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Picking Apart a Still Life

July 15, 2009

Being a child of the pre-internet 1970s, I sometimes struggle with the personal dilemma of whether someone you know only from online can ever truly be a “friend” in the sense we knew growing up. That said, I try to be both modern and open-minded and adapt to changing times.

So today’s post features the work of a friend of mine. He is a professional food photographer by trade. (He photographs a lot of the stuff you see on menus in restaurants.) With his permission, I’m going to pick apart a photo he did recently. My aim here is to explain exactly what I do and don’t like about the photo and why. My intent is that such a discussion help readers to become better photographers themselves.

365_breakfasts-197, originally uploaded by Walter_Ezell.

On Walter’s Flickr page he explains the lighting setup he used. He uses a kind of shorthand that is easily understood by experienced photographers but don’t be too concerned if it’s unclear to you. The technical details aren’t important unless you’re trying to copy his result. What I like about the lighting is that it leaves only very subtle shadows, all of which are deliberately placed. A complete lack of shadows in a shot like this would have looked very unnatural.

I also like that all the colors in the image fall in the same range. They complement, rather than compete with, one another.

Shallow depth of field — having your foreground in sharp focus but your background out of focus — is all the rage these days. I personally find it grossly overused by many photographers. I see far too many photos where the photographer went for the absolute shallowest depth of field his lens could deliver, as though that alone were the whole point of his taking the photograph. There’s even a group on Flickr with over 33,000 members and over 350,000 photos, all dedicated to this very proposition. Being the professional that he is, Walter did not succumb to that trap. I know the lens he used and know full-well that it is capable of much shallower depth of field than is seen here. In fact, Walter’s EXIF data reveals that he stopped his lens down 3.5 stops from its maximum, indicating that he was exercising very deliberate control over his depth of field.

I love that the primary subject — the plate of food and accompanying cup of coffee — are fully contained within the image frame but all supporting subjects run off the frame edges. This takes an otherwise static image and makes it appear very dynamic.

The biggest nit I have to pick has to do with the jelly jar on the left side of the image. I’ve never done food photography professionally but I have done commercial photography and the rule when doing any kind of product photography is that you never show a label with an identifiable brand name unless the brand belongs to your client. In that event, you should highlight the label in some way, making it a prominent element in the composition. Walter broke this rule by featuring the label but cutting it off at the edge of the image frame. That weakens the image.

I like that the food completely covers the plate and that the pieces of toast are not perfectly aligned. It is as if they were haphazardly tossed onto the plate, and yet just slightly too perfect to be truly haphazard. This is the epitome of why professionals are worth the money they charge; they know how to improve on reality and still make it believable.

My final comment on this image has nothing to do with the image itself. That is that this was Walter’s breakfast. He actually ate this food once he was done photographing it. (Much food photography is designed more for visual than gustatory appeal. In fact, some is not at all edible — think Elmer’s glue in place of spilled milk.) But I want you to think for a moment about what it took to lay out this arrangement, set up all the lighting, test, make adjustments, get the final shot and still be able to sit down to breakfast while it was still hot. A true professional if ever there was one.

(All of the above is precisely the kind of critique I offer to anyone for the bargain basement price of just $2.50 per image. If you think such insights can help you become a better photographer, visit

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