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From Photojournalism to Farm Life

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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.


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


Tags: Tips & Techniques, Travel, Profiles