Visual language

January 22, 2011

We’re continuing my little series on food photography, begun several posts ago.  What is visual language, or visual literacy?  Many people have the vocabulary to talk about events, things, emotions, even tastes and smells.  But they don’t have the vocabulary to talk intelligently about visual matters.  I fault our education system for this.  We just aren’t able to articulate what works or doesn’t work in 2-dimensional art, photography in particular. Notice I said “works” — not “like.”  We’ll get back to that later.

I’ve had many shoots where the client can say they like or dislike the shot we’re doing for them, but they’re not able to say anything helpful as to why.  Let’s see if we can help.

Qualities we can use to discuss composition:  static; dynamic; focused; scattered; heroic; aerial; monochromatic; colorful; saturated; clear; obscure; repetitive; patterned; spacious; crowded.  We could go on and on.

Qualities we can use to discuss lighting: bright; dark; contrasty; flat; over-lit; soft; harsh; shadowy; spooky; sunny; hazy.  Again,  we can go on and on.

Qualities we can use to discuss mood: cheery; gloomy; mysterious; dull; intriguing; boring; exciting; sparkly; exaggerated; etc.

I have tried not to use photography jargon here, words like “high key,” “wide angle” etc.  Just regular everyday words will do.  So OK, you say, we already know all those words — you’re not telling us anything new.  The point is how we use all those descriptive words together, to talk about a photograph in a way that is helpful to someone else.

Take this example:

Regardless of our likes, we need that vocabulary in order to critique this image in a way that’s helpful.  This shot could be described as overhead, composed of related organic elements, lit from one side with soft shadows, showing a lot of roundness, having a certain off-balance feel because of the positioning of the white radishes, showing smooth against textured, and light against dark.  It’s quiet in mood.  Two elements are entwined, almost like a human element, which is amusing or intriguing.  Taken together, all of these things could lead you to say whether the image works or not as a complete composition.  Whether we “like” it is a more subjective judgement, based on an emotional reaction to all this.

Here’s something different:

We could say this picture has a playful carefree mood, in particular because of the gesture of the hand, the tipped horizon, and the movement you see in the legs.  The light is sunny, making the white shirt crisp against the contrasting black slacks.  The shadow side of the shirt is not very dark, and shows blue from the sea and the sky. We’re obviously on a beach, and we can even see that the model has taken off her sandals — more relaxing!  Not seeing her face leaves more to the imagination — we fill in the blanks for ourselves.  Even though the picture is less studied than the first one, there is still a lot to talk about.

So if you’re beginning your visual education, or even if you’re a pro and want some extra stimulation, pick a picture, ANY picture, and analyze it this way.  You may be surprised at how much you come up with!

All words and pictures on this blog are copyright © Jim Scherer, 2011. Reproduction without permission is a no-no, but linking to this page is nice!


Bruno Debas of the PhotoInstitute, a photo education site, recently did a 30-minute podcast interview with me.  I found myself talking about my philosophy and approach to food photography, as well as my beginnings.  I hope some of you find it interesting.  Here’s an extract:

The success of a picture is when it makes you hungry.  To make you say, Wow, I really want to eat that!  But beyond that if you could take one step back, you could admire the photograph from an aesthetic point of view, and you could say, that’s as beautiful as a painting — that would be a secondary success.  When you think about a food photograph, and how do you make it cause a visceral reaction in the other person, what you’re really saying is, I have a two-dimensional piece of paper  (the photograph)  and how am I going to make those things happen in the viewer?  Smell and taste are not possible, and motion is not possible.  So what it really comes down to, the things the food photographer needs to bring out in the subject in order to make this food tantalizing, and something you would crave, those things are an intimacy, which means getting in close, like you’re right there.  Those things are seeing moistness, a little bit of glisten.  Seeing texture, which is why we almost always use some form of back-lighting. And occasionally you get the sense of motion that’s not really happening, but it’s almost happening, like a drip of something that’s about to drip off.  And then color.  So if you do an exercise with yourself, and ask what can I do on this little piece of paper that will make people look at it and get hungry, it really comes down to just those few things, what we just talked about.  If you think about all those things, I think you will get a good picture.

To listen to the whole interview, go to the Podcast.  Can you tell I had a cold that day? 🙂

Chocolate Nutcake

Any bloggers out there?

February 3, 2009

If you’re a food blogger, restaurant blogger, cookbook blogger, chef blogger, or something related, and you’re not a professional photographer, then I’m looking for you!  I’m preparing a seminar I’m teaching at the annual IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) meeting in Denver this spring (, and we’ll be talking about how to make better food photographs for your blog.

Everything from soup ...

Everything from soup ...

to donuts!

to donuts!

I’d love to hear from you about your process. What was the hardest thing when you first began doing photos for your blog? How did you figure it out? What kind of equipment do you use? Do you use natural light or photo lighting? What kind of image works best for your blog? Do you think a photo can be too polished and lose credibility? What has your blog done for you or your business? How does your blog relate to your website … or, IS it your main site?

Cheers – and happy blogging! Maybe I’ll see you in Denver.

I think you should find out about all the different ways to work in photography.  For instance, I have an independent studio, and first and foremost this means I have to run a business.  Some people like that, some don’t.  But there are ways to be a photog on the staff of a company too, so if you don’t like business you can still have options.

My work is in the studio – which means we make (not take) pictures.  We set things up, and use lights.  Clients tell us specific things they need, and we try to solve their problems.  It requires a lot of people skills and problem solving skills.  We work with a lot of helpers:  assistants, food stylists, art directors, prop and background people, digital retouchers.

Other careers in photography – a random list:  fine-art photographer, selling pictures people would hang on their wall; portrait and/or wedding photog; newspaper photojournalist; sports photog; photog on staff of a big company, for example a hospital or manufacturing company; police (forensic) photographer; still photographer for the movie and TV business, etc etc.  There are also careers in photography that are not actually taking pictures, but working with them — for example, I have a studio manager here who runs the business and answers client requests; also you could be a photoshop retoucher; or work in an archive and be a photo researcher; or work on a magazine and be a photo editor.

Sorry, I don’t mean to overwhelm you, but just get you thinking about all the different paths.  Now, to be practical, I think you could try to contact some local businesses and ask politely if you could spend a day just observing, and shadowing, and be honest and tell them you’re considering a career and want to find out what’s involved.  The worst that can happen is they might say no.  But we do have this here, and I have people come to visit.  Maybe you can tell them that this is for a high-school project that you are initiating.  It’ll show them you are a go-getter and they should be impressed.

As far as cameras and equipment, I really don’t want to say much because as you probably know, it’s the photographer, not the equipment, that makes the picture.  If you have something now that you use and like, stay with it.  At least for now.  But I think at some point it will be important to learn photoshop, and to learn the basic principles of lighting.

So — what to do?  After you get the visits above, hopefully you will have a better idea of all the different options.  Then, it might be time to start thinking about formal training.  I believe (maybe I’m in the minority) that people need to have a broad liberal education, so they know about the world and not just about cameras and f-stops!  You’ll be a better photog if you are well educated.  Having said that, look for programs that have good photo departments.  You probably have a little time before this if you are 16.  But you COULD take a photoshop class at a local college or continuing ed school, and also you could take a class in photography – one that includes basic lighting and studio work.  Also, there is a very good place in Santa Fe where they have excellent week-long resident workshops, mostly in the summer.  But I’m sure there are places at home too.

OK – one last thing.  (This might be the discouraging part)  The photo schools turn out tons of young photogs every year, and they enter the market with big hopes and dreams, but they find out that the business is hard.  We have a bad economy.  We have lots of photogs chasing after not so many jobs.  It is hard to get started in the business.  You will have a lot of competition.  So – don’t go into this unless it’s because you absolutely LOVE photography.  It’s not glamorous, and it’s gonna be hard work.  Unfortunately, I have many colleagues who are having to supplement their income with other jobs.  I am in the minority in that we are doing well.  So — just think about all this.

One other idea:  look into the local chapter of ASMP (  They have meetings.  You will be on the young side, but it’ll be interesting.

I would be glad to talk some more, and if you come to Boston you can definitely visit!