Appetizers
January 3, 2012
Focus on photography: Q&A with Rik Keller

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In the past year, I started noticing some really nice photographs by Rik Keller on various websites. Since one of his many subjects is food, I lined up a Q&A to get to know him and his approach to photography a little better.

I also asked if we could run a few of his photos. They accompany the text. What follows is our exchange, in which Keller talks about his passion for photography, his advice for those looking to become better photographers, and, finally, we pin him down on a few fun things related to food:

1. Please provide some basic information about yourself: where you're from, your interests, career path, how you got your start in photography.

My interest in photography started almost 25 years ago in college with a fascination in studying art photography. Harry Callahan, Minor White, Bill Brandt, Aaron Siskind, Man Ray are some of the Modern masters that spring to mind. I started taking, developing, and printing my own black and white photos then. I am mostly self-taught from years and years of experience, darkroom work, and self-critique. A photographer has to be comfortable with a very high failure rate. And a willingness to learn from mistakes.

I started off in graduate school in architecture and ended up getting a Masters degree in city planning. Photography as a hobby has continued to feed the frustrated designer inside of me throughout my city planning career the last 15 or so years in the Sacramento area.

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2. Do you make a living as a photographer? Part-time? Full-time?

I started my commercial photography business as "Rik Keller Photography" (www.RikKeller.com) early this year. It is a part-time venture that has been successful enough that I will be attempting to ramp up to full-time in 2012. I am also starting up an imaging business that will be specifically serving the building, real estate, architectural, urban design, and city planning industries; and that will combine photography and other imaging and mapping techniques.
3. How competitive is this line of work? And what do you have to do to keep up with or stay ahead of the competition.
I'd say it is incredibly competitive. And the cutbacks in traditional print media, the rise of micro-stock photo sites, and the prevalence of less and less-expensive digital cameras that are incredibly capable has made it even more so. Anybody with a DSLR fancies themselves a "photographer" nowadays.

For me, word of mouth has been huge in growing my business. Almost every job that I have had has led to other work. Excellent customer service and reliability are as important as having the ability to produce creative and quality imagery under deadline.

4. What are the things that give you the most joy with photography? The most headaches?

I derive great joy in seeing things more clearly through the act of photography. Many times, I see things as if for the first time when I am photographing. And I enjoy meeting people, going places, and being in situations that I wouldn't have otherwise.

The most headaches I have are caused by scrambling for work and convincing people of the value of high-quality imagery. As a side note: in this age of personal branding and social media, I see a lot of professionals with, for example, unacceptably unprofessional LinkedIn profile photos. While I sympathize because am just as guilty about not wanting to be in front of camera, you know who you are and you need to contact me!
5. Food photography has its own challenges? I see a lot of bad and mediocre food photos. How do you make food come alive in a photo?

I think it's no different that any other type of photo: The real estate maxim of "location, location, location" can be transferred to photography as "light, light, light." It's all about the quality of light and how it accentuates what you want to in your subject. Other tips: making sure you are clear what the subject is and what you are trying to convey within a frame: discard the irrelevant. Pay attention to the edges of the frame. Pay attention to good compositional rules, and be willing to break them when needed. Above all, don't be afraid to experiment!

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6. Foodies these days all seem to take pictures of their meals. It's a fairly recent phenomenon. What are your observations about this? And does it make your job more difficult? In other words, do people appreciate the difference between a pro's work and an amateur's?

The sheer prevalence and ubiquity of cell phone camera imagery and posting on social media and blogs has, somewhat counter-intuitively I think, increased the value and impact of high-quality imagery.

7. Speaking of amateurs, do you have any pointers for those of us who simply want to take better pictures as a hobby? Are there specific things you can do with regard to improving food photos?

For someone like me who was raised in the film and darkroom era, the shortcuts in the learning curve that shooting digitally can provide are almost inconceivable. But a person still has to be willing to spend the time and discipline to critique what went well and bad in a given shot. Try to avoid the "spray and pray" approach of shooting tons of photos in the hopes you get a lucky good one. Really slow down and approach your photos with intentionality - what story am I trying to tell? what will further that? what will distract from that? That said, be ready to take advantage of the moment. Some of my best photos were "happy accidents" or off-hand experiments that actually turned out.

There are tremendous on-line resources, but I also I highly recommend getting off-line and checking out books from the masters of photography from library, really immerse yourself in the vision and aesthetic of as many artists (not just photographers) as you can. Pay attention to recent photographic trends, but don't try to copy all of them. One of my pet peeves, for instance, is the style of food photography (and portraits for that matter) that is obsessed with incredibly shallow depth-of-field. While it can be appropriate in some cases, I think it is really over-used and many times ends up being just a visual cliché and shortcut to actually taking the time to construct an interesting composition.

For food photography specifically one of the easiest things to do is to find a natural large source source of indirect light. This can typically be a window. It's even better if you can diffuse this light further. Play around with how this light works at different angles to the plate and accentuates the color, shape and texture of the food differently. Use some simple reflectors to fill in shadows, such a pieces of white foam board.

And finally, one of my favorite pieces of advice is from the photographer Joe McNally: "If you pick up a camera with any sort of serious intent, you will at least occasionally need to use a flash. Done deal. Lock solid, Take it to the bank." To me this says that while you might fancy yourself an "available light" photographer only, you are severely limiting yourself and your potential client base if you don't learn how to use off-camera strobes effectively.

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8. Any advice for those who want to take their hobby to the next level and make money at it - or even make it a career?

Shoot what you love - you'll be shooting a lot of it, and you better enjoy it when you are sorting through hundreds of proofs from a shoot for the umpteenth time. Realize that while being a photographer sounds glamorous, 95% of your time will be spent not actually shooting photos. Also, realize that taking a good photo in a casual setting is completely different than making a photo that has a specific value to a client.

9. What are your favorite and least favorite things to photograph?

A lot of photographers tend to specialize in doing one or two things well. I love shooting a variety of subjects and they each have their own challenges and pleasures. In a given week for example, you may find me doing elaborate multi-light setups for architectural interior photos, on-location portrait work for everybody from pre-schoolers to governmental officials, candid event photos, and studio setups for design or food.

10. Do you have an odd or amusing anecdote to share regarding a photo outing?

My most memorable photo shoot this year was for the Davis-based singer-songwriter Rita Hosking for her new CD "Burn". She has two songs on the album about demolition derbies and had located a demolition derby car builder who lived outside of Dixon. I had scheduled the shoot for the late afternoon thinking we would work with themes of rusty beat-up demolition derby cars and golden afternoon light. It turns out that afternoon offered one of those late-season storms we had in May. The wind was howling, the clouds were dramatic, and the rain was threatening. I enlisted the owner as my grip to hold my lighting equipment as the wind was threatening to rip it apart, while trying to get a shot of Rita without her hair blowing in her face. Eventually the rain came sweeping through and we ran for cover, me scrambling to gather my gear. In her CD packaging the designer ended up using literally one of the final shots as the rain was splattering my lens. The images were not at all what I had pre-conceptualized, but they ended up working very well.

11. You have a choice between three photo lucrative assignments, but a scheduling conflict requires that you only pick one: a cover story for Bon Appetit, the Tour de France or the new Victoria's Secret catalog. Please explain.

Hands down the Tour de France. As an amateur competitive cyclist and aficionado of bicycles and bicycle culture, the pageantry and spectacle of that event. would be amazing to document. Plus, the food, the food!

12. How much does it cost to get serious about photography? Any advice on equipment for low, middle and high-end gear?

It really varies so much depending on the type of photography you want to do. If you want to be a top-end sports photo-journalist for example, you'll need lenses that cost as much as a car and are almost as bulky. My own equipment is rather modest in cost, but carefully chosen for image quality and other considerations such as a small form factor that is a lot less intimidating for portrait and candid work. And while I do a lot of existing light photography, I have also spent as much on lighting and lighting accessories than I have on camera bodies.

My basic advice, regardless of the level of gear you are buying is to spend more on lenses that camera bodies. And really invest your time in getting to know whatever camera you are using inside and out so that you know it's capabilities and weaknesses and can use it intuitively as an extension of your body and eye.

13. Now a couple of food questions: What is your most memorable meal?

Every year, I know it is going to be the Yolo Land Trust's "Day in the Country" event in September. Some of the top restaurants and caterers from Yolo County, Sacramento, and the Bay Area (including Chez Panisse, Biba, and Grange), local wines, Capay Valley produce and meat, all in an amazing setting.

14. Is there a food you would eat to cheer up?

Dark chocolate is my not-so secret elixir

15. Is there a food you enjoy but feel guilty about eating?
Anything fried. Also, cheese. I love almost all cheeses. Luckily I am very active and am blessed with a fast metabolism.

16. What is one food you like that might embarrass you?

I find myself defrosting things from Trader Joe's a little more frequently than I'd should admit.

17. Do you have a favorite dive food joint?

I find it very difficult to pass up any place that has the word "tacqueria" in its name.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

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