Matching the Baja Sun

Oriana Koren is a photo-ethnographer on a mission to expand the decolonized gaze in editorial and commercial food and travel photography. Their work is vibrant, dynamic, and authentic to the subject. Oriana has a keen understanding of lighting, creating natural photographs, capturing tantalizing images that feel fresh and modern.

Their work for the upcoming cookbook The Baja California Cookbook, in collaboration with David Castro Hussong and Jay Porter, celebrates the laid back lifestyle just across the border in Baja California, Mexico. From tacos to trout to talent, Oriana works collaboratively behind the camera in order to fit the theme of any publication or project. Below, Oriana describes the experience of working on The Baja California Cookbook, and how broncolor helped supplement sunlight and sometimes recreate the hard look of being under the sun.

About the project:

Three years ago on assignment for the New York Times, I was covering Bruma in Mexico’s Wine Valley and I met a young, talented Mexican chef who was in the process of building his own first restaurant, Fauna. This chef, David Hussong Castro, has worked at Eleven Madison Square and was recently awarded Food + Wine Mexico’s Best New Chef for 2020. I was honored that David not only remembered our initial meeting but was immediately excited to collaborate on his first cookbook together which serves as an homage to Baja California — the lifestyle, the inventive cuisine, and his own family roots (his family has lived in the region for over a century). The publisher, Ten Speed Press, wanted the images in the book to evoke what the good life in Baja California feels like. The sunlight, which provides vibrant color and rich shadows, epitomizes what Baja’s Wine Country feels like so the challenge was to use both the sunlight and strobes to create rich, poppy images of Chef David’s recipes. 



I make a Pinterest mood board for every book I shoot that encompasses lighting examples for my lighting tech, stylist examples for my food and prop stylists, and general overall look. For this book, the publisher used my mood board, examples of past work I shot in Baja, along with their own selection of images to create a master mood board that helped us to key in color palette and lighting design for the book. Our lighting tech and prop + food stylist studied these guides leading up to our shoot while the chef who was gracious and humble, offered to make the dishes restaurant ready worked alongside our food stylist who was able to make the dishes camera ready. Because we were adapting recipes created by a chef with fine dining training, it was imperative our food stylist could then adjust styling so the dishes came off a bit looser and closer to what a home cook would make so I could capture that on camera.

Lighting approach:

Since we knew we’d be using direct sunlight as our main light, the big challenge was making sure our images had enough shadow detail especially in shots where people were present and we didn’t want to miss the details in faces and hands, especially. My lighting tech primarily used our Siros 800 L kit as fill so we wouldn’t lose detail in this top-down shot of a carnitas feast.

The Siros was outfitted with two modifiers: Narrow-angle Reflector P45 and the wide-angle reflector. We used the wide-angle reflector on a Siros 800 L monolight to mimic harsh sun during a moment of cloud cover that was blocking our main light. Because our primary source was the sun, we were able to light most of our shots with one mono head and modified accordingly. Sometimes we used the mono light to provide shadows of flora to create a deep sense of place, evoking the good life in Baja California.

Perhaps the most important relationship on set for this particular project was the relationship between the chef and our food stylist. Jillian Knox was able to provide her expertise as it regarded helping recipes translate on camera for the viewer while the chef focused on making sure the testing for each recipe worked flawlessly so it could be easily replicated in your home kitchen. The lighting tech and I partnered to make sure what we were capturing on camera felt visceral: you could feel the warm Baja sunshine, that herbs felt vibrant and bright, looking for complex light while on location shooting scene setters so that same warmth and vibrancy could be replicated on set with our lighting tech. Our job was to observe the location around us and then pull elements we could add into the images — for instance the color of the terra cotta kitchen which ended up on our book cover with a strong shadow of a small cactus to accent the taco and sauces.

Book projects, especially cookbook projects, really rely on the singular talent of every crew member involved. We were especially lucky that chef David Hussong Castro believed in our individual talents and was willing to defer to us when necessary. Team work, which includes fully trusting your team and not diminishing anyone’s contribution, is really how projects of this nature thrive and it all comes together when everyone feels they can contribute they’re best work because they are trusted and valued by the publisher and its liaisons, the chef and their team, and then with the support of an excellent writer and good recipe testing, it all falls together perfectly. I think this project turned out so well because all the necessary elements were in place for us to succeed.


The Baja California Cookbook: Exploring the Good Life in Mexico is now available on Amazon and bookstores nationwide.

Follow Oriana’s work at orianakoren.com and @orianakoren.