Critique with Larry Nighswander of Saveur Magazine
Okay, without further ado, I wanna introduce you to one of my mentors. I've had a professional relationship with Larry for, what, over 10 years?
At least 10.
At least 10 years. He has watched me grow from being a photographer much like many of you who are watching into the photographer I am today. And the majority of that growth has happened because he's been an amazing editor in my life. His credentials are huge. He used to be a picture editor at National Geographic magazine. I don't know how many different magazines you've worked at, Larry, but presently, he is the director of photography at Saveur magazine. But you also oversee visuals at several other magazines that Bonnier has, correct?
That's correct. Actually probably director of photography for the company, but most closely involved with five or six, including American Photo, Florida Travel + Life, Garden Design, and of course Saveur.
Cool, okay, so basically, this guy gives out assignments, and he looks at a lot of pic...
tures from professional photographers. And he can talk to photography like no other editor I have ever worked with. When Creative Live approached me, my dream team was like, if I can get Larry up here to edit pictures with me, I think that the photographers that watch would be blown away because the majority of you have never had someone look at your pictures who looks at pictures for a living. It is revolutionizing. It will change the way you make photographs. It does for me still today. So, one of my best pieces of advice is always show your photographs. If you can find an editor who's willing to look at your photographs, take the chance. Buy them dinner, take them out to lunch, and ask them to look at your photographs as much as you can. So, this is Larry Nicewander. He's gonna help us do an image critique of photographs that we called out to everybody to submit. And the assignment, Larry, was, the assignment was think about the people and culture around food in your own life. Make a photograph of a food scene and upload it to the Flickr group. And you and I will critique it. But before we go there, Larry, actually, I wanted to just back up a minute. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about photographers, since you look at a lot of work regularly. What do you think is, like, what are the foundations for being a really great storyteller visually?
Well, a storyteller has to be someone who can think about the assignment, not just in the individual photograph, but in the collection of photographs and how they all relate to each other. Because most of us are thinking about the one image, so, when we push that shutter button, we're thinking about, "Did I get it? "Is that a good photo?" But it's difficult to think past that to the relationship of one image to the next.
Okay, and what do you think, like how do photographers get to that? How do they learn that, Larry?
You know, I might suggest something kind of odd, and that would be to maybe, next time you go to a movie, study how the story line is put together in the movie, visually. Not necessarily the story line, but the visuals in that movie. How are they built together? How do they establish the sense of place? I heard you talk about sense of place earlier, and it is critical to telling any story because if you don't feel like you've been to the place or you haven't tasted the food, you really haven't a sense of what the story is all about. And again, most of us are so, so driven by trying to get a great single image that we're forgetting about the frame after that one. And someone who directs a movie, that's all they're thinking about is from this shot, whether it's a closeup or an overall or a high angle or a low angle, they have to think about what image following that closeup is gonna help the viewer understand what I want them to know about this story or this movie or whatever it is we're doing.
Wow, very cool, cool. And what do you think, like, what, of all the photographers you've worked with, who do you, not who, but what are those best practices that they have with them when they go in the field? I mean, I know for me, it's listening. I mean, you were listening earlier. I mean, it's listening and being enthusiastic, and having an openness to whatever it is that's in front of me, reacting, following my instincts. What are those things that you see from your side of working with photographers?
Well, you know, the interesting thing about my career is the fact that I had the advantage of seeing the raw take from hundreds of different photographers. And when I say the raw take, I've always edited from every image that the photographer shoots on an assignment. I don't want them to edit. I want them to send me everything that they shot because I wanna see how they approached that subject because I may see a direction or a trend that they started and walked away from it before they really honed in on the best angle or the best perspective of that particular subject. And if I can see that in a raw take, I can call them up and say, "Hey, you know when you were shooting the apples? "If you would've gone in another four feet "and got a really tight shot, "I think we'd've had a cover there." But if I don't see the whole take, if they only send me their 12, their 12 best images, I don't know how they saw that, and I can't help them. And really, an editor only looks good if the photographer does a good job on the assignment. And if we don't see it as a symbiotic relationship, in other words, I'm not there just to exploit what you do, but you're there to help me look good as an editor also. And the success of the story is only gonna be there if we both do the best job we can, so we need each other to do that. We have to listen and see what we can learn from each other.
God, that's awesome. I was telling them how when I shot the Texas issue, did you hear that story?
I did. I cringed a little bit.
Oh, I'm sorry.
Oh no, that's all right.
Well, it was a real epiphany for me because I'd never been in that position before. But you were gonna say something.
Yes, one of the things that I try to do that I... You know, Penny, you know, they don't know that I started as a photographer also. And when I was shooting for magazines early in my career, I'd shoot the assignment, I'd bundle up the film, I'd put it in FedEx, and it would disappear and the magazine would come out. And there'd either be a picture or there wouldn't be a picture from my assignment. And I'd never know why there was one or why there wasn't one. And I thought to myself, you know, if I ever become an editor, I'm going to give critiques and I'm gonna tell the photographer what I like, what I don't like, when they fail, and when they did a great job. And that Texas assignment wasn't your best work. And rather than call you up and say, "Jesus Christ, Penny, "what were you thinking? "This stinks," I'd try to approach it holistically and ask you how your life was, and try to get at if there was an extenuating circumstance that caused you to stumble on the assignment. But basically, I was telling you that it wasn't up to your best work. And you know, I knew that you would take that to heart, and that's why when you said, "Well, can I go back "and do something else?" I didn't turn on you and say I'm never gonna use you again because I knew the next time you were out there, you were gonna work that much harder to please me. And you did.
Yeah, that was like a fire under my butt. That's what a great editor does. They put a fire under your butt. Every time I shoot for Larry, I feel like I'm shooting the Super Bowl. It doesn't matter if it's an icehouse in Houston, Texas or an assignment in Chile, I mean, I really try, I wanna impress him. I want him to look at my film and go, "She worked her butt off." Because then I know that he knows I'm doing the very best I can, that he sent a photographer that takes it very seriously, and is enthusiastic and excited about what they're doing, and then hopefully, he's gonna give me another assignment, and I can continue making a career as a photographer.
When I was at Geographic, I heard Annie Belt once say that she felt a tremendous amount of pressure each time she went out on an assignment because she felt compelled that her goal was to recreate her portfolio each time because many times, you're judged by your last assignment. So, she felt that if she wasn't doing portfolio work each time she shot an assignment, then she had failed. And I never try to tell somebody that because that's a tremendous amount of stress to put on a photographer. I never give a photographer a shot list. I don't say, "I want you to go to Turkey, "and here are the 12 things I want you to shoot." I want photographers to work with me who are journalists that just happened to tell their story with their camera instead of a pencil or a sentence or a computer screen. And I expect them to do a good job at that.
That's awesome. And is there anything else that, I don't know, I'm just trying to think. I'm trying to access all those times I've been on assignment with you, well, on assignment for you, where I've struggled. And it's been maybe the story just wasn't there, or my relationship with the, I don't know. I'm just trying to access one of those assignments where it wasn't great, and then an assignment where it was great. And at the end of the day, I think it always comes back to, I mean, it's many factors. There are several things that you bring to a shoot in addition to your camera. I mean, you've gotta come with an openness and enthusiasm, and just a willingness to work your butt off. I think that that is probably, it's one of the most important things is to be able to push it as much as you can. And shoot beyond the assignment, wouldn't you say, Larry?
Yeah, no, absolutely. I expect people to surprise me. I think the disadvantage of working for a photo editor that was a photographer, there's pluses and minuses. The pluses are I understand the pressure of being in the field. I understand how much time in the field it's going to require to do an adequate job on the particular assignment that you get. And I know there was discussion earlier about how long do you get? Some of that is budget-driven, and some of it is driven by what I interpret as being necessarily to do the job correctly. Try to balance them both. I don't ever wanna deprive a photographer of the adequate time to go out and do a good job because if they don't have enough time and don't do a good job, who looks bad? Well, I look bad. I mean, we both look bad. And neither one of us wanna look bad. Human nature. And there are times where I will work with a photographer to extend the time. Now, I have a fixed budget to work with, and sometimes I will say, "You can stay an extra three days. "I can cover your expenses, but I can't change "the fee for the photography." And I believe in a flat fee type of situation rather than paying by the day. I've never liked the concept of paying for a day's work. I wanna give you an assignment to tell a story. And some photographers work fast. Some of them, it's a little more tedious process. And I don't wanna deprive one or the other from doing a good job because of that time frame, so I say, "Here's the amount of money I have. "You go do the job. "Take the time you think it takes."
Cool, cool. Okay, do you guys have any questions in here in this audience? Just off the top of your head. You don't have to, but I just wanted to put it out there. All right, I think we're gonna go into image critique. You ready to edit some images?
No, I have-- (mic cuts out) No, I'm-- (laughing) I'm absolutely ready.
Okay, and I just, there we go, okay.
Now, I'm assuming that you're gonna have the same ones in the same order that I have. I'm gonna try to move--
That's the idea, and I'll just describe the picture just to ensure it, Larry.
Okay, I don't have them in that order, but I'm going to find that image real quickly, so that I've got--
I only pulled 30, so hopefully, it's not hard to find. He can't see me, can he?
30? 30 images? You're just getting warmed up at 30, aren't you?
I know, I know, well. Let's see, I mean, we can always go back and get more.
All right, let's see how we do with these. People may turn off their computers at with what we have to say. It's hard to say.
Okay, so I'm looking at a baked potato soup.
Yeah. All right, so, go for it.
It's obvious. When I look at it, I mean, what did the photographer bring to the photo? There is really no center of interest. There's no place that... You had alluded to compositional devices earlier in the day. Compositional devices are the tools which a photographer uses to enhance, improve, and capitalize on the elements within the photograph. When I was an undergraduate, I signed up for a photography class. I wasn't a photo major. And I was all excited to take pictures. The teacher, the first day, said, "I see a number of you brought your cameras to class, "and I appreciate that, but in this photography class, "we don't take any photos. "We're only going to look at photos and talk about photos." And I was mad until I started listening to the lecture. And this particular professor, who is my number one mentor, we all have mentors, or you should have a mentor, to this day, he is still one of my closest friends, started to dissect the images on the screen. And he did that for an hour. And then he put another tray of images up and he asked us to dissect them. And we had to identify why it was a good photograph. And we had to identify whether it was introducing disorder into order, introducing color into a monochromatic scene, the use of texture, selective focus, linear perspective, converging lines, framing, rule of thirds. You can see that I can spit these out one right after another because they were drilled into my head. I sat through four hours of that for 10 weeks for the whole quarter. I enjoyed it so much, I took the class the next quarter as an audit just to listen to him talk about photographs. But I learned so much from doing that. When I look at a photo now, that's what I'm doing. I'm looking for what compositional devices were used. How did the photographer enhance this image? Basically, they have a bowl of soup on a plate and they took a picture of it.
Yeah, yeah, totally.
It needs the introduction of an element to break up the pattern. A spoon, a piece of bread, something, so it doesn't seem so clinical.
That's a good point. That was great. My god, I should've brought a notebook.
Checks in the mail.
Thanks. Okay, I've clicked to the next image, and I'm looking at a bowl of strawberries, fresh strawberries.
Well, this one is cleaner. But how did it elevate the strawberries? Does it capitalize on the beauty of one berry? Where does my eye stop? Technically, it's well executed. But compositionally, it's rather dull and bland. And we have to enhance that. Our challenge is to not take pictures that look like every other photographer's pictures of strawberries. And you want me to remember it. You want me to say, "Who was the photographer "that shot that strawberry picture "that made it look so delicious?" Well, these look good, they look good. You know, it's got a nice shallow depth of field. There's a pattern to it. But there's no pizazz, no surprise element.
Damn, that's great. Yeah, absolutely. Okay, I'm going to the next one. And it's After a French Meal. That's the title of it. So, it's got some plates with a group of knives in the top half of the frame. It's mostly empty plates.
Yes, I have it up now. You know, this one appeals to my sensibility a little bit more. But Cartier-Bresson used to say decisive moment, and you wouldn't think of that in context of a food photo, but this is probably about 10 minutes too late. I would've rather seen it with a little bit more of the food still on the plate. Not untouched, not pristine like they were just getting ready to sit down and eat. I like the fact that I feel like I just had this meal with these people, and it does place me in the photograph. I like that part. But the food is so far gone, I'm looking at it and go, "What'd we have?" So, I feel that there's some editorial information missing from it, and I would've wanted to see the whole take and see if they had been shooting this all along. The introduction of a hand that would've made it seem a little more human and more embrace-able probably would've been nice, too. But I like, this one at least the tonality is intact. The composition doesn't take me out of the frame. And we're gonna see some images in a minute where that's not a consideration.
Yeah, I feel like if this were looser, it would even help it more. You know, just a little looser. I don't like that the left-hand plate is cut off. I don't know. I think you're right. Having food in there would've made a huge difference. (woman in audience mumbles) Not shooting so tight. So, going slightly wider. Okay, I'm gonna move to the next image. And it's a tryptic. It's three photographs called Fah-fuh-fe-luh-luh-luh. (laughing) Fuhfelleh. Farfelle, farfella. Okay, I knew that.
This gives us a chance to talk about style of photography. And I think a photographer needs to be cognizant of what style of photography they enjoy, they embrace, they want to pursue. And even in food, there is illustrative, which is a little bit more clinical, little more studio-oriented. And then there's documentary or journalistic approach to food. This is the more of an illustrative approach to food. It's beautifully done. It was a good contrast between keeping the color palette limited so that the texture of the pasta stands out. The background was well chosen. And the color's consistent across all three of the images in the tryptic. The bow-tie pasta is positioned nicely. So, I don't have anything negative to say about this. And even Saveur has a tendency to introduce, while we would consider ourselves an authentic food photography magazine where it's more candid and more journalistic in approach, we would not be opposed to introducing an ingredient image that was executed with this style, with this sophistication.
Cool. Okay, I'm moving to the next. Again, it's a tryptic of spaghetti with tomato sauce.
I like this one also. My guess is that the same photographer might have submitted two. Just the fact that they're tryptics and the presentation seems to be similar. But this one, we've got the sauce about to be prepared, we've got the eaten, and then we got the plated. So, there's a connectivity to the images that's nice. I might've gone with just the one, though. Probably the one on the left for my own taste. A pardon to use a food reference there in the adjective. But you know, that's the one that I would prefer to use, I think.
Okay. Okay, and now I'm at the one, it's called Roasting, and it's several, looks like kind of Mexican salsa with, it's got some roasting tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, poblanos. It's in a big skillet.
This is probably a good time to talk about the importance in food photography of studying your color palette. When you're dealing with fashion, you always get to select clothing. You always get to say, "Oh, don't wear this with that. "It's gonna be jarring in the photograph." When you're dealing with food, you have to deal with the natural color that the food has. I mean, you can't make the tomato blue because you got a blue plate. But you can make the plate a tone, or choose a plate that has a tone that is complementary to the ingredients in the photograph. And I think a lot of times, photographers aren't thinking about the color palette and how they related to each other. Let me ask your crowd back there, what color doesn't belong in this photograph?
Who got that? Who got that? I wanna know, raise your hand. I can't tell who--
They all, they're all raising their hand, Larry. (laughing)
Okay, well, he's absolutely correct. And where does our eye go? It goes to that pink. We have to understand, as photographers, what the physiology of our eye and our brain is. And we have no control over some responses that our eye and our brain make. And we will always go to the brightest spot in a photograph. We can't fight that. It's gonna happen. I mean, you can say, "I don't wanna look here," and look away, but when you open your eyes, it's gonna go to the brightest spot because that's the way the brain's programmed. Now, so where do we go? I think, is that a mushroom that's a little hot there in the foreground, Penny?
It's either, yeah, I think it's, either a mushroom or some masa or something. I can't quite tell.
You know, that needs to be repositioned in the image so that it doesn't also add to that pink taking us away from the center of interest. where we want the viewer in the photograph to look. Now, the food in the bowl is fine. But we needed to tone down the hot spot and pull that pink cloth out of the--
Me? No, no, no. I'm gonna block, I'm trying to, do we have a piece of cardboard or something I could borrow? Celeste?
You need my cropping owls.
Yeah, just, I wanna crop this image on screen here so that everybody can kinda see. Yeah, that's great, just something that blocks it. So, okay, he's talking about taking this out. And just look how much it makes that image better. Well, obviously, I can't quite get all of it. All right, here we go. So check this out. You guys see that? It changes it. It makes it so much better. Do you see, like that image is already better. Now, I'm not saying crop the image, but shoot it differently. And I think you're saying the same thing, too, right, Larry?
Absolutely. What you're doing is you're limiting the color palette to the natural colors that are in the food. And you haven't introduced a non-endemic color into that composition, which the pink was.
That's a great example, yeah.
It's a little attention to detail that separates a real pro from an amateur or an advanced amateur. Those roasted vegetables look so good. Sit it over here, and you're only looking at the vegetables, and you're not looking past it. And our eye has to scan that whole rectangle for any extraneous content that needs to be eliminated either by cropping or physically removing it.
Yup, yup. Go to the next one here. And it's a little boy looking at caramelized apples, candied apples.
Well. You know, my first reaction is it's a cute picture. I mean, it's got human interaction. But if you took this photograph and divided it from the upper left corner to the lower right corner, and covered up, half that picture is extraneous content. Okay, do you see what I'm talking about?
Yup, you guys see that?
That kinda distracts. Plus, the child is not really looking at the apples. There may be more apples over there, but he's looking at something. We're only assuming that it's the apples, so. A designer's gonna wanna drop copy in there because it's wasted space. And while I mention designers, I wanna put a plug in for Dave Weaver. Jim and Dave and I work really close together. And you know, one of the reasons I took this job at Saveur was because of Dave's design. And you, as a photo editor, can narrow the images down to the very best, but they can still be ruined in layout by improper usage, too small, too large, bordicing. There's all kinds of ways a designer can destroy images. But a good designer is like a conductor of an orchestra, and they take all of the pieces, the words, the photos-- (mic cuts out) Confusing. And Dave has that ability. He understands-- (mic cuts out) They speak, they have a voice. (mic cutting in and down) Is dictated by-- (mic cuts out) The information in that photograph. I needed to say that because I think it's important to the success of any photo magazine.
That's great. You cut out a little bit there, Larry, but I think, was that the helicopter? Maybe, I don't know.
Yeah, folks, we're having a little bit of problem with audio, but hopefully, it'll pick back up.
He was talking about the relationship with the photo editor, the designer, the layout designer, and the editor of the magazine, and how all those are contingent on each other, and the end product is a relationship of the three. Right, Larry?
Yes. And this also gives me an opportunity to introduce the importance of trying to introduce non-literal images into story telling. That's a real skillset that a lot of photographers do not have, and it can applied in food photography also. When I first started on the magazine, and Dave and I started about the same time, the editor was very literal. If the lead of the story said, "Mrs. Smith stood by her door "holding her apple pie," that had to be the lead photograph. And that troubled me because that was like repeating what people were gonna read in the words, and why repeat it? It's redundant. And Dave and I both understood that if we had a photograph that was stimulating and intriguing in content and composition, using that as the lead was going to attract more attention to the story than a very literal reflection of the lead of the story. And when Jim became editor, the fact that he was a photographer, he understood that. He encouraged that. He expected that. He rewarded that. And it basically facilitated the evolution of the usage of photography in the magazine to the level that it's at now.
That's awesome. Okay, I'm moving to the next image. It's Macaroni with Soupy Tomato Sauce. That's their title, not mine.
Okay. So far, this one comes the closest to being Saveur-ish, I guess. That's not a word, I guess, but we'll use it for this class. Not a bad shot. There's lots to look at. I mean, it does have a center of interest. And the supporting elements of the photograph kind of build onto that center of interest. So I would say that this one is fairly successful. There are probably some people out there in the Internet saying, "Oh my god, this looks like a jumbled, "cluttered mess to me." And that's because their taste has a tendency to gravitate towards clean, simple, pure constructed images. And I like those also. But in this context of being more documentary and journalistic in our approach, I think it was fairly successful.
Absolutely, I agree. Now, I've gone to an image that is Tarte de Patates Crujenta, salmon y crema de queso. It's salmon--
I hope they talk that way. (laughing) This one goes back to the problem that we talked about earlier. And that is allowing color or lack of color to drive us away where you want the eye to go. And you know, I hardly spend any time on the food here, and I gravitate to the elements around the food because they incorporate about two-thirds of the image. And they are not complementary, but competing in color and composition. And you have to be very careful of that. They should be minor secondary players in the composition, not dominant elements.
That's great. Okay, benedict. I'm looking at eggs benedict on, it looks like a bagel, maybe.
Well. I'm afraid I'm gonna come across as this harsh, mean--
Give it to them, Larry. They're here to learn. Come on!
Well, okay, all right. This one looks like, you know, the cook put the food on the plate. Somebody said, "Oh my god, that looks great." Stood back with their camera and took a picture of it. It's not composed. There's no compositional device utilized here. And here you've got food that's got a fairly consistent color palette, which you could've capitalized on the geometric shape of the food. You could've shot from a different angle. You could've introduced disorder into the order. There were lots of compositional tools that could've been applied here. My guess is when you do your demo tomorrow, you'll introduce those kinds of things, and it'll become clearer visually. Because I think it might easy for me to articulate what I'm talking about, but to see it, you will understand it much better, no matter how careful I am in word selection. When you see the introduction of disorder or when you see the capitalization of rule of thirds, it makes that much more sense to you, so I'll defer to your talented execution tomorrow.
Thank you. All right, Eggs, Greens, and Sweet Potato. It's a three-quarter shot. The fork is kinda halfway cut off, more than halfway. Two eggs on greens.
Yeah. It's a sloppy composition, unfortunately. It probably would've been better from an overhead shot. And in a lot tighter. Maybe the fork on the plate. And maybe one of the yolks broken instead of both of them being so perfect. When I took a design class in college, the first day, the teacher said, "Here is your lesson for today." And the lesson was less is more. And I think in this image, the removal of some elements would've improved the composition because there wouldn't have been competition for the viewer's attention. And so, less is more is something people should write down. Especially when you're creating a composition. That's something to think about. Do I need that element? When you're ready to shoot, can I take one thing out and improve the composition? Make it less cluttered.
Do you guys see that if you took away that, it's almost the top half of the frame, if you took away those elements, do you see immediately that your picture, you don't even need the fork or the napkin. And shooting this overhead makes this immediately graphic and visual instantly, and probably would make it look so much more appetizing than this angle? Do you guys get that? Yeah. Okay, I'm looking at an overhead shot on a plate with tomato and basil. It's a product shot.
It's pretty to look at. I'm not sure what context I could publish it, but it's, you know, because you probably wouldn't have a tomato sitting on two basil leaves for any purpose like this, but it is gorgeous to look at. It's lit nicely. It's got some framing. It's got a limited color palette. I mean, it's a nice composition.
Do you think, Larry, I mean, is that... For me, I think these type of photographs are nice, but I want them, I want a little bit more from them, you know?
I do, too. I, I would--
I would rather see... We've got half the ingredients of a caprese salad started here. If they like this tomato, if they found the perfect basil leaves, and these are nice, almost pristine basil leaves, putting this on a butcher block, cutting the tomato open and putting a slice of mozzarella down there as if you were getting ready to put together a caprese salad, we call these glossary shots where you take the ingredients and put them in a frame, that might've been a perfect solution to these elements. And it would've been real then. I mean, it would've been something you could actually say, "Oh, I see where they're going with this. "They're going to make a caprese salad." But as I look at this now, I'm going, "Is this just a pretty picture with no purpose?"
Yeah, so I think you can't, don't you think, Larry, you have to go beyond that. You can't just make pretty pictures.
No, you can't. They have to have a... And one of the things that we were gonna talk about was what do I use in editing? And there are three questions that I go through in my head when I'm trying to make a decision about a photograph. And the first is does it have technical excellence? Well, this one has technical excellence. It was the first thing I mentioned. The second thing I'm looking for is compositional creativity. Well, I really can't fault that photo for compositional creativity. It's creative enough. But the third question is where I think it falls short, and that's the editorial relevance. Does the photograph have any purpose or any use to me in making a statement? And I'm not sure what it says to me.
Cool. So, those are great words to think about when you're looking at your own pictures. Editing your own photos is really difficult. So, just think about those when you're looking at your film.
I had a couple of things that I wanted to add about editing your own photographs. I think it's very difficult. I think that you really do need to get a trusted friend or another photographer or hopefully a good photo editor to help you edit your photographs because we become emotionally connected to our images, whether we want to or not. Let's say you go to Penny's home and you're gonna photograph her cooking. And you like her. I mean, she's a likable person. And so you go, "Oh my god, these pictures are so great." Because you like Penny, but they're really bad pictures. They're just mindless documentation of her cooking. And they don't elevate my understanding of who Penny is. But because you engaged her and you connected with her, when you leave, you have a false understanding of how good the photos are. Or if you had to stand on the top rung of a ladder and balance yourself while you were photographing from overhead and you almost fell, and you go, "Oh my god, that was scary," you love that picture because of the degree of difficulty that you went through to take it. But it's a bad picture. You know, it's just an average picture. There was a photographer at Geographic that spent a month hanging out in a tree, wanting to get a tiger walking through this clearing in the woods. And after a month, he finally got the picture. And it was like one frame, and it was a tiger walking through the frame. And everybody looked at it and go, "Uh huh." And he was convinced it was a great photograph. It was a great photograph to him because he spent a month trying to get it. You spend a month trying to get any photograph, you're gonna love it, too. But it was just a dull picture of a lion walking through the woods.
That's great advice. All right, I'm gonna go to the next picture, which is more of an environmental portrait of a butcher. It's called The Butcher.
It's, again, kind of an obvious shot. I mean. I can't really criticize it, but I would expect it to be memorable in my mind. And I'll bet you I've looked at 20 shots like this in the last four months. Any time we've got a story where somebody's cutting up meat, we get something like this. And we don't run them very often because we've seen it so many times. This one's executed, it's okay. Technically, it's fine. Compositionally, it's not stimulating. Editorially, it's got relevance, but it's kinda hard for me to select it out of a pack of images because it's predictable. What else would you shoot? You know, if you had to photograph the man butchering, I mean, this is the obvious way to do it.
All right, cool, cool. This one doesn't have a title, but it looks like four kinda caramels? Caramels?
Kathleen. Do you see it? It's an overhead shot. They're on a white plate.
Yup, I got it. This one looks like it's trying to emulate your Manuessa shots. You know, of the graphic pattern and the clean white background. But what they don't have is the introduction of disorder into order, and it needs that one little element that ties it together. And it could be one or more utensils. It could be something, something that just breaks up that half moon pattern that's created by the placement of the caramels on the plate.
Okay, creme brulee.
I like this shot. I think it's probably the correct angle. The placement of the extraneous raspberries is nice. The light's perfect. Looks like they understand how to use diffused window light. So, yeah, I have nothing negative to say about this one. I would run this one.
Cool. And the next one doesn't have an image name, but it's a spoon, it's got two garbanzo beans in it, and it looks like maybe some kind of beef stew with kale or something.
Yeah, okay. This one is fine. I would probably run this one, too. The inclusion of the spoon was a good idea. And the inclusion of the garbanzo beans in the spoon even improved it further. So, Penny, I'm gonna ask you. What do you think about the washed out white plate? I mean, would you have plated it in something different or do you think that that helps bring the viewer's eye into the stew?
I think it helps bring the viewer's eye into the stew. You know what I don't like about this image, it's too tight for me. I feel like it needs to breathe a little bit. And I wish that I had a little more depth of field for sure. But you're right. I think the beans, the beans and the soup, that totally helps it. But don't you think the focus is just off on this? It needs more depth of field for sure.
It might be a judgment call. I think that if the ingredients in the background varied from the ingredients in the front, in other words, if it wasn't just more garbanzo beans and more kale or spinach, whichever vegetable that is, I might say, "Now wait a minute, "what's that in the background?" But we're seeing the same thing, so it's possible that you could get by with the shallower depth of field, but it's a judgment call. It's a judgment call. Six photo editors, six photographers might split on it.
Now, I do worry a little bit about the hotness on the lime, though. I probably would've scrimmed the light back a little bit there to bring a little detail back in.
Yup, yup, totally. Okay, I'm moving to the next one, and this is New Orleans Crawfish.
Well, this was shot through a window at a restaurant, clearly, and that disturbs me. Not that I wouldn't shoot something through a window, but if I'm gonna do that, I want to include enough information that that adds to my appreciation of the photograph and doesn't confuse me as to why technically, it seems to be a little flawed. Because some people might not know that that, on each left and the right is caused by shooting through, a reflection shooting through glass. The other thing is if I saw this, I'd probably go inside and say, "Oh, can I shoot your plate of crawfish?" And I would've probably have peeled one. I would've probably shot it from a higher angle. 'Cause you got a lovely color palette going there. Blue and red work really nice together. But we didn't quite pull that off. We saw it, but we didn't go far enough with it.
Yeah, actually, this could've worked from a completely different angle, getting inside, like you said. Okay, I've moved to an iPhone photo of a cheeseburger. It's really tight.
Yeah, I know. You know. I love burgers. We did a whole issue on burgers. This, this was the wrong angle. We need to see the layering here. Burgers are all about how's it constructed. What all's in it? How big is the patty? There's so much lost information here. And you know what? The fact that it was taken with an iPhone doesn't matter to me a bit because I use my iPhone a lot to take photos. I'll bet if I ask Penny to shoot her next assignment with her iPhone, that it would still be publishable and still be good because it's not the tool that's important. It's what you do with the tool. Don't take that the wrong way. But I really want you to think. I see a lot of questions on the chat room about what lenses does Penny use, what camera does she use. That really shouldn't be a matter at all because I can take a Rebel, the low-end Canon camera, and take a good photograph with it. It's the eye, it's how you see things, how you compose things that make the difference.
Totally. I could not agree more. And I love shooting with my iPhone. Okay, I'm moving to the next image, and it's Salumi.
Well, if you wanted an example of a mis-focus and too shallow of a depth of field, this one is a prime example of that. I mean, it looks to me like the wine glass is sharp. Maybe the bread, and just about everything else is falling out of the field of focus. And it's unfortunate because this kinda looks yummy. But it doesn't look yummy as a photograph.
Yeah. Yeah, I think there's a picture there. This just isn't it yet.
It's another example, probably, of less is more.
Yeah, yeah. Okay, so it's a stack of pancakes, sourdough pancakes with some syrup to the left, a big bottle of Vermont maple syrup.
Maybe the owners of the Dragonfly Syrup Company would like this photo. But you know, as a pancake photo, it falls short, unfortunately. This is a good example to talk about the relationship between foreground, background, and layering of an image. And I think one of the things that elevates good photographers, excellent photographers, is their ability to construct a frame that has an effective foreground, a contributing middle ground, and a background that also adds information. So you've got three sources of information within a frame. And this one is a very linear, one-dimensional photograph, and it looks like, again, somebody just said, "Oh, look at that tall stack of pancakes, that's so cool," and they got ready to shoot it, and somebody said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, let's put syrup in there. "It needs syrup in there." And they slid that ugly syrup bottle in there. And it's got red label, it's got writing on it, and our eye is conditioned to wanna read type when we see it. So instead of looking at the pancakes, I go over and start reading Dragon, Dragonfly Syrup. And I'm totally off the image.
Yup, totally. You know what, Larry? Can we field some questions from the chat room just to kind of check the pulse and see where everybody's at?
So Larry, people are really liking the critique. What's your best advice as to how to critique without offending someone?
Boy, that's a tough thing. And I learned from watching really harsh, mean critiques as a young photographer. I was very insecure early in my career and wouldn't show my work to photo editors and directors of photography because I was too, too sensitive, and I would go to these conferences, workshops, and I'd watch these other photographers present their work. And many of these leaders in the field would just butcher these photographers. Tell them, "Wow, you oughta get a job "working in a gas station. "You're never gonna make it as a photographer." And it's possible that that was true, but nobody wants to hear that. And so, I developed the attitude that if anybody ever asked me my opinion, that I would never lie, that I would always be honest I would always be direct, but I would try to coach any criticism with trying to identify something positive also in the frame. So, if you get the opportunity to critique, I would encourage you to cushion the negative with some positive, and offering up options as to how to improve the photo because just saying, "That sucks" is harsh and doesn't help the photographer get better. But if you offer suggestions on how to improve it, that could be beneficial. So, that's my theory. And also, it goes back to that very first photo class. If I can't dissect the image and analytically look at it and describe what it is that made it good, then I can't critique it properly. And I caught a graduate class at OU, and I used to take what I learned as an undergrad and apply it in this one exercise in class. And there was a National Geographic photographer, very well known, a wonderful photographer. So talented that I felt humbled to be her instructor. And I gave them this exercise where I said, "Here are some photographs. "I want you to dissect them and I want you to take apart "the elements that make this picture good." And she objected and said, "Well, why would we wanna do that? "That's stupid." And I said, "Well, if I'm teaching a writing class," I said, "and I asked you to write a paragraph, "we're gonna critique that paragraph "by analyzing to see if you've got a verb, "an adjective, what kind of punctuation marks "you've used in that sentence." And I said, "It's the only way we can analytically "apprise whether it was good or not." And once I put it in that context, she said, "Oh, I see what you mean." But basically, composition and compositional devices are the building tools that photographers use to make their sentence well constructed.
Larry, I'm gonna jump in for two seconds. Someone asked me earlier and I didn't get to talk about it and this is a really great chance to talk about it. Can you talk a little bit about our relationship in the field, how we work together, what that is like? There was a lot of people wanting to know that in the chat room. Can you talk about that?
Yes. I try to give a synopsis of the story before a photographer goes out. I try to open my mind to any ideas that a photographer may have conceptually to illustrate a story. The biggest problem that I have as a photo editor, and I've struggled with this my whole career, is I'm a photographer. So when somebody says, "Hey, we've got this assignment "to shoot a vineyard in Chile," I wanna go do it. And I start thinking of the pictures that I'll shoot down there. And if I call Penny up and I say, "Penny, "I can see this picture of this man on a horse "riding down the rows of the grapes. "Oh, it's gonna be," you know, I've destroyed Penny's ability to respond to an environment in her own way, for her to see it. Because she's gonna say, "Well, Larry described this, "so he wants to see this." And she will work hard to please me. And a lot of times, that's even worse if you have a longterm working relationship with somebody. And Penny and I go so far back that I knew her when she was in her formative years, and I mean, really formative. And if you get her over a margarita, she may even tell you stories about, you know, how if she thinks I'm harsh now, I was a lot harsher back then. But she has, you know, I'm so proud of her and how far she's gone with her photography. I'd love to have her as my daughter. I'm proud to have her as a colleague, and I will continue to use her no matter where I'm working. So, her ability to listen and respond to what she hears, as far as direction goes, is what makes her a great photographer. She brings her own creativity to the story, but she knows how to listen. And a lot of photographers, you know, I'll use them once. And if I talk to them about I want the whole take, and they say, "Oh, I don't send the whole take in. "I only send in an edit. "I prefer to edit my own." Well, we all prefer to edit our own, but I've got reasons for the way I do things. And I say, "Well, I want you to shoot raw. "I don't want you to do any post-production." "Oh, I know how the picture should look. "I'd rather post-production the photo myself." I say, "No, no, send it in. "We have people who do that." I said if you wanna adjust a set of JPEGs to show as a guide as to how you see it, that's fine, but we'll do the post-production. I don't wanna pay you to do post-production. I wanna pay you to see things. I wanna pay you to take pictures and show me the world that you've had a chance to visit. That was a little long-winded. I apologize for that.
No, I loved it. Are you kidding? That was wonderful.
So, I think we've come to the end of our time, Larry. I can't thank you enough for doing me this favor, putting yourself out there in this way, sharing your knowledge. I have so much respect for you. And I appreciate everything you've taught me through the years. And to give photographers out there a chance to just impart a little bit of that knowledge, for me was like, I gotta do this. So thanks for being open to that.
Penny, we're not done learning from each other. Talk to you soon.
Okay, thanks, Larry.
Penny is an award-winning internationally published photographer that has travel extensively throughout the US and to over 35 countries on assignment. Her work is intimate and moving. Her images are inspired by global cultural foodways and the artisanal food movement with focuses on everything from iconic dishes to ethnic street food. From the ingredients to plated meals, she uses a strong contrast between light and dark to give images an authentic, painterly feel.
Penny is the best with Food photography and at telling a story with pictures. This was the very first class I ever saw on Creative Live and Penny was amazing! Her class is so informative to all the aspects of food photography, from styling, to plating to shooting and lighting. and how to tell a story. What she taught me will never go out of style and will inspire you too. Thank you Penny for this outstanding class!
Love, Love, Love Penny. What great energy. I will never look at food the same way. Her story and her vision really touched me. She was so generous in sharing her knowledge in such simple terms. One of my favorite classes!
a Creativelive Student
Totally love this course!! What a find especially for the price - such a wealth of information and what a great positive spirit!! Thanks Penny for sharing - keep up the excellent work!