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Working with artificial light: first impressions and 9 lessons.

After years of shooting in natural light, I’ve finally taken the plunge. Last week, I bought a flash light, a wireless flash trigger, a mounting bracket and some batteries. I’m repurposing an old, unused soft box. I’m bringing a light stand (also old). But I’m bringing a new attitude. I feel ready. In this post I am sharing my first impressions working with artificial light.

white bread - working-with-artificial-light

Why now?

In the past, I’ve been hesitant to transition to artificial light for my food photography. My excuses have ranged the entire spectrum of “but constraints aid creativity. I can manage fine with natural light” right up to “but artificial light is a huge time/money commitment“. There was even a “but do I really need artificial light for my work ?” somewhere in between. (Notice how they all start with “but“? Who was I arguing with? I don’t know!)

Anyway, last week, I felt ready to explore the world of artificial light. Just like that. No other reason except curiosity and willingness. I like when that happens because then I know that the impulse is natural and is coming from the right place in my head. So I went ahead and committed to a long period of self-learning, making lighting mistakes, and getting inconsistent outcomes with my images – all over again. Just like when I was first learning to shoot with natural light.

Someone once told me that being able to shoot with artificial light is the “right of passage” in a photographer’s journey. Maybe it is. Maybe it is not. It’s too early to tell so ask me again after a year or so. Until then, I’ll keep sharing what I learn, just in case it’s useful to any of you.

[Disclaimer: This isn’t a sponsored post or a product review so I won’t mention brand names. I’ll leave those sorts of things to people that do it well. This post is about my initial experience with choosing and using artificial light. Make of it what you will. As always, I’ll keep it as jargon-free as possible.]

As always, you are welcome to write to me at “boiledbeanstudio-at-gmail-dot-com” and share your thoughts and comments. (By personal preference I always disable the comments section on this blog).

What type of artificial light to buy?

Like most people buying new gear, I usually consider ease-of-use, space(or size), cost, utility and quality. Unlike most people though, my first concern these days has become “space”. As time goes by, I increasingly prefer a more minimalistic and effort-efficient type of living – that means more empty space and less clutter. So any new purchase has to be “really necessary”, “low maintenance” and “compact“.

Also, since I’m just beginning to test the waters with artificial light, it wouldn’t make sense to spend huge monies before I know what’s what. So I wanted something that is at least somewhat inexpensive if not cheap. As you can see, these two constraints already limit the options.

Next, the tech considerations. I did some research and below is a brief description of the key points I considered.

When it comes to artificial light, there are two major distinctions: Continuous and Flash. Some photographers further classify flash lights as studio strobes and camera flash units, but for the sake of simplicity, I like to think of strobes as more powerful, more complex and more expensive flash lights. And anyways, both give out short, powerful bursts of light when triggered. While flash lights output flashes of light when fired, continuous lights are sources of light that is …well, continuous.

I mostly shoot indoors, in my make-shift home studio, with large windows and plenty of light all round the year. That’s also partly why I enjoyed shooting in natural light all these years. At this point, I don’t do on-site photo shoots, so I don’t have to lug all the equipment around. So portability and ease-of-setup were not my primary considerations. You may have a different set of priorities, based on how you work.

While continuous lighting is great for supplementing the available natural light in your workspace, it also comes with the extra effort of learning how to handle mixed lighting. It could be potentially problematic to manage light coming from different types of sources (artificial and natural) especially at different colour temperatures. In my case, I wasn’t very keen on dealing with these types of problems right away.

You could, of course, avoid this problem by killing all the ambient natural light, and only use continuous light to light your scene. That way, there is just one kind of light to manage. But it also means making your workspace completely dark using dark blinds/screens/curtains. I don’t have a dedicated space for photography, so I cannot (and also do not like to!) cover up the large windows and cut off all the lovely natural light in our home for hours and days. So I decided to go with flash lighting.

Going further down the “flash” path, I learnt that studio strobes while more powerful, are also more complex to understand and manage. They are also more expensive and outside of my current budget.

Considering all of this, I decided to buy a camera flash unit. And as I do with most other gadgets and gear in my life, I went with the mid-range equipment/brand – not much of a compromise on quality, yet not too pricey. Maybe you’d choose differently.

[If you’d like the specifics of the setup I own, feel free to ask me and I’ll send you the details]

Also, checkout the videos I’ve referenced at the bottom of this post if you’d like more information about the different types of artificial light. If you are new to artificial lights, these videos would be a good place to start.

9 lessons I learned from the first few hours photographing with my flash light

Because I am not a big fan of jargon, I’ll do my best to keep this simple.

  1. Flash lights are still lights. All laws of physics/optics governing light in general, will apply to flash lights as well. For example, Shadows will fall behind the object, away from the light source. Sometimes, based on the relative height of the light source, “behind” the object can mean on the ground below (or the backdrop) – just like our own afternoon shadow.
  2. There are two ways to use most flash units: on-camera and off-camera. I am using mine as an off-camera unit. This simply means the flash unit will be off the camera body, away from it – mine’s perched on a light stand. I had to buy a mounting bracket to fix the light on the stand.
  3. And because the flash unit is away from the camera, I’d need a “go-between” unit that would tell the flash to fire when the camera shutter button is pressed. That’s a wireless trigger/transmitter. It sits on the camera body, and when the shutter button is pressed, it will “tell” the flash unit to let out a flash of light. Simplicity itself. Right? ­čÖé (I won’t be discussing the many ways this triggering can be accomplished in this post.)
  4. I am using my flash unit off-camera because I like having the lighting angle separate from the camera angle. (No front lighting). I also like to be able to light the scene from any direction/distance I want, without affecting the camera settings or the overall composition. It gives me finer control to set it up this way. Also, since I mainly photograph food and still life, my scenes are pre-planned and don’t move unless I make them move, so it makes a lot of sense to set up this way for more control.
  5. Since the flash light drowns out all the ambient natural light, I don’t have to worry about ambient light from my windows at all. This makes it faster to set up the scene – I just do the same set as I would for natural light, take a few shots first, then set up the flash unit and shoot again with artificial light. Two for the price of one!
  6. Shadows, oh the shadows. Flash light is meant to be used close to the scene (there is a definite limit to how far away they can be positioned to light the scene). Also, the light has a definite direction. So, the shadows are harsher, sharper, darker (Especially if you are using just one unit, like me). This is not a problem per se. It’s just something to think about before the shoot. Also the shadows will be invisible until after the shot is taken. What you see before the flash/camera goes off, is very different from what you see in the flash-lit shot. So if you don’t want the shadows where and how they are, you’ll have to modify the light in the usual way – diffusers, reflectors or fill cards. Or even more flash units.
  7. Compose with the shadows. When you pre-visualize the scene, you’ll have to take into account each shadow cast by each element – every cup, spoon and fabric. This will have a strong bearing on where you position each element in our frame. You’ll have to look for overlapping of shadows, merging of shadows and also loss of definition/shape/texture because of shadows from other elements in the frame – unless you plan to always diffuse the flash light and make it soft and uniform. In which case the process will be the nearly the same as composing with natural light.
  8. Colours and textures show up differently in harsh lighting. If you want to make use of the shadows stylistically and for a specific effect, you’ll have to be mindful of the colour and texture of the backdrops so they don’t get lost in them. For example, a dark/black backdrop will not show the shadows at all, nor will backdrops with too much texture. There is no right or wrong way, these are just some things to consider beforehand so you can get the photographic mood and effect you are going for. Otherwise the outcomes will be unexpected and inconsistent.
  9. Play with different angles and intensity and distances. There is no better way to understand artificial light than to actually work with it and see what happens. In the beginning, it’s best to choose a single subject and minimal composition and build from there.

That’s all I have for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story so far. As I learn more, I’ll be sure to make improvements/corrections in my understanding and share those as well.

As always, you are welcome to write to me at “boiledbeanstudio-at-gmail-dot-com” or use the contact form. By personal preference, I disable the comments here on the blog.

Extra info & references:

I found the videos below very good places to start. There is a lot of information out there, but like me, if you get exhausted reading or watching lots of things before hitting the mark, just start with these. They cover all the basics to get you started without the overwhelm. You can always build more understanding as you go.

What artificial light is the best for food photography? (Joanie Simon)

Flash Vs Strobe Vs Continuous light (Skyler)


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How to get started with image editing (post processing)


Prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it.

Choose material for (a film or radio or television programme) and arrange it to form a coherent whole.

Remove unnecessary or inappropriate material from a text, film, or radio or television programme.

All of these definitions also apply to image post processing. But in this post, I will be looking primarily into the “form a coherent whole” part of the editing process. I’ll explain why.

Correction is so subjective. It can mean totally different things to different photographers, based on their style, end goal and audience. If you are a photographer whose style is muted/desaturated colours, then for you, “correction” for would mean taking the RAW image towards that specific goal. If you are the kind that prefers organic and natural feel to your scenes, you would likely prefer a feather touch with the editing tools. To you altering colours or erasing may even feel “wrong“. Of course there is really no right or wrong in editing. It all totally depends on your style and preference besides what your client or project expects and needs.

So for my use, I’ll redefine image editing in this way:

Post-processing or editing is the process of modifying various aspects and overall mood of your image so it matches your style, preference and intended use.

If you are in the earlier stages of your photographic journey, it’s possible that you are still struggling to find your style/preference. Your ideas are likely dictated by popular trends and/or your favourite photographers. That’s okay. You may be having a hard time figuring out what kind of editing style would work best for your project or subject. That’s okay too. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to get you started. By no means are these going to give you all the answers you need, but at least this exercise will give you a set of goals to which you can align your editing process.

Who is the client for this image? (yourself? an agent? a paying client?)

I usually start here because it informs me of the level of creative freedom I have and the approach I need to take for the post processing of any image. If the image is for personal use, I would think further on whether it is for a fun personal project or for a formal portfolio representing my work. If it is just for fun, then sky is the limit. Do whatever floats your boat. Have fun and learn a lot with it. Make multiple copies, edit each copy differently, compare and contrast. This is a great way to learn and keep in touch with tech/tools and also to review how you’ve changed over time. (Don’t be surprised if you totally surprise yourself with that last one!)

If the image is for a portfolio, then I’d recommend you first take a look at what’s already on your portfolio. Then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does my portfolio accurately reflect and represent my current experience/preference/style and photography skills? If not, what can I do to close the gaps?
  2. What is the overall tone of the portfolio gallery? What sort of images do I not see in the gallery? What might I like to include?
  3. What kind of audience/client am I interested in attracting? Are my current images likely to be of interest to them?

And if it is for a paying client, then obviously their preference and the overall requirement of the project will determine the type of editing you have to do.

In the above Venn diagram, at the intersection of three key considerations lies the clue to the creative choices you need to make while editing. As you can see, there is more to editing than just twiddling a few sliders in Lightroom to adjust the contrast, sharpness or hue.

What are the no-go areas for this image?

Once there is some general idea on how to manage the edit, it’s useful to set some limits or constraints. Some constraints may already be imposed by the project/client (orientation, cropping, mood etc.,) and some may be self-imposed driven by your own style and preference (high-contrast/low-contrast, vibrant/muted, soft/sharp and so on). Setting these limits will help determine what your framework for editing would be.

You could even get started with those constraints first – so you don’t forget about them. Once you have a boundary for further edits, it’s easier to play around with the tools and fine tune the adjustments to achieve the best look and feel possible for your image.

What is the vision for this image?

What does vision even mean in practical terms? This was the question that stumped me for very long in the earlier stages of my journey. I think it is the most intangible and changeable aspect of creative learning. But to make it less vague and offer a more practical way get you started, I’ll write down some questions here that help me clarify my “vision” for my own work. Remember that these terms are just what I use for my own clarity of purpose and may not necessarily be “industry standard” classifications of images.

  1. What is the overall feel I want in this image? (clean/crisp, organic/natural, fine art, surreal, stylized and so on)
  2. What is the overall intent of this image? (illustrative, journalistic/narrative, stand-alone art, brand, social media, advertising, snapshot, portraiture and so on)
  3. What is the overall mood/emotion I want to achieve in this image? (Dark/sombre, bright/cheery, thought-provoking, fantasy, and so on)

As you can see, after you answer these questions, you can think about your tool-specific choices more easily and naturally.

It’s funny how we tend to do the opposite in the early stages of our creative journey. In the beginning we tend to jump into the editing software and start tweaking any and every value without thinking of the image as a “whole”. It’s important to realize that the software can only help us achieve our vision if we have one in the first place. Otherwise it will be a whole bunch of inconsistent edits which won’t take our image to its maximum impact potential.

I hope to write more on my experience with each adjustment tool and what specific effect each of them has on the overall vision for an image – hopefully really soon. But for now, I’ll leave you with a fun screen capture of my own editing process for one of my images. I hope it gives you some idea about the many little iterations of adjustments that go into post processing an image to achieve the desired look and feel. And if you’d like to share your own process or add to this discussion, feel free to email me via the simple contact form here.

A brand new workshop here at Boiledbeanstudio!


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How to use Gestalt principle of similarity to create strong compositions in food photography

I like to think of Gestalt principles of visual perception as conclusions based on collective understanding of how we humans perceive things around us. That’s why I don’t treat them as “rules” to be enforced in image compositions but more like tools to help me choose my subjects and what features/attributes I give them while styling and how I arrange them. As I understand more and practice their application in my work, Gestalt principles begin to make more sense and feel more natural. I try to be mindful of visual perception as I make creative choices related to props, colour palettes, lighting and camera angles. These are big subjects and there are many topics to discuss and understand but here in this post, I’ll only be looking into how we could use the Gestalt principle of similarity to strengthen our food images.

What is perceived as similarity?

Let’s look at what registers as similarity to our eyes and brain.

  1. In a pile of fresh citrus fruit, all the oranges will look similar, so your eyes will easily pick them out as belonging together.
  2. In a bunch of mixed flowers, your eyes will easily distinguish the roses from the tulips. And in a bunch of tulips, your eyes will easily pick out the white ones from the orange tulips.
  3. In a group of people, your eyes will easily pick out those that are tall. And in a group of tall people(say while watching a basketball match), your eyes will just as easily pick out those wearing same coloured jerseys as belonging to one team.

Why does this happen?

Similarity of visual features registers as “connection” to us. We tend to naturally connect things that look similar, in our attempt to recognize, classify, understand and make sense of the visual inputs from the world around us.

The analogies above also inform us that things don’t need to be exactly identical in order to be grouped together as similar. Even a few shared key features can look and feel similar to us. Also, the degree of similarity depends on how many of those visual features are shared. Mandarins look more similar to each other than they do to clementines or tangerine oranges. Oranges will look more similar to each other than they do to other citrus fruit like lemons, limes or pomelos. Citrus fruit look more similar to each other than they do to other fruit like apples, banana or pineapples.

Some visual features (like colours) have a stronger ability to connect than some others (like shapes). For example, in the image below, the little sauce bowl containing a bright red chilli sauce gets unified with the bright red pepper, even though they are not the same shape. And because of that, even though there are only four red peppers here, the fifth red element creates the same effect as another red pepper would have and attracts eyes to the focal point of the middle pepper. Notice that even though one of the peppers has a different orientation, we hardly register that fact – the shared bright red colour dominates the other visual features here.

[This was me trying to implement the compositional rule of odds with an even number of red peppers with the help of principles of perception ­čÖé This now feels like 5 red elements rather than 4 peppers and one bowl – so think about this the next time you have limited resources during a photo shoot!]


Let’s see how we can use this understanding to make better images with the help of more examples.

How to use the principle of similarity to create a sense of stability, motion, direction or height

If you’ve studied photographic composition, you already have some basic tools you can use to convey meaning through your image: lines to convey direction or create motion, repetitions/patterns to convey structure or rhythm, and visually balance to create cohesive compositions. And you may also know how to use cropping guides such as golden ratio, triangle, golden spiral, diagonal etc., to arrange your subject(s) along the strong lines/areas of interest so that your image has more impact. There are many ways to implement these composition tools and rules in your image, but let’s look at how the similarity principle can help with this.

In the image below, I’ve used a simple method. The asparagus stalks are already very “line-like” and similar in colour. I’ve trimmed them to create similarity of size and then arranged them to create similarity of orientation to create repeated vertical lines that feel like they are directed upward.


In the image set below, I’ve used the same principle to create lines of different types. The first image(left) creates horizontal lines. Your eyes would likely pick out two sets of lines – one created by cucumber and another by the dark spaces in between. Food subject is used to convey the natural characteristics of stability and solid structure offered by horizontal lines.

The second image(middle) creates slightly curvy, somewhat-vertical lines by the use of similar mini-pretzels. They convey motion and flow – just as naturally occurring curved lines tend to do. They help eye movement because of how they are arranged and their similarity to one another.

The third image(right) creates diagonal lines using asparagus heads which are similar in shape and size. And because strong diagonal lines tend to create a sense of dynamism and motion, this composition feels that way as well.

How to use the principle of similarity to achieve repetition, pattern or rhythm.

Let’s look at how similarity can achieve repetition and rhythm in a composition. In the example below, all the spices are of different colours, sizes, and texture. They are even in jars of different heights and shapes. But because I shot them from overhead, they are unified by the circular mouths of the their containers (even though varied in their sizes). In this way, because of the similarity of shape, they all look similar, even if they are not.


In the next image, the ground spices are all different in colour and texture. But because I’ve created little mounds of similar shape and size, they create a sense of repetition.


How to use the principle of similarity to create strong compositional shapes or curves

In the first image below (left), I’ve arranged identical pumpkin shaped rolls in an S-curve. At the top edge, the actual pumpkin visually connects with the rolls below because of similar shape and colour. And because of the shared visual features, this is now perceived as a single S-curve creating flow in the frame. If I had only used the four rolls, the S-curve may not have been as effective.

The second image also creates an S-curve but this time in multiple ways. The first one is created by the round plates and the second via the triangular yellow wedges on the plates.

The third image creates a triangle of avocado because they are similar.

Interestingly, the fourth image(extreme right) creates two triangles. Can you see why?


How to use the principle of similarity to create visual balance.

In the image below, I’ve created diagonal lines on opposite edges using similar branches. This creates visual balance and also guides attention to what’s in between.

Fresh mango Gestalt principle of similarity

In the image below, the pouring action creates a red line which achieves continuity and connection with other similar red liquids even though they are in glasses of different shapes and sized, making a stronger U-shape composition [or a lazy-C if you see it that way ­čÖé].

Juice in various glasses Gestalt principle of similarity

Our eyes tend to unite and connect the vertical elements together. So the red line created by the pouring action balances the tall branch on the right side of the frame. If you can imagine the image without one or the other of the vertical elements, you’ll see what I mean. Now, besides visual balance, we also get a sense of height. The two vertical elements framing the composition seem visually connected.

In the first image below (left), even though the blood orange on the left is much bigger, because of clear similarity of colour, shape, texture and size, the two smaller halves on the right visually balance this composition, which would have otherwise looked a bit lopsided.

In the second image, the bright red tomatoes near the diagonally opposite edges balance the visual attention.

In the third composition, I’ve created a second triangle arrangement by using similar colour and they balance the coffee triangle in the front. Without this second arrangement, the compostiion had too much white space at the back and not much to guide our eyes.

How to use the principle of similarity in multiple ways to create more interest in compositions

Lastly, let’s look at a composition where I’ve used similarity of colours to create continuity, curves/flow, lines/directions. All at the same time.

How do you see this image below: as a C-shaped grouping of fresh produce? Or a green S-curve, sweeping your eyes from the bottom to the top edge? Do you see this as an incomplete circle? Also, can you see how the carrots help navigate your eyes across the frame? the visual connection created by the colour purple – onions, radicchio, dry kidney beans all bordering the C-curve and strengthening it?

I’ve attempted to strengthen this composition by using multiple levels of similarity. I hope you will find it a good illustration for using the principle of similarity in multiple layers.

multi-coloured fresh vegetables|boiledbeanstudio food photographer berlin

I’ll leave you with this image (below) which I created a couple of years ago. At the time I knew even less about the rules of composition or laws of perception. I was happy to play & produce images in a hit-and-miss manner rather than applying solid foundational tools of composition.

When I look at this image now, I see a bit of imbalance in the composition. The visual weight of the green lettuce seems to make the entire image top-heavy. The bright red pepper on the left feels a bit lopsided too. There is nothing to balance it on the right side). There is also not much to guide the eyes around the image so the viewer sees whatever interests them. Probably they’ll just look at the red pepper, the green lettuce and move on. Maybe this is just me picking apart my own past work like most of us all tend to do. Maybe you’ll find more things wrong with it. Or maybe you’ll see nothing wrong with it. That’s okay.

The idea is to observe what happens when the principle of similarity comes into play in an unintentional, unplanned way. Feel free to make your own observations and conclusions on whether or not the perception of similarity created unconsciously works for the composition or against it.

Fresh vegetables Gestalt principle of similarity

Until next time, stay well and keep practising.

For lots of intentional practice with smartly designed constraints for your food (or still-life/product) photography, head to our free app Photocue and practice to your heart’s content.

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7 basic steps of planning for high quality images in Food Photography

my notes from following Rachel’s 7-day composition challenge on Instagram

I just completed the 7-day Composition challenge (on Instagram) led by Rachel Korinek from @twolovesstudio. It was more of a step-by-step guided process from ideation to presentation rather than a competitive “challenge” – since the only person I challenged throughout, was myself along with my own flawed habits ­čÖé

Rachel posted daily video guidelines and tips for each of the steps I have followed below, so if you’d like to understand why and how I followed these steps, do visit her Instagram feed. She is a fantastic teacher and a very inspiring photographer. Plus it’s a free resource! Since I loved the whole challenge and learnt a lot by going through with it, I’d still like to share my own thought process and learning at each stage, with specific examples of my own mood boards and images.

Hopefully it will help someone.

Step 1 : Choosing the subject:

At this point, my choice of subject for this project was either fresh produce or a summer drink. I also decided to pick produce of shades of yellow/orange, so that I could convey the summery mood.

Why? Well, fresh produce and drinks do not need cooking, so all my energy and time could be used to focus on ideation and planning, which was the end goal of this challenge anyway. And in the northern hemisphere it is summer now, so I wanted to convey the mood and light naturally available around me. (Also – the beautiful and photogenic summer produce!)

Step 2 : Creating a Moodboard

This time, I decided to use a Pinterest board for this. I have used Instagram (saved images) as well at times. You could also use any collage app, or Google collections, or even Photoshop/Canva. The basic idea is to simply put all the inspiration images together, so that visually they create a “mood” that we want our images to convey.

Why is this important? If you have been photographing food for a while, you already know how hard it gets if you haven’t planned for the shoot in advance. It is simply exhausting for one thing, to do everything “on set”. Also, it is impossible to control the quality of the outcome. Spontaneity is all very well but it also means that the results will be inconsistent. And you will have to be okay with that. But if you are one of those people who have grown to a point where “just playing” is not enough anymore, then you’ll have to create mood boards and plan in advance for your shots. Mood boards are for people who are “not okay” with unpredictable results and want to get high quality, pitch-worthy images every time.

Also, have you heard about the martial arts concept of Shu-ha-ri? Wikipedia extract follows:

Aikido master End┼Ź Seishir┼Ź shihan stated: “It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”[1]

This principle of learning process has always resonated with me most of my adult life and I apply it for nearly everything I learn. Simply put, I could explain it as “follow the rules, break the rules and THEN make up your own intuitive rules”…. I have heard many professional and accomplished photographers say that they are able to just “see” the crop guides or imagine the whole image in their heads and do not need to do a very elaborate mood boarding step (except to help their clients understand what they are thinking). But I don’t think they got there by being spontaneous right from the start. They would have practised every principle diligently and repeatedly, and THEN, one day, they reached the “ri” state where they could start “seeing” their images before they even shot them.

Until such a day then, for the rest of us, there’s the mood board. Haha, okay you know what I mean. ­čÖé

Few things to keep in mind while collecting inspiration images.

Start with a few keywords in mind. I used words like “summery” “bright” “cheery” “holiday” etc., …I also used my own strong summer memory (which is mango, and therefore golden YELLOW). This helps in your search for images. When you type in these words in Pinterest or google, you’ll get images close to the mood you are going for.

I did not just collect images of food, even though the images I want to make are those of food. Images we collect on mood boards can include buildings, textiles, colour swatches, automobiles, home interiors, places of travel, architecture, craft items and of course food. In fact, I usually steer clear of actual food images because then the line between being inspired and “copying” becomes blurred (even if unintentional). And we don’t want to copy someone else’s work even if it is inadvertent.

Now I hear you wondering – but what if I want to recreate a food picture I’ve seen somewhere? See that’s different. There you are practising recreating something and not “selling it” as your own creation. That’s just for learning and skill building and it does not require mood boarding. Also, when we re-create something, let’s make it a habit to credit the source clearly (name your inspiration artist/photographer).

Include food photos if you must, but for SPECIFIC aspects only and not for the entire image. For example, I did add a few mango lassi and other yellow drink images in my mood board later, but only so I could remember to pick up on their matt textures and colours and not to replicate the image itself.

There are no rules to follow at this point. You don’t have to decide everything right now. Not even the colour. Just bear in mind the general idea of the feel/mood, and include the images you like. But be mindful of the specific aspect of an image you are loving. Texture? Colour palette? Positioning? Lighting? And so on.

Step 3 : Choosing backdrop, props and colour palette:

Now that I’d chosen my subjects (yellow fresh produce) and created a draft mood board(as above) , I needed to choose my backdrop, props and colours that match the general mood I was going for. So here is the image I put together with all those ideas.

Why these colours? Since I’d chosen a summer mood for my project, I chose a golden yellow, mostly monochromatic scheme (like the sun), but with a few other bits of pastel hues thrown in – a bit of pastel blue (like the blue sky), a bit of beige and white (like the foamy waves and sands for beach vacation mood), and also a bit of green (because I like green and summer means lots of green vegetables :-)).

We could choose from complementary, analogous and monochromatic colour schemes for this project. I usually use this colour calculator to get my colour combinations right and add swatches or colour palettes on to my original mood board, but this time I made a separate board just for these (as above). Also, by this time I had spotted some yellow gorgeous tomatoes and physalis in the market so they were likely going to be my main models.

Why these backdrops? I had in mind a bright and cheery summer mood so obviously thought that my backdrops needed to match my colour palette and look bright and airy. I already had a blue one but I went ahead and painted two more (one green and one white, both textured) for this project, because I wanted to make sure I had everything I might need ready for the shoot day. And at this stage, it’s best to have a few backup options ready to choose from, just in case.

Why these props? Glass is transparent and airy and easily matched my chosen colour palette. I already had these glasses which I love, and also a green plate that I thought might work well for this colour scheme. So the fact that they were available and were perfectly suitable were the reason why I chose them. Also, since I had planned to go minimal I didn’t think I’d need any more props. I was just going to use lots of produce and would not rely too much on props to tell my summer story.

Step 4 : Thinking about textures

The image below is somewhat self explanatory. This is how I figured out how I would try to highlight the most important texture features of my subjects. I’ve captured my stream of thoughts as-is, so this image clearly shows how the styling came about.

If you are not able to start with this step easily, then try looking at your subject(s) and pay close attention. What are the unique texture features that can be highlighted? How can we convey the textures via a 2-dimensional photo? Here I’ve chosen to think about using lighting (and shadows), contrasting surfaces, the best possible angle of view and any other special styling techniques that I could use to bring out the textures in my chosen subject(s). Take a look and you’ll see what I mean.

Step 5 : Thinking about Layers:

Layers add interest to the image. They also create some lovely shadows and prevent the image from looking “flat” and boring. Keeping in mind Rachel’s recommendation, I’ve created six layers here, using food as well as props. This image is below is self explanatory, so take a look at the image below to understand what layers I created in my setup.

Step 6: Styling with S-curve and shooting the images

The choice of S-curve for styling was purely because of the challenge guidelines and you could obviously pick whatever composition style you like for your images. But it works out great when you have multiple subject elements like I have here. And if you end up using the S-curve, it’s best to start styling the elements from an overhead view and then change the angle of your view to suit our needs. The set will need some minor adjustments if you choose to shoot from other angles, but it is still easier to start with an overhead view. It would be a great idea to use tethering to be able to “see” the composition better. I however did not use tethering this time around. I did however use a tripod.

As you can see from the behind-the-scenes image of my setup below, I created two S-curves but decided to make the one on the left the primary one (refer to my final, cropped image) just so the composition did not look too busy. Which means at this point, I had already planned to crop the image tight enough to make the S-curve on the right somewhat secondary and almost invisible, except for a few elements peeking into the frame at the edges – just to provide some interest on what’s going on beyond the frame (story telling).

We were asked to create two shots – one showing the wider scene and the other a close-up, to show the textures. So that’s what I did . I shot more than two of course, because that’s what we should do when we’ve created a food scene. We play around with different angles and orientations so we have enough material to choose from later on.

Step 7 : Post processing and presenting the images

And here you go! All done! The final step of the challenge was to complete the editing/post-processing and then present the two shots as a diptych or a carousel. The idea was to present the whole story using these two images. I used Lightroom for editing and photoshop to create the collage/diptych of these two images. There’s of course more than one way to do all this. I am a big believer in freedom from tools, so there is no need to be married to specific tools. Use whatever you have or like.

I hope this post provides you with some insights on how I’ve used planning, ideation and pre-visualization to create good quality images over the course of a whole week, without getting overwhelmed or exhausted. I am definitely going to repeat this whole process in future, until it becomes second nature. I can already see how I might be able to create more and more intentional images with a little bit of planning ahead. I hope you find it useful too! Have fun!

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How to “really” use Instagram Photography challenges to improve your skills : A Strategy Guide :

– A Counter-intuitive guide on how to use photography challenges for skill development (for beginners in food photography)

Do you like taking part in food photography challenges or does it leave you scared/stressed/overwhelmed/demotivated/angry/deflated?

If you are one of the many creative people who feel like hiding from Instagram challenges, or one of the others who find that they haven’t “really” improved on their skills after participating in a number of them, then this post is for you. This guide is a product of my own experiences and I hope it will help provide you with a few strategies for optimal learning.

Fair warning: This guide is not about food photography techniques. It is not about Instagram or how to improve your Instagram following. It is also not about how to develop/improve your social media personality or connections. This is a strategy guide, purely on how to optimize skill development using Instagram food photography challenges. These are the practical mental strategies that have worked for me in my own learning process and will hopefully help some of you as well. Also, this is a long post and will take up long minutes of your short lifespan. So. You have now been warned. Ready?

Instagram Photography Challenges – why even bother?

In the beginning, one of the best things I did was to participate in several excellent Instagram photography challenges hosted by well-established professional food photographers. And while I did so, I learnt both the useful and the not so useful reasons and ways to participate. Here is why you should participate in challenges:

To learn: Firstly, it is easy to fall into the comparison trap and think that your skills are not good enough to participate in challenges. This is normal for most of us. But if you pick the right kind of challenge (and by that I mean right for you, not for your friends, not even for some other creative you really admire), your starting skill level will never be a barrier. In fact, most of the accomplished photographers welcome diverse skill levels in the challenges they craft and host. Pick one of those welcoming ones. Also, by simply being a part of such challenges, you will anyway learn a lot. And that’s a very good reason to sign up. Don’t worry about your starting level. At all.

To hone: Constraints aid creativity, someone said. And I think it’s true. Good instagram challenges are designed to exercise your creative muscles. It is very hard t o think up constraints when you are practicing alone, especially when your knowledge/exposure is limited in the beginning. A good photographer who has already reached an expert level can help with this, because they’ve already struggled with this before you.

To strengthen your backbone: In the beginning it will feel like death – I promise you. To show your work, which you think is so inadequate, is a really really horrible ordeal for most of us. But that is exactly why we have to do it. And this is why I emphasize on picking a solid challenge host. Not all of the challenge hosts will have the time or the intent to grow communities or encourage learners. Challenges are created for various reasons, and if your focus is on the learning bit, it will be your job to look for the one that helps you focus on that. It will get easier after a while – I promise you that too! Good challenges are designed to help you put your work out in the world, no matter how scared you are. They also motivate you to virtually connect with like minded creatives and look at their interpretations, their work and styles. Most creatives are kind people and that will re-ally help with the nervousness and loneliness. That’s yet another promise ­čÖé

To shine: When you progress even a little bit, other creatives will notice. And if they have the time, they’ll write and let you know about it. And if you have really progressed, they will re-ally let you know. And there is nothing more validating for a creative than hearing from another creative that their work has improved, and is worth noticing. And this is not just to boost your ego. It really helps to keep you going. It also develops a sense of community which really helps in keeping up the lonely creative journey you undertake everyday to who knows where, right? ­čÖé

How to pick a challenge that is right for you?

Not all challenges are right for you. Every challenge has a definite purpose – to serve as an advertisement, to increase visibility for the host(s), to help build community/collaboration, to build community skills and so on. So how to know which ones are useful for you?

Goal matching: Unless your aim is to just have some fun and not worry about any specific goals, it is important to pick a challenge whose aim matches yours. For example, if your aim is to increase visibility on instagram, pick a challenge that is doing just that for the host(s). If your aim to belong to a community, pick a challenge whose host is trying to build a community.

Avoiding over-participation : If your aim is to purely improve skills in food photography, then pick a challenge that is designed to do just that. You may be thinking now – Well. That’s obvious. What’s to think? You’d be surprised how many times we all fall into the trap of over-participating. So many great challenges, so many temptations, all my peers are doing it, FOMO (fear of missing out!) are some of the excuses we will be giving ourselves – so watch out. You may need to even be a bit ruthless in this regard, otherwise, you’ll be straining and scattering yourself all over the place, without much useful progress.

How to pick a challenge host? (Yes. Really!)

Now you may think, why would I want to choose? Isn’t the fact that someone’s creating a challenge good enough ? Well, no. Not all challenges are created equal. In the beginning, since your intent is to learn more effectively, pick a challenge hosted by a well established photographer whose work you like and respect. Often they will be photographers who are already experts in their field, have a great body of work and are generally sensitive to learners’ needs. They usually share their expertise generously and have a keen interest in helping the creative community with their knowledge. Why is this important? Because, such hosts know how to craft a good instagram challenge that can stretch your skills gently. They also know where the shoe pinches, so in all likelihood they would be sharing suggestions, tips and tricks to help practice difficult aspects of the topic.

How many challenges?

In the beginning, I recommend you pick just one challenge to participate in, at any given time. It is so tempting to do ALL of the challenges out there, many overlapping on your calendar. Especially if all your peers and co-creatives seem to participating. But it doesn’t really help with your skills. Better to pick one challenge and commit to doing it really well.

How often to participate?

I recommend doing one challenge once every 2-3 months. But if you do take on more, schedule a gap of at least a couple of weeks in between challenges. Even if you think you can take on more, creativity is an exhaustible resource. It needs time to replenish itself after intense challenge constraints. So if you are doing it right, a good challenge will tire you out just enough at the end of it. That’s a great time to take a break. Pushing too hard will make you hate the things you once loved doing. Besides, it takes time for the lessons learnt and information absorbed during a challenge to sink in and really take effect.

What to do in between challenges?

Schedule at least one non-challenge photo shoot between two challenges. It could be a personal project, a client shoot (if you have clients already), a fun collaboration, whatever. This is where you can put to practice all that you have learnt during the challenge. It is easy to forget new information so applying the new learning into practice roots them more firmly in your mind.

How to approach a challenge?

Read: Once you have signed up for a challenge, make sure you read ALL the instructions. I cannot emphasize enough on the importance of this. Usually there is a lot of information in these challenge instructions/rules. Reading them all well in advance not only helps you think about your own submission better, but also research on the themes and topics that are new. Great learning, woohoo!

Read more, look, watch: And If you haven’t already, make sure you visit the website/portfolio of the challenge host. Read their posts. Watch videos they’ve created if any. Follow their Instagram feed and stories for inspiration, tips and updates. Basically, pretend you are a big blob of sponge and absorb everything related to this challenge. A lot of information can be imbibed this way. More absorption means even more learning…woo-double-hoo!!

OK! I am done being a “sponge” …. What next?

Small bites everyday: So now you know the rules & constraints of the challenge. You know the themes and the dates and how long you have for your preparation. Now what? Set aside a few minutes over the days/weeks prior to the date of submission. Think about the topic(s) a little bit everyday, and jot down your thoughts and ideas. What is the theme? How to approach it? Do you know about the photography topic/tool that will be required for the theme? (If not, google it!)….Learn a little bit to familiarize yourself. Don’t overdo…. Easy does it! Then create a mood board for each image you want to produce. If you need detailed help on this, watch this space – I am working on a guide on mood boarding for food photographers.

Planning to avoid overwhelm: Decide beforehand how many images you think you can submit overall. My rule of thumb here is “less is more”. (I know! So uncool of me giving you uncool advice like that! But that’s what helps me usually, doing less and doing it well)… In the beginning, we all get a bit overambitious. That’s fine, but it usually doesn’t help with the learning. Do not compare or compete with others. Everyone’s capacity, skill level, time constraints, enthusiasm, habits, lifestyle and approach is different. Do not stress if someone else you know is doing more and better. THIS fear is really the enemy of effective learning. Let’s nip it in the bud. Otherwise it just grows and kills all enthusiasm for learning!

Scheduling: Once you have planned the number of entries you want to submit and have a mood board for each of those images, plan and schedule the actual subject, layout, style, color palette, setting for each image. Make a rough plan for the shoot day and time. Don’t be too rigid but having a rough time schedule really helps to plan your day and other activities around it. I also recommend splitting the task into chunks of time. Visualization time, food prep time, shooting time, postproduction/editing time, submitting/interaction time. This way, you can keep it all manageable without spending the entire day on one thing and falling overwhelmed in a crushed heap the next day!

Do not submit for the “likes”

Say no to the numbers game: What? Yes, do not submit for the “likes”. While this might feel counterintuitive at first glance and also not what the Instagram experts might advocate, for true learning and skill building to happen effectively, it is extremely important to learn to just “submit” – likes or no likes. Nothing can kill your creativity than this expectation of others’ approval. Especially in the beginning of your skill building journey, when your confidence is still somewhat shaky, if you bank on receiving a huge number of “likes” and if they don’t come, it may send you back scurrying into a shell and stop creating altogether. You need to remind yourself that you can think about all such metrics later on if necessary, when your skills are a bit better honed but for now, you need to just learn to show your work. Just learn to play first and take what goodwill you get in the process.

Submit for yourself: There is another danger in submitting for the likes – you may start creating for others too early in your journey and not fully explore your own skills, potential and style. This sort of distraction especially in the beginning is so detrimental for your learning. While you do need a little bit of supportive approval in the form of likes, you have to learn not do everything for those alone. This balance is not easy. But it can be done. If you keep your bottomline clear on learning, it will be easier to keep going to back to the act of creating without getting too caught up in trend-chasing and comparisons. Its like learning to speak a language. You have to first learn the alphabets, the sentence structures , the semantics. The accents, the idioms, the slangs can come later.

Submit your best: Submit your best work – with a proper caption and hashtags. That way, whether it does well on the algorithm or bombs, at least you know you did your best. At least you won’t keep thinking if you could have done better.

Staying sane during submission: In a good instagram challenge, there are bound to be many entries. Many creative people having many many ways of interpreting the same theme will be submitting their best work. So it’s a good idea to look at as many entries as you can after you submit. I suggest “after” rather than “before” – that way, you can avoid getting too influenced by other ideas. You can also avoid imitating someone else unconsciously. It also prevents you from being too critical of your own work and avoid submitting altogether. Most times we are our own worst critics. If you don’t feel like submitting, that’s cool, but that decision must be based on your own gut and not on other entries in the challenge.

Staying sane “after” submission: It pays to stay connected on instagram for at least an hour after you submit – so you can interact with other participants, acknowledge their comments and look at their feed/interpretation/work. This is not just helpful socially, but also creatively. It helps to keep things objective and to “see” others’ talents as “inspiring” rather than “competing” . It also helps to know the humans behind the pictures. It may help feel less “isolated”. And there is no need to stress if their work is better than yours. There are a LOT of skilled people out there, so in the beginning most likely everyone’s work always looks better than yours. So what? It does not mean you can’t get better. Also remind yourself gently on why you are participating – it is not to be “better than others’ but to be “better than yourself” …only think about the learning. Nothing else.

Practical ways to be inspired by others’ (better?) work:

  1. Instead of bellyaching on other peoples “better” images and losing confidence, make notes on what exactly you like about them. That way you start learning objectively about your own taste, skill limitations and interests.
  2. If there is a BTS (behind the scenes) or camera settings along with the images, save those for later.
  3. Take note of what they have done better than you, so you can work on those aspects next time. Is it the styling? The colours? The lighting? The subject? What could you have done better? This is a great way to learn and improve continuously without getting emotionally drained. I find that collecting hard data on why someone’s work is better quality moves us from inaction/sadness about ourselves to action/inspiration.
  4. Save your favorite images. Compliment and connect with the photographers who created them. Check their website/portfolio if any. Seeing their entire body of work helps to get a perspective on how much work they’ve done before they got to where they are now. It also reduces your sense of entitlement.
  5. Note down all the lessons learnt as you go along. You can later choose to apply (or not) whatever you feel like. Don’t worry about being far behind the “talented photographers”. Good photographers practise their skills. A lot. We can do that too. No one made much out of mere talent. It takes a lot of hard work to make talent get to expertise. There are no shortcuts. Really.
  6. I once read somewhere that “perfectionism” is just an inverted egotism. Such a useful perspective! It’s just a way the negative part of our ego trips us up into thinking we are too good to be “ordinary” and must always produce fantastic work or else nothing. Well. We may have accept being “ordinary” before we get anywhere close to extraordinary. Extraordinary takes work. A lot of work.

PS: One tiny additional note from a very good place in my heart. Never compare other people’s comment sections to your own. It’s a road to hell. Stay away. ­čÖé

How to avoid Instagram exhaustion?

It is usually counterproductive to look at too many images, read too many posts, save too many ideas. How do we know how much is too much? So long as you are enjoying looking around, getting clear ideas for your next image, and ACTUALLY making the images, you are golden. But if you are caught in the incessant loop of looking at other people’s work and not really doing much of your own, then you are headed toward a downward spiral. If instead of getting inspiration, you are getting overwhelmed, tired and dispirited, then it’s time to take a break. It’s not just you, it’s all of us humans. We are wired to compare and compete, in order to survive. But when this instinct gets out of hand, it’s actually counterproductive.

What to do if you cannot finish the challenge?

Make yourself a cuppa. Sit down and drink it. It’s okay. You can do it another time ­čÖé . If you feel like, look at the challenge entries from others. If that makes you feel worse, don’t. You reserve the right to do and feel what works for you and you alone. Your wellbeing counts more than any trend you think you need to follow.

Let me quote a cliche. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So if you are in this for the long haul, you have to take care of yourself first. Yet another cliche about trees and forests comes to mind. But I’ll spare you.

Ciao friend ­čÖé Keep learning.