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|| News Item: Posted 2009-04-23

In The Bag: Food For Thought
Barry Wong spends time working on location with chefs and hanging out in their kitchens.

By Barry Wong

Photo by Barry Wong

Photo by Barry Wong

Rolling bag with Hassleblad and Canon cameras (fully assembled and ready to shoot) and backup hard drives. MacBook Pro 15" in a Marware sleeve fits on top of cameras.
Just when I had found the perfect camera bag, I had to go and change careers.

I left the photojournalist's life a few years ago to specialize in food photography. Why? I've always loved still life. And I find a certain quiet joy in gorgeously crafted light and an elegantly prepared dish.

Shooting commercial and editorial food, I spend a bit of time working on location with chefs and hanging out in their kitchens. Ironically, when I was a kid helping out at my parents' diner, a restaurant kitchen was probably the last place my Chinese immigrant parents, Dick and Jean Wong, imagined I might end up working.

My sisters and I grew up waiting on customers, bussing tables and washing dishes at Wong's Cafe. After school, we would sit in a booth back toward the kitchen, do our homework then help out. I washed a mountain of dishes, peeled hundreds of potatoes and made vats of hot cake batter in huge battered pots - and that was just in one day! In the summers, I dreaded the 3:30 a.m. wake-up knock that summoned me to help with the morning shift.

My parents worked seven days a week - most days for 15 hours (that seems unbelievable now - when did they sleep?) They wanted us to be able to go to college so we wouldn't have to work in restaurants.

Through it all, my parents' passion for good cooking and quality ingredients was evident - I have fond memories of hash browns made from real potatoes, Dad's excellent chicken fried steak and Mom's made-from-scratch biscuits. To this day, I appreciate a great diner.

Today, although I did get that college degree, I find myself back in restaurant kitchens. Collaborating with the Northwest's best chefs seems a long way from Wong's Café, but it's really not so far from my parents' love of good food. And these days I have my trusty Hasselblad and Phase back in hand rather than a potato peeler.

Speaking of gear, the shift from photojournalism to shooting food has meant a significant transition in equipment for me - from Canons and JPEG card capture to medium format digital and tethered shooting. My once favorite camera bag (Domke J series) wouldn't fit everything. I needed a new bag.

Key considerations for the search:

Travel compactly:
Despite the added gear, I still I like to travel light, something I picked up from my photoj days. Ideally, I would be able to carry everything to a location in one trip. Camera bag in one hand, tripod and light stand with head attached in the other.

Be prepared:
When I was first starting out in newspapers, a crusty Seattle Times photographer, Vic Condiotty, told me I had "a low disaster factor." Even as a beginning photojournalist, I lived by this mantra: "be prepared, always come back with the goods, never miss the deadline." Come to think of it, that's still my mantra.

Though I wanted the bag to be compact, I also wanted to have some backup gear on hand. As a newspaper photographer, I always used two cameras. If one failed, I had images on the second body. As a food shooter, I like to have a backup camera and portable hard drives on location. (Tethered shooting saves just to the laptop, so there's no card backup.)

Photo by Barry Wong

Photo by Barry Wong

Korean jap chae noodles shot with camera suspended on a sidearm directly over the dish. With the camera tethered to my laptop, I have a 15" preview to check critical focus. Digital capture with Hasselblad 501CM and Phase back.
The Gear:
With these parameters in mind, I schlepped all my gear down to Glazers Camera in Seattle to see how it would fit in various bags. (They are very patient with me at Glazers.) I settled on a Think Tank Airport Airstream rolling bag. A key selling point - low dividers (optional) that allow a 15" laptop to fit snugly on top of camera gear. One thing I didn't realize - this particular bag is designed to be taken onboard, not checked. But that's OK, because that's how I would use it. Here's what's in that bag:

Hasselblad V series 501cm
• waist level finder - great for critical focus
• phase P21 back
• prism finder
• 80mm f/2.8 Planar
• extension tubes 8mm & 16mm - for close up
• cable release (2)

Canon EOS 5D backup camera
• 50mm macro - close up lenses are a must
• 100mm f/2.8 macro - great food lens
• 16-35mm f/2.8
• CF cards

Mini food styling kit:
• tweezers
• brushes
• bamboo skewers/toothpicks
• knife
• very small scissors
• q tips
• Wobble Wedges (small black and clear wedges for lifting up subjects)
• small level - for keeping lines straight
• MacBook Pro 15" in a Marware sleeve for tethered location shooting
• 2 FireLite external drives - for on-location backup

Lighting: carried separately

I like using constant source hot lights for food shoots. I can see the final lighting and they allow me to shoot wide-open if I want to use extreme selective focus. Right now, I use a Photoflex Starlite with the smallest softbox they make.

Photo by Barry Wong

Photo by Barry Wong

Mini food styling kit with tweezers, small brush, scizzors, toothpicks and plastic Wobble Wedges all fit in a retasked eyeglass case from Daiso, a Japanese dollar store. Also a Greytag Macbeth mini color checker.
I'm looking into the new generation of cool lights, but want to do some testing to see how well they work with food as far as color and reflections.

Extra stuff:
I have backup everything - backup camera, backup cards, backup hard drives, backup cords and backup lights. Occasionally I look at something in my location kit and ask, "What would happen if this (camera, cord, charger, card reader, light, etc…) failed?" It's amazing how the smallest item can paralyze a shoot. Because my location shoots are mostly local, that extra gear stays in the car. But it's there, just in case.

• C-stands, short ones
• light heads
• boom
• extra bulbs
• extra cords - for camera & computer
• cards/card reader
• surge protected AC extension cords
• backgrounds and props
• chargers
• Apple Cinema Display for multi-day shoots with color calibrator
• backup laptop - great use for my old 12" Apple PowerBook

So, now I've got the perfect bag - I just better not change careers again!

(Barry Wong is a freelance photographer in Seattle, Washington. He was a Seattle Times staff photographer before leaving to specialize in commercial and editorial food photography. His food images were part of an award-winning entry in the recent Best of Photojournalism contest. You can see his work at his member page: and his personal website:

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