Amateur’s Food Photography XIII: White Bean and Ricotta Salad

by Jenn on September 26, 2011

in Budget,Diabetic Friendly,Gluten Free,Photography,Salads,Vegetarian

White Bean and Ricotta Salad

What defines a photographic style? Is it the light one uses, the props, the angle, the composition, the settings? I kind of think all of the above.  It’s part of what makes style so hard to describe.  How does one look at a photograph and see the signature of the photographer within the image?  All of my favorite photographers have a distinct style, and I can look at any single image and instantly recognize it as theirs.  But as an amateur who is still learning, it’s hard to find a voice.  How do you figure out how to represent your vision to the world in a way that speaks only from you?  And determining of what that style comprises can become quite the soul searching process.

For me, I have always been in love with color.  Bright vibrant color.  Ha I remember when I was 5 I had this pair of shorts I loved, bright pink with bright green fishies (yeah I was stylin in the 80s, ha).  My mother for better or worse always let me choose my own clothes as a kid, and I was always a fan of bright colors – turquoise, pinks, greens, ha even my prom dress was a hot pink satin ball gown (and I totally rocked it lol).  So while I may not be the most fashion forward person, it doesn’t surprise me that as I’ve involved myself more and more into photography that I would still be in love with bright vibrant color.  Maybe too much.  I’ve been trying to tone myself down a bit (and even done some black & whites oh my!), but the truth is, I will always be a sucker for color and contrast.  And I think that’s definitely part of my style.  I also like to be close.  Really close.  I want to put you right there in front of the plate ready to dive in (well, that’s my goal!). I think I just see the world close up in technicolor, and so that’s how I express my vision of it.

And that’s really what style is about, isn’t it? How one expresses their vision of the world?  I remember a couple years ago while I was still floundering and guessing as to how to create an image, desperately seeking out my style.  But really, a style is something that evolves and happens naturally.  And it wasn’t until I got a better grasp on the technicals of what I was doing that I was able to sit back a bit and watch mine evolve.  I love experimenting with different ideas and techniques and finding out what is or isn’t me.  I’m not quite sure where I am headed but I see it developing and forming, and hopefully turning into a unique way to present the world with a vision of food and nature.

One thing I love about photographic styles is how individual they are.   No style is defined by a single aspect – it’s not about the angle of the camera, the color of the background, the softness of the light, the editing on the computer.  It’s about all the aspects of photography all combined together.  And that’s why a style is so personal – every style reveals a bit about the photographer’s soul, because it is part of how they perceive the world around them.  And it’s why at first I was hesitant to participate in this new photo challenge.

My good friend and food blogger & photographer Simone has started a new food photography challenge.  The goal is to take a recipe from the ever gorgeous Donna Hay magazine, make the recipe, and then attempt to photograph and style it as the image originally appeared in the publication.  Some of my favorite food photographers regularly publish in Donna Hay; the inaugural challenge was no exception, featuring an image by the ever talented Chris Court. His work emphasizes the beauty of color, contrast, and texture.  His style plays with these concepts in unique and creative ways that I have found to be so inspirational.  But it is his style, not mine.

So the idea of replicating someone else’s style by trying to reproduce an image gave me mixed feelings at first. Because I have been working to let my own style evolve, my first instinct is not to copy someone else.    So many food bloggers and emerging food photographers just rehash other people’s styles and call it their own – the result has been some rather unflattering trends within the internet-sphere of food photography.  There’s a definite difference between being inspired by someone while still being original, and outright copying.  And I’m afraid many don’t understand what separates the two.

And yet, I quickly saw Simone’s genius in creating this challenge – for me this challenge is a skill challenge rather than an artistic one.  This is not about how I see the world, but more about being able to analyze an image, be able to dissect how it was created, and construct a setup that is able to reproduce it.  For me, this is the ultimate test of difficulty – how well can one create a certain mood, a feel, a look?  Can I successfully deduce what is required for a certain effect?  And as a technical challenge, I finally feel that I am getting to a stage in my photography where I could try to attempt such a task – or at least think hard about it.

And really, being able to create a certain mood or feel to an image is an invaluable skill for any photographer – what good is it if you are just a one-note wonder? Understanding what goes into a certain atmosphere is what makes one adaptable to a variety of situations, and ideally I think any good photographer should be able to construct a variety of emotions from a scene by their ability to manipulate light, composition, exposure, etc.  And for me, this is a perfect exercise to that end.

Donna Hay Styling & Photography Challenge Entry

First of all, this salad is completely delicious.  You should definitely make this white bean and ricotta salad recipe (issue 42 of Donna Hay), found on Simone’s blog, Jungle Frog Cooking. It’s naturally gluten free! I attempted this challenge twice.  The left image above was my first attempt, and the right image was my 2nd.  Looking at Chris’s photo, I immediately noticed a bluish cast and decided this required playing around with my custom white balance.  I also saw that the light was very very soft coming from about 2:00, no hard defined shadows really anywhere.  The styling doesn’t look too complicated, there’s a paper napkin, a fork that looks nearly identical to our Ikea stuff that we eat with every day, and an oval white bowl.  Lacking a paper napkin I used a paper towel, and lacking an oval white bowl I went for a white rectangular plate we had on hand.  I omitted the chili and used olive tomatoes instead of cherry ones because that’s what was available at the market this weekend.  The food is pretty much simply mixed together on the plate, though I’m sure it’s actually more complicated than that.

My first shot (left) was taken in the direct afternoon sun, so I had to diffuse it a lot by covering my windows with tissue paper – and then I balanced a reflector opposite the light while kneeling on top of our dining table to frame the shot.  But I didn’t really like the result.  I felt the food was spread out too much on the plate, and the light wasn’t soft enough (evident by the dark fork and shadows in the wrinkles of the tablecloth).

My 2nd attempt (right) was taken the next day in mid-morning light, where the apt. building across me from out acts as a huge multi-story bounce to softly reflect in sunlight into our home. To me it’s the perfect type of light for this shoot.  I decided to use a large folded white bounce opposite rather than a reflector to help cradle the light a bit more around the shadowy areas, and kept the food more in the center this time.  I also added some salt & pepper for texture.  I had to use different beans as I only had one can of white beans that were eaten in the last night’s salad, but I don’t think that’s a huge deal.  For me, the main goal was getting the light correct.  I set the color by using a custom white balance setting (I think I settled on 3700K).  I’m not sure it’s quite there but it’s definitely an improvement over my first try!  I had a lot of fun and got to enjoy a tasty salad – twice :)

So what did I learn by this challenge? I learned that a very simple looking photo can actually be quite challenging to execute, with a lot to think about.  I learned that understanding the light (and time of day) and manipulating it appropriately makes all the difference.  I learned that the more I try images with white dishes and backgrounds, the more I realize it’s just not my thing.  I understand the utility as it allows the color of the food to really “pop”, but it’s just not my preferred setup.  I love how by replicating someone else’s image & style, I learned so much about my own.  It was definitely an interesting and fun exercise, and I’m glad I had the chance to participate! I definitely see this as a useful way to build one’s skills  – just as long as we all still realize that in the end, we need to let our own voice shine :)

White Bean and Ricotta Salad

Be sure to catch up on all the rest of the posts in my Amateur’s Food Photography Series:

Look at photos with a critical eye (and making fun of one of my early ones!)
Food photography is about celebrating light
Take your time and find your “zen place”
Angles of Light
Pay Attention to Props
The Histogram
It’s Not the Camera, It’s the Lighting
Exploring New Directions
Plate to Page Workshop Summary
Building an Image
Shades of Gray


Also submitted to: Gluten Free Wednesdays


Melissa@EyesBigger September 26, 2011 at 12:42 am

Great post Jenn. I think style definitely evolves over time and I am also hugely influenced by my love of bright colours and contrast – the same things which draw me to photographing vintage signage and grafitti/street art. I think a great way to help develop one’s style is to photograph other things besides food – things that draw your eye immediately and to ask yourself why those things draw you in.
The challenge is a great idea! You can’t recreate the images in your mind without developing the technical chops to turn your imaginings into reality.
I still have a loooooong way to go with both but at least it’s a fun journey, right?

Jenn September 26, 2011 at 12:52 am

Thanks so much Melissa! And yes I definitely agree about photographing other things – I think that’s why I am so drawn to landscape/nature photography as well – to me it is the exact opposite of food – with food, I have complete control over everything – if I don’t like the lighting, I change it. If I want to move something, I can. And with landscapes I feel I have none -I’m at the mercy of the weather, the clouds, the light, and if a tree is in my way it may not be that easy to get around it! But photographing both have definitely opened my eyes (for both genres) in what I perceive are good ways – always good to think about things from different perspectives :)

Melissa@EyesBigger September 26, 2011 at 3:18 am

Oh, I was going to say that I heard a talk Jay Maisel gave once and he said something like, there are two types of photographers: ones that see the world with wide angle eyes and ones that see the world zoomed in. I’m definitely a zoomed in person as well!

Jenn September 26, 2011 at 8:21 am

Ha. When it comes to food I am definitely zoomed in. When it comes to landscapes, I am definitely all about the wide angle :)

Elsie September 26, 2011 at 5:13 am

Wow, great post, and wonderful pictures!! The second attempt salad looks more pleasing to the eye, but I’m sure both of them was very pleasing to the belly! :)

Jenn September 26, 2011 at 8:23 am

Thanks so much! Yes both were very pleasing to the belly :)

Iris September 26, 2011 at 6:27 am

I can’t believe that you still call yourself an amateur! I think of you as one of the pros. I would love to have your skill someday…

Jenn September 26, 2011 at 8:20 am

Thanks Iris! Trust me I still have a lot to learn…

Rosa September 26, 2011 at 7:50 am

A lovely post! I appreciate bloggers who develop their own style of photography. Of course, it takes some time for an amateur phographer to find his/her style.

Very well done. It is true. The mid-morning shot looks a lot better. That is my favorite time of the day to take pictures.



Jenn September 26, 2011 at 8:20 am

Thanks so much Rosa!

Jamie @ the unseasoned wok September 26, 2011 at 10:24 pm

I love the side by side comparison – very helpful! I always enjoy your photography and come here often just to look at the pictures. Thank you for sharing some insights!!

Jenn September 26, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Thanks! I learned that it’s amazing what a second attempt can do, along with choosing a better time of day :)

Soma September 26, 2011 at 10:35 pm

A lovely post Jen. I adore the simplicity in the Donna Hay styling and I have noticed that light blue tinge, which I always thought looks so good in hers and never in mine :) you have done it beautifully and I love the image in your 2nd try… subtle, clear, lots of open space and very pleasing.

Jenn September 26, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Thanks so much Soma!

Simone September 26, 2011 at 11:26 pm

I think you understood the meaning of this challenge perfectly Jenn! Definitely it is not my intent to have people copying other people’s style but rather to learn how to interpret a mood, a setting, a certain light and to me this is a perfect way to practice just that. And from there go on and evolve in your own style and create your own unique images….
I love what you’ve done here and think you’ve absolutely nailed the look of the image! It looks absolutely brilliant… And if you do not love bright white background, you’re definitely gonna love the second one… :) Just wait and see!

Jenn September 27, 2011 at 7:51 am

Thanks so much Simone, and thanks for hosting such a great challenge idea!

Alison September 27, 2011 at 4:06 am

Great post, Jenn! Always so much to learn about food photography…!

Jenn September 27, 2011 at 7:54 am

Thanks so much!

EA-The Spicy RD September 27, 2011 at 6:57 am

Fun challenge and great salad too! Love your photos as well!

Jenn September 27, 2011 at 8:04 am


Jamie September 27, 2011 at 9:50 am

Jenn, I am rather stunned at the difference between the two shots with just those subtle changes. Just goes to show how any little changes can indeed affect the mood. As a writer, the approach to finding a voice, a style and an emotion is the same and we each need to find our own and what we want to achieve vis-à-vis the viewer. I think copying another person’s work is indeed a technical exercise that can help each of us discover so much about our own vision and style. Great job and yum love the salad! I just brought home another issue of Donna Hay mag; I buy one each time I am in the US and love staring at the photos!

Jenn September 27, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Thanks so much Jamie! I was introduced to Donna Hay’s magazine earlier this year and have seriously fallen in love with all the gorgeous photos!

meeta September 28, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Fantastic approach to the challenge Jenn. I always get very excited to come here and see how you have mastered a certain aspect or challenge. Since I met you at the P2P workshops I feel the hard work you put into your photography and have told you this so many times you have a voice a damn good one too and you have the right attitude towards mastering your creativity. Lovely post!

Jenn September 28, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Thanks so much Meeta!

mjskit September 28, 2011 at 5:01 pm

I do love this post and thank you so much for taking the time to write it up. I look forward to going back and looking at the rest of this series!!! However, I have to add that – because of what “I” see here – that I think, like any photography, the preference of one photo over another is in the “eye of the beholder”. The reason I say that is that I prefer the photo on the LEFT and the last shot is gorgeous! :) The salad on the right doesn’t appeal to me at all, but I’d eat the one on the left in a second! Now putting something else into perspective, I’m looking at the food and whether or not I would eat it. I’m not judging the photography because I’m not qualified to do that. I’m about as far from being a photographer as my cat! I am trying to learn about food photography and posts like these are a HUGE help. So thanks!!!! :)

Jenn September 28, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Interesting, thanks for sharing your perspective!

Anita Menon September 28, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Great post and such a positive one at that. There’s so much I picked up from your post that I am going to try and use to improve my photos.


Jenn September 28, 2011 at 11:09 pm

Oh thank you! I’m so glad it’s helpful!

Barbara | Creative Culinary September 29, 2011 at 4:41 am

I love this journey of discovering how to take photos that convey what we might have in our head and I’m not sure I have yet to define my own style. I love color and the juxtaposing of items and angles. I love to decorate too and others notice what I take for granted…I do not have a room in my home with furniture up against the walls square on…it seems I have to have ONE piece that is angled and whatever that is, that need to not be too precise…I feel it must carry over.

You know I love your work…if I had to choose…would take the larger image first followed by the one on the left…the overfilled and not so perfectly precise one. You know…with something angled!

Jenn October 10, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Thanks so much Barb! I love watching your style progressing :)

kankana September 29, 2011 at 5:05 am

Just read about photography in Meetha’s blog and now in yours. I really wish I knew what is my style or may be it’s too early to define one!
This salad is beautifully presented and I too love colors .. i eat in colorful plates and colorful cups .. like real bright colors :) but cannot shoot using those, so, I try using some color in the background!

Jenn October 10, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Thanks so much !

Astrid October 1, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Lovely post Jenn! love your version too! I totally agree what you said about finding your own style :o)

Jenn October 10, 2011 at 7:24 pm

Thanks Astrid!

Jeanne @ CookSister! October 10, 2011 at 5:18 pm

Oh, you always make me feel lke such a photography slacker! ;o) I take 5 pics, choose the one that’s in focus (!) and run that one on my blog! OK, maybe not quite THAT casual in my approach, but I do take my hat off to your attention to detail and how you build up a shot.

I agree that the point of this exercise is not to learn how to copy another, but to learn to look at photos in an analytical way, thinking about where the light is coming from, what sort of angle of view is being used, the temperatire of the light etc etc. As you say, though, if you do not have certain technical aspects already mastered, it is nearly impossible to recreate a photo – you simply do not know what you need to tweak in order to get the look you are going for!

I am also addicted to colour – it always makes me laugh when I compare my page of Tastespotting shots with a fellow-food blogging friend’s – he has such a muted palette and mine are all a riot of colour!

Jenn October 10, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Thanks Jeanne! Ha I am trying to be more deliberate with my images… it definitely has changed how I create photos for the blog…

Miss Nirvana November 8, 2011 at 5:17 am

Jenn, one of the things that I love about your style is that you do not always take the same shots with different foods. For example, when I browse through your blog I see different backgrounds, different angles, and different lighting. I think this is what sets you apart from many food bloggers who take good photos but not awsome photos. Your photos keep me wanting more. When I open up your blog I am not going to see the same wood table with a white table cloth on top and the same dishes.

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