Liveblog: Finding Your Visual Voice


Welcome to the BlogHer Food '11 liveblog of the Finding Your Visual Voice panel.

Aran Goyoaga
Tami Hardeman
Stephanie Shih

Aran Goyoaga:

Basque Ex-pat (between Spain and France) Food blogger, cannelle Et Vanille

Author, book by Little, Brown and Co. Fall 2012

Shooting with a canon rebel xt and kit lens. I had no idea. I was trying to find my first photo in my blog archives and I couldn't find it. My background is as a professional pastry chef. The photography came later. I had no idea about styling, difficulty understanding light and using the automatic setting.

Shooting with a canon 50d.
Introducing more props, but still fairly minimal.
Introducing texture through surfaces and linens.
There wasn't a lot of environmental lifestyle scenes. Finding the best light in my house. All of this was just experimenting. Every blog post was something new i was learning about myself and my camera. I started overexposing a lot. I was also using garnishes that were not edible

I started getting work from blog. upgraded my camera to a canon 5d mark II. It's not always about the camera that you have, but what you do with it.

It's about how you understand light and mood and your eye. Starting to use manual metering.

It doesn't really mean anything because it's the light that I had at the time. So it doesn't make sense to talk about the aperture.

I wanted to tell the story with food and the words and I was really interested in telling the story with images.

How I approach my blog posts:
As if it were an editorial piece.
Think of the recipe and the color palette. The season itself and what mood I want to convey.

It's important to be subtle with details.

Start with an image that explains the story. It doesn't have to be the final dish.

I just really respond to things that are subtle that are meant to be there.

Buckwheat is brown and not very exciting, but just bringing it to life with color.

With movement and people, I bring life to the post.

My Styling Philosophy
It's all about the raw ingredients. When cooking a dish you really have to find the best ingredients. Maybe something with character like the apple with a bruise that maybe still has a leaf on it like it just fell off the tree.

Think of the final image when prepping the dish.

I think about color and texture in the dish. With complimenting colors, never too matching. Play with tones within a color.

The movement in the shot; I don't like repetition very much. That comes from moving things around and it's just kind of how I see. I use a lot of edible garnishes. Even like cilantro leaves. Make it feel organic on the plate. Garnishes add height and volume.

Just think of all those little details when you're making something.
Messy is also very effective. I can't do that very well, it's just not my style. But I think it's beautiful when you see that somebody's been cooking it, eating it.

Simple props enhance the food. Say you have a soup that's pureed--I like to add more graphic in the bowl. It's plain, but with something that's simple, but more graphic.

The knife brings a little bit of soul to it, like there's somebody right there having those tomatoes.

I get criticized for always using my tabletop in photos. Using things that you actually use at home that are your own, or your family, it brings a closeness to the reader.

Choosing a color and playing in the shades can add so much interest.

I add a little bit of mascarpone to my cream because you can't find good heavy cream in the U.S. and you just whip it and set it in the dish and leave it.

I go for natural linens that have a lot of texture and color in them.

The Quinoa Pudding that I made was kind of dull, so I added a splash of cream, so it looked more interesting.

Shooting glass: make sure your glass is really transparent. I know you can use Photoshop I guess and add brilliance, but I don't know how to use Photoshop that much.

5d, 100mm f2.8 lens (canon 50d backup); TS 90mm f2.8; 50mm f1.4; 24-105mm f4; 24-70mm f2.8
photoflex reflectors and diffusers. you can use parchment paper to diffuse, foamboard to reflect
Lightroom 3
natural light is your best tool

My Photography Philosophy
Light and composition and what make the shot.
Put your hand out in the light and see how it feels in your hand. Is it even? Daylight is best for when you do food. It's the brightest without being harsh and yellow. When I do more of my kids or the farm, I like early morning or evening light.

Diffuse the light with parchment paper or vellum or cheap sheer fabric.

Bounce the light. Sometimes you think of the mood you want to convey. Think about the mood and the season. Use black and white foam boards.

Do you want a shallow depth of field or all sharp. Think about the angles or the characteristics of the food. Maybe it's something that has more depth. I love overhead because it's so graphic.

Shoot from different angles.

I love backlighting because it wraps the image around. The image on the left (green flower cup with chocolate), I did it as it was on the table. It was winter.

The image on the left there was so much going on I wanted a really sharp image (Raspberry Treats).

Have the table ready next to the window and just shoot.

Q: Difference between professional shooting philosophy vs. what you cook for your family.

AG: All the commercial shots I've done have been in my house and I've controlled everything. I shot a book and I had to keep the client's styling preferences in mind and it was a struggle. I think I'm more of an editorial person. When they gave me (something) that I didn't like the look of but I had to shoot them. I"m kind of embarrassed to show those photos.

TH: When I shoot something for my blog, it takes me about 15 minutes. And the stuff that's on my blog is stuff that I eat. It's a really organic process. A commercial shoot, not so much, sometimes weeks of preparation.

Stephanie Shih:
Artistic philosophy and evolution
Food and Travel Photographer, was a PhD student in linguistics, I design desserts
2008-9: food photography

First food photograph in a build your own cardboard lightbox. It's flat and horrible.
I needed photographs for my dessert clients. I wasn't traveling as much as I should. I thought of it as sort of like an exercise. So I think that reflects in these photographs. They're really boring and have low character. Avoid the tilt. Never do the tilt.

Then there was a turning point. I was on a business trip and we played hookie for a day and we went to the Walter Museum in Baltimore and they have this amazing collection of 18th and 19th century paintings. I spent hours looking at these paintings and the details of them.

I went home and did a photo shoot. This is a big transformation point. This was the first food photograph that I was like, 'OK, I can put this out there.' I had just been so absorbed in what I was looking at. That's when I realized that I needed to stop looking at food photography as this documenting process and start thinking of it as this artistic form.

Don't strive to be on foodgawker, strive to be an artist.

You can take the most technically perfect food photograph and that's fine, but it may not be interesting.

I don't pretend to know anything about art, it's just something that I feel like I strive for.

What I think about when shooting: Scene, Character, The Viewer (who is going to be looking at this photograph), Uniqueness
You need to tell a story

Scene: Create a moment. I want to pull you into that feeling. You know someone was sitting at that table at that moment. You can feel it. That's what I really strive for in my shoots.

This shoot, the moment was this cake. It was a rainy fall. That's sort of what I wanted to make, just friends dropping by. I took this picture and I think about sense, like this dark coffee cake and this rosy cream cheese frosting. I wanted to reflect that. Irvin (Lin) likes to call me an emo foodie.

Character: I wanted this Diva in the shadows, right, like 'spotlight, I'm here.' These carrots, like true baby carrots, I tried a bunch of different setups. I want it to be simplistic. You just dug me up like fresh born from the ground, like baby carrots.

Leading the viewer: If you have an image, my job as the photographer or the artist is to take you by the hand and pull your way through it the way I want you to see the image.
The one on the left is sort of all over the place. The image on the right (bowls with raspberries in a tower) I like, because I'm pulling you up through the bottom, through that stack of bowls to the top. That's that burst of color with the red.

Left is scattered, but the one on the right your eyes immediately focus on the center. The way I got that in the (panacotta) photo is the concentric circles and ultimately the burst of orange on the top.

Q: I really like how you blew out the back in these images. Did you do that with white foam board?

Shih: I overexposed a window in the back and filtered through a white sheet. I think I ended up "bouncing" light off a black foam core board. The one on the right is a side shot and I overexposed the back. [Referencing raspberry photos]

Q: What do you mean by doing what you're not supposed to do?

Shih: It's just tricky to overexpose the background so the object doesn't get completely washed out.

Making everyone moment unique.
Without even reading the text, you can scroll through and see where one scene stops and the next starts. Like, I can't take this orange shot and put it in the other orange post. The mood is different. I don't want them to be interchangeable.

The biggest impacts on developing my visual voice:
Find a mentor--they're going to be able to help you interpret what you're going through. It's much easier for other people to see what's unique about you. It doesn't even have to be anyone in food photography;
Learn light--light box vs. natural light;
Learn dark--that's what I love to do. I find the focus and pluck out all the light except for that spot. I draped muslin so that I narrowed the aperture of the window and then I placed the cake so it was right in that stream of light. If you think of like old cathedrals with that one stream of light coming in. The back was a wood dark board standing up;

Q: white dish vs. dark focus area, how do you manage the contrast, what do you focus on?
Shih: Always focus on the food, I focus on the cake.
Q: what about the contrast?

Goyoaga: That light that's coming in is still filtered. When you play with contrast, that'll come. The blur tool has a counterpart, the tool to make what you want underexposed [Dodge & Burn].

Shih: Challenge yourself to get the exposure right.

I almost never use white foam core board. Even in white images, I'm always thinking about shadows and the absence of light.

Practice. Practice a lot. Practice and improvement graph. Fight through the frustrations and plateaus. Try to get to the next level. Those are the moments that you're actually going to be improving.

Q: Indirect vs. direct light?

Shih: I never shoot in direct light.

Goyoaga: If you live in a 2-story house, go upstairs. It's more reflected and indirect. I know it's a controversy about copying images. But I think if you take a magazine or post from somebody you admire. Take a step back and think about what that person was trying to convey. Copying as a means to learn. I think it's useful.

Professional food stylist and Running with Tweezers (2005) and working on a print something to be published in 2012. I started with point and shoot and then another and then a 30D and now a 5D Mark II.

I use 100mm and a 50mm. I'm getting away from wanting to be so tight in on my shots. My blog has always been an escape for me. I do a lot of advertising and commercial shooting where I shoot one thing for 8 hours.

My blog is like natural and this is what I eat and cook at home.

I changed the focus of my blog and shoot most things horizontally now.

Not a lot of propping, really simple and really close into my food. Now I'm starting to back up more and use propping.

Each photo is particular to a recipe. I don't have a formula for my food photography at all. It's just a really organic process. These decisions about your food start when you start thinking about your recipe and buy the ingredients for you food. Beautiful ingredients make beautiful food. How to make brown food look good?

Looks like crap tastes like delicious, sometimes it's just gonna be that. Make it pretty with garnishes. But when you make food with beautiful fresh ingredients, your food is going to be beautiful.

I'm in my new house and inspired by my house. I'm not trying to do a very illustrated tight shot. I'm trying to share something else with you as well.

I'm a food stylist and I have a ton of props but I don't obsess about it. It can be beautiful on a $5 dish.

David Tanis
Canal House Cooking
Jamie Oliver
Canvas Ceramics plates

I don't show a lot of ingredient photos on my blog, but I always shoot them for myself. They inspire me about the food that I'm cooking.

Set up the props first WITHOUT the food in it. Sometimes I'll put stand-in food in it.

So after carrying it around for 3 weeks trying to make something I could put with this napkin, I took the shot and I said, 'I hate this napkin.'

There's just kind of this quiet thoughtfulness in this photo. Then just changing the prop or the composition, changes the way the shot looks completely.

Eventually chose the red napkin for Saturday Soup post this morning. It's not necessarily about food styling, but the way that you play with the props that you do have. Just because it doesn't work, it just means that that's just not meant to be for that shot. Have the confidence to play with your shots and practice. That initial idea isn't always going to work.

Kristi @
Veggie Converter