I recently enjoyed following Chris Douglass around for a few days as he prepared a Pig Roast for the Ashmont Grill in Dorchester.


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!

Stylists on the set

January 13, 2011

Well, since this is going to be a series, I decided I better get organized.  Here’s a list of topics – it will probably change as we go.  I hope this will be useful not only to interested amateurs and  professionals, but also those who use food photography in their work.  Some people will find this too basic, others too advanced, I know.

  • What makes a shot mouth-watering? The “Yum” factor
  • Styles of photography – Visual language – composition etc
  • Equipment – in the kitchen
  • Equipment – photo and lighting gear
  • Practical working methods
  • Use of props surfaces and backgrounds
  • Thinking and working digitally
  • Lighting
  • Specific camera info – hardware etc.
  • Software – cropping and sizing for the web

Here’s a commercial shot I did for Dunkin’ Donuts.  Does it have the “Yum” factor for you?  Let’s discuss.

Coming next week

September 16, 2010

Hey there – next week I’m going to take a break from my current “photo of the day” format and talk about food photography.  The myths, the FAQ’s, what you need to know before a shoot, how to get the most out of your shoot, popular misconceptions, etc.  Let me know your concerns and questions and I will try to address them.  See you Monday!

On the beach

September 9, 2010


September 7, 2010

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

Ice is Nice

December 31, 2009

This image is part of a new series I’m working on.  Stay tuned.

And everyone — I wish you a wonderful 2010!  Let’s work for peace.

Dinner with QRW

December 22, 2009

I try to have fun with work, and one thing that’s really fun in this business is the chance to enjoy good food and wine.  Last Friday night my wife Elena and I had a delightful dinner with some of the staff of the Quarterly Review of Wines.  By the way, here’s what we shot for the current cover, their Winter ’09 issue:

Editor Randy Sheahan and publisher Richard Elia are both walking encyclopedias on the world of wines.  As we enjoyed dinner at the Winchester Country Club they gave us copious anecdotes and history on the different wines we tasted.  We were joined by Randy’s wife Judy, as well as Harley MacKenzie, managing director; Lily Yamamoto, art director; Joe Cabrera, designer; and Lisa Amore, senior editor. Cheers!