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How does one become a better photographer? To find the answer I decided to ask industry veteran Gerald Ratto. For over half a century Gerald has used film photography to capture the world. Gerald is a former student of Ansel Adams, Minor White, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston; the list of industry legends he has worked with is extensive. His work has been displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and his client list includes some of the largest architectural firms in the world.
Gerald has worked with film since he was 12 and began photographing with a 15-cent box camera. Many of his most celebrated images (See his Children of the Fillmore and Vintage Collections) were shot traditionally. I began by inquiring about what differences exists between photographing with film and digital.
“Photography is really about seeing. We are in an age where people confuse photography with image capturing. When you hold up your phone or high megapixel camera are you really being a photographer? I don’t know. That depends on how intentional you are in the process. It’s easy to capture a huge amount of space today and then use Photoshop to retroactively tell a story, but something is lost in that process. You can make adjustments in Photoshop but you lose some of the expression because you didn’t really consider the content and the story that is being told.”
Is there any correlation between the physical developing process and the creation of an authentic photograph?
“Developing isn’t really a huge part of the process because of previsualization; seeing the story in your mind before you capture it with a camera. If you are doing it right you already know what the story is once you capture it. Then, it’s about going through a process to bring it from a small format to something people can see and display. Each camera is really the same. Each is simply a different instrument. If your process is the same then you can use different instruments to more accurately tell the story.”
Herein I realized the error of my initial question. The question is really not of whether we gain or lose something using film or digital methods, the question is how we remain intentional in an age where technology removes our limits. What are we doing as photographers to keep our content intentional and relevant?
I ask what advice Gerald can provide for how to stay relevant as a photographer.
“Photography is like discovery; every time you look in the viewfinder you’re closing in on an image that is part of something bigger—a little vignette of the greater world. You don’t want to go into any project with preconceived notions of what you are going to capture because by doing that you impose yourself upon the subject. Authenticity is the key to staying relevant. Allow the subject to tell the story and use your mastery of the instrument to capture it.”
Gerald’s work over the last 50 years showcases many different thematic elements; a testament to the depth of his abilities as photographer. I encourage you to take a look at Gerald’s portfolios and pay special attention to his mastery of light. From architecture models to portraiture, Gerald’s work showcases the breadth of his abilities as a photographer. As we finish up I ask Gerald what his favorite photo is. He smiles and replies, “The one I’m taking tomorrow.”
Gerald Ratto and his wife Marla manage a studio and reside in San Francisco, CA. You can view more of his work on his liveBooks site; www.geraldrattophotography.com.
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As I explained in my first post, a brand is not a logo or a website or a design. A brand is a promise, what people trust, feel, and believe you or your product to be. Branding is how you express that promise to people. Here’s some tips to help you define your brand — only then can you express it through branding.
First, your brand will ultimately be defined by other people, mostly your customers and potential customers. They will make up their minds about you and you will usually have to live with it. Your job in building your brand is to try and influence them before their minds are made up. It is easier when they don’t yet know you and harder when they do.
Therefore, your brand can not be just anything you want it to be. It needs to be based on some truth about you, as well as client needs. Otherwise your brand will be rejected as not credible. Your brand also needs to be flexible so that it can evolve as you or the market change over time.
For example, while Polaroid’s brand was successfully built around innovation in instant imaging, its brand become too closely associated with chemical imaging in the minds of consumers and has struggled to stay connected with people in a digital world.
Second, be clear about what you need your brand to achieve at a strategic level. For most people this will be to set you apart from your competitors, to make you top of mind and memorable. By default, a brand should also say who you are not. A strong, healthy brand never tries to be all things to all people. Strategically your brand offers a way for clients and potential clients to quickly and easily categorize you. When they need what you’ve got, you want them to know exactly who to call. Ideally your brand should also make you look like the original or the best solution, making it hard for others to copy you.
Here are some great examples of photographers who have done this successfully.
Terry Richardson has one of the strongest brands I have ever seen. He has no logo and no real design to his website. Yet he stands out. He is unique, highly memorable. He shoots some of the world’s most famous people with a small, inexpensive digital camera. Why is his brand so strong? In a world full of smartly presented photographers who all look, shoot, and feel similar, Terry is distinctly different. (Check out the video, where Terry talks about his approach and his new Belvedere Vodka campaign.)
Another example is Australian landscape photographer Peter Lik. In a market saturated with great landscape photography, much of which never sells, Peter’s business generates more than $30,000,000 per year (US!!). Peter’s photography, while brilliant, is hardly the sole reason for his success. The essence of Peter Lik’s brand is the creation of a photographic experience. In particular, his galleries are must-see destinations. What you buy is not just a beautiful picture but a small part of everything that you experience in Peter’s world.
The critical third stage in defining your brand is determining what the attributes are that make up your brand. Attributes are like brand DNA. These are the tangible and intangible, emotional and functional characteristics that you and your business, product, or service are — or could credibly become. If expressed and managed correctly, these attributes become the reasons for people to trust and do business with you.
Here’s an example. I asked 10 people who know of Peter Lik to give me 20 words that describe what they believe him to be. I put every word, including those repeated, into Wordle, which creates a prioritized word cloud showing most-used bigger and least-used smaller. This this is a visual representation of Peter Lik’s brand attributes, according to these 10 people.
You’ll notice that the functional description of him as a “landscape photographer” is rated low. From a brand perspective, this is excellent because being a landscape photographer is just the cost of entry, it is not enough to define him as unique. Peter has purposefully built his brand around the attributes that help set him apart. That is how a strong brand works.
So, how do you determine your attributes? Here are eight questions that will help you find them. More »
Name: Lisa Wiseman
Location: San Francisco
Full-time job: Photographer
Personal project name and short description
The New Polaroid — This project is shot completely with my iPhone and is an exploration of iPhone as the new Polaroid. As the iPhone is becoming a ubiquitous and trendy accessory, on-the-go picture taking is now the norm. I see people using their iPhones to take spontaneous photos in the same carefree way that cheap Polaroid has been used in the past. In concept and ideology, the iPhone mimics Polaroid; however, it pushes the aesthetic forward by utilizing a new non-film (but technologically infantile) medium. Just like traditional Polaroids had a specific size and unique look, iPhone photos are unmistakable because the technology limits them to a fixed size and resolution and imbues them with a unique chromatic aberration that says “iPhone” and nothing else.
When and why did you start it?
I have been shooting with my iPhone since I got it approximately two years ago. I started showing The New Polaroid alongside my portraiture portfolios on my website and in my book in June, 2008, along with other personal work including a project shot on traditional Polaroid film. It was important to me to show my potential clients another side of my shooting personality — I wanted creatives to have a feel for what the world looks like to me and what I photograph when I’m not shooting portraits. With a wider breadth of work encompassing still lifes and interiors, I wanted to show that my vision carries through everything I shoot. Showing personal work has directly led to jobs, and when I show my work in person my work seems to resonate more with the viewer because it includes the iPhone images and traditional Polaroids.
Do you have a particular image you are especially drawn to so far? More »
There’s nothing more ego shattering than interviewing a photographer who is as old as my career is long and finding out that she has kicked my ass in a market place that I coveted for years. Shooting book covers for literary works is downright respectable in a bizarre, pseudo-erudite sort of way.
“Did you read Rolling’s Recalcitrant Ruminations of Ruskin?”
“Why no darling, but I did shoot the image for the cover of the hardback.”
“Oh, bravo. Glass of sherry?”
I tried to get into that publishing circle for years. To say that they didn’t give two shits about me is, to be honest, crediting myself with one shit too many. Which brings me to my guest, photographer Claire Rosen. She was recently contacted by the boutique global publishing firm Random House to shoot the cover (left) of Sarah Addison Allen’s book The Girl who Chased the Moon.
The folks at Random House were intrigued by Miss Rosen’s distinct style of photography when they came across it at one of her gallery openings. The assignment (I’m not joking): Read the book and pitch some ideas of how the cover should be shot. The folks at Random House chose one of the ideas and Claire was, (I promise, I’m not joking), free to go shoot it and send in the results.
That kind of paid creative freedom with a high-profile client is practically nonexistent in contemporary society. Not only do you get paid to do your creative thing, you can window shop at a Barnes and Noble on a date and feign surprise when you see your book cover. If I want to accidentally-on-purpose show off my book cover I have to start a fire in the café of the book store, convince my date that it’s safest in the photography section and then use my book to fan away the smoke. “You okay? Hey look at that!”
Gigs like Miss Rosen’s can become a wonderful source of work. In just a week since receiving her first assignment, she has landed another book cover. If you’re interested in doing this type of work, you need to keep one thing in mind: The people at publishing houses who are green-lighting covers aren’t looking for photographers. They are looking for covers.
I reached out to a senior art director at Little, Brown Books to find out what he’s looking for from photographers. He suggests going to the bookstore to find covers, illustrated or photographic, that are similar to your narrative style. Check the imprint names on the books’ spines and contact those publishers to get the name of their art director.
The best way to reach out art directors is by mailing a hard-copy promo with an example of your work. Email promos have become the bane of art directors, my contact said. The barrage of email promos from listing services has resulted in a backlash, and they are routinely deleted out of hand.
One phrase that stood out in my interview with the Little, Brown art director was “cover appropriate.” Take the time to do your research. If your work doesn’t look like any cover you’ve seen, then don’t send it to the publishers.
With all that in mind, take a day and hang out at the bookstore — you could find a whole new direction for your photography business. Just please pretend not to notice if you see a guy in the café torching a pile of coffee beans.
Miki Johnson: Why is this such an exciting time for photo books?
Darius Himes: Books are amazing vehicles that have been with humans for millennia and have a fascinating history as objects of beauty, as well as conveyors of ideas. Books are also physical objects with a rich history of scripts, fonts, inks, papers, bindings and photographic reproduction techniques. For centuries, however, these skills and literacy itself was held by “the few.” Only in the last century have we seen a marked increase in the amount of printed material available. And when it comes to photography books, the print-on-demand phenomenon has truly transformed the landscape. Literally anyone has the capacity and the access to publish a book of images.
MJ: Now that anyone can make a book, it seems even more important for a photographer to establish their goals for a book before they begin assembling it.
DH: Setting out with a clear purpose is crucial to any endeavor. Photographers are creating books for a wide range of uses, from leave-behind portfolio pieces intended solely to garner assignments, all the way to conceiving and creating mass market books on any number of subjects.
MJ: Is this why the Photography.Book.Now contest has three separate categories?
DH: Yes. The three categories of this years’ contest are designed to let photographers approach the idea of a “photography book” from three different angles. The fine-art category is extremely broad and the most subjective. Photographers and photo-based artists can do whatever they want to produce their book. Often, these books are made by practicing artists and have little regard for communicating a specific narrative to a large audience.
Editorial photography, the second category, is a different animal. But let me state something at the outset: I’m not interested in, or trying to stoke the debate about, what constitutes “art” photography. Anything done well is done artfully. If it serves the goals that one sets out with, then “art” has been employed. I don’t want anyone to think that any of the three categories don’t somehow employ art or doesn’t constitute artfully done work.
Editorial and commercial photographers often serve patrons other than themselves; this the a big distinction. So, an editorial photographer assigned to cover a story may find themselves with a much larger body of work than will ever get published in a magazine. Likewise, a commercial shooter might have photographic skills that can be translated into a “commercial” book project; publishers also conceive of book projects in-house and then commission commercial photographers for the book.
Perhaps some concrete examples would help. This new book from Princeton Architectural Press—Bamboo Fences, by Isao Yoshikawa and Osamu Suzuki — is a great example of a commercial book project. It’s about a very specific subject — bamboo fence building in Japan — and the photographs by Suzuki perfectly illustrate the work. It’s primarily a photobook, but is supplemented by the text. Here’s another example: Bird, by Andrew Zuckerman. It has a specific subject matter artfully photographed by a commercial photographer. The publisher, Chronicle Books, probably hopes the audience for this book — and by that I mean ultimate sales for the book — will be upwards of 50,000+.
Two examples of books that have a broad “trade” appeal, but which are not “commercial” books like the ones above, are Jonah Frank’s Right, Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League (Chronicle Books), and Articles of Faith by Dave Jordano (Center for American Places). In my mind, both of these books probably stemmed from assignments that blossomed into the book-length projects we see in the stores. Both have more of a storytelling quality to them than either Bamboo Fences or Bird. In that sense, they come out of a “documentary” tradition, but are presented in an appealing way to as broad an audience as possible.
MJ: What uses does a self-published book lend itself to? Do photographers use them to collect images that didn’t warrant prints? Or as an alternative for a portfolio? Or a leave-behind? Or a family gift?
DH: All of the things you mention, I’ve seen. I’ve also seen photographers use the self-publishing, print-on-demand technology to create “limited run” books. Photographer Andrew Phelps took a small body of work called Baghdad Suite and issued a self-published, print-on-demand book of only 100 copies, which sold out rather quickly. It’s a great idea to use this technology to disseminate a body of work that is either small, in terms of number of images, or limited, in terms of it’s appeal or audience.
MJ: In your eyes, what makes a photo book great?
DH: From John Gossage, as quoted in The Photobook: A History, Volume 1 (Phaidon, 2004): “Firstly, it should contain great work. Secondly, it should make that work function as a concise world within the book itself. Thirdly, it should have a design that complements what is being dealt with. And finally, it should deal with content that sustains an ongoing interest.”
When you’re making a book for a broader audience, think like a publisher. Visit publisher websites, read the catalog copy, and craft your book the way they craft their books. Every publisher approaches things differently. If you consistently like books from one publisher, really study how they put together a book. A book from Princeton Architectural Press is quite different from a book by Radius Books. In other words, learn from those already in the field.
Often photographers, naturally so, get wrapped up in the individual images and either lose sight of the overall picture and purpose of the book, or they simply never arrive at an overall picture, and the book lacks focus.
And don’t forget that a book is not just a bunch of CMYK printed images sandwiched between two boards. Text and titles, fonts and captions, of course editing and sequencing, as well as how the image sits on the page-spread and what it is placed next to — all of these little elements can make or break a book.
MJ: Do you have an example of a self-published book that has been very successful?
DH: The most famous example is Alec Soth. In 2003, Alec came to Review Santa Fe, an annual portfolio review event, looking for exposure and a publisher for a body of work titled Sleeping by the Mississippi. What we all know is that, after the exposure he received there — he won the Santa Fe Prize that year — his small print-on-demand book made it into the hands of Steidl, where it has now entered it’s third printing. Alec received huge recognition for his work in the intervening years and is now part of the prestigious Magnum agency. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger included Alec’s handmade book in Volume 2 of their seminal survey of photography books, The Photobook: A History (Phaidon).
The way it used to be for commercial photographers was, once we shot the film, it was given to the agency and we never saw it again. It was very rare that you were involved at all in any of the postproduction. Which was fine sometimes, but sometimes the end result was different than the original intent. Now, because of the advances in technology, there has a niche has developed between photography and pre-press.
Instead of pre-press doing all the postproduction, today the photographer does postproduction on their own, or they hand it off to someone like GreenBox to do the work before it’s passed on to pre-press. One-way to look at it is: The budget is out there for retouching on every job, regardless of who does it. There’s nothing that doesn’t get touched by Photoshop these days. The question is, who is going to get paid to do that postproduction work?
If photographers want to do their own retouching, it’s a good skill to develop and I think it’s good to retain control up to the very last minute. But that only works if you’ve got the time and the deadline fits your schedule. When you get really busy, you end up thinking to yourself, “I’ve already shot this and sold it to the client; I want to do the retouching, but I don’t have the time to because I’ve got another shoot the next day.” And inevitably everyone wants everything delivered immediately, so you get to a point where you realize there is only so much you can handle. I’ve also heard stories about agencies getting burned by photographers who want to do their own retouching but are not really technically skilled with Photoshop and pre-press requirements. They deliver the file and then the agency has to source it out for someone else to fix.
Another option would be for the photographer to hire a freelancer, so the files can be worked on the next day while the photographer is shooting another job. That’s a possibility too. But again, then you’re relying on the availability of the freelancer. Typically if you find someone who understands what you want and how you like it, then you’re much more dependent on that person. If you call them up and say, “I need you to do this tomorrow,” and they’re booked for the next three days, then you might have to go to someone else whom you’ve never worked with before.
The third option is to have someone on staff full-time to do retouching, but then you have to be shooting enough to support that. Having someone in-house to do retouching is a great option for a photographer because the Photoshop work is a good second revenue stream, if you can find additional clients who only want retouching services.
The ebbs and flows for a postproduction studio run along the same lines as those for a photography studio. But when you’re a photographer specializing in a certain area, that’s the only source of income coming in, as opposed to this model with GreenBox, where we could be drawing from several sources. So even now when a lot of people are really slow, there’s always somebody working — and they need retouching services. That way you can becomes less dependent on just one circle of income.
If you’re going to start your own postproduction studio, it’s good to have a focus, an area that you specialize in, just as you should as a photographer. I’ve always felt that, if I were a client and I looked at someone’s portfolio and they had some fashion, they had some still life, they had some landscape, even if they’re all good, I really don’t have a clear picture of what they love, where their passion lies. But then I might interview someone else and they only have food — well it becomes obvious that person really likes doing food photography. And if I needed food photography done, I think I’d want to go to that person instead of someone who says, well, yeah, I do food photography too. And that directly translates to what we do at GreenBox Imaging.
No matter how photographers do it, I think it’s important that they always include retouching as a separate line item — I cannot stress this enough. Because no matter what you do with digital files, it takes time to process them and prepare them to be handed over to the client. Even simple processing, renaming, and organizing your images without any retouching can take some time. The big danger is if photographers include processing and retouching in their photography fee, clients start to think, why should I pay extra for it, it’s included. Just like anything else in business, it’s always a good idea to have it called out as separate charge, even if you’re doing it yourself.
Pricing for retouching can be all over the place, but it generally runs from $150 to $300 an hour from a postproduction house. In my experience, that is what agencies and design firms typically budget for retouching and postproduction services as part of a project. We try to look at it on a per-project basis and quote it that way, but in general if you go somewhere with your files, that’s the range that’s out there.
The client explains what they want and you try to estimate how many hours it will take as closely as possible. Sometimes that’s very difficult to do; you never know what’s going to happen down the line during the postproduction process. Maybe the designer goes through the image and gets it the way they want it and only then it gets passed on to the client. The client may say, “That looks great,” or they may have a bunch of changes, and those are the things that are unpredictable. All you can do is estimate as close as possible; then when we get to that point where we start running out of time, we notify the client and say, we have this much time left. The request you just sent is going to push us over, or it’s within the budget but anything after that we’ll need more hours added on. That’s all you can do, to keep the client informed of where they are money-wise and time-wise, and in the long run it only makes you more respectable as a postproduction studio.
We converted to digital capture in 1999, and were curious about color reproduction, image quality, and what we could do with retouching and compositing. Compositing seemed like a powerful tool to create new images from existing ones — about anything you could imagine, you could produce. I got really involved with Photoshop at the very beginning so that I could begin compositing new images. I was lucky enough to be invited to the first Photoshop Invitational sponsored by Adobe introducing Photoshop 1.0 in 1990. This was when I really realized the huge potential Photoshop had as a creative tool, and I knew that in the long term mastering this tool would be important for the success of my studio. Using Photoshop, as well as attending the conference got me more interested in color and color reproduction, and that’s when I really got involved with color management.
Because we were early adopters of digital photography, it made sense for our studio to do simple digital retouching too. It also seemed like the perfect time to offer retouching to our clients, which we started in 2000. At first we had a person working full-time in the studio who focused only on Photoshop retouching. We would shoot one day and she would work on the files the next. Then, about a year and a half ago, we decided to split off a separate business, GreenBox Imaging, Inc. We found a building directly in back of our photo studio, moved everything over there, and made it into a separate corporation that is totally independent of Michael Lamotte Studios.
When we were considering whether GreenBox would make enough to justify being a separate company, we already knew it would since we were already doing it in-house profitably. One of the reasons we decided to split GreenBox off was because it was making enough money to support itself and make a profit. With some projects, the postproduction ends up costing more than the photography. Not because you did a bad job with the photographs, just because everyone is always trying to find a new way to see things; everybody is always pushing the envelope and using retouching as a solution. It’s also a great tool to help photographer solve problems like scale amd lighting that come up on set.
Up until now GreenBox Imaging hasn’t taken on many projects besides my own images because we wanted to get all the kinks out before we offered our services to others. That’s what we’re in the process of doing now. I hired another person, Ian Stone, who is doing the marketing and sales for GreenBox Imaging. We also have Colin Birdseye, our Photoshop artist, John William Lund, our color expert, and Gail, my wife, who is the CFO. Then we hire freelance Photoshop artists as we need them so we can be flexible; when it gets busy we just bring on more staff. We take pride in our staff and our ability to quickly adapt and serve our clients within their specified time constraints.
Our general workflow works like this: GreenBox gets instructions of what a client wants us to do. Colin may talk to the client first and see if he has any suggestions to improve the image. Then we do those corrections and we send them a JPG or proof and say, “This is the image with the corrections we discussed, and this is how it looks at this point.” That may be final or we may do additional corrections, based on what happens during that conversation with the client.
If we create a custom color profile of the prepress house’s proofing device, we can then predict their results, essentially emulating their printer so both outputs will match. The client then makes final comments from our proof, and once everyone approves it and signs off, we send the prepress house our custom CMYK file and our proof. Using our custom CMYK file, their first output on their proofing device should look pretty close to our proof, which everyone already approved. That’s a better scenario than sending an RGB file to prepress, then they have to separate it, turn it into CMYK, and try to make their output look like our approved output. That’s not the most efficient way to work; it’s just going to cost the client more money in the long run and take more time.
It’s a little difficult sometimes because technology has faded the lines between photographer, retouching, post production, and prepress; its sort of unclear where everybody’s responsibility stops. For me, the more control the photographer has over the image, the better. This way someone can’t take your image and change your original vision. Maybe you have a warm look to your image and you like that look, then a prepress retoucher decides, we should neutralize, the color is off. These are all reasons it pays to build an ongoing relationship with your retoucher, the prepress people, as well as your client. Once all of the components are in sync, it’s much easier to produce reliable, consistent, beautiful work and in a very cost-effective way. It also helps streamline the workflow to get the highest possible quality in the most efficient manner — something that GreenBox is always doing.
A big reason for a photographer or agency to work with a studio like GreenBox is that it’s a resource that’s always there, always consistent, always available and most importantly doing the highest quality work. You’re building a relationship where you know what your client likes and needs. And for smaller photo studios, it allows them to offer to their clients additional capabilities. They can shoot it, retouch it, and deliver CMYK files with approved reference prints — everything — with GreenBox’s help. So it can give a smaller photo studio the ability to look bigger, without putting up the money and staff to have that capability on their own.
We’re trying to create more of a boutique studio at GreenBox. We want to be a place that is more personal, not a huge place with a night shift where you’re not sure who’s working on your images and you’re getting inconsistent results from project to project. We want to keep our service focused and personal and really work with clients to get the best results possible. When you send something to a big place, they’re only going to do what you tell them to do. With GreenBox you’ll actually talk to the Photoshop artist, and if he or she has any ideas for ways to further improve your image, they will at least discuss that with the photographer or client. The other thing that sets GreenBox apart is our ability to help you develop a color-managed workflow that will deliver accurate results and save both you and your client time and money.
Having a food and prop stylist you work well with is extremely important. Usually when we’re interviewing a new stylist, they bring their portfolio in and we talk: What did you do on this? Oh, that looks good, what was your technique? Where did you get that item? Did you do the props? Sometimes food stylists do propping as well. Sometimes prop stylist do some easy food styling. Generally the way we operate with a new stylist is to suggest doing a portfolio shot together and see how we work together. That way we each get a portfolio piece. And then you have a better understanding of how they work and how well you work together and whether you communicate effectively. It’s like a test run.
We have a full studio and kitchen with a stove, oven, and refrigerators. We also have space for three freezers for the ice cream because we do a lot of ice cream. The ice cream is another whole specialty. There are food stylists who specialize in ice cream. It’s difficult and hard work because you have to scoop and shape all day. First the stylist takes a one-gallon or five-gallon tub and cuts it down the middle with a large cheese knife. Before they scoop, they can see where the variegates or fudge swirls are to see where the good spots are. Then they drag their scoop through that area to create a ball. But it’s a process of doing that over and over again until they get a good scoop. A stylist might get five balls that look good, but throw away 20.
One of our freezers is a dipping cabinet like the type one sees in an ice cream store. After scooping a ball with enough distribution and good texture, a “fluffy skirt” is built around it to make it appear freshly scooped. The client on set has approved both the ball and the skirt, which has been set on a piece of marble or in a bowl. The scoop returns to the dipping cabinet for a bit before it is brought on set and quickly photographed. The image is examined to determine if any modifications need to be made such as adding another chocolate chip or another swirl. There are some modifications that can be made on set while others can be accomplished through retouching.
We sometimes allow the ice cream to melt just a little bit to get the shot the client approves. During post production, melt drops are sometimes cloned on to the ice cream scoop in a place where it might look good that the ice cream is a little melty. That gives us more control over the look we’re trying to achieve. I always strive to give the most accurate and truthful representation of the product. Then, with the ice cream, we print out that version and give it to the art director or client to mark up: move that chip, lighten that area, add additional chips. Then we take the marked up sheet to GreenBox Imaging, the retouching part of our company. The image and comments shift back and forth between the design firm and GreenBox’s retoucher. When the retoucher feels the image is exactly how the design firm wants it, the retouched image is presented to the client for feedback. The fact that we were involved in the decisions from the beginning gives us an advantage in delivering exactly what the client wants.
The other key team members of my team are my studio manager, prop stylist, and photo and food stylist assistants. The studio manager is the backbone of the studio. He is responsible for booking, coordinating, organizing, receiving, shipping, processing, printing, documenting, trouble-shooting and client hosting — just to name a few of his responsibilities. I think it becomes apparent just how important your team is on complicated projects like this.
Let me walk you through one project we’re doing, a new frozen food product. To begin with, the designer called me and we talked about what the requirements were. This was for packaging, so she showed me the rough layout they had, the size of the package, and the area they needed for type and graphics. Then — this doesn’t always happen, but it’s good when it does — we did a test shoot. We were able to take one day with the food stylist and we tried to shoot as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just to get across the idea and see what works and what doesn’t work. What lighting or angle or props look good. There are so many combinations that have to work together. So we would work through that and then the designer would take those photos and create a couple different layouts to present to the client. And then, after long discussions, the client decided which direction they felt is best. And once that’s established we do it all over again. But this time we care much more about what it looks like. In this particular case we did two rounds of that. We did another round of shooting to establish what it was going to look like because they had a slight shift in what the prerequisites were.
On the production side, when we were actually doing the shoot, it meant coordinating, getting the product here, having freezer space, and having the right equipment to cook it. We had to figure out how best to do that. It’s sort of exploring how to get the most truthful representation of the product, trying to get the best out of it and still not lying about what the product is or looks like. We’re just trying to show it in its best light. The stylist in that particular case also had to work with the client to determine what side dishes they wanted. Do you want rice and a vegetable or a potato and a vegetable? What are the combinations? Or what garnishes can we use? What things can we put on it to make it look better? It’s a fine line; you don’t want it to look like it’s something that’s supposed to come with it.
Then there are the props. In this particular project we had to find the right plate to put it on to give it the right feel or atmosphere. If they want it to look casual, they want a certain kind of plate; if they want it to look upscale, it would be a different kind of plate. So there’s a whole process of figuring out, where do we want to position this? It’s a group effort. Ideally you want to have the actual product, the food, and the plates together under the lights and put it under the camera and see what works. You can’t really predict those things until you see them in context.
We have a lot of plates and dishes and flatware in the studio, but usually the requirements are more specific than that. Usually it has to be a certain size, a certain color, it has to have a red band on it or something. So being a prop stylist is actually a very difficult job. People say, that sounds like fun, to go shopping with other people’s money — it’s not that easy. It’s usually very specific. A client might say, once I saw this plate that was green and it had little speckles around the edge and it was about seven inches in diameter. And I don’t know where I saw it, but I really like that one, find that. Or for this particular project, the plate had to be a certain size because, if the plate’s too big, it looks like the portion you get is too small. If it’s too small, the portion looks gigantic. So you’ve got to find that middle ground. It’s very difficult finding the exact fit that everybody likes. The other thing that happens is the client says, I saw this plate over at this store; then you go to get it and they don’t stock it anymore. Occasionally we actually have to have a plate made from scratch. We went to the model maker and it turns out they do that for Pottery Barn and stores like that. They design a model and do a plate for them, so it was no big deal for them to do it for us.
Working with food, you have a relatively small window of time to work in. Ice cream, for instance, is a really small window. But usually the longer anything sits out, it’s not good. It’s best to capture it as soon as possible. That’s why on the day of the shoot, if we didn’t do a test shot ahead of time, we would figure out the camera angle, the lighting, get it all set up and then the food stylist would make it all over again and make sure it looks really good the second time. The first version is sort of stand-in food so you don’t care if it sits out there for an hour because you’re just getting the composition and the lighting where you want it. Then when everything is set you bring in the fresh food and shoot it right away.
Once we have the image we like, we bring it to post-production. The thing that I think is interesting is, if you know you have that option of retouching you can use it as a tool for shooting. If there is this technical issue or, particularly in packaging, if there is a size problem. One project we did was a limited budget and they wanted to do it as efficiently as possible. So we shot the food for the front panel of the package and then the back of the package there was another photo of that same dish but it was pulled way back to leave room for the type. So instead of trying to shoot the main shot then pull back and shoot it again with more background, we shot it for the front and made sure everything looked good on the whole plate. Then at the end of the shoot we pulled back, set up that other shot, kept the camera angle exactly the same, then in post production we cut the food off the plate in the front shot and shrunk it down to fit on the plate that was on the back. So it’s an exact copy without having to shoot it twice. Because the food wouldn’t have lasted from one shot to the next. We would have had to make everything twice.