Hidden behind an unmarked gray door, the CreativeLive studio is vast and airy, 20-foot high banks of windows flooding what appeared to be a former factory or garage. About two dozen production crew scurried about, running cables, setting up cameras or scenes. It was a curiously strange and nerve-wracking at first, knowing that we could be live at any time throughout the weekend. Penny was cool, though, apparently it unnerved her, too.
She started the weekend by telling us about an assignment she assigned herself in a prison across the border in Mexico, that despite the danger, the female inmates are allowed to keep their daughters with them while behind bars. “I’m a true believer in personal project,” she said. “You have to give yourself that dream assignment, no one is going to give it to you.” Those photos landed her role at National Geographic magazine. From them, she’s worked for dozens of publications, notably Saveur. From that magazine, she brought in the editor, James Oseland, and art director, Larry Nighswander, via satellite.
A lot of the workshop combined philosophy about photos with more practical aspects, how to find shots, light and frame them. We watched Penny shoot various plates with the aid of a food stylist and props manager on Day Two. On Day Three, the crew staged an oyster bake (complete with eaters) and a rustic farm-to-table style dinner table.
No matter what you’re shooting, Penny explained that good food photos have action, tension, a center, a moment. Sometimes the best shot isn’t the plated beautiful food, but in the preparation or while a meal is in progress, or even finished. She advises to practice “seeing” how food photographers work by looking at cookbooks, magazines and blogs to figure out what some work, some don’t and why so many fall into visual “cliches.” She tears out photos she likes and studies them, sometimes capturing what they’re conveying with a simple word such as “sadness” or “blue,” and then assigns herself to shoot photos around her with those words in mind.
The five keys to a great photo: terrific light, interesting colors, good composition and, of course, food that looks deeply appetizing. To get those elements, sometimes you have to “edit” the food by clearing away unnecessary elements or adding interesting details. Other times, you have to find a different approach. “Never give up too quickly on a shot,” Penny advised. “Stay in it, push yourself to rethink it. Consider the background, the angle, and whether the best shot is a moment or a mood. A lot of the time, especially if you’re documenting food and culture, think beyond the plate.”
Of all the students in the workshop, I was the least experienced in terms of photography. I can barely shoot in manual mode. I’m a writer who sometimes picks up a camera, but it’s never been something that I’m comfortable with at all. On Sunday, I had to use another student’s camera (since mine couldn’t be connected easily to the studio’s computer system), to shoot live, online a dinner party scene set up in the studio. My raw photos went out to the thousands watching the streaming feed. It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences that I can remember. It felt like being naked. Photography is something I don’t think I do that well so being critiqued by someone who I so thoroughly admire (Penny), in front of an audience primarily made up of photography enthusiasts gripped with a strange, nervous terror. But, it worked out. I got some nice shots. I recognized where I missed them, and where I could have done better.
But you know what? It reminded me that sometimes, to truly learn something, you have put yourself in an uncomfortable place — and then push even further.
It’s rare to say that some experience changes your life, but this weekend, something changed in me. We were talking about photography, but it made me rethink how I approach writing and life in general. Sometimes you have to change your perspective, to look for the light and wait for the moment. You have to self assign and go out and find the great stories.
You can download and watch the whole weekend from CreativeLive. If you have any interest in food photography, I can’t recommend it enough. You can check out a few more of my photos, a few behind the scenes and a whole lot of oysters…