“The best musicians are not the best players, they’re the best listeners.” Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny made this observation, reflecting on the nature of musical improvisation in a recent New York Times article. The best photographers are excellent “listeners,” too. When I shoot, I have to “listen,” while I “play.”

Simultaneously focusing inward and outside myself, I’m keenly aware of what my heightened senses feed me about my subject, the light, my surroundings and my collaborators. I always stay aware of my goal—to make my clients’ food look appetizing to their target market. But, I always leave my mental window open so recognition of serendipity can fly in. Those happy accidents can result in the most exciting pictures.

“…music requires years and years of practice in order to make what is conscious unconscious.”—Pat Metheny

“…improvisation is not just free-form playing – there has to be a mastery of structure and discipline.”—Pam Belluck, the article’s author.

Even when I am improvising, my technical mastery works in the background. With a BFA in Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology, my formal education plus decades of professional shooting empowers and frees me to respond to what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment.”

When shooting food, that decisive moment might be when a drip of cheese is at its most sensually pendulous, as it is in the above shot of “Ultimate Grilled Cheese” with “Simplest Tomato Soup.” It could happen when a plume of steam is curled most seductively, as in the top photo, of “Not-Macaroni and Cheeses.” I shot these images for Delicious By Design: 30 Years/30 Recipes, a fabulous cookbook by my longtime client, DC graphic designer Rob Sugar of Auras Design. They each brought out my instinctual impulse to recognize and seize that decisive moment. Training and experience allow me to optimally capture it with technical accumen. My camera is just a very articulate extension of my imagination.

The elegant expression of my imagination happens when I have all the tools I need. The eloquent expression of my client’s message happens in an efficient, well-equipped workspace. Both my spacious, modern, full kitchen and state-of-the art photography studio are essential for clients such as Marriott International, Whole Foods, Australian Lamb, Foreign Policy, The Almond Board, the American Diabetes Association and Food Arts.

My clients’ food is always the star, and the set where it shines is only steps from the kitchen. This complete, compact, open workspace allows intensive, constant communication between me and my food stylist, so we can create and problem-solve in the moment. In the photo above, veteran food stylist Lisa Cherkasky puts the finishing touch on a dish fresh from the kitchen for Australian Lamb’s cookbook, A World of Flavor. The food stylist for all images in that lamb cookbook, Lisa also styled the food for those Delicious By Design cookbook shots at top (and blogged about our creative process on the project). She makes sure those stars are ready for their close-ups.

While I keep an extensive collection of props and backgrounds on hand in the studio, a prop stylist brings in all new props for each shot. It’s exciting for me to work with something fresh. I love building layers of textures to create the mood.

My preferred camera in the studio is an Arca Swiss with a Phase back, which allows me to control focus and produces a beautiful file.

My studio also offers the full range of lighting equipment. So, I can create the ideal lighting scenario for a given subject—from completely supplied, natural-looking lighting or special effects; to optimized available, natural light, that may stream in from my large studio windows.

Improvisation also “requires…empathy, because improvising usually involves interacting with and responding to other musicians…”—Pat Metheny

I always think it takes a cohesive team with a shared vision to make a good photo for a client. Ideally, that team includes me, my assistant, food and prop stylists, and an art director. With space to accomodate everyone together in the studio, including a seated conference area, we can often make creative or technical changes on the fly.

I shoot with my camera tethered to one of my studio’s several Mac Pro towers, creating a seamless digital workflow. The whole team can gather around one of my large monitors to view the last shot immediately, and Capture One software allows us to compare it with the details of previous shots. That highly efficient, time-saving digital workflow continues even after the shoot, in editing and post-production. Also, if needed, I can call on my expert digital retoucher, who can correct or enhance files to improve shots or create special effects.

As a creative team in my studio, we produce images of fresh, appetizing, expertly prepared food, shot as promptly as possible. My primary goal is always to make the viewer want to eat what they see. Even with my large palette of high-tech equipment, I just try to create honest images of delicious, natural-looking food, captured at its “decisive moment.”

Please watch for the future post: Creativity & Capabilities On Location…