Sunday, August 29, 2010

IFBC: Food Photography Tips with Penny De Los Santos

Penny and I shot the same market in Jerusalem... squee!!! (Photo is mine)

Over here at the International Food Blogger Conference, we're being treated to the amazing story of Penny De Los Santos, one of my major photography idols. Penny's traveled to over 30 countries shooting for National Geographic and Saveur (where she is now senior contributing photographer - my DREAM job), and 6 cookbooks. She's humble, and well-spoken, and funny. All around, an amazing role model for anyone trying to make a living in the food world, professionals and amateurs alike. As New Orleans-style jazz floats through the heavy black curtains of the conference hall and the smell of wood-fired pizza and roasting meat makes us all realize how hungry we are, Penny's photos are flashing up on the big screen at the front of the dimmed room. Every shot is gorgeous. From a perfect capture of a stir-fry improvisationally taken at the food stylist's cutting board complete with splattered sauces, to a dusty early-morning photo of a running herd of sheep in Idaho, we are seeing Penny's food philosophy come to life.

In a nutshell: Light. Storytelling. Content. Composition.

"I was excited to get paid to make pictures. If I could see the world, make pictures, and enjoy myself, that's what I want to do with my life."

- What makes a good food photograph? Light, Color, Composition, Picking good food subjects that look appetizing.
- Ingredient shots are some of the hardest shots to shoot, because you want them to be appetizing, but they can evoke really strong emotions. Move ingredients to new jars and bowls, work for your pictures.
- Writers think about food very differently from photographers, but working together great photos can happen.
- Break out of your mold, don't show the same thing over and over, even if it looks good, because it will become cliche. We've all seen the photo of people's hands holding ingredients. Do it once, never again. Take risks, be weird.
- Take your camera out of automatic mode, and shoot with manual.
- Give your food some space, let your subject breathe. Try to shoot full frame, photograph the food the way you'd see it on your plate.
- Visual spacing, vary your angles, it keeps people engaged. Very camera angles in the same blog post, especially if it's the same subject. Not all food looks good from the same angle. Primary Camera Angles in Food Photography (Overhead view - I never shoot in full overhead, because I don't think we ever look at food like that, 3/4 view, Side view/straight on)
- "Anytime I walk into a room, I'm always thinking about where the light is coming from. If it's really bright, I try to figure out how to diffuse it." Sometimes you need to go where the light is and make it work, even into a dirty alley behind a dingy Chinese Food restaurant.
- Edit your plate. If food comes out to you in a restaurant looking ugly, ask for another plate and rebuild it from scratch. Or take the food subject and put it in a completely different environment. Place those tamales on a pretty napkin, always be scouting for interesting backgrounds with texture.
- Go prop shopping. Check the Goodwill, Flea Markets, trash cans... find things that inspire you.
- Don't shoot for the assignment. Shoot for yourself.
- Look at photography daily. Study styling!
- Practice photography daily. Take 1 great picture a day, follow your instincts and gut reactions.
- Self assign photography projects. Go out and keep a visual journal, make your own portfolio.
- Be patient. Wait for the shot. Make the shot.

And remember, the most important thing, ALL OF THESE RULES CAN BE BROKEN.

At the end of the seminar, I'm literally in tears. This is so fundamentally, frighteningly, blissfully, what I want to do with my life. I've honestly never heard someone speak so eloquently about the life that I want to lead, putting the way that I really want to shoot into sweet, funny, enlightening words. Thanks so much, Penny. I've felt a bit on the sidelines through most of the IFBC panels, but your talk alone was worth the cost of a ticket. I know I'm going to be spending many, many more hours on my photography. This is what I want to do, and I'm going to do it.


  1. NOW I'm crying. Go follow your bliss.

  2. I was following on the livestream site and felt equally inspired. You have captured this incredibly well--and in what, like, 30 seconds since the session ended??? Seriously inspiring--uh, I mean YOU. Go for it. Your blog already holds the seeds of photographic genius! :)

  3. That's wonderful that Penny's talk moved you so deeply. I took a workshop with her a few months ago and she really is incredible. Right from the heart, and it shows in her frames.

  4. Gorgeous post, wish I could have been there...:)

  5. Thank you so much for taking the time to post this! Much appreciated!

  6. Thanks for the great summary! I was trying to watch/listen on the live feed, but it wasn't a very good picture and not that loud either.

  7. I thank you too; like Kalyn tried to watch but such a poor video it was hard to engage; your highlights and enthusiasm for the speaker make it all better!

  8. You go, girl! So happy your blogging is being responded to. Love your work.

  9. Great info. I also watched the live feed but missed some of it. Thanks for sharing!!

  10. I know! Penny was awesome, wasn't she? Definitely one of the highlights of the conference.

  11. This is an amazing round up, thank you; I feel like I was there!

  12. Maintain 'em coming... you all make such a outstanding job at such Concepts... can't say you how much I, for one appreciate all you do! .