Wednesday, December 16, 2009

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Food Photography Workshop: Penny De Los Santos

This is my second food specific photography workshop, the first being with Lou Manna as blogged a couple of months ago. This is the first year I've really heard anything about food photography workshops in the area and we've had 2 in the last half of the year. I don't know if they've always been around and I just never heard about them or if this is a new thing that's going around. In any case I'm excited about learning more about photographing food.

Since this was only my second one, I found myself comparing Penny to Lou a lot and found they do things almost totally opposite each other. Here are a few of the differences I noticed. Penny uses natural light, Lou likes to shoot in studios with lights. Penny hand holds her camera, Lou uses a tripod. Penny uses auto white balance, Lou uses custom white balance. Penny likes to step back and get all the food in the shot, Lou likes to get in close. Penny doesn't alter food to make it inedible, Lou adds inedible things to food to make it look pretty. Penny and Lou are both very successful food photographers. It just goes to show you there is no one right way to do things and there are lots of different styles out there. I think it's great to hear from two people with completely different styles, it makes you see things differently. I see my style being closer to Penny's, but I do like to use lighting equipment if I'm at home and I sometimes like to get close-ups, but I like to eat my food after I take a picture of it.

I got to Springhill in West Seattle right about on time at 10:00 AM and saw Robyn as I was parking so we walked in together. The place was already packed with people. There was coffee, tea, and mini Trophy Cupcakes, my favorite cupcakes in Seattle. I recognized a couple of other people that I had met before at Lou Manna's workshops and Brenda, who I know from the Seattle Flickr Meetup group was there too.

I really liked the layout of this workshop. It began with a fairly short slide show presentation with some samples of Penny's work along with some photography tips. The very first thing I noticed about Penny's work is that she likes to get shots of the food from directly on top. I noticed it right away because it's not something I usually do. In fact I don't think there's a single food photo on my Flickr stream taken from that angle. The majority of my shots are taken at a 45 degree angle. I just thought food wouldn't look right from that angle because you don't really get the depth. But Penny's shots looked really good from that angle. We had several "assignments" throughout the workshop.

Assignment #1: Angles
We were to shoot a bowl of butter leaf lettuce salad shooting it in 3 different angles. Straight on, 45 degree angle, and from above. We broke out into 6 teams of 5 and each team got a salad and we took turns shooting it from all different angles. Here's my favs from each. It was no surprise to me that I liked the 45 degree angle shot the best out of the ones I took, but I haven't given up on the overhead shots, I will keep trying to get some good ones. After shooting, everyone rushed back to their seats to enjoy their salads with the rest of their team and loaded their pics onto their laptops to hand to Penny to view on the screen. Unfortunately our teams' salad disappeared so we didn't get to try it. My computer is old and dog slow and I didn't bring a thumb drive so didn't have time to get any pics to her. I am seriously considering getting a Mac Book next year. Out of 30 people I think only 8 or so got to her after each assignment. That's probably a good thing because we were pretty short on time. Not only did she critique them but she let people in the class also comment on them.
salad triptych

Assignment #2: Controlling light
Penny only uses natural light so there was no talk about using on or off camera flashes. Instead she talked about different ways to control natural light using diffusers to soften harsh light and reflectors to bounce light to brighten up shadows. Brenda brought some of her small round diffusers and reflectors. For some reason I totally forgot to bring mine. I just have one fairly large one but could use some of those small ones. I wouldn't want to bring mine into a restaurant but the small ones that you can buy would be perfect. Brenda shared hers with everyone and Penny also brought some for people to use as well. Several dishes were set out for us to shoot. This time there was quite a variety of things to shoot oysters, clams, scallops, tartare, foie gras, ravioli, and toast. At this point the groups pretty much split up and everyone scattered around. Some people went outside and diffused the harsh sun light and others stayed inside and did a combination of reflecting and diffusing the light coming into the large windows of Springhill. This time I tried to get done shooting in time to get a few pics to Penny. I borrowed Brenda's thumb drive and was trying to put some pics on it but the crap laptop was taking forever to just to install the thumbnail device that I didn't get a chance to put any pics on it. grrr. I also missed out on eating any of the food that we shot because I was too busy trying to get pics ready. grr! I did however get a couple of nice shots from above during this assignment!
Shootin Outside
Duck Ravioli Oysters on the Rocks

Assignment #3: Editing the Food
In this assignment we were asked to take photos of the food using props like silverware, napkins, cups, etc. At this time we were also able to watch the chefs plate the food we were going to shoot. I think I spent more time shooting the plating than the actual food. This time I didn't rush trying to get my shots on the computer. I was hungry not having eaten breakfast and only eating a mini cupcake all day and didn't want to miss out on getting food this time. I managed to get a morsel of beef and duck before it disapeared. You got to be quick cuz once people start eating off the plates the food goes fast. The trout plate was my favorite to shoot. It was beautifully presented.
Plating Trout Pan Fried Rainbow Trout

This concluded the workshop, which actually went about an hour longer than scheduled. I learned a lot and I'm sure my food photography will improve as a result. The biggest thing I took away from the class was to shoot different angles, even if you don't want to. You may be surprised at the results. I know I will shoot more from on top of the food. It probably won't become my favorite angle to shoot from, but it will be included in my shooting angles from now on.

Many thanks to all that helped put this together and look forward to more events like this in the future.
organizer: Seattle Bon Vivant
photographer: Penny De Los Santos
food prep: Chef Mark Fuller and staff at Springhill restaurant
cupcakes: Trophy Cupcakes
coffee: Victrola Coffee
projector/screen: Glazer's Camera

Also a big thanks to Twitter! Without it, this workshop would not have happened.

If you want to check out more of my photos from the workshop, you can find them in a set on Flickr.


  1. I was noticing the same thing, about how Penny and Lou Manna have almost completely different technical and composition approaches. It really does go to show how there is more than one valid way to be successful, at this or just about any artistic pursuit. You have to find your own voice, and there is a ton of value in learning how other people find theirs, so you can incorporate both the skills and philosophy they bring to the table.

  2. Great post. I did a lot of comparing as well and felt more inclined towards Penny's approach.
    Your photos from the event are simply stunning. So sharp and clean - and your lighting is perfect. Nice work!

  3. You have captured it well ;-), what worked and didn't work.
    I noticed the dif between Penny and Lou as well. I also feel closer to Penny's approach, a more natural and organic one. Now I'm using the manual mode more frequently and I love it + trying w/out a tripod :)

  4. I agree that top-down shots are rare, and I too prefer the 45-degree angle (because that is how we see our food on the table when we sit down to eat, so it is at an angle that looks inviting to us). I loved that you showed them on the sidewalk shooting (HAH!) I might have to get on of those tiny diffusers. Too cute!

    Wow. Nice recap. I posted a blog about Lara Ferroni's class today, but I didn't give too many details about the class, because I didn't know if she wanted me to divulge contents of the class (to non-paying readers) or not. I really waffled on that one. In the end, I just basically wrote "I learned a lot of new/good habits". Hahahaha. This review was very thorough. Makes me feel like maybe I should beef mine up a little. Oh well!


    Great blog; thanks for sharing!

  5. pretty great post!! Seeing your assignments & setups really helped.

  6. You're right; there's no such thing as a wrong style when it comes to taking photos. With that, I think it's also true that we all have an eye for photography. We just have to have enough drive and creativity in order to take good pictures. Btw, I think you have great potential in food photography. The taste of those dishes jumped right out of the photos and into my mouth upon laying my eyes on them. Great job, Paula!

  7. Yummy!!! You surely know how to inspire you readers like me and I swear I can’t stop looking on this food on these shots… Two thumbs up!