telling stories through photography (learning from Penny De Los Santos)

In this final post recapping last weekend’s CreativeLIVE workshop with photographer Penny De Los Santos, I simply want to list some of the points made about photography and artistic endeavors, in general. Because Penny primarily works as a food photographer at present, much of the discussion about making good photos centered around the subject of food, but as I listened and made notes during the 3-day series I realized just how much the principles of food photography apply to other areas of creativity. And Penny said it herself in answer to a question from the Internet chat room about whether she enjoyed the food photography of the present more than the travel photography of her earlier career: “Food photography is travel photography,” she said. “Portrait photography is travel photography. It’s all the same. Food is a connector. It’s what brings us all together. Photography is just an exploration of that connection.” I immediately thought of James Oseland’s statement from the first day that photographers are “anthropologists of the cultures” that they shoot. I was intrigued by the idea that I can use my little camera to document things that interest me and, by doing so, tell stories in a different way than I’m used to doing. It’s just as valid for me, an amateur, to do it as it is for a professional photographer on assignment with a magazine. Honestly, that just thrills me! So I listened closely and snapped screen shots from the video feed of the workshop as Penny walked through her process of documenting food and food culture. Her words were instructive, but watching her work was invaluable. I’ve said this again and again since last weekend but it bears repeating… I will never see things in the same way again. I’ll never look through my camera and just snap a quick image and then walk away. I’ll never be able to look at a magazine without seeing behind the photos to imagine what the shoot must have been like. And I’ll never again overlook the art in seemingly simple or mundane images. I also hope I never miss the art in the everyday. What I’ve learned from Penny De Los Santos is that there is beauty in the small details — even just a bowl of noodles.

photos by Penny De Los Santos

Words of wisdom from James Oseland, Editor of Saveur magazine (italics mine)
In order to make great photos (and I’d add, to tell great stories), you have to fall in love with every environment that you’re in. Respect it and fall completely into whatever is around you. Show up ready to love it and be excited about your subject. Show up with enthusiasm. Listen to people. Study what in their lives is worth celebrating.
You will never create the photo you want unless you are also experiencing the same emotions you hope to capture.
Oftentimes, what you’re not familiar with is the best subject to explore. When you want to know something more about a subject then it’s worth looking for a story.


Advice from Larry Nighswander, Photography Director at Saveur
Don’t just make “pretty pictures.” Photos should have a purpose or editorial reference.

    Three questions to ask when creating (editing the subjects of) your photographs:

  1. Does it have technical excellence?
  2. Does it have compositional creativity?
  3. Does the photograph have any purpose or any use to me in making a statement?

An excellent photographer will construct a frame that has an effective foreground, a contributing middle ground, and a background that adds an element to the photo.

Over the last 2 days of the workshop we were privileged to watch Penny shoot 5 different food setups, the process of food prep inside a Seattle food truck, and a full-on oyster roast (recreated in an alleyway), and I was literally rapt the entire time. Seeing people completely in their element, doing what they love to do and speaking with great passion about it, is simply inspiring to me. I was amazed at the progression of the food scenes as a stylist added small elements and took away others while Penny stood on ladders and got on her knees and shot images from various angles. I was fascinated by the level of attention given to a plate of food, and then seeing the final results was sometimes breathtaking. You could never have told me that I would feel such emotion while watching a photographer shoot static subjects, and yet Penny was able to show me how emotion and movement and energy can actually be added to a still life. In retrospect, I suppose I knew this was possible, having been mesmerized by paintings in museums, but I never dreamed it could be infused into a photograph of food. I think this was one of the greatest gifts of the workshop, in fact: learning to see things as I’d never seen them before. And for Penny to then instruct us in techniques to do it in our own photos? A true gift, indeed. I defy anyone to not be changed (and to not have their art changed) after putting these techniques into practice. As I’ve said before, these are more than just photography tips. They are useful for inspiration in all areas of art… and sometimes even life.

photos by Penny De Los Santos
photo by Penny De Los Santos

Keys to Great Photography (and Storytelling)
Go into a project really open. Maybe have an idea of what you’re looking for but be ready to see it all go away. Don’t preconceive the shoot. Just let it happen.
Storytelling can be done really, really well when you do it at various times of the day. Scout your location. Drive around and find great scenes and great settings. EXPLORE. Go back to the same place at different times and capture the variations.
Remember to tell the full story. Capture a sense of place, portraits, details, scenes, individual moments. To begin, consider starting with details and the sense of place — just to get yourself in the moment — but always watch what’s happening with the primary subject so you can be ready when the action begins.
Think about the scene. Are you capturing the scene? Have you waited for the scene? Get the details and intimate moments and the fullness of the scene. Do what it takes to capture the essence and the scope of the scene.
Focus on the EXERCISE of taking photos. Don’t worry about the photos themselves. Just focus on the process. Take leaps and exercise your eye.
Shoot as if you are using film rather than digital. Shoot as if you can’t see the photos while you make them.
Think about your point of entry into the photograph: the spot where your eye lands when you look at the photo. Make sure it’s interesting enough to begin telling the story. Make sure it’s obvious what that story is.

photo by Penny De Los Santos
You have to elevate photographs (especially food photographs). You have to transport people to a place. Take them somewhere in the photograph. There has to be an energy.
Think about the moment. Why are you taking this photo? What are you trying to tell the viewer?
If it’s a shot of someone doing something, find the emotion in the action. If the emotion isn’t there then it’s just a flat shot of someone doing something. You have to elevate it using one of the basic principles (light, composition, framing, etc).
If you stop and click then walk away, it’s not the hero shot, not the best shot you could have taken. Listen to your instincts. When you’re moving, STOP and think about why you’re pausing. What are you looking for? What are you waiting for? Wait until it happens. Be contemplative. Don’t just shoot and walk away. It will look posed. Instead, wait… and listen to the questions you’re asking yourself about the subject and about the scene.
Get lost in the scene, not in the technical details. Be concerned with the scene.

LOOK as much as you can look. Find mentors. Never stop following the dream.
If you’re not doing what you love, why not? Whatever it is you want to do, do it. Whatever it is that you want to be, be it.


About Jules Q

sharing stories of life, faith, and love for pop culture

Posted on 21 May 2011, in Stories I Tell and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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