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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)

AUDIO VERSION

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How to get started with image editing (post processing)

EDIT

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!

“Edit-with-me!”

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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!]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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
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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
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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
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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
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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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How to give feedback effectively

A while ago, at a challenging point in my creative journey, I approached a handful of food photographers for feedback on my work. I knew them from social media and admired their work as well their general approach to creativity and work. I figured they’d be able to give me some useful insights on my own work. I wrote to them with my request and while each of them was generous enough to respond, I noticed that each of the responses fell within the framework of social media success and visibility. While this would have been useful if I was looking for that sort of thing, the fact was, I wasn’t. I was looking for a purely objective, technical feedback so that I could chalk out my own route from that point onwards, armed with grounding awareness about my craft.

Even though I was unable to apply much of the well-meaning feedback to my own work, there was an intangible benefit to the whole experience. It made me think about the way we understand the process of feedback on creative work. It also gave me valuable insights into the various ways in which people approach (or avoid) the process. I became aware of the unconscious assumptions and attitudes of feedback providers as well as seekers.

Over time, I’ve come to conclude that Feedback, to be really effective, must be a very conscious and objective process. Feedback must be mindful of individual goals and context of the feedback seeker. And to be really useful, feedback must be grounded in empathy on the part of the feedback provider, and willingness on the part of the feedback seeker.

My own observations as a feedback provider as well as experience as a feedback seeker, have together led to some interesting insights about this process and how it could be made more effective and beneficial to all of us who do creative work in isolated freelance mode. In this post, I’ve attempted to share a few of my insights as a feedback provider. I’ve also shared some tips for feedback seekers in another post – here.

To read more of my thoughts on objective feedback head to this post: Why is objective feedback important for creative work?

Stay grounded

Firstly, as a feedback provider, acknowledge the fact that the effectiveness of any kind of feedback partly depends on those who receive it. Of course you must do your best to create a conducive and useful interaction, but how much weightage a feedback seeker attaches to your comments and how much they are willing to or able to apply them is up to them.

Remembering this keeps you grounded, and in turn helps avoid heavy-handedness in your feedback methods. Feedback, especially on creative work, is most effective when approached in an empathetic, non-hierarchical and non-authoritative manner. There are many ways to reach creative fulfilment and there isn’t one single formula that works for everyone. By staying flexible and open, you might even find new ways of looking at things. And that’s always useful.

Are you the right person to give feedback?

Before you even start, make sure that you are the right person for the task at hand. If you don’t know the feedback seeker or their work already, ask for preliminary information about them and their work, before you even begin. Get a sense of their skill level and expectations. You can then evaluate if you are up for the task of providing feedback to them. It is okay to gently say No, if you find that you are not the right fit. It would save time and effort to both of you. Being clear and honest in your interaction builds credibility and trust.

Prepare in advance to ensure that your feedback is effective

Study their work well in advance. Look for patterns if any. Gauge strengths and weaknesses in the work and ask for more details and samples if necessary. It is important to justify the trust that the feedback seeker places in you.

Feedback is not just a feel-good or validation session

Even though it might actually end up being that, in many cases, it can never be the primary purpose of the interaction. It is important to keep growth as the primary purpose.

Feedback is not criticism.

Even when you analyse the limitations in someone’s craft, do it from a place of empathy and understanding. It is never useful to sound patronising.

Be specific in your feedback comments

Vague and overly generic comments will not be useful to anyone. Provide examples and actionable tips where possible. Most people (including me) find actionable advice more useful.

Follow-up on feedback

Consider offering to follow-up via formal sessions and/or informal chats, depending on your own mindset and convenience. In-depth evaluation and effective assistance require continuity. Creativity and mindset are complex and interdependent subjects and most of us benefit from longer collaborations.

A well-rounded feedback session should neither leave the individual dispirited, nor completely content. It should set them up for a period of analysis and action. It should open the person’s mind to “possibilities” and connections they hadn’t been able to see previously.

The goal of every feedback must be growth. The tone of every feedback must be empathy.


More like this:

Why is objective feedback important for creative work?

Helpful tips for feedback seekers

1-on-1 personalized image feedback package for food photographers

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Objective feedback for creative work: why it is so important?

When I look up the images and graphics that represent the word “feedback” here is what comes up, typically.

Look closely. What does this tell us about our mental associations of the word “feedback”? (Scrutiny? Evaluation? Judgement? Rating? Negative remarks? Praise? Advice? Conversation? Review? Validation? Or something else?). Do they represent subjective evaluation or objective assessment?

In my own creative journey as a food photographer, I have felt, from time to time, a strong need for in-depth, objective feedback on my work. Since my educational background is purely technology-related, I did not have the opportunity to go through the rigorous feedback processes that are a part of arts-related curricula. So from time to time, I felt a keen gap in my understanding of my own craft, its strengths and weaknesses. I needed a fresh pair of eyes to look at my images and tell me what they saw – where was I, in the context of my work? Were there skill gaps? Did they detect any patterns? Were there technical strengths? Did my work have emotional impact? What about the technical aspects? I figured the answers to these questions would help me chalk out a roadmap for my creative practice and progress. So I asked a few people I knew from social media for feedback on my work.

The responses I received were eye-opening. I had not clearly “defined” the parameters of my requirement, I had simply asked for feedback, expecting my fellow-creatives to know and resonate with what I needed. But perhaps because our connection was via social media, they seemingly made (incorrect) assumptions about my motivations and framed their feedback responses in that context. As a result, all of the feedback I received was in the context of social media (for example how my feed lacked cohesiveness, or how important it was to choose a niche so that I could garner more followers and so on) and none in the absolute context of my skill or craft. Because the feedback was so subjective, and based on their idea of success (which was different from mine), I felt unable to apply any of it to my own work or process, even though they may have worked brilliantly for someone else with different goals.

The whole experience led to some powerful insights on how feedback could be tailored into a more useful and powerful process for myself and others. Since then, I have been able to effectively apply these insights and fine-tune my own process as a feedback provider for fellow photographers and creatives.

Types of feedback: Subjective Vs Objective Feedback

In my experience, Feedback can be of two kinds. The first is related to the “market appeal” and includes aspects like trends, demands, niche, market gaps, social media algorithms, promotions, visibility, personal relatability and so forth. This kind of feedback is subjective and depends on individual worldview and definition of “success”. The feedback usually falls within the framework of “right” and “wrong” ways to achieve this definition of success.

Take the example of a “dark and moody” image. You may not “like” a dark and moody style of photography so you may never like or “follow” that kind of work or artist. To that extent it would stay subjective. But the fact that it is a dark and moody photograph is not ambiguous or dependent on individual preference. It’s a fact. A category. And that can stay totally objective.

The second kind of Feedback is related to the technicality of the craft itself. It is objective in nature. For example, in my case as a food photographer, it would include topics like lighting, composition, subject, storytelling, emotional impact, styling and post processing. These topics can soon become subjective as well, but only if imposed with personal preference of the feedback provider. Otherwise, in general, these topics can easily be discussed, assessed and categorised objectively. They do not label any approach as right or wrong and take a more balanced approach to the parameters of the craft.

If a fellow photographer asked you for feedback on their work, you might recognize that their work is mostly dark and moody and see it as a pattern, without having to tell them your own personal preference. You are simply validating a pattern and so all your feedback can remain within the realm of that pattern. You could help them see the gaps as related to dark photography and how to make it more effective technically. You would never need to impose your own preference on them. This is “objective” feedback.

How is objective feedback beneficial for creative work?

So what is the problem with the first kind of feedback, you might ask. Isn’t it useful to know what might work better for us in the practical world? Of course. But here is the problem. Subjective feedback is only useful when it comes from people whose worldview matches ours. It needs to come from people who are ahead of us in our journey, but towards the “same” destination. Otherwise, it’s like finding the shortest, most optimal route, to get to a place we never even intended to go.

Most people are happy to provide subjective feedback – based on their own experience and worldview. But not all of us can receive that and filter out the bits that can be effectively applied to our own context. So it can get very confusing. Especially when feedback comes from someone that you see as a “success” out in the world. Such mismatched inputs can very easily trigger unhealthy negativity and much self-doubt.

On the other hand, objective feedback is always useful. Since it stays clear of labels like “right and wrong” it works well within the framework of the craft. It simply looks for gaps in what you are aiming for and what you are actually producing and then provides helpful insights on how to close the gap. That’s the power of objective feedback in creative work. It’s like the little red pin on the map. Before you find your route, you must locate your current position. It’s where you must begin, at every stage of your creative journey.

Both kinds of feedback have their own value and purpose of course. But I find that we usually ignore the importance and power of objective feedback. We become increasingly dependent on subjective opinions for our success, even when these opinions don’t work for us.

The importance of objective Feedback in a noisy world

Creativity is a facet of self expression. But this self expression does not happen in vacuum. It happens in a world which accepts or rejects our expression via words or subtle actions. And we end up absorbing all these micro-signals, frequently altering our course to match the world’s expectations. This approach is necessary at times to stay connected to the world we live in, but most times, it does more harm than good. It drags us away from our real selves, and leaves us senselessly exerting brute force against our own grain. In the long run, this confused behaviour affects our wellbeing and creativity.

Objective feedback lets you find your own voice and choose your choir before drowning you out in an orchestra of subjective voices and opinions. Those can come later, when you know how to use it to your advantage.

How does social media affect objectivity?

Imagine this scenario. You’ve just posted an image on your favourite social media platform. And before you did, you thought you did a good job, and were fairly satisfied with your image. And now you wait. The likes and the comments aren’t coming fast enough. The day drags on and you are refreshing your feed repeatedly and your spirits are flagging. What happens next? Your “satisfaction” which was alive and well, suddenly drops dead. Your work comes under the painful scrutiny of your own negative gaze. You second guess every single technical choice you made that caused this “catastrophe”. How did the image miss the mark? Was it the lighting? Subject?? Ah, the composition! It’s no good. Am I cut out for this at all? Sound familiar? ­čÖé

Now imagine this scenario! You’ve just posted an image. You didn’t think it was your best work. But this time, you are pleasantly surprised. The likes and comments come pouring in…perhaps even within the “golden hour” of the algorithm! The god of algorithm has injected you with the miracle drug of traction and suddenly, you’re experiencing “confidence“. You’re now making wild connections between the technical aspects of the image and the audience response. Nice. But what happens to your understanding of your own image this upswing?

And between these two equally and wildly opposite states of mind, what happens to your sense of wellbeing?

It is very hard to maintain a clear mental separation between popularity and creative skill/choices. This is why we need objective feedback to help us stay grounded, no matter what the social media response is.

How online communities affect objectivity: the down side of generic positivity

We live in a world where most of our business and work is conducted online. Since negativity from strangers invokes mind-numbing terror in most of us, we have now evolved into a more mindful and conscious community where we try our best to be mutually supportive. But somewhere in the process, we are beginning to lose “real and objective” responses which are grounded in reality and meritocracy.

The problem with creating and belonging to communities that provide us generically positive and comforting response is this. It gets increasingly hard to tell apart really positive responses from the encouraging responses. While such communities help us manage ourselves in an increasingly negative and isolating world, we cannot depend on them for an objective evaluation of our craft. We need a different and more personalised process to keep us grounded. Otherwise our need for validation can drag us down a bottomless pit. The more we get, the more we seek.

Feedback for creative work: Why or how is it different from feedback in conventional full-time jobs?

Prior to my current life as a food photographer/writer/mentor, I had a corporate career in Technology. Through those years, my role required me to provide and/or receive feedback countless times, as a part of the employee performance review process. The process there however, was directly connected to performance rating, which in turn was directly connected to salary revisions. So although they were called “feedback” sessions, they were really more of a “rating“.

In creative work however, feedback is not a mandatory process. It is a conscious choice. And because creative work is so closely tied to our identity and sense of self, most of us don’t seem to wield this choice effectively, if at all we do. Seeking 1-on-1 feedback becomes a difficult and avoidable chore for most of us. The process requires us to be open and willing to grow. While most creatives understand this, we are to reluctant to put our work up for formal review. Why does this happen?

Why are we so scared of feedback?

As I see it, there are two possible reasons:

  1. It is so hard to be objective. We bruise easy! We are so closely identified with our creative work that we tend to take feedback on our work as feedback on ourselves.
  2. Someone hurt us in the past with their ill-considered feedback. In the past, we may have been victims of insensitive feedback from people who inadvertently clipped our wings before we could learn to fly. So, we wrongly associate the problem of the person with the whole process. And so instead of finding better and helpful feedback providers we avoid the whole process.

If we understand this and find the right feedback providers, we could grow our wings back and learn to fly.

What is feedback?

Feedback is a mirror.

In an ideal case, it is a distortion-free mirror that can show you exactly where you are in your journey(craft). It does not label or judge anything as good or bad. It only sees where you are, and maybe point out the possible pitfalls in your journey. It might also offer a reality-check on what you are doing and what you “think” you are doing. In competent hands, this process can be extremely helpful. It helps you get fresh new ideas. It helps you grow.

Every now and then, as creatives, we must learn the skill of standing back and looking at our own work without the emotional baggage. It’s the way to growth. Periodically putting ourselves in front of an empathetic and informed audience of one person (feedback provider) can be very helpful in developing this sense of objectivity towards our creative output.

Over time, if we are able to use this process well, we might even develop a solid sense of our own work – the strong as well the weak areas. We could become self sufficient and objective and even develop a robust confidence which does not shake in its boots every time someone thinks our work missed its mark.


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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!