This very busy food photographer and photography instructor talks about why he's a tough cookie in the classroom, the delicate art of adding and subtracting light, and the importance of counting every bean.
View a selection of Joe Lavine's work in the slideshow above. You can also see more of his photography on his website.
To read more from poet and PhotoVideoEDU contributor Ron Egatz, visit his website.
Always drawn to mountains, Joe Lavine left his native San Francisco Bay area for higher ground after college. Heading for Colorado with an Art and Design degree from Cal Poly and experience as a second shooter under his belt, he was surprised to discover there were no second-shooter jobs in his new home state. Looking for a new way to earn his daily bread, he discovered he could do that by photographing it, and started freelancing as an assistant to the food photographer Jan Oswald. It was a choice that stuck: He gained the confidence and skill to open his own studio while he was still in his mid-twenties, and he’s been bringing home the bacon by shooting it ever since.
Lavine’s early training in food photography turned out to be an even greater professional asset than he could have guessed when he was learning the craft from Oswald. Although he branched out into other areas early in his career, serving high-tech and health-care industry clients, he saw many of those clients move toward using more stock photography as the market changed. It was a development that made it a natural choice for him to return to food and beverage photography, which is, as he puts it, “where my passion lies.”
While continuing to work as a commercial shooter, Lavine also began to teach younger photographers, as an instructor at the Art Institute of Colorado. Currently he teaches at a number of schools and online programs. “I've always had a passion for teaching, because when I was doing my undergrad, I had some wonderful instructors,” Lavine recalls. “I've told them this over the years: If it wasn't for how they handled me and kept me in line, there's no way I would have had the career I have today. I always recognize that, so I always had an attachment to teaching, and I've been teaching at the college level for over thirteen years now.” Lavine finds balancing photography with teaching to be the key to a satisfying life, and it doesn’t hurt his wife is an editorial photographer who understands long days on location and other necessities of shooting schedules.
In his studio kitchen, Lavine works with both chefs and food stylists. Some clients prefer to bring chefs in to work, but Lavine feels professional food stylists often present dishes in a more visually appealing way. “They understand art and how something has to look to a camera and lighting,” he says. “It's the real dish, because we have truth in advertising, but the way it's handled, the way it's presented, the way it's cooked—it lends itself better to photography because certain foods, if they're overcooked, they look dead. If they're undercooked, they don't look right. Heck, if a noodle is turned the wrong way, it catches a highlight. We can't have that. A food stylist just has a way of working with the real food to make it look good under a camera.”
To ensure truth in advertising, Lavine has sometimes worked with a client’s corporate chef, a food stylist, and a few attorneys standing around the studio. “If we're working on something for advertising or packaging—images that go on food packaging—everything is weighed, measured, counted,” he says. “We have to represent the product. For editorial, there's a little bit more liberty that can be taken, so we do always walk a line.”
When it comes to lighting, Lavine often uses a single studio light, but he then shapes the way it falls on his subject with as many as fifteen modifiers, including white cards, gold cards, silver cards, dots, and even fingers—all adding or subtracting light from different areas. Placing a 4x8-foot or 6x6-foot scrim in front of the head allows him to create a very large light source, imitating sunlight. “What I like about using scrims instead of softboxes,” he says, “is I can put the light anywhere behind it, whereas in the softbox it’s always dead center. It gives me a little more control.” He uses a Sekonic L-758DR to meter his lighting and exposure precisely and achieve the desired look.
If he’s a stickler for precision in the studio, he’s no less so in the classroom. Lavine credits his own success to early teachers like Norman Lerner, who admonished him to “Do it again! Do it right!” when he himself was a student. “You want to have a career, this is what you’ve got to do,” Lavine remembers Lerner instructing. “Good is not good enough,” he would say. “You have to stand out.” It’s advice that couldn’t be more relevant to students today. “I'm always pushing people to work hard and do their best because it is a tough business,” says Lavine. “Sometimes it rubs people the wrong way, but I'm a really hard instructor because I've a pretty good idea what it takes to make it in this business.”
Lavine feels he gets as much out of working with students as they get from him. They inspire him with digital illustrations, and keep him on top of his game when it comes to the ever-emerging technical advancements in image creation. The enthusiasm Lavine has for photography doesn’t end when he steps out from behind the camera; he’s an Adobe Certified Expert and Photoshop teacher. “I love color management,” he says. “I love learning about it. I love printing and the whole aspect of color space. I read quite a bit. I've had the opportunity to write a few classes for some online programs, to write some lectures, some workshops. I just really enjoy keeping up with it. I like the balance of the right side of the brain and the left side of the brain. We have to know how the technology works, but then also be creative. I've always said you needed one side of the brain to come up with the concept, the creative concept, then you needed the other side to be able to execute that concept.”
Lavine sees a close parallel between his educational work and his photography business. “Teaching has always been fun for me,” he declares. “I know a lot of instructors talk about it being stressful and hard work. It's hard work. It can be stressful. I always relate it back to running your own company. Running your own company and your own studio is much more involved than teaching, in my opinion. I think teaching has always been a reward. The same way we've always said as a photographer the easiest part of our job is the actual photo shoot. That's the icing on the cake. The hardest part—the marketing, the business, all of that part of it—is the work. The actual shooting of a photography job, that's easy, in my opinion. People want to be photographers because of the passion for the art, the creating of the image. Then we have to realize, ‘Oh, wait. If I want to make a living at this and have it be my career, it's actually a business and has to be run like one.’”
Extending his teaching outside of his usual classrooms, Lavine gets involved with the PhotoVideoEDU program by giving guest lectures at a variety of schools. He also finds social media and websites like PhotoVideoEDU.com to be beneficial avenues for connecting with other photographers, especially with the continued reduction of staff photographers driving more photographers to work from home studios. “You used to be more connected to the industry,” he reflects. “Photographers now have gotten a little bit more secretive and a little bit more standoffish about what's going on. We don't hear what each other person's doing. We don't hear about pros and cons. So that's created a little isolation. We've lost that community. That's where things like MAC‑On‑Campus [now PhotoVideoEDU] has the forum where you can read about people.”