In Memory of Jeff Ouimette – The Half-Dipped Chocolatier
Please take a few moments to read this post. I know it’s long, but it chronicles how I have developed as a photographer and how Jeff was a huge part of it. It is also very educational and explains the difficulty I encountered when starting out. Thank you.
It breaks my heart to announce that a friend, both business and personal, has passed away. His name was Jeff Ouimette, the partner of a friend of mine whom I worked with at my day job up until recently when they relocated to the South. I haven’t known Jeff as long as some of his long time friends have, it’s only been about two years, but we had a major impact on each other over that short time. I firmly believe he had a greater impact on me than I on him, but we both mutually benefited from what we each brought to the table. He was striking out on his own to pursue his passion of candy and chocolate making, and at the same time I was working on pursuing my passion for photography as more than a hobby. So, my coworker Bob approached me one day and asked if I would take some photos of the products (chocolates, etc) for the website they were going to launch and I quickly agreed. Over the next year and a half I did eleven shoots for them, free of charge, and it was one of the best photography decisions I have ever made.
This is my tribute to Jeff and how he helped me grow as a photographer.
My very first shoot with Jeff was on November 4, 2009, and I had no idea what Lightroom was, how to use Photoshop, or even what White Balance was. I was shooting with a Nikon D60 and the 18-55mm kit lens it came with, I was the man. They were so pumped to have me there, but I had literally no idea what I was doing. Bob had experience with Photoshop (honestly, I had a little, but not much) so after I was finished shooting I just download the images to his computer and called it a day. Easy! It was terrible, it really was. The images were garbage, I was using available light and doing really long exposures with…. no idea what white balance was (going to say WB from now on). Obviously I could go back and adjust the WB on the images now, but I wanted to show you what I started out as, and I am going to progress through the shoots and post some from each one.
Here are images from my very first shoot on 11/4/2009:
I told you! They are terrible! Needless to say, we kept working at it.
Here are images from the next shoot on 11/23/2009, there is a slight improvement….
… I take that back, these were horrible too! Here are some of the settings I was using for the images above: 3sec @ f/20, ISO 100, Aperture Priority… I couldn’t understand why these images weren’t coming out “awesome”… I had an awesome camera, so what was I doing wrong? The answer: Almost Everything. I was literally doing almost everything incorrectly. Ok, the D60 with the kit lens, that is forgivable because I could get photos now using that gear and it would be close to what I can shoot now, but not quite where my 5D Mark II quality is. The two biggest things I learned that I was doing wrong was not having enough light and not shooting in manual!
There is something you need to understand about having your camera on the auto or semi-auto modes: Your camera is designed to get a balanced exposure but not blowing out the highlights, it literally tries to make middle gray (18% gray, as most of you know) out of whites in the frame of view. If you aren’t shooting in Manual mode on your camera, do this: Get your camera, switch it to M, and put tape over the dial so you never change it again. You are in control of what you want to make, why are you letting your camera make the decision about what your exposure should be for you? YOU SHOULDN’T. Yes, it’s more work to shoot in Manual, but I guarantee you will learn more about your craft and become a better photographer. Guarantee. You will make mistakes, I certainly have, but it will become second nature for you to quickly adjust your shutter and aperture at the blink of an eye. I will talk about light a little further down this post.
The next shoot I did was right after I got my Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-70 f/2.8 USM and Canon 580 EX II speedlite gear at the beginning of December 2009. I knew I was all set! Holy crap, I had a great camera, I was ready to take professional photos, watch out world I’m taking you over! Here they are!
Dog-safe white chocolate. No, those aren’t for humans.
What the heck?! Why didn’t the photos come out awesome!? I just spent $2,800 on the camera and another $1,400 on the lens, what gives!? APERTURE PRIORITY SUCKS NO MATTER WHAT CAMERA YOU USE. These images were mostly 1/40sec (give or take) at f/2.8 and ISO 250. For products, you can’t necessarily shoot wide open unless it’s supposed to be intentionally blurry throughout nearly the entire image. This was very wrong.
This was also the first time I took a portrait in a setting like this. I had always taken photos of people but it wasn’t quite as posed or intentional. This is what I got on that day:
That’s pretty bad. You may be saying “hey, just fix the WB and this image would be passable.” but it’s not, and you know it isn’t. the room was only lit by an overhead light and a floor lamp aimed at the ceiling in the corner, so the light was only coming from above, look at the shadows under his eyes. This is a terrible image, but I wanted to show it because this is the reality of what I was struggling with. They specifically requested I take some portraits so they could put it on the website. This didn’t make the cut. You can’t run a business like this, nobody will want to pay for this! (Keep reading, you will see some drastic improvements… just be patient.)
Ok great, so I spent thousands of dollars on gear that wasn’t taking professional photos, the images weren’t coming out as I thought they would, and shooting wide open was stupid for this type of photography (most food photography is perfect shot wide open, this was for a website and needed to be in focus!), so what the hell was I doing wrong? I still just couldn’t understand, at the time.
The next shoot was on 2/3/10, getting ready to shoot Valentine’s chocolates. I used my camera a lot between this shoot and the previous and decided that I was going to try increasing the ISO even more to see how it would be. I was worried at the time about using anything over 100 for long exposures, there was no rhyme or reason why, that’s just what I was doing. I increased it to 400, and even 800, and was a bit happier with what I got in return.
Ok, so I still wasn’t getting the right color to my images, but later I would understand more about WB. But at this point I was feeling more confident about what angle to shoot the products at, and how to group them. This was a big improvement for me, and I remember feeling a lot more confident that evening about what I was doing. I was using Photoshop a lot more at this point and trying to figure out how to make adjustments so the entire plate and background were white, but it still wasn’t exactly where I needed it to be, I still couldn’t grasp the WB part of the equation. I was shooting on Auto WB all the time, by the way. This was under Tungsten light so that’s why it’s very warm in all the images.
It was after this shoot that I got an opportunity of a lifetime. I have been on Twitter for quite a while and one day I saw that Jack Hollingsworth needed a social media person to tweet while he was doing a promo shoot on Cape Cod (where I grew up!) to connect with his followers regarding what we were doing at any given time during the day. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to see what an established photographer was doing and also hopefully meet some other area photographers. This turned into one of the single best experiences I have had. Meeting Jack was great, but I gained some friends from that weekend. Brian Matiash, Ben Eckstein (he’s a video guy), and the owner of Lens Pro To Go, Paul Friedman. Brian has proven to be an extremely valuable resource, I cannot stress to you how much of an impact he had on my understand of exposure and WB. He taught me how to use the Xrite Color Checker Passport to take custom WB’s and sync WB across multiple images using Adobe Lightroom (I’ll be calling Lightroom LR from now on). After that weekend on the Cape I really started to research WB online to learn more about it, and I couldn’t believe it took me that long to realize what I was doing wrong. WB is easy. It’s really easy. It gets a bit more complicated when you start to mix color temperatures in an image, like Tungsten and speedlite in an image, that’s when you start to use gel’s for your speedlite… more on that in another post.
So, I took what I learned from Brian and on the web and this is what I got….
Whoa! That looks a little better! Want to know what I did here? I added light. I finally decided to use my speedlite to add light to the fairly dark room. Once I saw the image on the back of the camera I knew that I had finally gotten “it”. I finally created the look that I was going for. The image above had some edits done to it, mostly just masking out the edge of the plate like you see below, but very little was done aside from that. My goal was to make the product look as if it were just sitting on the web page, not that it was sitting on a plate on a table. Oh yeah, and look at the WB, it’s perfect! Want to know what I did? I took a custom WB before I took the image using the Color Checker Passport and it was spot on. Here are a couple more unedited versions from that day. By the way, I also started shooting in RAW after my weekend on the Cape, in addition to using Lightroom to process the RAW files.
The table cloth is actually a light cream color, it wasn’t plain white. I got to the point where I had a quick work flow down to brighten that part of the image and make it look like it wasn’t a plate on the table cloth at all. The images above I had my speedlite on camera, but aimed up away from the product, it was bouncing off the ceiling.
A really interesting thing happened after this shoot, I attended an open house at Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts (CDIA) in Waltham, MA because they have a Professional Photography certificate program that I was really interested in after hearing about it from two of the photographers on the Cape shoot. This was another life-changing decision. I enrolled and started at the end of May 2010 and began learning things exponentially faster than I had been when doing things trial and error and at my own pace, ie WHITE BALANCE.
I’m going to pull this all back into perspective: It’s because of Jeff that I kept pushing myself to figure out what I was doing wrong so I could get the photos right for him. I wanted to better myself, so I went on that trip to the Cape for the weekend and connected with others and learned what they were doing, which I then put into application at Jeff’s place and created the images above. I went to school because I learned that, through shooting for Jeff, I truly loved photography and thought I had a real chance at making a living off it. So I learned, and I learned a lot. I am still in the program, graduating at the end of January 2012, and I cannot explain to you how much better of a photographer I am now than I was in November 2009. But what I can do is show you more photos.
This was the first shoot I did for Jeff after learning some off-camera lighting techniques in school. I setup the speedlite on a little stand behind a collapsable diffuser to soften the light but keep it directional. I also, finally, shot in MANUAL (my speedlite was in manual as well). Doing this helped me to keep the light coming from the same direction, the consistency is what I wanted. Here are the photos from the 11/9/10 shoot I did for Jeff:
My photography had reached a new level. I was finally able to control both my camera and the light to create the image that I wanted to create, rather than what the camera wanted to make for me. I was in control. When you take control, you have the capacity to make just about anything you want. It took me almost a year to provide photos to Jeff that I thought were worthy of a website, they used the previous images I gave them, but after this shoot they promptly changed out the images, we re-shot a lot of the chocolates at that session.
I finally did it.
I firmly believe that because of Jeff and Bob asking me to photograph the chocolates at that point, that I am the photographer I am today. Yes, it was a series of events that lead to certain things, but the one event that started it all was that one question by them. That is what started my friendship with Jeff, as I was already friends with Bob because of work.
Jeff and I would talk about our passions, chocolate for him and photography for myself, and we would each listen very attentively to each other as we would go into the minutia of how things work or why the white chocolate really is chocolate and people don’t believe it. We really made a connection and whenever he would call because a new season was nearly upon us and they needed to update the website, my answer was always “Absolutely.” I would give them the photos, they would give me chocolates, you couldn’t ask for a better trade of services. It wasn’t about the money, it was about bettering myself and creating beautiful images for this company to help them grow.
Second to last shoot: November 23, 2010. The December holiday season was almost there and Jeff wanted to showcase the variety of fudges that he had started to make, so we did a number of those in addition to some Christmas themed platters and non-pareil filled glass trees. (scroll up to the very first shoot I did to see my first try at these pain-in-the-neck to shoot trees) [side note, I did one more shoot for Jeff on 3/10/11 for Easter, it was pretty uneventful and went by very quickly. This second to last shoot I am talking about now was very influential and.... well, keep reading.] At this point I had purchased my very first studio strobe, an Alien Bee B800 and the Paul Buff Cyber Sync wireless trigger and receiver, this was my first time using them for a job. In addition to that, I brought a ProFoto two monolight kit in case I needed some more light…. more on that after these images of the products:
That is quite an improvement over what I first shot. All three of those trees were done in one shot, they were not done separately then put together into one image, I am proud to say. This is just another example of me pushing myself to provide quality work to these guys, it took me a little while to get the trees right, but I had a studio lighting class right before this shoot and learned how to shoot glass, conveniently, and it worked like a charm.
There was one last thing about this shoot that was going to be awesome, they wanted me too try taking a portrait of Jeff again. This time, I knew exactly what I was going to do and took out one of the ProFoto lights to use as a second fill light with a 2′x2′ softbox on it. My AB800 had a 3′x4′ on it that I was using as my main light. I’m not going to show all the images, or even a few of them from the portrait part of the session. I only want to show the one image that I find to be the most powerful and truly representative of who Jeff really is. Please scroll down and look at this image for a few moments, and say a prayer (please) for all the friends and family who no longer have this amazing man in their lives:
Jeff, because of you I am a better photographer. I have never been able to thank you for that, but I am fortunate that I was able to say goodbye to you the day before you and Bob moved. I am lucky that I was able to know you, you were a truly good man and would do anything to help anybody. Your laugh was genuine, your heart was always in the right place, and you made the best chocolates I have ever tasted. It broke my heart to see all of your friends and family crying at your funeral service today. I was one of them. I know you are in a better place now watching over us. Thank you, Jeff.
With a heavy heart,