Jan 162013
 

I have to spill the coffee beans…

This may be hard for some of you to believe, but…
I used to photograph food professionally. 

GASP!!

Not one to turn down a good challenge, I began shooting cuisine in late 2007 after seeing a stock call for “southwestern recipes” from a calendar company more famous for its landscape photography, and naively said, “Hmmm, that could be fun!”

For the three years that followed, fun it was as my husband, Craig, and I worked together to produce not one, not two, but three exclusive Southwest Cooking calendars.  In between developing new recipes and buying props for the calendars, I wrote restaurant reviews for a number of publications, including Arizona Highways magazine, who published my first restaurant article on one of our favorite spots in Arizona, The Cliff Dwellers Restaurant in Marble Canyon, called “Remote Possibilities.”  I also managed to collect a broad variety of commercial clients across Arizona to help with their advertising needs.

The food photography business was great on the pocketbook, but not so great for nurturing the soul of a nature lover – or for the booty, let’s be honest.  So in 2011, I stopped shooting alluring appetizers, enticing entrees, and delectable desserts to focus entirely on what I loved most, the Great Outdoors.

Though I’m no longer a shutterbug of sushi, I don’t regret spending those years getting a different flavor of photography.  In fact, I believe it’s made me a better nature photographer, as I still incorporate many of the techniques learned while photographing food during my outdoor escapades.  Specifically:

  1. Fleeting moments in nature disappear as quickly as fresh ice cream melts under hot lights.  For a single recipe featured in our calendars, we spent six to eight hours developing the recipe, arranging props, deciding on color schemes, and designing the set – “visualizing” – and only a few seconds photographing the final scene…which is about as long as most food looks edible in a studio setting.  Similarly, Mother Nature may only give us a few seconds to record “the” shot so prepare yourself for that special moment by drawing on paper or creating a picture in your mind of what you resulting photograph will look like – before snapping the shutter.
  2. If a photograph is truly worth 100o words, don’t use just 999 of them to convey your message.  During the extensive set designing process, we intentionally and precisely placed every single sesame seed, slice of lime, and sprinkle of cilantro in an exact location.  Before snapping the shutter, we studied every corner, the edges of the frame, and the visual relationship between the elements to ensure the scene appeared exactly as we wanted to convey exactly what we wanted.  Although changing moments in nature sometimes don’t allow a six to eight hour review of your composition, scan your frame before making the image to ensure you haven’t inadvertently included out of focus branches, overly lit areas on the edges of your frame, or anything else distracting from delivering a clear visual message.
  3. If the sesame seed doesn’t stay where you want when you move it, glue it.  Besides superglue, I’ve used glycerin, hairspray, soapy water, motor oil, mirrors, and a host of other hidden props to make a plate of food look presentable.  No matter your subject, once you have a clear vision, do whatever it takes to make it a reality (within legal and ethical boundaries, that is).  Put a shower cap over your lens to create an ethereal mood, hire a pilot to help you get an aerial perspective, or use a tongue-switch for hands-free operation of your camera while riding a bike (you’d be amazed at the stories you can tell about using a tongue switch!).  Being a persistent, creative problem solver pays off.  I’m currently imagining using the Cloud Machine to resolve my clear blue sky “dilemma.”
  4. Like a smooth, buttery Chardonnay, rocks, trees, and water don’t bite, so get closer.  If you think you’re close enough, if feasible, take two steps forward while keeping the same focal length of lens on your camera to eliminate extraneous details and keep your visual message clear.  Note:  Wildlife and people can bite so attach a teleconverter to a longer focal length lens instead of trying to get in their face.
  5. A normal-sized tostada looks more tantalizing on a tiny plate than on a big plate.  By tweaking proportions, we were able to draw attention to what seemed to be an abundant and attractive portion size.  When you aim to modify the relative size of natural objects, tap into the perspective distortion a wide-angle lens offers to make a bush or other object in the foreground look excessively large in comparison to its surroundings.  Or use a telephoto lens to compress two distant objects, making them seem closer together than they truly exist.

Have you recently tried photographing something outside your comfort zone?  What experiences and learnings have you had in photographing something other than the outdoors that eventually affected your nature photography?  We’d love to hear your stories and tips in the comments below!

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Oct 192012
 
Reflections of Calgary

Reflections of Calgary; Calgary, Alberta, Canada (Click on image to see larger; prints available!)

During my 10-day visit to Alberta, Canada last July to support the Through Each Others Eyes cultural photography exchange, my right pointer finger enthusiastically clicked the shutter over 4400 times.  While it was thrilling at the time to blast away at seemingly anything and everything that caught my eye, it created a gi-normous pile o’pixels I must now wade through to select a mere 20 photographs to display for the upcoming exhibition.  For the non-math majors in the crowd, that means picking out the top 0.5%!  YIKES!

Out of the thousands of images we might capture during a photographic outing, how do we decide which ones to keep and which ones to throw out?   No doubt, editing and critiquing our own photos can seem like an arduous quest – one that has no right or wrong answers – but here are some tips to help you identify your “keepers” in your collection:

  1.  Get organized.  Invest in an image management software like Adobe Bridge, Adobe  Lightroom, Apple Aperture, or the applications that arrived with your camera on a disc (e.g. Nikon Capture or Canon Digital Pro Photo) to help establish a centralized location to easily and consistently conduct your self-critique.
  2.  Bury your obvious screw-ups.  We all got ‘em, but the world doesn’t need to know about ‘em!  (Thank goodness we don’t track batting averages in photography!)  Once you’ve downloaded your images into your chosen software, liberally use the delete key to immediately eliminate frames that are out of focus, badly composed, poorly lit, unintentionally overexposed, and severely underexposed.
  3. Form a first impression.  Scan your images quickly for “keepers.” Simply make a snap decision as to whether your eyes enjoy the photograph or not.  Mark any frame you like (e.g. using the star rating in Adobe Bridge) to tag it for future in-depth analysis.
  4. Whichever Way the Wind Blows

    Whichever Way the Wind Blows; Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada (Click on image to see larger; prints available!)

    Unplug your emotions.  Like your mother told you growing up, first impressions aren’t always correct.  After doing an initial evaluation, let your images “rest” for a day, a week, or even a few months to disconnect emotionally from your photographs.  Once you’re back in the saddle, turn your flagged images upside-down so they are less recognizable to your brain and therefore less connected with your recollection of the influential experiences you had while making the shot.

  5. Get out the butcher knife.  Start hacking away on the technical aspects of your image.  Does the scene convey a sense of depth through the chosen depth of field?  Is the horizon level and positioned away from the middle of the rectangular box?  Could you simplify the composition withou

    t losing context?  Is the light illuminating the subject matter and helping to create shape, depth, and contrast?  Are there any overly bright areas or out of focus areas that are distracting to the eye?

  6. Say something different.  A technically-perfect image might feel boring and be ineffective in visually communicating your desired message.  Viewers will react to your images if they contain subjects and stories that are clear, fresh, intriguing, emotionally-charged, or even controversial.  Does your photograph showcase an unrepeatable moment?  Does it convey a specific mood?  Will your capture provoke thought, dig up memories, or spark new meaning with your viewers?
  7. Taking It All In

    Taking It All In; Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada (Click on image to see larger; prints available!)

    Remember, “To each their own.”  What may be the “best” photo for one audience may not be for another so you might find yourself keeping different photos for differing purposes.  For example, you may capture a pleasing iconic Grand Canyon shot good enough to hang on your wall because it reminds you of your last family vacation but not appropriate to send to a magazine who isn’t interested in publishing a story on the “big ditch” in the next 100 years.

  8. Get a brutally honest second opinion.  Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, hand your butcher knife to a trusted friend, family member, or photographer who will gladly use the blade on your work.  Listening to others’ insights can help trigger new ideas and highlight aspects you might not have previously considered.
Valve at Nordegg Mine

Valve at Nordegg Mine; Nordegg, Alberta, Canada (Click on image to see larger; prints available!)

While assessing your own work can be a time consuming, grueling task, being a harsh critic can help not only pick out the winners from your digital dump, but also refine your photographic techniques and polish your unique creative vision over time.

By using this process, my Alberta pixel pile yielded a 20-print story I can’t wait to share at my upcoming exhibition.  And the images in this post did NOT make the cut (even though I like them!)!  In my next blog post, I’ll give you a sneak peek into one photo that did!

If you’d like to see the other 19 I selected, as well as the photographs from my fellow Arizona-Alberta exchange partners-in-crime – Ken Ross, Peter Carroll, and Royce Howland – then please join us on November 7 from 7-9 pm at the Art Intersection Gallery in Gilbert, Arizona for our exhibition’s Artist Reception. For more information, please visit www.teoe.org/?page_id=829.

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Sep 052012
 

One of the most enjoyable and valuable educational aspects of the Arizona Highways Photography Workshops (AHPW) – of which I’m honored to lead a number of each year – is the post-workshop critiques.  Though we conduct image review sessions during the workshop, a post-workshop critique allows participants additional time to edit and process their photographs before submitting to their instructors for additional feedback after the class concludes.

Whether we complete these productive reviews during or after the workshop, we analyze the positive aspects of each student’s images and constructively outline ideas for how to potentially improve them from a technical and artistic perspective.  Kind of like this:

What the Duck

“What The Duck” comic strip copyright and courtesy of the author and artist Aaron Johnson at http://www.whattheduck.net.

All choking and joking aside, the point of the evaluation is to go beyond answering the simple question: “Do you like this picture?”  The true value of the exercise comes in when we define in-depth we WHY like and don’t like an image, which generates new ideas to sharpen our skills and polish our individual styles from our different answers.

Earlier this week, I completed the post-workshop critique for the recent Women’s Photography Retreat at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Although I’ve shared image-specific comments for 45 images, I thought I’d share a summary of the three main take-away’s from this particular critique session:

The Totem Poles and Yei Bi Chei at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona

Example:  Tilting my camera down emphasizes the sandy landscape and allows the sky to become a less dominating backdrop. By composing so that the line of bushes and the patterns from the wind-blown sand lead my audience into the frame, it helps guide the eye through the landscape towards my primary subject: the side-lit Totem Poles at Monument Valley. Do you agree?  How would you critique this image?  (Prints available! Click on photo for a direct link).

  1. “Half and half” works well in coffee, but not always in landscape images. Unless you aim for symmetry among the various elements within your frame (e.g. a reflection of mountain in a lake), placing the horizon line in the middle of your frame will only serve to divide your viewers’ attention.  Should they look at the land or the sky?  Make it clear:  If the sky is more interesting, tilt your camera up and place the horizon line at the bottom

    third of the Rule of Thirds tic-tac-toe grid.  If the land is what caught your eye, then tilt your camera down so the horizon is at least at the top third of the grid.

  2. Let there be light…oh, and a strong subject too!  Is there anything better than sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon and recordings the rays of the setting sun break through the clouds, turning the landscape and sky into a fiery mix of orange, pink, and purple? (In more technical terms, we call this “super yummy light.”)  YES!  That same spectacular show by Mother Nature happening over a well-thought-out composition!  Good light alone is often not enough to make a great image.  Similarly, a strong center of interest without interesting light may lack shape, contrast, and mood.   To capture the best subject in the best light, visualize strong compositions first in the field, then return to work the scene when the light is just right.
  3. As “all roads lead to Rome,” all lines should lead to somewhere important.  Lines can direct your viewer to through your image, but the payoff at the end of the line shouldn’t be a one-way ticket out of your frame.  To keep the viewer’s interest, ensure the visual path doesn’t extend beyond the edge of your frame and leverage diagonal, converging, S-curve and other style lines to pull your viewer not just into your frame, but also somewhere interesting.

If you’re a past student of AHPW – not just of this specific workshop, but any of them – you have the ability to view my image-specific comments by logging into the Arizona Highways Photo Workshops Smugmug site with the password you received during your workshops and selecting the “Women’s Photo Retreat” folder.  You also have the ability to leave comments as well, so hop on the site and let’s here you’re thoughts!

If you aren’t a past student of AHPW, there’s no need for you to feel left out.  If you’d like input on one or more of your images, stop by my page and submit your shots at GuruShots at www.gurushots.com/colleen-miniuk-sperry.

In closing, I’d like to thank the ladies who submitted their beautiful photographs for critique:  Denise, Deanna, Christy, Amy, Julie, Tamara, Sue, Pearl, and Jeanne.  As Abigail Adams once said, “Learning is not achieved by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.”  May we all embrace learning like these and all of the women who attended the Women’s Photo Retreat have.

AHPW Women's Photo Retreat:  Silly Group Photo

The attendees of the AHPW Women’s Photo Retreat having a “Zen” moment during our Group Photo.  I’m not sleeping, I’m merely practicing “Corpse Pose.”

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