by David Peterson
Over the past decade or so, there has been a bit of a revival when it comes to the food we eat. It used to be that the average person got all of his food from a grocery store. People in the 50s and 60s loved their prepackaged convenience foods, and saw no reason to step outside of that comfort zone. Today, we are a little more cognizant of our food and where it comes from. Have you heard the expression "farm to table?" The word “store” doesn't appear in that phrase at all, and that's because the best food generally cuts out the middleman. So what does that mean for photographers?
If you’re passionate about photograpy, one of the best things about “farm to table” food is the first part of that phrase: the farm. This new era of food is a great opportunity for a photographer to obtain access to those wonderful family farms, which not only welcome visitors but encourage them. Shooting a farm and its products is a great way to master the art of color, composition, and the eccentricities of capturing critters with your camera.
You can find farm-to-table food in just about any part of the developed world, as long as you are able to travel outside the city center. Small farms are pretty much everywhere, and if you can't find one in your immediate area the chances are pretty good that you can at least find farm-to-table food at the local farmer’s market or even at a roadside farm stand. Your first step should be to check local business listings for small family farms.
More often than not, these smaller businesses will have some sort of on-site farm stand, a u-pick schedule, or some other program designed to encourage the public to visit their operation.
Keep an eye out for roadside farm stands, too, particularly farm stands that offer a large variety of produce—you'll find the best colors at stand that has a broad range of different fruits and vegetables. When all else fails, check your local newspaper for the dates and times of your area’s farmer’s market. Some places only do these in the late spring and summer, so make sure you know exactly when that farmer’s market sets up and breaks down.
Visit as early in the day as possible, because that's when the light is good and you're likely to get the best pictures. If your local farmer’s market only happens in the late morning and early afternoon, don’t worry—you may still be able to get pretty decent pictures. Most farm stands have some sort of shade or shelter, and often it's the best kind—a portable white canvas pop-up tent will actually help diffuse the light, which will bring out the best in all those beautiful fruits and vegetables.
Pattern and color
Rows and boxes of vegetables and fruit are great places to find color and pattern. Farmers will often make this easy on you by stacking and arranging the groups of vegetables by color, size, and type. Always scan the farmers market, farm stand or roadside fruit stand with an eye for color and pattern. Look for texture, too—all of these elements makes for a very visually appealing photograph. When shooting pattern, consider zooming in on your subject and filling the frame with one repeating type of fruit or vegetable. If the proprietor will allow it, consider adding a different color fruit or vegetable into the mix to break up the pattern and provide extra interest.
Fruits and vegetables are not going to be only interesting things you’ll find at the farm stand. Often, the farmer himself can make for an interesting subject, and should be included in at least a few of your shots. Try it framing him with some of his produce. Some farmers display their produce in hanging baskets—if that’s the case, angle your shots so that some of that natural frame is included in the image. Or try shooting from below, from the vantage point of the vegetables, looking up towards the farmer. And zoom in on the details too. Get a shot of his hand holding a tomato, for example. Include the customers too. People sifting through peaches in search of that perfect fruit can also make for compelling photographs.
The best way to find subjects is not at the roadside farm stand or a farmer’s market but on the farm itself. Try to arrange to visit a working farm—most small operations will welcome you. During your visit, start with the obvious: rows of fresh vegetables, fruit trees or crops awaiting harvest. But again, don’t shoot these things from the perspective of a person who stands somewhere between five and six feet off the ground. Instead, crouch down. Don’t be afraid to get dirty (the farmers aren’t). Shoot from the perspective of an animal seeking shelter in the plants—place one plant in the near foreground, and then shoot down the rest of the row, using it as a vanishing point. Zoom in on the details of each plant, too. Shoot both green and red tomatoes, young and old fruits.
Now take a step back and look for the things that make the farm work. Farm equipment, people working, buildings and wagons—these are all vital to the daily operations of any farm, and shouldn’t be neglected if you want your photo shoot to be complete. Finally, include the farmer himself and any one else that might be at work there. Dirty hands make wonderful, character-filled shots that are highly representative of the kind of work done on a farm.
Most farms also have animals, even those that that don't specialize in meat or dairy. If you see any animals on the farm during your visit, ask the farmer if it's OK for you to pay a visit. Like children, animals should be photographed from their level. Crouch down, and if the animal is behind wire, place your camera close to the enclosure, and use a wide aperture to help blur the wire out of the picture. If the animal is too close to the wire, select a subject who is at a greater distance—it’s impossible to blur out the wire if there isn’t any space between it and the animal, even when you are using a larger aperture.
U-pick farms are also a really great place to find subjects. U-pick facilities often fill up with children and families, and kids always make for great subjects. Remember that when you're photographing kids you don’t know, you first need to get permission from their parents (when you photograph a stranger’s kids without permission it does make you look a little creepy). Second, remember that you should get down to their own level—children are more relatable if we are looking them in the eye rather than looking down on them. Again, shoot the details. If pickers are using interesting and unusual containers to gather their fruits, such as wooden crates or wicker baskets, make sure you include plenty of that additional texture in the shot. Zoom in on that little hand picking those berries or apples, and make sure you get a few pictures of little faces, too, especially if they have the telltale signs of a tasting the fruit when they really should've been putting it in the basket.
Try to visit the farm in the early morning or late afternoon, if possible. Most farmers are up with the sun, so if the farm’s advertised public hours don’t fall within the golden hours, it’s worth calling ahead to see if they’ll let you slip in just after the sun comes up. I think you’ll find that most small, locally owned farms love visitors and will be more than happy to accommodate you if it’s in the interests of better photos.
Overcast days can be great for shooting farms too, because the light is soft and even and you’re not going to get any hard shadows obscuring detail in all the wrong places. That overcast light can also make very bright colors pop, so it’s a good time to shoot a fresh harvest of tomatoes or multi-colored bell peppers.
You don’t have to completely avoid afternoon hours, but be aware that your shooting opportunities are going to be limited at those times of the day. Direct sun isn’t going to flatter your fruity subjects—overhead light kills detail (especially on squashes, oranges and other subjects that have textured skin) and that very bright sunlight will wash out colors. If you really have no choice, bringing a reflector with you is a very good plan. Try bouncing some light into the shadows to make it softer, or look for subjects that are in shady areas. No farmer leaves his crop out in the hot sun for long periods of time, so it’s a given that you’re going to find some great subjects in shady locations no matter what time of the day it is.
Farms are rich places to find photography opportunities, and you don’t even have to use your imagination (much). Between the animals, the people and the produce you can find on a farm, you could probably spend an entire day shooting there and never run out of ideas. Look for pattern and emotion—you’ll find it in spades in just about any fruit stand, farm stand or working farm that you visit.