Food Photography: Stories from in Front of the Camera and Behind
Presented by Libby Volgyes of Libby Vision
Renowned food and beverage photographer Libby Volgyes elevates food photography into art through her iconic style and visual storytelling. Her work is highly sought after by chefs, restaurants, brands, and magazines, and her most recent project, Faces of Food, is currently exhibiting on a global tour. At our meeting, Libby generously shares with us all of her food photography tips and stories from behind her shoots, going over every element of her work, including lighting, lens selection, and angles. She inspires our members with her humility, shown by sharing her early works as well as personal critiques. By breaking these critiques down for us, Libby shows us that even the most advanced of us have a lot to learn and grow.
The Learning Curve and Hitting Her Stride
As a former newspaper photographer with a Bachelor's degree in photojournalism, Libby acknowledges that there was definitely a learning curve with learning how to run a business while learning how to photograph food. Initially, she thinks she was terrible – she didn’t even know how to use the lights that she now heavily uses in her work! However, Libby admits that “being terrible” is an important part of the learning process.
Libby hit her stride around year four or five in her food photography business. A major contributing factor to her personal development is her commitment to attending at least one workshop a year. For example, she has flown to places like Nashville and New York after finding photographers she admires and tracking them until they host a workshop. One such educator was Beth Kirby, who taught Libby how to style scenes. This year she even went to Denmark for a portfolio review! This is a huge part of her development, because Libby believes that only through critique we are able to grow.
A Stylistic Food Photographer
Libby identifies herself as a stylistic food photographer who tells a story with chefs and food. She wants to differentiate from being what she calls a “food on plate” photographer, where the images only showcase close-ups of food. One of the ways Libby achieves this is by using the flat-lay technique in her content creation, which refers to any scene viewed as if standing overhead. For this, Libby works on the ground and sets up boards on the floor while positioning a tripod over the scene. Typically she will photograph using a 50mm lens, but her other go-to lens is a 100mm. She finds fixed focus lenses to be better for sharpness than zoom lenses, and also has about 10 different lenses as backups for everything she may need on set.
Negative Space and Storytelling Elements
Libby is very cognizant of the viewer when styling her scenes. For instance, she is fond of S-curves and negative space, and utilizes these techniques to lead the eye and tell the viewer how to look at the photo. Libby also thinks that one can say more with less, and has attempted to minimize certain elements of her styling in order to allow the focus to be more on the food. She believes that this transition makes her work more appealing to restaurants. Of course, since her work is utilized for marketing and print advertisements, she also has to consider type, or the words superimposed over a photograph for print. Libby is adamant that her use of negative space is not necessarily about the type, but she is always thinking about type in her work.
The story-telling elements that Libby incorporates into her work is another aspect that makes her food photography so strong and appealing. Such elements include the ingredients present within a dish, which tell the story of what the chefs do. Libby also does this by bringing in the human element to some of her photographs. For example, a bartender at the bar making cocktails, or hands holding out a dish. Libby compares this human element to how some lifestyle photographers work. She mentions that they often will attach humans to a shot involving food even more than she does. In fact, this is one of the areas that Libby hopes to work at being better at.
Tips for Food Photography
Never use front-lighting. Back-lighting and side-lighting is best. Libby personally loves side-lighting for the rich shadows it produces.
Food photography looks better in a vertical composition for leading the eye
Food doesn't look good until f/5.6, f/8, or f/11
Shoot at eye level with things that have height
Use odd numbers whenever you're working with items (i.e. try to have 3 or 5)
When photographing cocktails, multiple drinks indicate it's a party, whereas one drink looks lonely and sad, as if you're drinking alone
Personal Work and Faces of Food
Libby views personal work as extremely important, because it allows you to feel things much differently than when you’re shooting commercial. On a commercial set she is “Business Libby” and it is "her circus." But on a personal shoot, there are notable emotions that come up for her, and she is able to play music and experience what she describes as an interesting release. To her, personal work is a tool to improve and discover things that you might want to explore further. It is also a viable method to find your own way when you are struggling, which is important because it is wrong to mimc other photographers' work.
Faces of Food is a personal project through which Libby intended to improve her portraiture skills. It also allowed her to practice lighting techniques. She had the idea of documenting faces within the community, including bartenders, chefs, farmers, pastry artists. She presented this idea to Palm Beach Illustrated, and they fell in love with the idea, publishing a five-cover run. Faces of Food included 86 faces over 3 ½ days, and every 15 minutes a different person came for Libby to Photograph. To accomplish this great task quickly and effectively, Libby arranged a continuous lighting setup, and every 15 minutes a different person came in to be photographed. The subjects brought their own props that were meaningful to them and their work in order to create personalized portraits.
Faces of Food went to Denmark, where Libby was the only American and one of 17 photographers around the glove submitting. She was one of the 4 finalists selected for their feature award. After this successful collection of portraits, Libby hopes to shoot a second portrait project next.
How to Improve Your Work
Use natural light
Work in pleasing color schemes (Spend time with the color wheel)
Make sure the food looks delicious (Nothing matters if you don't want to eat it)
Simplify the scene of everything not adding to the story you're weaving (When styling with ingredients, every ingredient present should be in the dish or it doesn't make sense)
Think of how you can tell the story - of a night/dish/recipe by utilizing story-telling elements
Have fun! It should be fun
JULY PRINT COMPETITION WINNER
Cynthia Garcia wins first place in our monthly print competition for July’s theme, “Blue.” Her entry photograph Still Blue features a small blue vase containing yellow flowers as the center of interest. The vase is placed at the far corner of the table, with a blue necklace snaking in front of it. A pair of matching earrings hangs off the edge of the vase. Her subject matter tells stories that would otherwise be unknown to an unfamiliar viewer, with the blue vase representing Cynthia’s love for thrifting, and her mother’s necklace evoking memories of her wearing it to play cards. Cynthia controls her lighting to illuminate these items from the dark background. She plays with light further, capturing how her mother’s necklace glistens in the sun. Finally, the yellow flowers added for color contrast achieve color balance in the image. Congratulations, Cynthia!
Next month's print competition for August is TRAVEL