On a Farm in Indiana

From Photojournalism to Farm Life

By • October 12, 2011 • 43 Comments

This is the ninth in a series of weekly farm reports from our own Tom Hirschfeld, complete with recipes, cooking and gardening tips, and wisdom dispensed.

Today: Tom tells us how he learned to shoot food right.

  • Steamed Salmon
  • This picture was taken right on the stovetop around noon. I took the lid to the steamer off, added cilantro and sesame seeds, took twelve photos and then ate a great lunch.

See a little light

- Tom

I stopped being a paid professional photojournalist sometime around 1994. I really couldn’t tell you why I decided to put down the camera, other than I knew it was time for me to leave New York City, where I was freelancing, and come back home to Indiana. But don’t think for a minute that the very thought of coming home didn’t petrify me.

The decision to leave New York City and head back to Indiana wasn’t just a twist in the road, but a full on three point turn in the opposite direction. It felt more like I was waking from a dream and realizing I had never left Kansas and been to Oz.

spiced cider jellies

What I never realized, until recently, was how much I really did learn about photography early on in New York City and from people and photographers I never would have imagined.

When you are young and move to NYC you don’t start out shooting studio portraits of rock stars but in fact generally you start out as an assistant, maybe even a second assistant, to a photographer. It was as an assistant that I found myself in the Hamptons at Carolyne Roehm’s house watching as Maine lobsters were helicoptered in, from Maine, for a photo shoot only to find the $8,000 Tiffany’s plate, which was to be the sexy bed for the lobster porn, had been broken in transit. Oops! I am pretty sure missing Viagra on a porn set is the only thing that could have been worse. The only bright side was the lobster hadn’t been cooked yet and during the down time I spent much of the time talking to Mrs. Roehm’s chef, who was French.

I was surprised that I learned tons by assisting photographers who worked for magazines that, at the time, had no interest to me. Magazines like Architectural Digest and Vogue. Mostly we were shooting interiors and still lifes, which wasn’t the hardcore photojournalism I was craving but I realized it helped a newbie to pay the bills, even if some of your bosses intentionally made you feel like you were a little Dutch boy scrubbing the floor. Yeah, sometimes it was weird.

I learned that the lens sees different than the eye, that props moved only millimeters in one direction or another can make the difference between a good shot and a horrible one. Being back in the days of film, you had to light everything and I got to experience different ways of lighting things daily.

Banana Cream Pie

But here I was back in Indiana now. Once I settled in, bought a house, and got comfortable, I put a darkroom in the basement but never once used it. Realize this was before digital photography, back in the days of negatives, chemicals and photo paper that all reacted to light, so things were quite a bit different. Even so I just couldn’t bring myself to shoot anymore and this persisted even when the age of digital finally got off the ground.

The interesting thing to me was, although I wasn’t shooting pictures, I was still seeing pictures, capturing moments in my head, or seeing beautiful light. All the things years of shooting had taught me didn’t stop just because I didn’t have a camera in front of my face. I couldn’t get away from it nor did I really want to.

I still liked this way of seeing and beautiful light, like how morning light streams between tall buildings bring to life pedestrians on the street or how amazing dead drooping sunflowers along a fence row can look so vibrant at sunrise. It always thrilled me to see, even if I was just capturing it in my head.

So when people ask me about photography, what I have always told them and still tell them is: open your eyes and learn to see.

Cauliflower Spoon Eggs

Seeing involves three things: light, composition, and a moment. It is the countless ways you can put these three things together that has made for great photographs over the years and once you start to see you will make great photographs too.

Honestly, a camera is just like a paint brush -- it is what physically captures the photograph, and the better you know how to use your camera, the better your photographs can potentially be. But in the end it is only a tool and it alone will not make you a photographer or make your pictures better. Ultimately what you want a brush to be is an extension of you and the same goes for a camera, it is an extension of your eyes and mind that you use to capture your vision. The better you know your camera (from a phone camera to a DSLR), the better you will be able to use it to capture your vision.

I am a big proponent of real and honest food in a real setting. I don’t have a studio, I don’t light anything with photo lights, nor do I have a set and very rarely if ever do I set up reflective cards to cast light into the shadows. I use windows and natural light, I keep it simple. In fact the two times for the best light of the day is in the early morning, or right around dinner time, which is perfect.

  • tom's studio
  • My studio (a.k.a the dining room) at prime time

I do however look for moments. What do I mean by this? Well, many times I will plate a dish and then walk it to a window making sure all incandescent lights are turned off. I shoot pictures of the dish and then I serve it for dinner. I almost never make something for the sake of a photograph (real and honest food, remember.) But as I am eating, or serving the food from a platter to a plate, I may notice a moment, or a scene, where the food looks good and I will shoot more pics. Sometimes that is an environmental shot of the whole table or a place setting or another tight shot of the plate, it just depends. Keep your eyes open and you will start to see these moments. (There are times when I see moments but let them go because my family is more important than a photo. I use my best judgement, and if I don’t, the kids will tell me. Family first.)

There are tons of photo books and probably websites that talk about photo composition from things like rule of thirds to a clean background. You have to learn the rules -- it is just like learning the color wheel in art class or your multiplication tables in math. Once you start to put them into practice it becomes natural instinct.

Really though, learn to see light. It is your best friend, it will improve you photos ten fold. Set nicely plated food next to a window, then turn it slowly 360? and watch, study and take mental notes as the light moves around the plate and see what looks best.

All that being said, the thing one really needs to have happen before you even decide to make a picture of food is learn how to plate. The best photo in the world cannot make bad-looking food look good and I don’t care what app you use to try to hide that fact, it won’t work.

TO BE CONTINUED

Thai Noodles

Tom's Tips for Photographing Food

Warning: You will fail this class if you invite friends over for dinner, then take your camera out, delay dinner, and serve them lukewarm food. There is a time and place for this stuff and it is not when the most important thing is making sure you are paying attention to your friends and family. 

1. Learn what depth of field, f-stop and shutter speed are and how they affect your photos.

2. A tripod is really important. Spend the money on a good one and you won’t ever regret it.

3. Shoot lots of pictures, not all on the same camera settings. It's not like you are actually paying for film.

4. Learn to use your camera like you take a breath. In other words, become familiar with it, sleep with it, and make it an extension of who you are.

5. Use the highest quality photo setting your camera will allow. The “raw” setting is best.

6. Make sure what you want to be in focus is.

7. You don’t need a two thousand dollar camera to take great photographs. Wait until someone is paying you money for your photos to spend this kind of cash. Many of my favorite pics have been taken with an iPhone (see a video slideshow) and a really old Nikon Cool Pix.

8. Imitation will teach you a lot, so recreate photographs that you like. Look at different photographers work and ask yourself why you like their work then use that information in you own photographs. Eventually you will develop a style that is a conglomeration of all these photos and photographers you have borrowed from.

9. Practice, practice, practice.

Want more life on the farm? See how Tom gets ready for winter: On Prepping for Winter and Butternut Squash Posole

chip & dips

 

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Comments (43)

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almost 3 years ago easantillo

Wow, excellent post! Thanks for the succinct advice.

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almost 3 years ago Waverly

Thank you for all of the good tips, Tom. RE. the tripod, Tom, do you use it all the time? Do you use a small table-top tripod or the large kind? Thank you.

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

As a general rule of thumb anything under 125th of a second shutter speed and you should use a tripod. Especially if your are really close to the subject. I use the large kind because I can raise and lower it to the height I need and with a table top it will limit you pretty much to one height.

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

As a general rule of thumb anything under 125th of a second shutter speed and you should use a tripod. Especially if your are really close to the subject. I use the large kind because I can raise and lower it to the height I need and with a table top it will limit you pretty much to one height.

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almost 3 years ago gingerroot

This is a fabulous post. Thank you for all the great tips.

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

thanks gingerroot

Claire

almost 3 years ago midnitechef

Hmm, I think I saw a tripod in the garage. I'll have to dig it out after reading this! Thanks for the tips :)

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

If it is like my garage, good luck with that.

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almost 3 years ago deanna1001

Great tips. Having been on many photo shoots (but not assisting...producing) I agree that it makes you look at the world with a more critical eye to making a photo... Thanks for a terrific post.

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

thank you

Henrykiss

almost 3 years ago arielleclementine

wonderful article! thanks so much for sharing your tips!

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

your welcome arielleclementine

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almost 3 years ago Pam Rauber

Your best advice....practice, practice, practice.

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almost 3 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

I took a photography class 2 years ago, bought a tripod and have hardly used it! My tip - take a deep breath, hold it and snap! That's what I was taught.

Once my 'container' is unpacked with all our stuff from the Netherlands, I'll go back to experimenting with the tripod. She says.

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almost 3 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

Spot on Tom - I say photographers in my opinion are almost next to God in their ability to capture and showcase beauty from a new perspective.

I often am enamoured with the stripping on the skin of a fruit and so when I begin to photograph it - that's what I capture. I look for what appeals to me/catches my 3rd eye about the image, plate or scene set before me and I try to capture that and distill the essense.

There's no substitute for taking lots of photos!

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

Thanks KB. And might I add if I had to choose a food52 book party your party that you are throwing Nigeria would be at the top of my list. I can't wait to see pictures.

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almost 3 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

:-). I'm smiling - thanks for your comment. I'll have to bottle up some Nigerian goodness and bring with me if I'm ever near Indiana. In the interim, I'm hoping to share more Nigerian foods now I'm back home. Take care

Fb

almost 3 years ago BlueKaleRoad

Thank you for sharing your experiences and tips!

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

you are welcome

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almost 3 years ago Kelly Clark

I love how generous you are with your knowledge and how honest and funny your stories are. You are a good storyteller. And your advice is good and very practical. I appreciate how this piece is so different from the others. And that pie up there is glorious looking, the use of the photos throughout the story were perfectly placed. I am very happy with this 9th installment of yours. When's the book come out?

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

thanks Kelly

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almost 3 years ago Kelly Clark

I love how generous you are with your knowledge and how honest and funny your stories are. You are a good storyteller. And your advice is good and very practical. I appreciate how this piece is so different from the others. And that pie up there is glorious looking, the use of the photos throughout the story were perfectly placed. I am very happy with this 9th installment of yours. When's the book come out?

Me

almost 3 years ago wssmom

Thanks Tom, once again!

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

anytime wssmom

Winnie100

almost 3 years ago WinnieAb

Tom this is just such a lovely piece in so many ways...I really enjoyed it and will look forward to the next installment :)

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

Thanks Winnie, I know how you like photography and I have seen some of you great pics.

Jess-otoole

almost 3 years ago la domestique

Thanks for sharing your journey, I really enjoyed reading it. Love tip #7- I use a point and shoot nikon coolpix for everything. It seems to me that learning how to use your camera to the best of it's ability, using natural light, having a good eye and knowing how to plate food is better than taking mediocre pictures with a fancy camera.

Jess-otoole

almost 3 years ago la domestique

Thanks for sharing your journey, I really enjoyed reading it. Love tip #7- I use a point and shoot nikon coolpix for everything. It seems to me that learning how to use your camera to the best of it's ability, using natural light, having a good eye and knowing how to plate food is better than taking mediocre pictures with a fancy camera.

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

la domestique you have graduated, you are exactly right.

Cutting_up_lobster

almost 3 years ago NotesOnDinner

The hardest time for me to photograph food is in winter. Since I don't cook during the day just to shoot photos for my blog, I am left with very little or no natural light in the evening to quickly shoot a photo before putting the food on the table. I don't want to write about (for example) the brownies I make for my kids during the day all winter. Any suggestions for lighting nighttime cooking when natural light is not available? Maybe you've already answered this question - excellent tripod, slow shutter speed...

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

I hear what you are saying the winter is always tough because it gets dark so early. Really, if you have a tripod you could shoot on a really low shutter speed but that sometimes just isn't what you want. Lots of times these days, and I don't know what kind of camera you have, you can set the white balance for incandescent lights. You could sometime try a lamp but you will want something to soften the light. I might look around on the internet for lighting ideas. I am sure there are just as many photo blogs as cooking. Hope that helps.

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almost 3 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

I've heard of people talking about Lowel Ego lights - at the last check, they were cheapest on Amazon. A lot of European food bloggers, where I first heard of them, swear by it. Steamy Kitchen has a post on the lights as well.

Since I don't have any, I can't testify to their goodness but what I hear is the nature of the light they produce is 'white', and close to day/sunlight.

My winter tip - When winter rolled round in the Netherlands where I lived till 8 weeks ago, I would save a small/'hero' portion of the cooked food till the weekend and then I would photograph it. But I am addicted to taking (food) photos so.... this worked out well. Yes it wasn't live bogging but that's just me. Good luck and enjoy blogging

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almost 3 years ago Sarah at Letters from the Kitchen

The list of tips is great! Moments and light, so true.
And I just fell in love with your studio/dining room.

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

Thanks

Cakes

almost 3 years ago Bevi

I love taking photos but struggle, especially with light. Thanks for this great tutorial. And your dining room is beautiful.

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almost 3 years ago thirschfeld

keep shooting, and keep learning and you will get there and thanks

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almost 3 years ago Minimally Invasive

Thanks for the thoughtful post. When I wanted to start taking better pictures, I gravitated to your #8 tip naturally. It's tough to set up a beautiful shot, especially when you're starting out, so having a good inspiration file is really important (as is analyzing exactly what's so great about each image).