Still Life with Mussels

This was a simple still-life, taken for a friend to show him what I made for lunch today.  Total setup was 30 minutes, and that included polishing the glass and artistically throwing a cloth napkin on the table.

This is a straight photo with only in-camera adjustments.  Taken with existing light, late afternoon on a cloudy day.  The main light was an East-facing window directly behind the subject.

Final picture:

Before and After Exposures

I was suspicious of the window light, which was in deep shadow.  I took the first shot without color correction and there was no surprise -- a deep, blue tint permeated the picture -- blue because the blue-sky was the only light source, with no direct sunlight; shadows are always blue.

There were also auto-exposure problems, where the black table was competing with the table-top's glare and the white bowl.  Both can confuse the camera's meter one way or the other and it would undoubtedly need exposure compensation.

I took two exposures.  The first without color correction or exposure compensation.  The second was the final exposure.

By chance, on the right-side of the room, there was track lighting, directed at a broad, white wall.  This added a fill-light, softening the shadows. If not, I would have used a white cardboard sheet on the front-left, bouncing light back into the scene.

Unless I am taking snapshots, I almost always override the camera's auto-white-balancing and auto-exposure settings.  These settings only takes a minute or two and the results are far better than an automatic exposure.  I was confident of the results and before I reviewed the photo on a larger screen, I ate my lunch.

White Balance

When ever setting up an photograph like this, I set the White Balance first.

The blue-tinted light was obvious on the camera's view screen and white balancing was definitely required.   Following the suggestions in this article, imageLiner White Balancing, I set a manual white-balance color correction with a white sheet of paper.

Note I did not bother selecting the "open shade" setting, although it would have probably worked reasonably well.  Setting white balance manually takes only a moment and is more reliable.  

Exposure Compensation

Because of the black table and black mussels and because of the equally stark and competing white dish, exposure compensation was required.  Remember, dark subjects cause the meter to over-expose while white subjects cause the meter to under-expose and it would be hard to guess which way the meter would go.  Looking at the first, uncorrected exposure, it was obviously under-exposed with the dead give-away of the white bowl not being white.

From previous articles, I use a grey-card for metering (see this article). Because of the backlighted window, the grey-card was casting its own shadow.  I angled the card away from the lense more than normal.  And because of the relatively dim lighting, the camera was having a hard time focusing on the card; I temporarily set manual focus while metering the grey-card.

Once I noted the grey-card's reading, I left the meter on automatic and dialed-in the exposure compensation until it reached the grey-card reading, plus 1/3 of a stop (per my grey-card article).  The final exposure was 1-1/3 stop over exposed from the meter's original recommendation.

Metered Exposure:  f8, 1/5"
Grey Card Exposure:  f8, 1/2"

With landscapes and still-lifes, one should be concerned with the depth-of-field.  This works in my favor because setting a fixed aperture (depth-of-field, aperture preferred) also makes for easier exposure compensation settings.

This picture was shot with a middle-of-the-road f8.  I did not choose f11 or deeper, wanting to keep the back wall in a softer focus.  f5.6 would have been too shallow of a depth-of-field for such a close subject.

Naturally, the camera was on a tripod.  The lens was set to 55mm Dx/APC (aka 82mm 35).

What I would do different

Later, I examined the final photo and was pleased to find good details on the dark mussels, which was the goal.  But I did note the strong highlights on the rim of the bowl and the reflection on the fork.  The highlights were completely blown-out and perhaps I should have calmed them with a small flag or gobo, casting a shadow on the right side.  That would have added more interest to the lighting.

A white cardboard fill on the front would have eased the shadow under the napkin.

If I were doing this again, I would have brushed the mussels, clearing the sauce from the top of the shells, and I might have used a white table-cloth instead of the black table.  But this was still a fun and easy project.

Here is the recipe.  Easy to prepare, looks like a million-bucks.  Tasty.

Mussels in red and wine sauce
Time: apx 20-30 minutes
Skills: Easy
Serves 2 to 3; 1 lb mussels per person for a light meal

1/4C Olive Oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced coarsely
3T tomato paste
3 to 4C chopped and seeded tomatoes (I used canned, 28oz)
1 1/2C white wine (I used a local Chardonnay)
Parsley for garnish
Mussels (2 to 3 lbs, fresh or frozen)

Saute onions in olive oil until translucent
Add garlic, saute another minute; do not allow to brown
Add tomato paste
Add tomatoes (with liquid lightly drained, if canned)
Add wine
Salt to taste
Bring to a medium simmer
Toss in (fresh) mussels and simmer until opened

Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with a crusty sour-dough bread

For this dish, I used frozen mussels. 
Following the package instructions, place the bag in boiling water, cooking separately for 6 to 7 minutes until the bag inflated and mussels are hot.  Cut the bag and drain.  Unfortunately, the liquid cannot be used in the sauce because of debri.  Add to the final sauce and toss so everyone becomes good friends.  Let cool slightly before serving.

The wine was 2006 Chardonnay from Koenig Vineyards, Snake River Valley.

Related articles:
Semolina Pasta
imageLiner Setting White Balance
imageLiner: Exposure Compensation
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