Open-faced Tofu & Garlicky Greens

by Vanessa Rees

I envy my sister Rachel. She has a clean, spacious, beautiful house with a huge garden in the backyard. Rachel’s home is always full of good food and wine. Every time I return home to my cramped little NYC apartment after visiting her I have a “why on earth am I living here?” kinda moment.

by Vanessa Rees

by Vanessa Rees

The last time I visited Rachel she made me these delicious open-faced tofu sandwich with sautéed greens piled on top. This recipe is very simple and because of that it is important to get high quality ingredients. You will need good crusty bread, a nice olive oil, and very firm tofu. If you can find it, I recommend Twin Oaks or Wildwood Tofu.

by Vanessa Rees


  • one loaf high quality tough/crusty/chewy bread
  • one block of tofu
  • one bunch of greens (kale, collards, or your leafy green vegetable of choice)
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and diced
  • high quality olive oil for cooking & drizzling


  1. Cut tofu into slices.
  2. Drizzle some olive oil in pan (I used cast iron) and turn on the heat.
  3. Briefly cook tofu on each side. Doesn’t have to be golden brown, just warm. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Wash your greens and slice them into ribbions.
  5. Drizzle some olive oil in a pan and turn on the heat.
  6. Add the garlic cloves to the pan. Let the garlic cook for a bit (roughly 15- 30 seconds). Don’t let the garlic burn.
  7. Add the greens to the pan and cook just until they start to wilt. They should still be bright green. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper.
  8. Slice bread and toast it.
  9. Pile tofu and greens on top of the bread.
  10. Optional: Drizzle with the slightest bit of olive oil.

by Vanessa Rees

Enjoy! Till next time. xx

by Vanessa Rees



Foodrecipes - Really love your beautiful mess!

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Roberta - Hi Vanessa, awesome pictures and styling, as always ;-))

Thank you for this post, it’s really ,my kind of food and I love the simplicity…
p.s. congratulations for the Best Food Blog Award, a really deserved award it is!!!


Jaclyn - Stunning photography!! So inspiring and so much talent!

Vegyogini - Your blog hasn’t shown up in my Google Reader in ages, so I mistakenly assumed you’d stopped blogging. I’m so happy that’s not the case! I really love simple, clean food and this dish is a perfect example.

It’s also a wonderful surprise that you’re the photographer for Isa Does It! I’ve been looking forward to her latest book and the photos you’ve shared are gorgeous.

Trisha @ Vignette - Your photos are stunning! And this recipe sounds simple yet delicious! I am definitely going to give it a try!

Kim @ Lulu Natural Health - This is beautiful and I can’t wait to try the recipe at home!

chelsea - this looks absolutely delightful. like, majorly craving tofu right now which is something i’ve…. never said? haha

Sandra Sim - Your photography style is inspiring. Beautiful.

Steve Williams - Really love the style of photography.

Kiran @ - I hear your about the space. Always wondered how you do it all with the amount of space in NYC. You are a talented person, for sure!

Hope we get to meet the next time I’m in NYC. Love it there :)

Ruthy @ omeletta - Gorgeous, and such a perfect sandwich for the upcoming months, which always seem to feel more hectic as the weather gets warmer! I feel you on the cramped NYC apt- my teeny place in the EV feels like I barely have room to turn around, let alone cook!

Jes - I love the simplicity of the sandwich–it’s all about the ingredients in such a good way.

Anna @ Crunchy Creamy Sweet - I’ve never lived in NYC and I’ve never had tofu…. While I will keep my Midwestern house, I totally want the tofu sandwich! Love love the shots!!

Aurélie - Olive oil and garlic is always a good idea! Stunning photography, as always :)

Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar - This sounds soooo crazy good!! Love it!

Jen @ Savory Simple - I’ve thought many times about how much I’d love to live in NYC but the one thing that always stopped me is the home size to cost ratio. I need space and have already made some sacrifies to live in a DC suburb. My husband and I always say if we won the lottery we’d move to NYC. Anyway, I love everything about this sandwich. As always, your photography is amazing.

Good Things

First of all, exciting news! I won best food photography blog in SAVER Magazine’s Best Food Blog Awards. Thank you so so much to everyone for your support! I did an interview for SAVEUR that you can check out here. I babbled. =)

I’ve been doing some fun stuff lately and thought I’d share with you guys. I know it’s been forever since I posted a recipe but I’ve actually got a really tasty one coming soon so stay tuned.

Without further ado:

Here are some shots I took of MiO Water. I like their playful aesthetic.

MiO Water by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography
MiO Water by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

I usually avoid technical product shots like the plague but I made an exception to do this big overhead shot for SimplySent. I’m a sucker for things organized neatly on a white backdrop.

Simply Sent by Vanessa Rees of V.K.Rees Photography

More shots for SimplySent:

Photography by Vanessa Rees for SimplySent

Photography by Vanessa Rees for SimplySent

A few of the shots I did of jeans for Ralph Lauren, Denim and Supply:

Photography by Vanessa Rees for Ralph Lauren Denim & Supply

Photos from the most recent issue of VegNews magazine:

VegNews food featured photographed by Vanessa Rees

VegNews food featured photographed by Vanessa Rees

That’s all for now! Till next time. xx

Stéphanie - Congrats, Vanessa!! You’re such an amazing photographer – you deserve it. :)

I have to say that your interview is such an inspiration for me since I’m currently going through the same thing. My job drains every ounce of energy I have and leaves me feeling cranky, miserable, and genuinely bitter, so in the past couple years I’ve been focusing WAY more on my art. It feels great! I hope to eventually get to where you are today. Thanks!

Jes - Congrats girl! You’re such an inspiration with your impeccably styled & shot photos–definitely an inspiration to me as I expand my freelance work!

kat - completely deserved! amazing shots

Averie @ Averie Cooks - Congrats on the Saveur award! You deserve it :)

Aaron - Stevie, that pun was pantastic!

Stevie - Anna, don’t you mean JEANious?

Angela Walley - Congrats again! Your range in these images is really awesome, also Mexican food is the key to my heart.

Evan Thomas - All of these are so beautiful! Easy to see how you won that award.

Anna @ Crunchy Creamy Sweet - Congrats on your award, Vanessa!! So well deserved!

I saw your teaser from the MiO shoot on Facebook and they are absolutely stunning!! I love how you captured the drops of water!

The jeans shots – genius!!

Artificial Lighting 101

Here it is! The blog post about artificial lighting for tabletop photography that I’ve been talking about doing for a very long time.

Natural light is beautiful. Finding and manipulating natural light is an extremely important skill for a photographer to have. That being said, I use artificial lighting for most of my still life and food photography photo shoots. I just prefer the control of artificial lighting for tabletop photography. It’s what works for me.

When I first started doing photography I was intimidated by artificial lighting. It seemed very technical and full of numbers. I remember in my college’s Studio Photography 101 class the professor would talk about guide numbers, equations for exposure, measuring the distance to your subject, lighting ratios, and all sorts of other things that made me want to shy away from artificial lighting. I’ve never been great at math.

It turns out that artificial lighting doesn’t have to be approached in a super technical way. I (and most professional photographers I’ve worked with) don’t do calculations and measuring to find the correct exposure of a picture. If you are more comfortable with a very technical approach then by all means, knock yourself out. But for those of you that don’t work that way, I’ve got good news! Lighting can be a very intuitive and creative process. There are just a few steps and guidelines to keep in the back of your mind. In this post I’m going to talk about those guidelines, equipment essentials, and basic steps to making artificial light work.

My approach to explaining lighting is probably going to seem a little different than other blogs out there. I’m going to keep things as untechnical as possible. I learn by doing, not reading. When I read really technical articles about lighting setups my eyes glaze over. This post will appeal to those of you that learn like I do. I’m going to tell you the very basics that you need to know to get you started. I’m not going to go into too much depth about the technology and reasoning behind the setup. If you learn like me, those things will become obvious as you are working.

Note: I’m going to assume you are familiar with some photography basics. If you haven’t read this post, I’d recommend it. I’m also going to assume an understanding of what aperture, iso, and shutter speed are and how they work together.

I’m going to walk through a very simple 2-light setup. Once you’ve mastered this setup you will understand the basics of artificial lighting and be able to start venturing into some super creative lighting.

I’m assuming that most of you don’t want to spend a ton of money on lighting gear. I’m going to be recommending the most affordable equipment that I know of.



- Paul C Buff makes great, affordable lights. They are called AlienBees. For food photography, I’d recommend buying two (to start with) AlienBees™ B800 Flash Units. They cost $280 each.

Artificial Lighting 101, AlienBees

- Receivers and transmitters. Transmitters and receivers are little boxes that you put on your camera and lights. The transmitter mounts to the hotshoe on top of your camera and the receivers attach to your lights with sync cables. When your camera fires your transmitter sends a signal to your receivers telling your lights to send out a flash. Paul C. Buff makes reliable and affordable transmitters and receivers. You will need one transmitter for your camera and one receiver for each light. Make sure to get the battery powered receivers.

Artificial Lighting 101

- Softboxes are super important. They give your light a nice diffused look & soft shadows. I love this medium soft box.

Artificial Lighting 101, softboxes

- Reflectors. Reflectors fit around the flashtube and modeling lamp on the front faceplate of flash units. When used alone the reflectors throw a beam of undiffused light. You will want one for your fill light.

Artificial Lighting 101, Reflectors

- Grey card. You will need a grey card to set your white balance. More on this later.

Artificial Lighting 101, Greycards

- Light stands. You will need to buy a light stand for every light that you have.

Artificial Lighting 1010, Light stands



- I’m going to assume you are on the “find your lighting” step of this post and that you have all the equipment from the equipment list above.

- The first step in setting up your lighting is to settle on a depth of field. In other words, adjust your aperture until you have everything in focus that you want in focus, and everything out of focus that you want out of focus. Use whatever ambient light is available to you for this step. Don’t stress about getting a good exposure at this point- It doesn’t matter right now if the image is over or underexposed. This step is just about finding your f-stop. Hopefully your camera is hooked up to a computer so you can clearly see what is in focus and what is not in focus. (See this post for more info about hooking your camera up to your computer.)

If you aren’t clear on how aperture effects depth of field, here is a good article on it.

Artificial Lighting 101

I used the ambient light available to find that f6.3 worked for well for this image.

- If it isn’t already, put your camera on manual. Keep the aperture on the f-stop you decided upon in step 2. Set your camera’s ISO to 640 and the shutter speed to 1/200 (generally the fastest the shutter can be when using flash).

- Put your transmitter on the hotshoe mount of your camera. Make note of which channel your transmitter is on (the little wheel on the transmitter will tell you which channel it is set to).

Artificial Lighting 101

- Attach receivers to your two lights via sync cables. Make sure they are set to the same channel as the transmitter that is on your camera.

Artificial Lighting 101

- You will want to diffuse the key light with a softbox. Without a softbox the light will be really hard. Hard light produces strong highlights and dark shadows. The quality is more dramatic and controllable, but generally less approachable and appealing than soft light. So, attach a medium softbox to your light. Read the manual that came with your light if you aren’t sure how to attach a softbox. It’s pretty easy.

- Next you will want to determine your angle of light. That’s just a fancy way of saying where you are going to place your key light. Key lights are generally placed at 15 – 90 degree angle from your camera.

For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to use the example of setting your light at a 65 degree angle from your camera. The light is the same height as the table I’m shooting on.

- Plug in your light if you haven’t already done so.

- Set your light to 1/2 power.

Artificial Lighting 101

- Press the test button on the receiver attached to your light. When you press the button, the light should fire. If it doesn’t, make sure everything is plugged in and the batteries are working. Also, sync cables can go bad. You may have to swap out the sync cable.

- Press the test button on the transmitter attached to your camera. If the key light doesn’t fire, check that both the transmitter and reviver are set to the same channel.

- It’s time to fire your camera! Press the shutter release button.

- How does your image look? Is it under exposed or over exposed? Adjust the intensity of your light until you find an exposure you are happy with. It takes me about 3 test shots to get a good exposure. It might take you 5-7 shots but not too much more than that.

Note: If your light is set to full power but the image is still too dark, increase your ISO to a higher number. If your light is set to minimal power but the image is still too bright, decrease your ISO to a lower number.

Artificial Lighting 101

I tested with 1/2 power & 1/32 power before deciding on 1/16 power for my key light

- You may notice that your shadows are very dark at this point. Well, now it’s time to put in a fill light. Fill is used to lighten shadows and control contrast.

- Set up your second light at a 45 degree angle on the opposite side of the key light. Put a reflector on your light (read the light’s manual if you aren’t sure how to do this).

- Press the test button on the receiver attached to your fill light. It should fire.

- Press the test button on the transmitter attached to your camera. Both lights should fire. If the fill light doesn’t fire, check that the receiver attached to it is set to the same channel as the the transmitter attached to your camera.

- Set the fill light to 1/2 power.

- Point the light straight up and raise the light stand till it is just several feet below the ceiling. We are bouncing the light off the ceiling to diffuse and spread it.

Note: I’m assuming you are working in an area with a white (or off white) ceiling. If you aren’t, you will want to find something large and white to bounce your fill light off of. Like foam core.

Artificial Lighting 101

- Fire your camera. How does the image look? Did the fill light overexpose it or is it still too dark? Adjust the intensity of the fill light until you like how bright or dark the shadows are.

Artificial Lighting 101

I tested 1/2 power & 1/32 power before deciding on 1/6 power for my fill light

- Once you are happy with the exposure, place your greycard in front of the subject you are shooting and fire an image.

- In the software you are using, set your white balance by using the grey card. In Capture One that simply means setting the WB to custom and clicking on the grey card with the eyedropper.

Artificial Lighting 101

- Take a shot to see if you are happy with the white balance. If you aren’t, use the WB adjustment sliders in your software to tweak it. Don’t be afraid to make the light cooler or warmer to give your image a particular mood.

Artificial Lighting 101

 Here is the final image after warming up the white balance a bit and increasing the contrast. 

That’s it! You should have a well-lit image using artificial light. Now you can play around with the placement of the lights to see how they affect the image. Start experimenting. Change the f-stop to see how it effects the image or try putting a filter on your light (a filter is anything that, when placed in front of the light, absorbs, warps, or diffuses part or all of the beam). This is how I learned everything I know about lighting. Practice and experimenting. You can read about lighting all day but it won’t make you any better at it. You just gotta do it! =)

Note: Keep the 5 main attributes of light in your mind as you are experimenting. These 5 attributes can be adjusted to affect the quality of light emitted and the overall lighting-look:

  • Hard or Soft (or in between);
  • Intensity (the amount of light);
  • Direction (in relation to the lens and subject);
  • Color (of light emitted, adjust this by adding gels or changing your white balance); and
  • Beam pattern (the beam angle, shape, and any shadow patterns).

Play around with these elements to find techniques and looks that you love!

Have you ever taken a painting class? Lighting a photo is like painting. At first it is awkward because you aren’t completely familiar with how the paintbrushes feel in your hands, or you don’t know how the paints will react to different techniques. But as you practice and get comfortable with it, you stop thinking so hard about what you are doing. Suddenly all you see are highlights and shadows and how they work within the total composition. Well, your lights are your paintbrushes. With practice you will stop thinking about the technical aspects of lighting and just start painting with light. It’s an awesome feeling.

Good luck!

Till next time! xx


Queen Sashy - This is an incredible post. I am starting from scratch with artificial light, and this saved me weeks, probably months of putting it all together. Thank you very, very much for sharing and for taking the time to write it all down in such a wonderfully useful way!

ANNICE MACLEOD (1218300) - Thank you for sharing so much information while so many others won’t and don’t. It is also rather encouraging for those of us that are scared of all this stuff. Have you considered writing a book on food photography?

Aaisha @ - Um. Amazeballs. This write up is fantastic! I can’t wait to start putting it to use. But before I go and invest in a bunch of equipment that I definitely don’t have room for [NYC living with a baby] and may not even set up, I wanted to touch base with you about the other tabletop light options. I’ve also noticed a million and one posts on the Lowel EGO tabletop light sources. I know it’s nowhere near as great as this setup, but for a super beginner do you think it would suffice as an intro product? I’m in no way a professional, and only keep my blog as a hobby. And with winter coming, I’m sure the 1.5 hr window of light my apartment has been will be gone too. PS – can you teach a class already? I know I’m not the only one that would attend :)

James - Also, did I miss the part about using a soft box? You listed it as an important tool, but I don’t think you used one in this tutorial. Can you please explain when you would use this?

James - Thanks for sharing this information for us photography noobs. I look forward to playing around more with artificial light, so I don’t have to be at the mercy of the sun/weather. I have one question, though. Why do you set your white balance from inside your photo editing software, as opposed to setting it from within the settings menu on your camera? It’s basically the same process–you still have to snap a picture of a blank card or wall–but it seems the latter would be a bit quicker/simpler. What am I missing? And why do you use a gray card? Is that better than a white card or a white wall? OK, several questions.


Leon - I’ve got everything I need to finally start. Well I don’t have the same triggers, but I am close. Hopefully I do well. :)

Jean - Thank you for explaining artificial lighting without making me feel like I need a photography dictionary to follow your process. So very helpful!

Amy Johnson - I have been thinking of trading in my qflashes for Alien Bees, and this definitely confirmed my decision! Thank you so much for your tutorial, I love reading about different lighting setups, and this was super easy to follow and understand. Thanks again. Amy

vkrees - maya- hmmmm some speedlights are setup to fall asleep after sitting idle for a certain amount of time. it’s designed to save battery power. luckily you can usually change the settings so that it no longer does this. well, i know you can with canon speedlights, anyway. not 100% sure about nikon speedlights. check your manual or google it. =)

maya - totally priceless.
thank you so much for this!

i’ve been using a nikon SB600 speedlight external flash for a few years now, but i find that it’s a little unreliable, falling “asleep” more often than not in the middle of a photoshoot. has this happened to anyone else?

Kiran @ - Thank you so so much for this wonderful write-up. Can’t wait to put this into practice :)

MiraUncut - Where have you been my whole life???

I have scoured the internet for days trying to find this kind of info on food photography and lighting.

Thank you SO much. I am very grateful you took the time to do this. I’m sure I will be pouring over all your posts in detail!

Angela Walley @ veggieangie - It’s really nice of you to share lighting from your own experience in a very untechnical way. I have most of this equipment around for the films my husband and I make, but there are few things I needed to learn and purchase for more successful photographs. Thanks!

Liren - This is the first lighting tutorial that did not other leave my head spinning. Thank you so much for that! I loved your approach, it’s one I think I can actually attempt.. Excellent write up!

Elodie {Framing Paltes} - Thanks so much Vanessa! I’ve always been “scared” of using artificial light for my food photography partly because of the science and technical aspects behind it. Like you, I’m not a big fan of numbers but you’ve made it a lot more accessible.
I guess I just now have to try using it and see how it goes.

Laurie Constantino - Thank you. This is all very useful information, plus it’s explained in a way I understand.

Amy - This is wonderful — thank you so much for sharing with us! I’ve relied solely on natural light until now, daunted by the prospect of blindly diving into an artificial light setup, but I’m looking forward to experimenting with it soon. And what a great excuse to go shopping! :)

Anna @ Crunchy Creamy Sweet - Thank you so much for explaining it without the technical stuff… I am not good in math either. :) Love all the info on the gear and the process of taking the JD bottle shot!

Averie @ Averie Cooks - Thank you for this amazing post! WOW!! And if I can digest and put into practice even a quarter of what you have laid out, I’d be so happy. Need a shopping trip first to for all the gear though!