of field. I often find I’m either lower or higher than eye level, a further reason hand holding is risky. A premier time to use a tripod and cable release.
It might seem difficult on the surface, but the best case scenario pairs a very dark interior with an unlit cake table in the middle of the floor with nothing near it. Creating the lighting from scratch is very similar to photographing a fine sculpture or a plate of food for advertising. Probably you won’t have is 4-5 speed lights to assemble as you would in a studio, but the next best solution is pretty easy to get a 95% result.
Key your exposure off the background. Set a single speed light at about 45% off camera to cake axis, and a bit above. Use a diffuser, and possibly feather the head to create a better wrap of light. Don’t forget a lens shade on camera to avoid flare from feathering. You may need a reflector or just anything white to fill the opposite side. If you have an extra speed light handy, and the time to set it up, place it as a rim light about 145% from axis to create that also adds to separation. Power should be set to be just a bit brighter than the background exposure, which technique will pop the cake and dim what’s behind it. Monitor the exposure relationship between cake and background; adjust, repeat.
Things to watch for
Sometimes you are up against a wall, and there is simply no place to go or to creatively light. High ISO and slow shutter accomplished this exposure, but the cake detail was unsatisfying. By pulling clarity to 100% and compositing with the base image, I got sufficient detail in the white on white icing.
Another potential place for useful or to-be-avoided pictures lies in the quality of the finish of the cake itself. Beware droopy icing, because it will remind the bride of an imperfection she does not want to remember. Hide flaws with tall glasses, choose a different side of the cake, or be prepared to correct later in Photoshop. A beautifully iced cake, however, should be photographed in detail, because that image can make for a stunning background when overlaid with other reception images in a composite album.
My other big helper
The easiest speed light application I’ve ever found is the Ultimate Light Box light modifier – just one speed light used on camera. Swivel the head to bounce off a nearby wall, ceiling or even a reflector held by an assistant. Be sure to mask the front of the ULB with a black gobo, so light does not spill from the front. Part or full masking will depend on how much light wrap you need. Monitor the exposure relationship between cake and background; adjust, repeat. Tiny adjustments in Lightroom will perfect the image, and it’s all done much quicker and easier, due to the Ultimate Light Box. I find it useful to trust my Canon 5D Mark II’s auto exposure for the place to start in this circumstance. I then can refine the output volume on the speed light unit itself and brighten (or darken) the background by dragging the shutter speed on camera. I’m often at a 15th to 1/2 second speed, obviously on a tripod in the 400-640 ISO range. More info on the ULB here.
Delicious is the key word when creating food images. Use these simple techniques and you’ll take the cake, in a great photo, that is.