Category Archives: Tips & Tricks

Nominee for World Cup Color Awards again this year

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.


Truth in Food Advertising

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.

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.

Anatomy of a Food Cover

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 <> 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.

Cheese Pull

Cheese Pull…
As a food photographer I’ve learned that photographing pizza is a challenge. Unless you’re doing an editorial shot for a magazine, shooting pizza for advertising or packaging is about as tricky as it gets. You’ll need the orchestrated talents of a good food stylist, a product development specialist, and a general assistant, not to mention a fully equipped kitchen/studio complete with pizza oven.

Constructing the pizza requires partially baking the fresh dough-sauce-cheese combination while separately sautéing the perfect pre-sliced toppings. This is necessary to keep all the toppings perky and distinct. The toppings must be pan sautéed individually and just short of cooked. The more toppings, the more juggling. And each type of toppings has it’s own required sautéing time. The partially baked pizza is pulled from the oven. The toppings must be quickly and artfully assembled to the exact customer requirements. Now is when the stylist can really shine with special alchemy and closely guarded secrets. The pizza is ready for the final bake off.

Add to all of this the requirement of a cheese pull and you have organized chaos with a race against time. Understand that all cheese is not alike. To get the cheese to pull in the first place you need to use whole milk fresh mozzarella. Cut the slice first in your baked and assembled pizza. Then reinstall it with small strips of mozzarella in the “vee”. It is used as an elastic binder. Pop the whole pizza into the microwave until the mozzarella is melted. It’s also helpful to use a spatula with tacks to hold on to the slice while it’s being pulled.

Of course the camera, well crafted lighting, and pizza set must all have preset positions prior to the pull attempt. I use the term “attempt” because the chances of getting it right the first time are remote. So have your crew continuing to make the perfect pizza over and over again. Not only are you racing with the pizza construction, but the cheese pull quickly congeals and looks old (like my test shot). These are the basics of pizza cheese pulls. Within the context of all of this technique, don’t lose sight of the aesthetics and principles of good photography. If you’re up for it, you’ll need lots of time, dedication, attention to detail, and a healthy dose of luck. What can’t be perfected in the real world can be aided with skilled use of Photoshop.

Food Photography and Valentines Day

Schwager Studios 2010 Valentines Day Photo for Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory

There are several metaphors that come to mind when I think of Valentines Day and Food Photography.  They may help you remember some important things to strive for.

PASSION… As with all meaningful pursuits you should do this with passion for the craft.  “This is not paint by number art”.

INTIMACY… Effective food images are usually extreme close-ups.  Think of the fork just before it enters your mouth.  Crop, then crop more.

WARMTH… Many food items benefit aesthetically from warmer hues.  Whether done in post production or by using warm light, try to amp up the warmth with certain food such as red meats and sauces or yellow vegetables.  Use good judgment and keep the whites neutral if possible.

SENSUALITY… The culinary arts community says “we eat first with our eyes”.  Through our eyes an effective food image should elicit aromas, tastes, and textures on the palate.  We are complex creatures whose senses often overlap.

SPIRITUALITY… For some time I’ve noticed a duality relative to photography.  The “techie” side of us wants to embrace, equipment, chemistry, tricks, and secret formulas, but there must be the presence of a spiritual connection to the subject.  We are creating a painting with light, shadow, textures, and color.  There is no magic formula nor are there boundaries.

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