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How to Photograph – Sloppy Joe Burger

Sloppy Joe with Hard Light

After sharing a bunch of softly-lit food photos, here’s one that uses a single hard light source with small vanity mirrors as fill and accent lights.

The main ingredients are of course ground beef and a good ‘ol can of Hunt’s Manwich Sloppy Joe Sauce :) I mixed some onions and parsley into the mix and made the sauce a little thicker with cornstarch so it’ll stay put and be less ‘runny’ when placed in the bun.

Sloppy Joes doesn’t offer much eye-candy, photography-wise, so instead of going soft, I opted for a little drama using hard light.

sloppy joe

First, the ‘styling’ aspect of the burger. We ran out of hamburger buns so I had the kids run down to the store to buy a pack. Naturally, they didn’t bother picking the best looking bag of bread and just bought whatever was within reach. Then again, the neighborhood convenience store won’t have high-quality bread anyway, so we’ll work with what we have.

You can see that the bread has a a strong crease at the bottom. I should’ve just picked another bun’s bottom (LOL) in hindsight, but what the heck, let’s move on.

One of the trademark ‘feature’ of a sloppy joe sandwich is the amount of meat that’ll just drop and ooze out when you take your first bite. So with that in mind, I opted to ‘bloat’ the appearance of the meat, overpowering the size of the buns that are trying to contain it.

However, I cannot put too much meat onto the bun because:

1) The meat with squash the lower bun into a thin piece of soggy bread.

2) The meat will not ‘stand’ and create the height required for the shot.

Remember that anything the camera doesn’t see wouldn’t matter for the final shot.  You can see from the setup shot, the meat facing the camera is twice as thick as the meat at the back. So essentially, only 2/3 of the bread has a filling, the back of the bun has very little filling.

The top and bottom buns were supported with two BBQ sticks within the center of the mixture.

As for the lighting, the light came at a 90-degree angle from camera left. A 550EX with a DIY grid spot (made of corrugated board stacks) controlled the lighting.


After several height and angle adjustments, I settled for a raking light beam that skimmed across the front face of the meat to highlight the texture. The lighting was also lowered a little to put a faint gradient’ of light between the burger and the background.

If I placed the light at exactly 90-degree of the bun, the shadows for the meat not create the necessary texture and contrast. You can ‘study’ where the light came from by viewing the sesame seeds on the bun and the parsley snips.

Opposite the light, I used several small vanity mirrors. One at the back to define the edges of the top bun, the second to prevent the shadow side of the bun to completely disappear into the darkness, and a third mirror to bring some gleaming, greasy (yum) highlights on the meat’s surface that’s hidden in the shadows.

A Flickr contact asked me how I determine the angles of the mirror. I simply use a flashlight and strap it on top of the flash head then adjust the mirrors’ angles as required. If the beam is too narrow, i just hang wrap it with some tissue for a slight diffusion.

I believe I used the EF-S 18-55mm kit lens on this one.

The image could be finished off with some clean-up in Photoshop, but that’s beyond the purpose and intent of these photos.

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