As I read forums and have conversations with photographers I am noticing a troubling misunderstanding concerning photographic lenses. The conversation most people seem to be most interested in is: what is the best lens? The marketeers have created a delusional flock of photographers thinking they will be better shooters with more expensive lenses. Many photographers that own zoom lenses seem to use them only at either the widest or the longest settings. They seem to regard reality as more interpretive when looking in a fun-house mirror. And prime lens users tend to be elitists regarding a fixed lens as a better optic. Rarely do I hear conversations about aesthetics and perspective and lighting. This, fellow photographers, is what you should be talking about. This is a case of the photographer being used by the lens, not the the other way around. It’s a case of “the tail wagging the dog”.
As a photographer, you should understand that the distance from the subject is what creates the perspective. A wide angle lens will contain the exact same image as the telephoto if the image is taken at the same precise spot. The wide angle would, of course, have to be severely cropped to be the same as the telephoto ….but the central image will be the same. Portrait lenses are called portrait lenses only because they encourage the photographer to stand at a distance from the subject that will render facial perspective to be “normal”. Stand closer and the nose gets longer, and the ears get smaller. Stand farther away and the face gets flattened. This is physics. And the same applies to all other images.
So when selecting a lens one must first asked themselves “what perspective will achieve the look that I feel is my style”. Then select the focal length that achieves this. Zoom lenses are effective on site cropping tools, so in my opinion a very good option. That being said, the difference between a very expensive lens and a cheaper is that the pricey one may have a slight edge in low light or may have a particularly beautiful “brokeh” (out of focus area). But most stunning images are made by the soul and vision of a gifted artist. The lens is merely a tool, no different that the brush of a painter. When is the last time your heard painters having passionate discussions about which brushes they use? As photography get easier to do, there seems to be an increasing lack of discipline. This is an observation. I also understand there are some very gifted shooters out there.
The world of photography has changed so much in recent years I sometimes lament over the direction it seems to be taking. The days of large format Black and White film and custom darkroom work seems to be largely forsaken. With less discipline and more wanna be photographers throwing their hat in the ring, the commercial arena is a bit chaotic. The postproduction part of image making seems to be most of what photography is about these days.
The latest DSLRs/lenses and software for post production is the conversation of the day. In my frustration I like to compare the questions often asked of me: “what kind of camera do you use?”, “what lens did you use?”, etc….. to one asking a painter what kind of brush did you use?…. or a writer “which letters do you use most?”. Whatever happened to conversations about composition, lighting, feeling?
I apologize to the truly gifted modern image makers of today for over generalizing, and as not to be too much of an old fuddy-duddy I’ve kept pace with the modern trends and embraced PhotoShop as a verb in modern vocabulary. In fact I too “PhotoShop” much more than I shoot. But I still stand firmly in the notion that great images come from discipline and vision at the point of conception. I still stare blankly when asked what camera I use.
With the economy driving prices down, the newbies are good enough it seems. I’m sure there will be a day when toady middle manages of companies will be shooting their own images in the conference room with their iPhones and getting an “atta-boy” or girl from the boss. Maybe that time is already here.
Last year I entered the international competitions “The Masters Cup of Color Photography” and later that year the “Black and White Spider Awards”. I was very pleased to have received nominations in both. This year, again I was recognized. This time in 2 categories in the Color Awards. Nude and Nature. For me this has been a nice outlet for some ego boost in my quest to continue to be viable in the world of modern commercial photography.
I’ll keep looking for a silver lining in this brave new world.
Last October I was fortunate enough to be among the nominees juried into the Masters Cup of Color Photography. I decided to try again. This time my entry was to the Black and White Spider Awards competition celebrating the achievement of black and white photography. This is also an international competition and had some 8,223 entrants from 72 countries. Judging was by individuals representing organizations such as National Geographic and Tates Gallery of London. Again I entered the Fine Arts category as a professional. I was again honored as a nominee and was very pleased to be in the company of such great image makers. My image “Gourd Nude” was a composite made from three images using three formats and at three different times in my career.
This year for the first time I decided to enter a prestigious world wide color photo competition know as the Photography Masters Cup. It is judged by a distinguished panel from all over the globe. I chose to enter in the category of Fine Art, Professional. Out of 2 submissions one was selected as a nominee. I have noticed the range and creativity of previous years’ contestants and was inspired by their work to enter. This is not a category that I am generally known for, but I felt it was one that offered me the most independence from the restrictions of commercial assignment work. I was very pleased to have been selected as a nominee.
It has come to my attention recently that there is a campaign being conducted by a pizza chain to photograph their product in an unadorned manner as a way of endearing themselves to potential customers. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/dominos-pizza-continuing-transparency-this-time-through-photography-97790229.html
They have even asked for amateur photographers to submit images for possible publication. The idea was to think outside the box, and tap into the notion that we produce idealized images that aren’t real. And the wary public is on to us.
Well, in defense of the art of food photography I would like to point out a few facts. We are, as all creatures have been since the beginning of time, conditioned toward Natural Selection. When we look for a mate we pick the best looking potential partner possible. When we pick fruit from a tree we look for the most succulent ideal we can find. This is how we develop in an evolutionary reality. Visual advertising is simply an extension of that fact. To deny that for Food Advertising is as absurd as to condemn the beauty industry for producing and selling make-up. To take it to the extreme, how would we as consumers feel about ads for swimwear modeled by unattractive “regular” people. We eat first with our eyes.
I agree that there is sometimes too much disparity between what we see in ads and what we get as consumers. The fault however, in my opinion, is that the product we purchase should be more beautiful….more like what we see in the ads. That is the nature of some businesses trying to increase the margin of profit. We as consumers should demand that. Have you ever unwrapped a burger from the bottom of a to-go bag? It looks like it came from under the sofa cushion. In my experience, there are many companies that are conscientious about over promising, and provide a very high end product. I shoot for Round Table and I can assure you, what you see is what you get.
Another fact that I would like to point out is the distinction between professional food styling and professional lighting. A talented photographer can light an object or a portrait with such elegance as to render beauty where we would never expect it. There is no dishonesty here, only creativity. Food stylists are many times asked to create stunning illusions. That is the nature of their craft. It is up to the A.D. (art director) and the company philosophy to make the decision where to draw the line.
In conclusion, I believe that a campaign discrediting Food Photography and the rest of the industry is nothing more that a clever ploy to anneal a relationship with potential customers at the expense of a very disciplined group of professionals while minimizing advertising costs.
Food photography can have many incarnations, and food photographers need to adjust their approach for each type. There are food images for advertising, editorial, point of purchase, cookbooks, packaging, etc. One type of food image is really several at the same time. I’m referring to the food image that will be used in a magazine cover.
Guide to Takeout
A cover shot needs to have elements of a point of purchase display. It will (or won’t, as the case may be) sell the magazine. It also is usually the preview of the feature article. Generally the feature article will be a story that has some seasonal significance, or is of regional interest, or just timely. These are considerations necessary to be woven into the cover image as well. The image is often very strong graphically and must be carefully crafted to accommodate the magazine’s masthead, story leads, and even the bar code that every magazine has.
The magazine’s art director and editor or publisher almost always predetermines the cover image. Many times a few similar images are put up for consideration for the issue, and layouts are made of each mock cover for committee review before a final one is chosen. The photographer must consider all of these requirements and respond accordingly.
Because most magazines come out monthly, the speed and acuity that the art director and staff exhibit is amazing; and they must do it over and over again. A photographer must be sensitive to these pressures and contribute to the energy.
We have been fortunate enough to contribute many Sacramento Magazine <http://www.sacmag.com/> cover images and appreciate the gentile guidance of Sacramento Magazine’s art director, Debbie Hurst. She’s always up beat, encouraging, appreciative and creative under often-stressful conditions. Our assignments for Debbie are always a source of fun and mutual respect.
In this blog, I’m not discussing food photography or even equipment. This is about how and why we make images, and how to help you make them better. Commercial Photography has been, for me, a practical way of earning a living. At its best it is thrilling. At its worst it can be frustrating. It is many times a dance with the client, art director, stylist, and whoever has the opportunity to add to the stew of the final image. One must to be diplomatic and understand that these images have one objective: to attract sales. My initial attraction to photography, however, began many years ago with an obsession with making images for the gratification I derived from the art. For the sake of my sanity I believe it is necessary to return to my roots, and just go out with little more that a camera and “make pictures”.
When I have the rare opportunity, getting away energizes my commercial work and reminds me why I am doing this. Let me say that it isn’t necessary to go far. One should be able to find images anywhere. This time of year I find a particular calling. The rains are less frequent, the sun makes more of an appearance, and the early morning and late afternoon light can caress the land in warmth. In rural Northern California the new grasses cover beer cans and unsightly debris, and wild flowers start to display their colors. These are the signs of rebirth and a spiritual sense of continuum in a sometimes-unstable world.
The real trick is to stop thinking. I recently read an article by Gordon Hutchings “Seeing with the photographic mind”. He eloquently reminded me that many religious rituals are designed to exhaust the mind and body so that our spirituality can present itself. It’s not easy to disconnect from our hectic lives and immerse ourselves into a spirituality that is needed to achieve fine art images. Like going on vacation, sometimes the first three days are spent shedding the thoughts of obligations we’ve left at home. One day you see no images worth photographing; the next day you see them everywhere. So stop thinking. Climb a hill. Explore an old barn. Have yourself a good time.