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!


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.

OK, I lied.  Back in September I said I’d start a string of posts on food photography, and here it’s already November, and — nothing!  Sorry.  Anyway, here we go. We’ll do myths, tips, and FAQ’s on food photography, and I’ll include various images that may be interesting even if they’re unrelated.

When I meet someone new and they ask what I do, I often have a feeling of dread because I pretty much know what’s going to happen.  Oh, you shoot food? Do you use mashed potatoes for ice cream?  Tell me about those hot lights!  And what about all that varnish you put on the turkey? etc., etc.

If you’re reading this you probably already know these are popular misconceptions.  And they’re so persistent!  So in this first post of my series, let’s start by emphasizing the word natural.  These sweet and white potato fries are real, and we ate them soon after they were shot.  They were photographed with natural light, coming in from a window.  This kind of light has an “open” quality and doesn’t call attention to itself (as in: gee, how did he light that?).  The food is the main attraction, the only attraction.

More coming, so please stay tuned.