SEEN: Think Zen and keep it simple
BY CHRISTOPHER SMITH World Photo Editor
Sunday, October 14, 2012
10/14/12 at 3:34 AM
Editor's note: Seen is a weekly feature showcasing the work of a Tulsa World photojournalist.
Food is part of our lives. In fact, it is required for life. It defines cultures and celebrations. But I never considered it a key part of my job.
As a photojournalist, I have always preferred the documentary end of the photography spectrum. When photographing a news event, or a moment of life, I can have no control over the situation. There is no meddling, or adjusting. Merely witnessing, observing and photographing. Of course, I choose where I stand, how I frame the photo and when I fire the shutter, but my choices are limited by the world on the other end of my lens.
The same is not true when it comes to the world of studio food photography. I can control the subject. I can adjust, manipulate, tweak and turn. And that is daunting. It is not comfortable for me to have so many choices, so many variables.
As a photo editor, I am in the office more than a daily assignment photographer, so it makes sense for me to take many studio assignments. It lightens the load for our staff and it keeps me sharp photographically.
As these food assignments have come and gone, however, I've become more comfortable with the variables. I've welcomed the challenge of the meticulous requirements of the small, still-life tableau. I have come to appreciate the role of food in our culture and our world in new ways. And, I get to eat.
We shoot our studio food photos on Friday but the process begins well before that. It begins with a visit to my desk by Nicole Marshall Middleton, our food writer. Sometimes, the idea is broad and general and we focus it together. Other times, it is perfectly honed when we talk.
I've learned a few things about the process from week to week. Here they are in no particular order.
1. Eat before the shoot but not too much.
I don't want to be too hungry so I'm not distracted by how delicious the food looks or smells. But I know if I eat a big lunch before, I will inevitably eat a little of what we shoot so then I will be miserably full.
2. Focus, focus, focus.
I don't mean through the lens, though that is important. I mean focus the idea and work it. Too many ideas lead to scattershot results. If we hone our idea before we even get in the studio, we get better results. We work within a framework of a concept and vary a little.
3. If an idea isn't working, don't be afraid to start a new direction.
This violates rule 2, but rules are made to be broken, right?
4. Backlight is my friend.
A fairly predictable rule for me is to shoot into the light. It always adds more modeling and highlights to the food. It adds a sparkle to any sauce and depth to the frame.
5. Move the food if needed but not too much.
It seems that every food shoot ends in a mess after the food has been moved, handled or touched too much. There is a point of no return. Once the food is on your fingers, it becomes a glue to which every kernel of food sticks. Plates get smudges, spoons smears. From that point, there is nothing left to do but start over or eat it.
6. When out of the studio, let the existing light help tell your story.
I am all for adding light to food shoots, but if the light in the room adds to the environment, let it work for you. I shot coneys at Coney Island downtown and the blue-green fluorescent lights, to me, were part of the story. Adding lovely studio light to the situation would have been incongruous.
7. Think zen and keep it simple.
Relax and don't fight it. Food is beautiful, colorful and story-telling as it is. Too much fuss leads to too much fuss.
This rule applies to every part of the job but with food it is essential. There is no moment to dominate the content so lighting and composition is everything.
I find myself looking forward more and more to "food photo Fridays" as we have come to know them. It may be the change of pace, or the inevitable challenge I face or it may be that I love food. Not just eating it, though that is a plus. It's more than that. We connect over it and disagree about it. For me, it is a chance to slow down a little, indulge a little and live a little.
During the Easter season, the egg takes center stage and is the star of the show. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/ Tulsa World
This photo of Bosc pears evokes the feeling of a simple, soft still-life painting. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/ Tulsa World
The Drunken Monkey and Rainbow roll at Yokozuna are coloful subjects. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/ Tulsa World
We found a way to demonstrate the subtle differences in Ceylon, Saigon and Korinthe cinnamons. CHRISTOPHER SMITH/ Tulsa World