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.
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
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
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