OFFICIAL LIVE BLOG – Session #1 (9:45-11 am), Visuals Track: "Developing Your Visual Voice"

Session Description:

What to think about before you ever shoot a frame. Join Matt Armendariz from Matt Bites and Heidi Swanson from 101 Cookbooks as they cover photography best practices and basics. We'll also talk about how to develop your own style, and how to bring it to life…from gear to lighting to environment.

Session Liveblog:

Heidi: Let's talk about the idea of developing your visual voice. A lot of bloggers spend a lot of time and effort working on how they communicate with words & writing style, but it's not as clear how to move forward and develop things visually; today we're speaking specifically about photography.

Matt's going to talk about his work and I'll talk about mine, then we'll dive into some things you can start thinking about even before you pick up a camera - to start thinking creatively about what your visual point of view can be, what you want it to be, and the technical things you can follow to work toward that aesthetic.

Matt: I started taking pix for my blog and segued into doing other photography; I've shot a lot of advertising campaigns and some editorial.

Slides of Matt's work/recent shots.

Heidi: I shoot for myself, my site and my cookbooks. I shoot my day to day life; I have a camera when I travel and a lot of my shots never see the light of day but it's something I love to do. Recently I like to take nature pictures.

Slides of Heidi's work/recent shots.

Heidi: Let's start off looking at how photographers can approach a single subject so differently.

Matt: Tomatoes are example of something so natural, so plain, that it all depends on the environment.

Heirloom Tomatoes

#1 Jason Low, British; top down; sheen to it, centered
#2 Molly from Orangette: also top down, polaroid
#3 Andrea Frizari, Gourmet, T&L photog; interesting shot that rides all one side of the color wheel; red/orange/yellow tomatoes with a warm background
#4 Sprouted Kitchen, cut tomatoes facing into the light
#5 Heidi's shot of tomatoes on an aluminum background
$6 Matt's top-down shot on a blue background

With a few changes and tweaks you can dramatically change the way a shot feels

Pomegranates

Sarah Remington: stained tablecloth, orderly explosion of pomegranates, nice diptych
Matt's accidental shot on white background with knife, very violent looking
David Loftus shot, very natural

7 things to think about before you pick up a camera

1. Be inspired by others - this is huge.

Heidi: How many people keep a scrapbook of photos you love, a visual journal? It's really valuable to me

Matt: I do the same, things from all over the place, whether a texture angle or lighting thing I'm moved by and want to incorporate.

Heidi: I do a paper journal with real "clips" but digitally as well with folders. The important thing is, once you have a body of clips or inspirations, you can start deconstructing what's going on in each of those pictures, start getting a sense of where you may want to head with your own photography.

A lot of people are challenged deconstructing what's going on in a picture. Here are some things to look for.

- Time of day really does affect what you're shooting when you're using natural light
- Indoor vs. outdoor; the difference is huge
- Minimalist vs. dense - Matt's background was in graphic design, proportion and positive/negative space
- B&W vs. color - I'm unaware of food blogs shot in B&W and it can be really great: Edward Weston's 1913 classic shot of cabbage, for example.
- Dark vs. light - dark adds weight; there are a million different shades of white
- People - do the shots that resonate with you contain human elements?
- Flash or no flash? Flash can be exciting and visually compelling

2. Think about your photos in context.

Matt: I framed an image of heirloom tomatoes arranged top left because I knew I was going to superimpose text
Heidi: Images on my site are always the same size b/c of the template; I compose the shots with that in mind.
- Example: Sprouted Kitchen site has images in long horizontal strips.

3. Understand where you are shooting.

- Whether it's your house, farmers' market. You can shoot wherever. Heidi showed a shot of her living room with normal curtains that act as a giant lightbox. In the mornings she'll shoot on one side of the house and move around during the day depending on where the light is nicest.

- example shot from Vegan Yum Yum, who did an amazing photography tutorial a while back including how she set up for a shot. It's a great post b/c she swaps things out and shows you how images change when you change elements around.

- Matt's shots of a taco truck, where you have to think fast b/c people want their tacos

- Shooting in a dark restaurant: "Good luck." Heidi shares a pic she shot wiht a point and shoot, opened up a lens as far as she could, leaned against a wall to stabilize herself, and got a good shot. Matt: "I don't beat myself up over it; it is what it is"

-Farmers' markets are also challenging; harsh sunlight; tarps casting colored light; people want their food. Heidi goes really early and talks with vendors to make sure it's OK. She gets a shot in mind and if she wants to move the actual food into better light, she'll try to do that. Sometimes you have to move or poke food to get a good shot.

4. Think about the TYPE of shots you're after.

- there are all different types of shots. As you're working on your own POV think about the type of shots you're interested in achieving and how they help you tell the story you want to tell.

Types of shots:

- ingredient shots - elements of the recipe, gorgeous
- in-process shots - educational, you can communicate textures, active
Ree the Pioneer Woman is the queen of in-process shots. They really help the more beginning cook to feel confident.
- ready to eat shots - can communicate totally different aesthetics
The Diner Journal magazine: Top-down feast shot
- the aftermath shot - can be funny
- people shots. People in relation to food can be challenging but rewarding
Shot of a quinceanera before the dinner
- in-motion/action shot: Trickier, you're trying to hold your camera still, or use a remote, but they can be so beautiful
Example: Smitten Kitchen's shot of stand mixer

Also to consider:

- eye level
- taking shots from the side

5. Workflow

Matt's workflow: Get everything ready before I make the food, which will react to the temperature or the light. I've thought about whether I'm using text

Heidi: Be organized. Know what you want to accomplish, or at least have a sense of where you want to be. you can watch food die on you as you take time getting ready, or even as you're photographing

- ingredients on hand
- camera batteries charged
- decide where to shoot
- set aside plates, equipment
- prep ingredients
- do in-process shots
- cook, plate, fuss a bit, shoot
- transferimages, make selects, edit, upload to server

6. Look through the viewfinder. REALLY look.

Take time to compose your image and move it around, look at things, try to see it as a complete photo.

- look at your shadows.
Eg. Heidi's portraits with shadows so harsh she lost her subjects' eyes.
- look for blowouts
Matt's avocado shots with no detail on plate

other things to look for:
- look at your background. is there visual noise?
- look at your edges
- look at your composition.

7. Read your camera manual cover to cover.

Whether you have a point and shoot or DSLR or shooting film, you want to get to know your camera and what it's capable of. Point and shoots are capable of stunning imagery but you have to take it seriously enough to know your camera like you'd learn a musical instrument. I wouldn't expect to play flute tomorrow just because I bought one today.

A lot of people are afraid of technical aspects of their camera but they shouldn't be. It does one thing.

When you have a sense of what you want your images to look like over time, you can then start chipping away at the technical issues that frustrate you: fixing your white balance, for example.

Now we'll open up to Q&A:

Q: A lot of times when people are trying to figure out composition for their food blog, they're told "you want close in, tight focus." You showed us more "joining the scene" shots. I have problems with focus. Do you do one shot close and another far back?

Matt: It depends. If I have a dinner table and I shoot only closeups, I've lost the event. I'll move close in but I'll be thinking about what I'm trying to communicate.

Q: One thing I love about both of your photos is the textures of tables, marble slabs, etc. Where do you get that stuff?

Heidi: Embarrassingly, I actually dragged some of them off the sidewalk recently. I look everywhere for things I want to bring home, all the time: I'll just always have my eyes open. I don't prop much per se, if I bring something home it typically becomes part of my day to day flatware, dishes, table.

Matt: Because I shoot other stuff, I have a whole room of stuff, my "library." I took a shot of tomatoes that looks like a slate background but is actually paper. It's not always what it looks. You start thinking "How can I incorporate this into a photo?"

Q: One of your posts is "things to put in a tortilla." Where do you get inspired by your out there ideas?

Matt: I'm Mexican and we put everything in a tortilla. I'm serious. PB&J. That post came out of a joke I made to my mom, in fact, and I say "wait a minute."

Q: I have a lot of luck with beautiful produce and pastries, but how do you make meaty casseroles look good?

Matt: That is very very hard even after years. There are tricks with lighting with meat; it's really not pretty. You start thinking about light and how it hits it, the highlight. There are no easy ways.

Q: I noticed in one of your photos you were talking about avoiding blowouts; but in other photos there were blowouts. Are there any no-nos you always avoid?

Matt: I look in photoshop to see if there are any RGB values in the white space, that means I have overexposed the image.

Heidi: Most cameras will show you on screen and even highlight if you technically have blowouts. I always try to retain some information in the highlights. In conventional photography you want to retain detail in the highlights and in the shadows.

Q: I launched my blog in June and you guys are big inspirations. I'm very busy & have a DSLR but shoot with my iPhone. Could that be my niche?

Matt: You can get amazing shots with the iPhone. You're capturing the spontaneity which is great.

Heidi: There are camera apps for the iPhone that can change the look immediately.

Q: I did a combo photo/video capture of a recipe and at the end, the food was a dish that really fell apart. I wasn't sure how to capture that in a way that made it compelling and not a turnoff. It tasted phenomenal but I didn't feel I could inspire someone based on that final shot. Is there something I can do besides just redoing the dish, which I try to avoid as being false?

Matt: Are you writing recipes where in teh end it isn't as pretty as you wanted it to be?

Heidi: Often I'll do a recipe a couple times b/c I like it and not until the third time will I decide to shoot. If I do a shot that doesn't do the recipe service, I won't show it. Or I'll stop and rethink and post it later.

Matt: I just wrote a whole post on a cocktail and couldn't shoot it to save my life. I won't run a post if I'm not happy with the shot.

Heidi: But it doesn't have to be like that for everyone. If you have a different visual and tonal energy you may choose to run them.

Q: Do you pull food sooner than it would be done to get the shot?

Heidi: I actually err on the other side, I love things to look golden. An extra 5 minutes in the oven can make a world of difference.

Matt: My cooking habits have changed b/c of my photography habit. Yes.

Q: I used to be a food photo editor and food stylist, I can be so focused on retouching that I end up screwing my pix up. Should I leave it more natural to echo my more casual blog?

Matt: That's up to you and where you want to go and what your end result is.

Heidi: I try and get as close to the final image in camera as I possibly can. There are times I'm shooting on the porch and the shadows are really blue so I'll tweak the white balance, butif you can get a good shot in the camera you're in a much better place with the image.

Q: I have a f/t job and daughter and blog for fun and creativity. I would love to do more process shots but I work with real food in my real (unphotogenic) kitchen. Do you have any recommendations for capturing things in process in a real world kitchen on the go?

Matt: Immediately I think if you have a dark kitchen, how about an oversized cutting board that would just live there? The pomegranate explosion I showed you earlier was ona cutting board. Or pieces of foamcore you can store in a drawer. Just little things.

Heidi: Sometimes I know I'm not going to shoot late at night, I'll make extra to shoot later or tomorrow when the light's better. Usually from the time something comes out of the oven to the time I have a shot, it's 7 minutes. I don't obsess; I don't use tweezers.

Q: I get in the zone when taking pictures, I'll shoot hundreds and you can see the food melt. I have a tough time editing and organizing them. What's the best way to choose and store?

Heidi: I shoot economically; I don't take a million of the same photo. I might come to the computer with 30 shots; I highlight say 7 and move them to a folder then delete the rest. I don't archive.

Matt: I shoot tons and keep everything and it'sa headache, but that's my workflow. Lightroom, Aperture are both image editing programs that allow you to see 60 shots at a time. I'll put my selects off to the side; burn the whole shoot and put it away. There's no magic answer for file management. Lightroom and Aperture are similar and both work great to see a lot of images at one time.

Q: You burn to DVD and CD? You know they are not reliable ...

Matt: Correct. ANd by the time I discover that I'll be long gone. I have external drives and have lost external drives. I don't do it that often but if it's an ad job with lots of stakeholders I get ridiculous about saving.

Q: The storage issue: If your stuff is important to you find redundancy in your backups. If Colorado goes up in flames my photos live on.

Heidi: I use Time Machine, everything backs up to external drives, every couple months I'll mail disks to people who aren't in the building.

Q: Often it's so much easier to take a point and shoot camera with you. Do you have any special considerations for the cheapie cameras?

Heidi: Understand how it works and move out of the green square.

Matt: I don't like lugging big cameras so I use point and shoot, but I look for ones that I know I can control a lot of factors.

Heidi: AV mode, aperture priority mode, so if I want a blurry background I can control that. Tack sharp in the foreground and background - you can control for that.

Q: Could you speak about your post photography process - cropping, photoshopping, retouching?

Heidi: I don't do much at all. I never really crop. Detail shots I shot with a bigger lens and that filled the frame. I try to capture in camera exactly the frame I want.

Matt: I crop a lot only because the frame size goes way to long in the column in a blog post, but then again I'm framing my shot with that in mind. That's about it. White balance, color correct, contrast, sharpen; it depends.

Q: Minimalist vs. dense composition: Can either of you reco a book of basic principles of aesthetic photography?

Heidi: Go to museums and see pictures - that's what I do, get inspired outside of the food space. Here in SF there's a program called LinkPlus I think, in conjunction with the public library. You can request amazing, rare photography books that are very expensive through the library. If you see a photographer you like, get their book. Diving deeper into work you like will be helpful.

Matt: I don't know titles offhand but as you're looking, don't limit yourself to a photo book. The same principles apply to all visual arts, be they watercolor, sculpture or photography.

Q: Any recos for point and shoots?

Matt: Canon G 9, 10, 11, whatever it is. They allow you to shoot a raw file that allows you to do a lot of stuff later if you need to.

Q: Your first point was "be inspired by others." I read tons of blogs a day because of the photography; I don't find that I have the patience to sit and do that prepwork so I end up with very impromptu shots. Is that weird?

Matt: Do you like the images you take? [They speak of my personality, yes] Then you're great. If you like your photos and are happy that's great.

Q: Do specific cameras have quirks? I shoot in Canon and those photos are softer than Nikon. Point and shoot is cooler in the white balance.

Matt: Absolutely. I'm a Canon shooter but when I see people shots taken with Nikon the color tones are sooo much better. The more familiar you are with a camera the better you can compensate for it.

Q: Do you guys use tripods?

Heidi: I don't.

Matt: REALLY???? THAT'S AWESOME!

Heidi: If I'm using medium format film I'll use a tripod for specific projects, but not for my blog.

Matt: I always use a tripod unless I'm on the go. I'm smooth but I'm not steady.

Q: I was told years ago to put all my food in lightboxes. Do you do that?

Matt: Nah, it's just another thing; I like to use all kinds of light.

Heidi: I like to keep things as natural as possible.

Matt: What do lightboxes do? They diffuse light. Heidi has those white curtains that do the same thing without being extra equipment.

Q: What are the advantages of shooting raw and what can you do with that format?

Matt: When you shoot jpeg the camera assigns a whole slew of things to your image: compression, etc. Raw is like a negative you can process. They're slower and bigger files so they weigh your memory card.

Heidi: If you do need to go to print you have a pure file and the size will be big enough.

Q: Do you have to process raw files in a program?

Matt: Yes, I use Canon software and shoot raw with the G9? The software comes with the camera. There are plug-ins for Photoshop.

Q: Do you worry about image theft? What do you do?

Matt: If someone takes it they take it. I shoot so much that I can't be too paranoid. I don't watermark or anything; it takes away from the photo.

Heidi: It bums me out but images get taken, recipes get taken. It can be overwhelming; I should be more vigilant.

Matt: I'm going to start putting my face in every photo. No one will steal them!

Q: These beautiful overhead shots: Are you standing on a chair or what?

Matt: Yeah. Stuff is on the floor. My tripod has an arm that comes out and go directly over stuff. Even then I'll climb on a ladder. I often shoot tethered to my computer so I can see things on the screen and move stuff around.

Q: I live in MN where in the winter we have 3 hours of daylight. Do you ever use boxed or artificial light and do you have recos on small things for my kitchen?

Matt: Lowel EGO lights are great to have. Jaden from Steamy Kitchen had a great post on those.

Heidi: Not sure but I think Deb from Smitten Kitchen may shoot with a speed light or flash.

Laura: I'll be demoing a speedlight in Advanced Photography.

Q: What's the basic fundamental lens length if you had just one?

Matt: I like a macro lens.

Heidi: 50 mm fixed lens, I use a 1.4; you can get the 1.8 for a lot less and it's nice.

Q: Any tips on making meat look not disgusting?

Matt: Have everything ready to go, like EVERYTHING, then shoot as fast as possible. Make sure you get a highlight on the surface; put a paper towel under the meat so you can still eat it and still get a good shot. It is what it is; it will sometimes look gruesome and brown.

Q: What about other brown foods like porridge? They look disgusting but they taste so good! I have a problem with the background looking great and the food looking like glop.

Heidi: Really think about texture. Are there garnishes to give more texture or color or break it up a bit? I like to eat stew with a drizzle of olive oil to creep over the cracks and crevices. Break up the surface. Break up the color.

Matt: Things that are inside the soup or stew I'll pull out and place on top as they're going to fall.

Q: Circling back to property theft. How do you feel about someone taking your pic and putting it on their blog and referring back to you with attribution?

Heidi and Matt: Great! Fine! Don't mind at all!

Q: My husband was a photographer and would tell me not to garnish a plate with something you're not going to eat. I hate plates garnished with like daisies. What's your position on garnish choice? Are there basic rules for novices as far as composition?

Heidi: All my garnishes are things I'd eat. I'll pull ingredients out of the recipe and reintroduce them as a garnish on top as a visual indication of what's inside the dish. If sweet potatoes in the dish, I might fry a few slices as little sweet potato croutons.

Matt: I have no rules if it looks good. Just don't eat the flower. I don't have many "do not" rules. If you like it it works. That's the bottom line.

Heidi: It's an ongoing journey; I'm always trying new things.

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