Hang on to your britches, I'm gonna get all (to borrow my husband's term) woo-woo for a moment... You know how sometimes you think things are going to go one way, and then seemingly as if by magic, a new door opens and you go somewhere else entirely? Last Friday, I watched live online, completely enthralled, as Penny De Los Santos presented a photography workshop for six lucky attendees in Seattle via CreativeLive.
(Note: screen captures from the workshop used with permission from CreativeLive.)
Just days before, I thought I was going to be serving on the jury of a death penalty capital murder trial in Austin. I sweated for weeks, not knowing how I would reconcile the things I would hear in that courtroom. But I got lucky and was excused. My thoughts have been with those who are responsible for serving and making those judgements as the trial continues.
So, I was feeling pretty grateful already. But then to be able to take advantage of an opportunity to learn from a photographer I have long admired, to have her share not just her expertise, but to open her heart so generously to encourage the creativity in all of us. That was some serious change of direction, and I am feeling pretty blessed.
Penny De Los Santos is a senior contributing photographer for Saveur magazine. You've probably been seeing her food, travel, and culture photographs for years in publications like National Geographic, Martha Stewart Living, Texas Monthly, as well as cookbooks like Asian Dumplings, The New Steak, and the recently released Sweet Vegan. Penny is also a fellow Austinite.
The workshop was offered from CreativeLive. I wasn't familiar with them before this workshop. I've been missing out. They are based in Seattle and offer free live online workshops on photography, web and graphic design, and video. You can sign up to watch their workshops stream live online for free, or buy access to a workshop afterwards to download on demand. Check out their course catalog to see what they're offering next. If you're interested in downloading Penny's photography class, you can find it here. It's $149, which is an incredible deal for an intensive 3-day workshop.
Where to start? I have over 20 pages of notes! I could write and write about what I learned. This workshop was targeted at photographers, but I have to say, there's so much here to nourish the soul of any creative mind in any field. So let's just jump in.
I think Penny's point of view is the place to start. She is a storyteller. She does it with a camera, but she's always telling someone's story. She started with documentary photography and journalism. When she's shooting food, she's not just taking a "beauty shot," she's also telling you something about that food or the culture or people it comes from. She celebrates her subjects and spends a lot of time getting to know them and the places they come from. As an art director, I often have assignments where we may only get 10 minutes with a subject to try to take a meaningful portrait. So I'm jealous of the time she gets to spend getting to know her subjects and how best to tell their story. She's inspired me to try to push many boundaries I face in my daily job to get better images.
Throughout the workshop, Penny told a lot of stories. Stories that brought out her emotions and left me tearing up as well. One of them was about some documentary work she did in a prison along the Texas-Mexico border. The environment was dangerous and she had to be very careful. She told of walking away from an opportunity to shoot photos of a fight that was happening in the prison, and instead, as she literally walked the other way, an unexpected moment of joy materialized in front of her and she shot that instead. "The picture of joy was the harder picture to get." Good lesson. Push past what's expected or obvious to get a different photo instead, something not seen before.
Penny also talked about reconciling what she shoots with what gets published. She may have hundreds of images from a shoot, but only a handful get used. She said a National Geographic editor once told her that she needs to remember that her fun is in the field, having the experience of diving deep into the world of the person or people she is there to celebrate. "Don't get hung up on the end product." Enjoy the experience you are having and the incredible access you are given during a shoot.
And if you don't have the opportunity to be given an assignment? Don't wait for it. "The best advice I can give you, the secret to my career: you have to self-assign your dream assignment. Otherwise, it won't happen."
When tackling a location, a culture, or a subject, "a sense of place is a key photograph. It sets up where you're at. Otherwise, I've failed. It's elemental." She said she looks for the light (she always shoots with natural light on location), then she looks for the composition, the right spot, and then settles in and waits for the shot to happen. "I'll stay put til I get it." That can sometimes require a lot of patience and the self-confidence to allow yourself to wait for it. That's something I saw in her location work as well as her studio work. She was always taking the time to really see. To wait for the shot instead of shooting continuously. She had the confidence to keep moving and looking for it, or to sit still and wait for it, whichever was required.
Penny suggested asking yourself these questions about your images:
• Does it have technical excellence?
• Does it have compositional creativity?
• Does it have editorial relevance?
I literally have pages and pages of notes from this workshop. Here's a taste:
• Elevate the viewers understanding of a subject.
• Introduce an element of disorder into a shot of order.
• Less is more, less elements mean less competition for a viewer's interest.
• Limit your color palette to the natural colors in the food you are shooting. (Your eye always goes to the brightest spot. Don't let a distracting bright color draw you away from the center of interest.)
• Look for decisive moments to tell a story.
• Find great light and wait for something to happen or for people to relax and forget you are there.
• Consider everything that is in your frame.
• Localize the details.
• Stay with the moment longer than you want to. Wait for more.
• Change your perspective physically to change how you see things.
How to grow as a photographer:
• Practice seeing daily.
• Practice shooting daily.
• Keep a visual journal. Think of it as visual yoga.
• Watch for the potential in any situation.
• Be open
• Lead with your heart.
• Follow your instincts.
• Review your work. Watch for shots you repeat over and over — change it up.
• Get close, get intimate with your subject. For intimate pictures, you have to move your body. You have to explore your subject. You have to physically move to engage your subject. Don't zoom.
Visual exercises. When you approach a photograph, consider:
• edit food (reinterpret the presentation)
• meal in process
• food being prepared
Below are some screen captures from a photo of lamb kebobs as it progressed in the studio during the workshop. It was fascinating to me to see not just the end result, the hero shot, that we all see in a magazine, but to see the shots leading up to it.
Penny closed the workshop with another story, a dear, personal story that is close to her heart. She's generous like that. (If you'd like to see a clip of her telling this story, check it out on her blog.)
She was on her way to college and stopped to spend the night with her brother on the way. She was very nervous, full of butterflies. She said to him, "What if I'm not good enough? What if I get there and I suck and I'm the worst one? And he looked at me and he said, ‘Pen, what if you are? What if you are good enough?’ ”
I tuned in expecting to gain some technical and creative insights. I didn't expect to immediately, and I mean in the first 15 minutes, have her so easily and with such integrity go straight for my heart, not just to grab it with her stories, but to feed me with her unflinching open-heartedness. It was true nourishment. Now I get why people adore her. It's easy to admire her beautiful photographs. But I also admire how courageous she is in giving this much of herself to her work, to the people she meets and celebrates in her photographs, and to folks like us that she doesn't even know. I'll carry that with me and hope to reach for that kind of open-heartedness in my own work. Thank you, Penny.
"Free yourself to go beyond what is obvious for you. Being uncomfortable is when you grow the most. You grow the most when you put yourself in a very uncomfortable place and you solve the problem. It doesn't always work out, but when it does, you step up a little. You move beyond."
— Penny De Los Santos
More of Penny's work on her web site.
Penny's blog, Appetite.