Yesterday I was talking to an experienced photographer and asked him to rank the most important factors in taking a good shot. At the top of his list was light; composition came second. This was very interesting to me. My own ranking had those two reversed, with composition as number one. I suspect there are many of us amateurs out there who would like to believe that composition can trump all else, that those of us with a capable eye can frame a photo just so to make a good shot no matter what the light conditions.
Is this just my romantic notion of the artist? Certainly it's true that poor light conditions can flummox professionals, while really good light can make even amateurs such as myself seem competent. Somehow I'd like to think that an inspired shooter can get it done even in the basest of conditions. But my friend's point remains: Light is king.
Last week I took a half-day food photography workshop organized by Seattle Bon Vivant and taught by Penny de los Santos, who takes pictures for Saveur, National Geographic, and other magazines with exceptionally demanding photo editors. The workshop was held at Spring Hill restaurant in West Seattle, and over the course of four hours we looked at slides, talked shop, and photographed dishes prepared by the staff (including the four photos in this post, my best of the day). Penny went over basics such as light source, angle, styling, and so on, but it was her off-the-cuff remarks that really made an impression on me. For instance, Penny doesn't use a tripod. And because she's often on the road with limited kit and time to fuss around, her go-to lens is a zoom.
Well, both these facts fly in the face of what I've read in the past about how to take good photographs of food. With all the talk of tripods, you'd think you were committing a serious photographic sin without one, yet in Penny's words: "I just hold my breath and shoot." After all, how else are you going to get several different angles in a short time-span before the food dies on the plate? Also, because she uses only natural light (with the added aid of reflectors and diffusers), she must be ready to move quickly with a sudden shift in the clouds—or, if you're shooting in Seattle in the dead of winter, those few hours of workable daylight.
As for the debate over fixed lens vs. zoom—just look at Penny's photos and you'll be persuaded that it's possible to take a good shot with the latter, albeit a very nice and very expensive zoom lens. In short, don't be afraid to break the so-called rules.
The last nugget of wisdom I want to pass along is this. When I told Penny a little bit about what I do, she immediately got excited about the possibilities of taking pictures of landscapes, people working in the outdoors, the tools and implements of the forager. She was thinking about wild food foraging from a more journalistic viewpoint. Here at FOTL I see a lot more of those sorts of photos when I scroll back to the earliest days of this blog. More recently I've concentrated almost entirely on the plated food. This is in part because I was finally able to get some half-decent food photographs after bumping up to a DSLR a year ago. It's also due to the fact that much of my readership—much of the food blog readership at large—seems to be drawn to beautiful pictures of food.
I want to keep working on my food photos, but I think I'll try to capture more of the visual narrative in the future. The people, places, and stories. Oh, and no more cheating with automatic settings. It's all manual from here on out.