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

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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

Getting to YUM, part 2

December 1, 2010

So now that we’ve figured out some of the things that give us that appetite appeal, take a look at these two very different pictures from separate stories in the current issue of Saveur, just a few pages apart.

The top image is admittedly tame, possibly a bit “old school” in its approach because of its subject, use of a human element, vantage point and color palette.  The bottom image is  an example of a new trend: overhead angle, unusual colors, smears on the surface.  Um, what is it?

I think the first image is pretty, but conventional.  In the second image I think the photographer is trying to create art by using food as the medium.  There’s a certain shock value in the image – the blue highlights, and the very clear showing of what appears to be fat, or gristle.  Fashion photography uses shock in a similar way.

Hmmm … what do you think?

Getting that YUM factor

November 15, 2010

Try this exercise:  close your eyes and imagine something really really delicious, something that makes you crave.  Write down the specific attributes of that mental image.  Then cross out everything on your list that relies on senses other than sight.  Whatever you finally come up with, those are the things a food photographer has to work with in making an effective image.

What’s on your list?  I came up with color, texture, glisten, moisture, and so on.  Those are the obvious ones, but there are others.  Point of view (where is your eye?), scale (how close are you?), composition (does your eye know where to look?).  What about implied motion – like a drop about to fall, or anything just on the verge of happening. Light itself can sometimes imply motion.  Let’s go on … what else is on the list?  Mood, which is a broad term, can definitely affect whether something is mouth-watering.  Mood comes from a combination of lighting, camera point of view, color, and surroundings, surfaces, and props.  And of course, there is styling.  The presentation of the food, often done by a food stylist,  is a huge factor in appetite appeal.  Think of a muffin whole, compared to a muffin broken open with butter melting and some crumbs on the plate.  This line of thought leads to lots of new things for our list … seeing inside something, seeing the bits and ingredients, and presenting a plate with the invitation to dig in.

Here’s yet another aspect of getting appetite appeal — authenticity.  Does what you’re looking at look fake?  Does it look too perfect?  Is it a Disney world simulation of some “ideal”?  These are all unappetizing. Looking real means seeing the imperfections, the personality, and celebrating the fact that a dish looks different every time it comes out of the oven.

No picture this time.  More coming!

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.

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!

Plums

September 9, 2010

Fork

September 7, 2010